Purple is the Noblest Shroud

Constantine’s eyelids grew heavy as the blood ran from his broken body.

 

The din of battle echoed through the streets of his beloved and final city.

 

Byzantium drew her dying breath alongside him.

 

For all his efforts, his exhaustive struggle to preserve her flame, he could feel the fire of an age about to depart.

 

The pain gave way to a sense of regret.

 

I’m sorry I wasn’t stronger.

 

A light filled his vision and warmed his face.

 

“Time ends all things”, a voice spoke to him, soft and rich.

 

It was my duty to guard the light.

 

“And you did.” The voice said, the light growing brighter and drawing tears from Constantine’s tired eyes.

 

The cold left his body and he felt irrepressible warmth that steadied his heart and banished his fears.  

 

The impossible weight of the purple, his since birth, eased from his shoulders and for the first time, for the last time, he took a full breath.

 

“Now you can rest.”

 

The emperor embraced the light and closed his eyes.

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War Machine

Siege droid 10 fired another shell from the massive cannon on his back and the blowback pressed hard against his shock absorbers and dug his titanic armored legs deeper into the ground. The heat from the day’s worth of fighting radiated across his body and strained the circuits and gears within.

 

The digital orders from his masters came in clear and concise across his mind, ceasefire. Siege droid 10 was thankful for the break. He had stood in his firing position since before the sun rose, taking withering return fire from the enemy. Pockmarks and dents covered his limbs and a particularly painful hole in his chest from an unlucky rocket strike.

 

Cheers from the humans told him the battle was over before the orders did. The haggard warriors and soldiers that lined the trenches before the enemy fortress embraced each other and fired their rifles into the air.

 

“They’re calling it quits! The war’s over boys!” someone shouted over the radio. Siege droid 10 watched quietly as the officers, once sticklers for protocol and order, succumbed to the revery and euphoria of the moment.

 

“Finally cracked ‘em.” an older voice said over the radio, relief present in his voice. The military police pressed forward, still stern-faced and sour, to take charge of any survivors and prisoners before the celebration began in earnest. Even in the midst of war, the law would be observed.

 

Siege droid 10 stole a glance along the battle line and paused on the scars of the siege. Craters and felled trees covered the landscape and punctuated by the charred hulks of destroyed tanks and his fellow droids. Their corpses had lost their sharp uniform colors and now all that remained were the blackened sheets of steel that hung off their emaciated frames. The pain from his rocket wound seemed to grow sharper when he looked at the remains of the only other siege droid that the army had brought down to the planet.

 

Siege droid 15 was an older model but a proud one. She’d seen several tours of duty across the galaxy and wore her past victories with pride. The names of fortresses and cities she’d cracked were painted in bold and bombastic colors along her arms. When they’d approached the fortress and dug their heels into the earth to start their bombardment, Siege droid 10 could ignore the pain of his labor and pushed himself to fight harder, to be more efficient in his actions, as long as he was alongside her.

 

Now, she stood dead in place. Her 12 years of service ended with a single round that punched right through her head. The humans might have nursed her back to health had that been all she’d suffered but a firebomb had burned away many of her circuits and ravaged her frame. Now she’d linger on the battlefield for a while until the humans finally took her down. They’d dissect her and see if any of her metal or gears could be be salvaged. When they’d reclaimed what they could, Siege droid 15 would be laid in a scrap heap, with only the remains of both enemy and allied vehicle her company.

 

“Tell the engineers to take a look at 10 before they start celebrating. Command wants it ready for departure ASAP.” An officer commanded. Siege droid 10 stood still, unable to express his groan or exhaustion.

 

It was an order Siege droid 10 knew well. It was a thankless journey to the landing pad to be tended with the rough hands and tools of army mechanics. Circuits would be replaced and plates replaced, always with expedient efficiency. His internals would be quickly examined to make sure he could still carry on and then the hole in his chest would be patched. Once he was cleared for departure, he’d be packed onto a freighter and carried across space to a new battlefield and before long, he’d be dug into the ground, his cannon blasting away.  

 

One of the observers who’d spent the battle atop of Siege droid 10’s head in a tiny sandbag bunker climbed out. He removed his ear covers and patted off some of the soot that had collected on him. He smiled at the brief moment of calm and patted the hulk he was sitting on.

 

“Glad that’s over.”

Searching

Wilhelmina dismounted her horse and held a handkerchief to her nose. The sulphurous stench of exploded gunpowder hung heavy in the air and mixed with the rot of corpses.

