Anthony walked down the boulevard as rain poured down the brim of his hat. He felt the water slowly soaking through his overcoat and dampening his shirt while the wind threatened to dislodge his hat. He cursed as he contemplated trying to light a cigarette. He was discouraged from the idea as he crossed through an intersection and a fresh gust of wind sent rain slapping across his cheek.

Javecs was a typical Bolthar city: medieval, damp and insular. From the winding streets built upon cow paths to the decrepit red castle in the city center, it was a place that wore modernity with great disdain. Rows of rust colored brick buildings lined the street, dimly lit by the street lights. They were a far cry from the brighter and neater buildings of the capital that Anthony had become so used to. Also lacking was any trace of Orcish architecture. Not one statue or stoic stone building was to be found in this castle city.

His meeting with the Bolthar regional council was as frustrating as to be expected. Why Viktor thought that Anthony’s presence might warm negotiations was a mystery. Anthony was a sundrii and the old roosters in the council would never forgive that. If there was anything they hated more than an aljaman it was a deserter, real or perceived.

At the end of the block was a tavern with an appropriately self-glorifying title. The Freeman’s Pike was an ugly two story building with faded green paint and an iron sign swinging in the storm, its hinges squeaking and whining. Anthony stepped through the door, desperate to escape the rain.

Inside was a collection of locals, all clad in their oil-cloth coats and wet fur hats. The men sported the thick mustaches still fashionable up north and the few women present sat quietly, dressed in muted colors and rustically functional styles.

Anthony weaved through the patrons and found an open seat at the bar. He set himself down, removing his hat and running his hand through his damp hair to slick it back out of his face. The bartender was an ogre of a man with a sour face and a bald head atop broad heavy shoulders.

“Black gin” he ordered. The bartender studied him for a moment before turning to get the half-full bottle on the shelf. Within moments a tumbler of the bitter black liquor appeared before Anthony. He studied the other drinks available. The selection was limited to a few local beers and the strong red wines that every pub and roadhouse seemed to have at least one bottle of. He knew it would have been pointless to ask for Ten Crowns, his preferred bourbon.

He took a sip of his drink and the bitter liquid burnt his throat. He’d forgotten how strong and grim a drink it was. He remembered stealing a bottle of it and passing it around with the other serving boys one night in his youth. It was a hard drink then but he’d taken swig after swig that night. Age had not taken the bitterness out of it.

“You ain’t from Javecs are you?” the bartender asked, now made curious by Anthony’s familiarity with the customs.

“Korvolen” Anthony said, the town’s name rang like a curse. The bartender frowned and several patrons within earshot grumbled some.

“You don’t have a Korvolen accent.” The man sitting two stools to Anthony’s left tossed out as he shot back his own glass of black liquor, “You sound more like an aljaman.”

“I’ve been living down south, in Tybernia.” Anthony said slowly, now acutely aware of how rusty his Bolthar had become. Every man within earshot gave him a dirty look. Normally, he’d have kept the fact to himself but his contempt for their standoffishness overcame him.

Foreigners down south attracted company. Questions of home countries and of travels were the bread and butter of tavern conversation. Whether they had traveled themselves, the southerners had a craving for stories of lands outside their own sunny valleys and mountainsides. Perhaps it was simply a hunger for more tales of beauty and grandeur to match their own countryside. Perhaps his people in this rain-logged hole disdained interest in other lands because their own were so pitiful.

Rain continued to tap heavily against the fog-choked glass windows as Anthony took another sip of his drink. After years apart, he was back in that unwelcome land called home.



Kirill trotted along the column, the spring sun burning hot and baking the procession. For miles, the Tsarina’s courtiers and retinues marched through the Crimean countryside, resplendent in their parade uniforms and garb despite the heat. Thousands of pages, servants, the Tsarina’s attendants and companies of the Imperial Guard, some mounted and others on foot, all marching behind the Mother of the Nation.

Zoya snorted impatiently and kicked the ground. “Shhh. Shhh dear.” Kirill whispered as he pet his mount. A strong Don breed, Zoya was born to run for miles not trot in formations. He pet her again and adjusted his sabre.

The fields of grass and dirt patches stretched out as far as the eye could see. The sky was cloudless and a sun-bleached blue. The sound of a thousand marching feet filled the air and a light gust of wind wisped over Kirill’s face. The weight of his carbine was discomforting on his shoulder. He hated the lump of wood and metal. Try as he might, he was a middling marksman on the best of days. He preferred the lance and sabre, the way his father and grandfather had fought. To add to the discomfort, his uniform was constricting and hot. But the court had taken a fancy to Kirill’s company and loved the romantic image of the rugged and exotic Cossacks riding in full regalia under the Imperial colors.

Colonel Milyukov rode up alongside Kirill, his face locked in its perpetual frown.

“Lieutenant Yashin!” the colonel exclaimed, his St. Petersburg accent thick as molasses, “Order your men to reform your riders closer to the procession. We mustn’t let any brigands near her majesty.” Kirill saluted and the colonel rode off to the head of the line.

A fool choice, Kirill thought to himself. His Cossacks would be better served on the wings, scouting for threats and provisions rather than tucked in with no space to ride. Worse still the column was loud and made foolish errors, marching against the terrain. Too little ground covered and their presence was announced miles before they arrived. This may have served well for introducing the peasants and serfs to their new empress but made Kirill squirm with discomfort.

But what was he to do? Colonel Milyukov was of the Preobrazhensky Guards and one of the personal nobles in charge of the security of her majesty. An old silver-haired crow of a man, he had spent far too much time in the parade grounds with European-trained musketeers. Always fussing over uniforms and the cadence of marches, he could usually be found stomping about the army camps, inspecting the equipment of unlucky soldiers. The scouts and the provincial troops joked he’d spent too much time with the armies of Vienna and fancied himself a Habsburg Cuirassier.

He signaled to his riders to close in and slow their pace. They grumbled and gave foul looks to the perfumed and sweating horde they rode along but complied with the order. Slowly, the Cossacks joined the column, lances and muskets held lazily at rest. Both the men and their horses fidgeted and scanned the horizon, longing to ride at speed along the open fields and hills.

The Imperial and regimental flags stirred and beckoned with the breezes. Seeing them in the air, Kirill considered the choice to serve in the army. It was his kinsmen who’d fought against the Tsar generations before. Back in times before the musket and the crown, they roamed the steppes and fought any who dared face them, be they Russians or Turks. But now, he had kopeks and steady meals. He had received an officer’s commission and had a state to call home and a sovereign to bend the knee to. What did he know of the old times? The elders didn’t think much of him. Іноземець, outsider they called him. Not a true Cossack. Just another peacock, prancing and strutting for scraps and attention.

Kirill sighed and continued on. The sun continued to beat down on him and he wiped fresh sweat from his face.