 

“What regiment was your brother in?” Walter asked as he dismounted himself and raised his bandana over his mouth and nose. Walter had the look of a fox in a wiry human body with sharp, darting eyes and a nervous energy to his movements. He wore the black trousers and royal blue rider’s jacket of a provost but also carried a number of leather pouches and vials strung in belts across his chest.

 

“12th Regiment of Foot.” She said, peering through the failing dusk light at the countless bodies strewn across the sand.

 

“Hmmm. The Wittelburger regiment. Accounts say they were one of the last to cross the river. If he’s here, he’ll be close to the water.”

 

The two began searching the fallen. Walter had been kind enough to lend her a pair of leather gloves but the task was still stomach-churning. The bodies of the Weslanders were strewn across the field, saber cuts or bullet wounds having stained their creme coats with dark crimson blood.

 

“Family must have been proud when he joined up.” Walter said, his tone neutral and detached, his focus on his work.

 

“Very” Wilhelmina lied. Father wouldn’t have approved even if he were alive and Mother had died bringing Johann into the world. Wilhelmina’s own reaction had been cool at the time. She’d expected him to bungle joining the army like he had his many other schemes and enterprises. When she’d received his letter boasting in his poor school-boy’s hand writing of his promotion to corporal, she assumed it was a joke.

 

“What’ll you do if you find him alive? The war is far from over.” Walter asked.

 

“I’m not leaving him behind.” WIlhelmina answered, the iron determination in her voice caused Walter to stop from his task for a half a moment. He had agreed to help her look but he was still a provost. Wilhelmina didn’t care. She was going to find Johann, no matter what.

 

Walter turned bodies over onto their backs before reaching into his pack and producing a leather pouch filled with some kind of dust. He threw a handful of the fine powder over the bodies and watched it intently.

 

“What’s that for?” Wilhelmina asked, unfamiliar with the practice.

 

“Checking for magic. Any present and the powder will glow blue.” Walter said, still focused on his task.

 

“You can’t be serious.” Wilhelmina said. Walter threw another handful of the powder over a patch of corpses.

 

“Army regulation since Henry IV. During his Eastern campaign, a necromancer was following behind. After a battle, he’d do gods-know-what and before anybody knew what to do, plague was spreading across the countryside. Corpses standing in their graves” Walter explained. With mechanical efficiency, he made his way through the bodies, spreading measured portions of the strange dust into the air, never to any effect.

 

A breeze of cool autumn air came rustling through the few trees that stood along the riverbank and their leaves rustled. The stench of the dead returned with terrible strength and Wilhelmina gagged.

 

“You’re sure you didn’t see him in the camp?”

 

“I think I’d remember if I had” Wilhelmina retorted, somewhat irritated at the question. She’d spent hours searching the faces of the wounded and forlorn soldiers on the other side of the Bana. The few she could find from her brother’s regiment were so disoriented that none could remember seeing him or if he had even crossed. She left the sands of the riverbank and stepped into the fields that flanked the dirt path that led to the ford. There were more bodies strewn through the grass along with felled horses and the faint smell of burning wood. In the darkening twilight, she could see the glowing cinders of hastily constructed barricades and cover. The smell of fire was a welcome reprieve from gunpowder and charred skin.

 

More bodies, though here she found Bolthar riders as well as her own countrymen. The foreigners were easy to identify by their burgundy tunics and thick mustaches though only a few were present. Perhaps it was possible that Johann had been captured by the barbarians, she thought to herself. She had checked every sandy-haired body she could find but none had her brother’s face.

 

“Stop.” Walter commanded. She turned to face him and saw him, crouched on one knee as a wisp of vibrant blue swirled in the breeze. He unslung his carbine and followed the blue light in a low crouch. Wilhelmina followed behind him, a cold fearful sweat breaking out across her body. Magic was something only demented hermits tried to practice far away from civil society or was the subject of dry and sleep-inducing lectures.

 

Walter sprinkled more of his powder on the ground and the blue light radiated even brighter than before.

 

“Spell was cast here. A body was here and was moved. Blood on the ground but not much.” Walter said, examining the site. After a moment, he produced a torn piece of fabric. A ball of ice formed in Wilhelmina’s stomach.

 

It was the stripe of a Weslander corporal.

Robbery

“Get me a little closer!” Jack shouted over the roar of the motorcycle’s engine. Charly maneuvered the bike closer to the train, the scent from her bobbed hair teasing Jack’s nostrils as the wind whipped past them. The kabose was still a dangerous distance away but Jack didn’t want to risk getting any closer.

 

“Wish me luck!” He said close to Charly’s ear before readying himself to make the jump. The wind hit him and threatened to throw him off balance but Charly maneuvered the bike like an ace, giving him just enough time to make a leap.

 

He hit the metal deck of the train hard but got his grip on the rails. Charly blew him a kiss before accelerating further up the road. Jack smiled to himself before climbing over the rail and putting his mind back to the task at hand. The rear entrance door was locked so he hoisted himself up to the car’s roof and made his way along to the next car.

 

The rolling countryside of Southern France stretched out like a portrait painting, filling his vision. The sunlight was bright but didn’t overpower the brilliance of the blue or the fields of wheat passing by as the train carried on towards Spain. It would have made a beautiful place to spend an afternoon, with only the plumes of smoke and the whistling of the wind to interrupt. Almost sad to leave the vista, Jack hopped over to the next boxcar.

 

When he reached the car Charly had marked, he laid flat on the roof and pulled his .45 out of his shoulder holster. It was a tough shot but he could just make out the lock on the side door. Charly was alongside the car, Thompson balanced on the handlebars and aiming at the door. Jack fired and the bullet pulled the lock off. With a hard tug, the wind did the rest of the work for him and the door slid open with a bang loud enough to be heard over the din of the locomotive engine.

 

The bang was followed by the chest-thumping report of Charly’s Thompson spraying into the boxcar. She gave him a quick nod and Jack hoisted himself down into the now-opened car, .45 readied. Inside were a handful of utterly confused and panicked goons, who’d clearly expected an uneventful train ride.

 

“Good morning gents! Hate to barge in unannounced but we won’t be long.” He said, tipping a non-existent cap. He hustled all the men into a group and gestured to the long crates they had just a moment ago been sitting on.

 

“Open ‘em up!” Jack pointed. A scrawny man with a heavy black stubble on gaunt cheeks seemed to understand and started to work the nails off the crate. Another man cautiously joined him in the effort while the rest of them stared Jack down, their expressions changing from confusion and panic to anger.

 

The wooden lid came free and revealed a box full of weapons. Jack stared at it in disbelief. This was a far-cry from the gold ingots promised by the Irishman. Could he have gotten his information wrong? Impossible.

 

The Irishman was never misinformed.

 

In the moment of confusion, one of the goons made a go at Jack and managed to get his paw on Jack’s arm, twisting the gun away from the others. They pounced on the opportunity and made for the crate. Jack wrestled with the man who’d grabbed onto him and threw a quick knee to the stomach. Charly let loose another burst of gunfire into the car as the now-armed goons made for cover.

 

Jack clambered behind a box as bullets began rittling through the close hot air of the car. The metallic reverberation stung his ears and splinters of wood peppered his face. He peeked out from the side of the crate and fired off a few shots, wanting to keep the goons’ focus on him. More bullets answered and chipped away the panels of the other crates in the car. Loose straw packaging fell out, further choking the air and Jack could make out more weapons.

 

German-made ones.

 

A another burst of Thompson fire cracked through the train car and one of the goons fell to the ground. However this was no time for drawn out gunplay and  they clearly stuck their beaks into something they shouldn’t have. Jack shot again and caught the scrawny man in the arm.

 

The small victory was answered with what felt like an entire army’s gunfire. Jack had to make a move before the boxes he was hiding behind were reduced to kindling. He peered at the open door and the countryside flying along. It was still relatively clear ground, no fences or wires. It would be a hard landing but he didn’t really have any other option. He exhaled and fired his .45 until it ran dry, trying to keep everybody’s head down. When the slide locked back, Jack made his move for the door.

 

He lept as close to parallel with the ground as he could manage from the awkward angle and with bullets around him. He smacked hard into the ground, bounced and tumbled down the road. The impact knocked the wind out of him and sent shoots of pain all across his body. Charly pulled up and quickly hopped off, coming to his aid.

 

“Are you all right?!” She asked. With a great and painful effort, he rolled onto his back and gave her his best smile.

 

“Don’t…I…look…it?” he forced the words out through pained breath. She tenderly cupped his face in her hands before kissing him hard, causing a fresh wave of pain to race across Jack’s body.

 

“You’re welcome to walk yourself back then.” she said with the fire burning bright in her bright green eyes.

 

“And spoil…our day in the country?” he retorted, his breath slowly returning.

Finishing Touches

“You’re a madman.” Kurt said as the little elf of a tailor finished his adjustments to the tuxedo coat, “Don’t you have anything better to spend your money on?”

 

“I’ll not hear a word of it! Left to your own devices you’d wear that horrid brown monstrosity or God forbid your uniform.” Franz said from behind his newspaper, his voice cascading with emotion and range while his hands remained static and the paper unmoved. 

 

“What’s wrong with my uniform?” Kurt asked.

 

“Not a thing…if we were to go to an officer’s club.” Franz answered. The paper continued to block his face but Kurt could imagine the tinge of mischief crawling up from the corners of his friend’s mouth.

 

“Signore, the suit is finished.” the tailor said, scrutinizing all the while through his glasses. With that Franz shot up and folded the paper all in one motion. For a man with the frame of a bear, he was remarkably graceful.

 

“Signore Garelli, you’ve outdone yourself.” the old man twitched his mustache and continued putting away his instruments. Franz smiled at Kurt and gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Now you look presentable.”

 

Kurt frowned. Franz was always generous with money but all this expense for Kurt’s promotion was more uncomfortable than the starched white collar holding his neck upright. “This really isn’t necessary.”

 

“Of course it is! Promotion to Kapitänleutnent is no small achievement and a freshly commissioned ship to boot.” Franz said with genuine admiration and pride in his voice. Kurt shifted in place.

 

“Were it up to you, you’d spend the night in some stuffy party full of Prussians with chests full of medals, holding up a corner sipping cheap vodka, feeling insignificant. Well not on my watch. You can devote yourself to the Navy tomorrow but tonight, we celebrate. Properly”

 

Kurt knew there was no point in trying to argue with Franz. He’d drown out voices of doubt to his schemes with his booming and melodic voice or pull a wavering soul close with his over-sized and warm butcher’s hands. His lack of hair and unremarkable face did nothing to dull the sharpness of his charm. He had the grace and affability of an English playboy in the body of a cooper. Resigned to his evening, Kurt checked his look in the mirror while Franz settled up with the tailor. Even he had to admit it was a fine suit.

Plots, Pistols and Poppy seeds

“Mr. Bernhardt, I’m terribly sorry I’m late.” Drajan said as he took a seat at the table and tried to compose himself. The man on the opposite side of the table cast a disappointed gaze over his newspaper and lifted his cigarette from the ashtray. Drajan felt a spike of sweat break out underneath his collar as he withered under the Tybernian’s aristocratic eyes.

 

“You’ve missed the last two meetings.” Mr. Bernhardt said before exhaling a plume of smoke. “I’m sorry. The King’s recovery has caused some disarray in the ministry offices.” Drajan answered as he fumbled through his jacket for his own cigarette tin. Mr. Bernhardt’s expression didn’t change but it was clear he was chewing on even this small and insignificant insight. Drajan had learned the best course of action was simply to wait.

 

“Just disarray?” He said after a moment.

 

“For now yes.” Drajan replied, trying to discreetly scan the cafe for anybody who might be listening in.

 

“For now?”

 

Drajan pulled out the silver cigarette tin and pulled it open. In addition to the thin black cigarette, he carefully slid a scrap of paper across the table and Mr. Bernhardt scooped it up with stealthful grace. He didn’t bother to read it at the table but rather slid it into a pocket in his suit vest.

 

“It’s only a fragment of a larger list but the name is noteworthy, as is the date of his arrival to the capital.” Drajan said, forcing himself to sound relaxed. He had just barely avoided getting caught stealing the scrap of paper from the war minister’s waste basket. Drajan hoped that this would impress Mr. Bernhardt.

 

“Good morning, gentlemen. May I bring you something?”

 

**

Katya stood, ready to take the order of whichever man spoke first. The older man closed his newspaper and trained his ice blue eyes directly on Katya. She felt her cheeks blush at the gentleman’s undivided and intense focus.

 

“Another coffee would be sublime, as would a poppy seed cake. Thank you, my dear” He said with a charming smile. Katya clumsily tried to return the smile before turning her attention to other man. He was far less impressive a specimen, in both stature and wardrobe.

 

“Nothing, thank you” He said, fumbling with a matchbox. She politely bowed before turning to the cafe bar. Katya wondered who the older man was. She had seen him in the cafe before, always in a full suit, sipping coffee and with a newspaper on hand. He was a foreigner, though she couldn’t place his accent. Every time she’d served him he’d called her his dear. Always said with that strange accent and a sparkle in his eye that she had come to enjoy.  Though what she noticed most were his hands. They were massive slabs of flesh that could have swallowed up an entire tray but they wrapped around the glass mug with incredible and delicate dexterity. Much like the man they belonged to, they suggested power and grace sitting in peace with each other.

 

She narrowly avoided colliding with another waiter and pushed the thoughts of her favorite patron out of her head, lest she cause an accident.  

 

**

Marko stepped into the cafe, sweat soaking his collar and his hands trembling inside his pockets. He had felt sick all morning since the senior operative put the revolver in his coat. The speeches and calls to action for the good of the nation that once filled his head with fantasies of parades under the bright orange of the New Dawn’s banners now seemed like weights sitting in his stomach.

 

You are the ray of light that will chase the darkness of the past away. Make us proud. The final words of encouragement whirled in his head and he wiped the sweat from his forehead.

 

His target was in his usual spot. The large-framed Tybernian. Some foreign capitalist or other who was frequently found in social gatherings of the court. No doubt he was some agent of the monarchy. A parasite, an invader. He wrapped his unsteady hands around the pistol sitting in his pants pocket and approached the table as calmly as he could.

 

No more than two shots, the agent had told him. Marko had practiced drawing the weapon all night. He’d plug the target and be making for the door before anybody had a chance to catch him. Nothing to worry about. He swallowed hard and prayed not to vomit.

 

Marko approached the table and focused his attention on the man sitting there, coffee steaming in his hand and a cigarette burning lazily between his fingers.

 

“Dawn has come!” he pushed the words through a dry and scratchy throat as he pulled the revolver. He pointed it directly at the man’s head and pulled the trigger.

 

A click.


Marko’s heart dropped as his nerves froze.

 

Before he could even process the lack of carnage, a massive fist connected squarely with his chin and sent him to the ground. The punch left his ears ringing but he could hear the gasps and cries of panicked patrons. His would-be victim stood over him with an automatic pistol of his own aimed directly at Marko’s face. His face looked tight with anger and annoyance.

 

“I’m terribly sorry for this awful mess but would you please telephone the constabulary? And I think I’ll take two poppy seed cakes. Thank you, my dear.”

Congratulations

Congratulations. You made it, Jake thought to himself with a humble little smile. He stepped out of the subway car and made his way up into the warm July night. The restaurant was only a short walk away. Danielle had offered to pick him up from the airport but he wanted a minute to himself before the celebration.

 

The city lights cast a faded neon orange hue over the brick and concrete that surrounded him. The air was warm and he felt the heat settling under his sports jacket. It wasn’t an overly fancy party but Jake suited up anyway. He wanted to look his best for the occasion.

 

As he walked down the sidewalk, he felt his phone buzz. Likely another text from Danielle or someone at the restaurant wondering where he was. Let em wait, he chuckled inside the calm of his mind. It was the first time in a while he could remember his mind being so at peace. There were no rampaging thoughts, no lingering questions, no fog unsettling his step.

 

It was a calm that wasn’t upset even by reflecting on all the past trials and tribulations he’d gone through. The pains they’d once caused had healed and now all that reminded were scars on the inside of his skull that only his mind could see. Scars that no longer hurt to touch or look at and were hidden away, neat and out of sight.

 

Well, all save for one.

 

Jake crossed the street and made for the bright festivities on the other side of the restaurant door. Had he been here before? He couldn’t quite remember but what did it matter? He was a new man tonight. He took a breath, straightened his back and stepped through the double glass doors.

 

“Jake! There you are! We were just asking about you.” Mrs. Corrigan said as she wrapped her frail arms around him. He delicately returned the embrace. “We were afraid you might not make it.”

 

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” Jake said, his tone warm and his smile relaxed. “You must be so proud of her.”

 

“Absolutely I am.” Jake said with another smile before excusing himself. He weaved through the restaurant and the mosaic of friends and acquaintances he’d been witness to over the years. Each one greeted him with a surprised smile or a quick hug as he continued forward.

 

Danielle was maneuvering through the various groups, wine glass in hand and looking as collected as ever.

 

“Hello Doctor.” Jake said with a gleam in his eye. Danielle’s professional demeanor dropped for a just a second as she returned his bear hug. “Congratulations.”

 

“Oh don’t be so formal. Let’s have a proper drink! Besides we need to send a photo to Mom.” She said before the professional persona took the reins back. Jake smiled and followed the woman of the hour to bar.

 

As he walked, he rubbed the scar that ran up his left arm through his jacket. It was long and deep, but not deep enough to end it. It had been a year since he gave it to himself. A year since he last wanted out forever.
Congratulations. You made it a whole year. He thought to himself.

Morning After

He woke up first to the sensation of cold still air against his body. For a moment, he lay there, his mind blank save for the sensory information that came crawling up his spine. It took a beat for him to process he was naked. Naked and in a bed. His memory still hadn’t engaged when he turned his head and saw her.

He couldn’t believe it.

There she was. A handful of inches away from him, hair down and in a mess with half a sheet across her.

The revelation was just enough to activate what memories he had of the night before. All the jamesons had punched holes in the film reel but he could just make out sitting on her couch. Did he ask her to sit next to him or did she do that on her own? The memory reel didn’t have any answers. There was a brief scene of him rubbing her back through her old army jacket.

Another fade to black.

Then they were kissing and she was pulling his shirt off. A hand around his neck and locked into his hair. They broke through her door and almost missed the bed. He wished the memory was clearer. He cursed himself as the it went dark just as her bra came off. The video was gone but the audio played on, loud and passionate.

As if on cue, she stirred and shifted, taking his hand with her and pulling him back into the present. It wasn’t an explosion in his chest like he imagined it would be in idle fantasies half a continent away. There were no fireworks or sudden bursts of feeling. Instead it was the sensation of warm and bright red blood suddenly and eagerly spreading to every corner of his body. It traveled steadily but didn’t miss a spot and quenched the thirst of nerves and tissue that had been parched for years. The blood overruled his caution and he ran his newly animated fingers along her silhouette followed closely by his lips.

The sensation was enough to wake her up and he watched as her brain went through the same start-up his had a moment ago. When she came to, she didn’t curl into him or kiss him nor did she stop him. She just laid there, trying to process what she’d done. He was too distracted trying to kiss every inch of her to try and read her thoughts.

“Well that happened.” She said with a matter-of-fact tone while staring up at the ceiling. It was enough to pull him out of his head and into the conversation.

“Yup” He couldn’t think of anything clever or wry to say at the time. He finally brought himself to look at her face. He struggled to contain the warmth inside him as it crept up to his vocal chords and threatened to burst a dam of thoughts and feelings.

“This…this can’t be anything more” she said after a moment.

“I know” Her words were the hard hit he needed to restore his self-discipline as his rationality regained control of his mind.

“I can’t handle any more complications” she said.

“And that’s why when we get up and leave the room, we’re right back to our usual selves.” He said, forcing himself to sound genuine.

She lookd at him for the first time, “Thank you.” The blood twisted his face into a coy smile.

“Doesn’t mean I’m not going to enjoy my time here.”

He kissed down her body, paying attention to her tattoos. She let him continue but made no movements of her own. She continued to stare ahead, her face indifferent and lost in thought.

With their rules in place and an invisible clock counting down to when they’d get up, their conversation flowed like it always had before. They made jokes. He did impressions and she laughed. Without any tinge of awkwardness or shame their conversation arrived at stories deeply personal. It was their friendship but with even fewer barriers between them.

Each passing second was a greater strain on his mind. One last unspoken thought battered furiously against his rationality’s defenses. He didn’t want this morning to end but he knew he couldn’t let the thought out. It was an intoxicating dilemma.

Her indifference to his hands and lips against her helped him stay the course. Eventually he stopped and contented himself with resting his head against her breast. He didn’t care about memorizing her body; all he wanted was to be closer to her.

This is it, he kept repeating in his head, this is all there is. Then he felt her hand run through his hair and her thumb gently rubbing back and forth. Could she have guessed what he was holding back? He was fairly certain she could. Anybody who saw the way he looked at her knew right away. If she already knew, what harm could come from telling her?

Because it’s not a problem until you say it out loud, his heart echoed in his head. She didn’t need any more problems. He wouldn’t be the one to give her any.

Coming Back

The train clicked along the rainy countryside, its passengers still reveling in final moments of their liberty pass. Kurt sipped coffee from a cheap and ugly brown mug while his crew sprawled out across the car.

“You pig! It’s definitely a rash!” Heinrich yelled followed by a bout of laughter from the others as Thomas pushed him away, trying to hide his insecurity about the possible souvenir he acquired from the lower wharf whorehouse. The submariners, in fresh clothes, washed and clean shaven only looked respectable from a distance. To look at them for more than a moment was to see them for the loud and crass brothers they were. The smell of diesel fuel that never seemed to go away or the grease that rested in the corners of their fingernails were the true uniforms of their trade.

“Herr Kaleun! How were the girls in the officer’s ball?” Willie called out, waving a half-empty stein of beer. Kurt gave him a look that was equal parts officer and friend.

“Better than you’ll ever see, Matrose.” He answered with a look that quietly told Willie to check himself. The burly Saxon sheepishly nodded before guzzling down the second half of his beer. The men continued to talk and revel amongst themselves, still lost in the nightclubs and brothels they had squandered their wages on. A few of the lads, the machinists from Bavaria, had kept themselves in good order, sending letters to mothers or sweethearts down South. Whether in letter or twenty minute intervals, they had all reached out for something, a comfort to remind them they weren’t at sea.

Kurt closed his eyes, trying to fold away his memories like photographs.

You have to focus on the little details, she had whispered to him in the morning. He smiled at her words tickling his ear with her cute Swedish accent. The scent of jasmine that always followed her or the way her cinnamon brunette hair refused to ever cooperate with her designs come the morning. Even with all her style and makeup, she never looked more perfect than when she rose from the bed, its covers and sheets scattered from amorous friction. Even the overcast grey of morning seemed to brighten and she wrapped the crème colored sheet around herself.

There she was.

Minerva given life.

One of the navy attendants entered the car and the band of hooligans reined themselves in.

“We’ll be in Wilhelmshaven in about half an hour,” he paused, “You are to report to your boat immediately and be prepared to get underway before dark.”

The mood darkened instantly.

Wilhelmshaven. The name made every man’s skin bristle. It was the gateway to their hell on earth. Once they passed through the checkpoint, it was back to sweat, salt and exhaust. Each man knew he was just a quick review by the Kaiser’s favorite admiral of the week away from being thrust back into the terror of the North Atlantic.

Doing the best they could to keep bright their spirits before the seawater extinguished them, the men chatted far quieter now even after the attendant in his heavily-starched uniform left.

“Will you be here when I come back?” He had asked her, admiring her as she made no attempt to dress herself in anything more than the sheet.

“That depends. Will you come back?” she replied.

“For you? Always.” He said, giving her a cheeky smile. She had glided over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He could still see the flicker of fear behind her bright green eyes.

“You’re incredibly selfish, you know that?” she said, the echo of tenderness dampening the impact of it.

“That seems a little unfair, no?” He said, smiling coyly. She let the sheet fall off her body.

“You know what I mean.” Kurt shifted, reaching for a cigarette from the silver case on the nightstand.

“That’s what your other lovers are for.” He said, perhaps a touch too pointedly as he struck a match. Before he could even move the flame she reached out and pinched it dead before clasping his chin in her hand.

“I don’t miss any of the others,” her face hanging mere millimeters from his, “I miss you.”

“I love you too” he said, his smile naked on his still bearded face. She frowned at him and pressed off of his chest. He sprang into action and delicately wrapped her in his arms, kissing her neck as he did. He smiled as he remembered how her skin felt on his lips.

The train rolled along, bringing Kurt mile by mile back to the war. From the arms of his Minerva back to the cold gaze of the angel of death. But still, Kurt smiled to himself.

The men glanced at their captain, sitting quietly in his seat, his face locked in a half-smile as his closed eyes pointed out the window.

“Bloody officers. Probably nothing but caviar and dancing girls in those parties.” Willie grumbled.

“Oh come off it. The Kaleun’s not the white glove type.” Heinrich said, to the chuckle of the men listening.

They amused themselves by painting cartoons in whispered voices of their oil-stained and rough-hewn captain breaking glasses to the horror of prim and proper surface fleet officers.

The Battle of Stefansrygg

Milo curled tighter into his dugout in the trench as a fresh shower of splinters and hot earth showered him. The explosions from the enemy artillery rattled his body and his head ached from the constant noise and shock waves. The Orcs around him all crouched low and clung to the earthen walls of the trench, blood trickling down from their shattered ear drums. The rain of artillery shells had gone on for what felt like hours and had coated the bottom of the trench with a thick layer of dirt. Black clouds of smoke from the explosions and the rancid smell of explosive choked Milo and turned the early morning to night.

Lieutenant Dahl was trying to move along the trench but was clambering and stumbling over his men as they tucked themselves away or fell wounded to the floor. He was shouting orders but Milo couldn’t hear a word of them. All he could hear was the constant series of explosions and the patter of falling debris. A man fell on top of Milo, screaming and clutching his arm. There was a sliver of shrapnel protruding from his shoulder. Milo shook the man to get his attention then tried to pull out the shard. The metal was hot and burned Milo’s fingers but he persisted.

The piece of metal gave way and Milo tossed it away, shaking his hand to try and ease the burning. The man continued screaming as he clutched the cut and blood dripped between his dirty fingers. More explosions pulverized the hillside and the black smoke grew thicker. Milo put his sleeve to his mouth to shield himself from the poisonous air. A lanky Orc with the thin sideburns threw up next to him.

More shells. More explosions. The hellscape refused to relent. Milo’s brain felt like a pebble in an avalanche, constantly tossed and colliding with his skull. The sheer force of explosion and constant tremor left him feeling weakened and sick. The splinters and dirt continued to rain through the smoke and threatened to bury the whole trench alive. A ball of fire and dust exploded further down the line. A shell must have crashed directly inside the trench.

Henry had told him that soldiering was largely sore feet and hardtack. Milo wished more than ever he was back marching down dusty roads and across open fields. The blisters on his feet and the sweat-soaked hours spent under the sun seemed like paradise to this hell. All the stories of gallant marches under the smoke and thunder of muskets and cannon did nothing to prepare a man for being a living target dummy for artillery crews thousands of yards away. He didn’t even have a rifle to cling to, instead he was tucked into a communal grave, clutching his knees to his body and shielding his head under his arms.

Even the opinions of the old veterans living on the frontier or of barrack roosters who still owned cuirasses were useless on this battlefield. Charge out and meet the foe! They’d declare, trusting in the strength of an Orc with a bayonet or blade to turn the tide no matter the impracticality. They’d cite the countless battles turned at the decisive moment by a swift charge and melee. The trench is the tool of the coward, they’d scoff, useful for sieges and latrines. Yet how was one to make use of the bayonet now with the sky filled with shrapnel and the enemy not even in sight?

Milo let out a scream of frustration, his voice almost silent in the storm of war. He cursed the Tarkaj artillery, the officers who’d led him to this damned hill. He blasphemed against the gods and even against his father for sending him off to the army. More shells answered his outburst and threw heated dirt into his mouth.

He tucked his head back into his chest and knees while spitting out the chemical-tasting earth. The men in the trench all followed his example. The veterans, the reservists, officers and privates; everybody tried to burrow into the ground and make themselves as small as possible. A fresh explosion came so close that Milo’s hearing vanished and was replaced with just a sharp ringing. The effect was disorienting and eerie, leaving him with just the ringing and the distant vague booms of explosions.

Slowly, the ringing receded and the painfully familiar roar began again. But slowly, the roar lessened. The explosions became less frequent, to the point of actually having pauses between them. The shelling receded and then finally stopped.

The world was silent for a moment. The absence of the artillery’s thunderclaps left Milo and the company feeling almost numb. The shockwaves and tremors were gone. Now there was the sound of men burrowing themselves out from underneath the cloak of dirt and the groans of the wounded. Milo untucked himself and carefully stood up. His muscles were sore from the hours of hunching and any movement caused him pain and discomfort. One by one, the other men in the trench slowly stood up and brushed dirt off themselves. As they stood, they checked to see if they had been wounded in the barrage.

Milo patted himself and checked to see if there was any blood on his uniform. He felt a warm and damp feeling on his legs and his heart froze. He nervously ran a hand over himself, petrified of any injury to his manhood. When he found everything to be where it should be, he was simultaneously relieved and embarrassed to discover the source of the sensation. It wasn’t blood that damped his trousers. He nervously turned to face the trench wall and hide his shame. However, a quick glance down the line revealed he was not the only man to suffer an accident. Several men had stains on the front or back of their trousers, while others had evidence of vomit still on their faces.

The black smoke drifted away and daylight broke through. The sky was cloudless and a vibrant blue. Milo had never been happier to see the sun. Finally able to hear his own thoughts, his head also pulsed with pain. He looked over the trench parapet and saw explosions from where he assumed the enemy positions were. This couldn’t be his regiment returning fire. The field guns for his regiment had been delayed. It had to be one of General Nyman’s corps attacking. He peered into the countryside and could only make out the very same eruptions of smoke, fire and earth that had pulverized his company’s trench all morning. He tried to summon some sort of martial fervor or feeling of vengeance to see the enemy enduring the same torture he had but he was too exhausted for any such emotion.

“Still alive, Ekstrӧm? “ Henry called out. Milo turned in the direction of the voice and saw the old rascal walking unsteadily through the pockmarked ground. His gaunt and unattractive face was covered with dirt and soot. His dark green field jacket was open to reveal his shirt, stained with sweat. He held two rifles in his hands. He handed one of the rifles to Milo and he took it with shaking hands.

“Sore feet and hardtack, huh?” Milo said, his voice hoarse from screaming.

“Mostly. This is what it is the rest of the time.”  Henry replied, his bemused smile unshaken by the war. “Congratulations boy-o: you survived your first engagement.”