StoryADay Challenge

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.

Advertisements

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.”

Retiring

“Here’s to you, Mark. You were a hell of a judge! Enjoy the well-earned retirement.” Teddy Warner toasted as he tapped his bottle of Yuengling against Mark’s scotch. Teddy was the last friend that had come out for Mark’s retirement party. It wasn’t a big event or anything, just a small gathering with some of the cops and lawyers he’d known as well as a fishing buddy or two. Big events weren’t Mark’s style.

“Thanks Teddy. Are you gonna be OK going home?” Mark asked, taking a sip of scotch. Teddy chuckled as he put his FOP baseball cap on his bald boulder of a head and slid on his coat.

“I’ll be fine. Carol’s waiting outside with the car. Are you gonna be OK getting home?”

“You bet. Thanks for coming out.” Mark wished his friend a safe trip home after they set a time to meet for lunch. With Teddy’s departure, Mark was back to being on his own. Just another patron in a bar that had long since changed from the first time he’d been there. The old bartenders were gone along with most of the patrons he’d known. Now it was a mix of young people in a bar with one foot caught in the past. Photos of old timers and local celebrities still hung on the walls but were slowly being pushed aside for flatscreen TVs showing the game. Mark sighed and took another sip of his drink, enjoying the calm.

“Excuse me? Mr. Reynold?” a man’s voice broke Mark out of his contemplation. He turned to see a man looking right at him.

“Yes? Do I know you?” Mark asked, unable to place the face smiling so intently at him.

“Oh sorry, the name’s Roman. I’m sorry to interrupt you but I overheard your friend before he left. You’re Judge Reynold, yes?” The man asked, his voice awash with serendipitous excitement.

“Former judge, yes. Have we met before?” Mark asked, still confused as to who this stranger was.

“Not in person but you lectured at Temple once. Mr. Reynold forgive me but you’re something of a local legend in my neighborhood.  You were the judge on the Aronov case in ’96 yes?”

Mark was caught flat-footed. The Aronov case felt like a lifetime ago. Some Russian jew from the Northeast part of the city who’d been running some gambling racket out of his barbershop. It was a straightforward enough case, hardly worth taking any great note of.

“Yes, I was the judge for that.” Mark said slowly. The man smiled at him again and extended his hand. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir.” The two shook hands and Mark smiled as he studied the fellow. He was young and wiry with dark blue eyes set deep in his angular face. His jet black hair was close cut and his face shaved. His hands were gloved and his overcoat hung open, dampness from melted snow still visible on the shoulders. Despite his friendly demeanor, there was something off about him. His movements were as if a current of electricity was pulsing underneath his skin, a static energy that Mark couldn’t quite place.

“What brings you here?” Mark asked Roman.

“Oh I just stopped in here for a drink on my way home from class. I’m glad I did though. Can I buy you a drink sir?” Roman asked.

Nice to have a fan Mark thought.

“I’ll take another scotch on the rocks. And you can call me Mark, kid.” Roman gave him a smile and turned towards the bar. With his new acquaintance gone, Mark finished his drink. He wouldn’t say no to someone buying a round for him. He’d have preferred his first twenty-something fan to be a girl but a drink was a drink. He just hoped this kid wasn’t trying to fuck him.

In a short order, Roman rematerialized with a glass of scotch in one hand and vodka in the other.

“Cheers.” Mark said as he toasted his new friend. “So you know the Aronov case?”

Roman threw back his drink before speaking. “Everybody in my neighborhood knew the Aronov case.”

“It wasn’t such a big case. God, what was his first name again?” Mark struggled through the cobwebs in his mind to recall the name. Like a weathered photo, he could vaguely remember the man, standing in the courtroom looking forlorn and defeated on the day he sentenced him.

“Oh in my neighborhood, even little news was big if it was local. I think it was something with a J-“

“Julius! That’s it” Mark plucked the name from the dark as the memory came closer to the surface.

“Right that was it. Anyway the whole event was all anybody talked about.” Roman said, trying to pull up the memories himself.

“That must have been a little before your time wouldn’t it?” Mark asked, trying to figure out what was behind this kid’s interest.

“Oh I was about 10 or somewhere close to it. My mother would talk about it all day though. She talked about everything but this was a major event. Practically feels like a part of my life it was such a talked about thing.” Roman said, smiling to himself, no doubt recalling the memories.

“I didn’t think it was such a big deal.” Mark said, honestly at a loss the notoriety at the case. He’d been part of far larger and high profile ones in his time. What the hell was so special about this small time gangster from Bustleton?

“Maybe it wasn’t a big case but it got me interested in law. Kind of set me up on the career path you know?” Roman said. Then it all clicked in Mark’s head. This asshole was looking for a fast-track to employment out of law school. He gave a little chuckle and patted the kid on the back. He was smart pick a smaller profile case. Most of the other brown-nosers wanted to talk all about his work on the Philadelphia mob. The kid was clever…but not clever enough.

Mark entertained the kid’s questions about his career and about how he decided the sentence, all the usual subtle attempts to build a personal rapport. He enjoyed another scotch and led the kid on, content to let him think that he was making any sort of progress. The law school grads were usually out this time of year, searching for some way to get a leg up or find some special patron. Mark had little patience for them. Nobody had helped him when he was starting out.

“I gotta take a leak.” Mark announced, taking a break from Roman’s attention and feeling the scotch catching up with him. He stood on surprisingly uneasy legs and shambled towards the bathroom.

Heh. Caught up in the pageantry.

The bathroom was a small room with a single urinal and dirty white tiles on the floor. Years of drunken patrons had left the walls covered with graffiti and scribbles. The florescent light twitched and flickered to life as Mark stepped into the space and stumbled towards the urinal. He wondered if that last scotch had been a good idea as he relieved himself.

You only retire once, he comforted himself.

The door opened and Roman stepped in. Mark glanced over and breathed an unsubtle sigh of annoyance. Couldn’t he even piss in peace?

“Look can you give me a minute here, kid?” He said. Even with his senses dulled, he felt the kid crowding close behind him.

“Sorry, I’ve just got a quick message for you from my father, Julius.” Roman said, his tone cold and menacing. Mark paused as he tried to make sense of what the kid said when he felt a hand grab the tuft of hair on the back of his head and jerk his head back. Before Mark could even process what was happening, he felt a white hot slicing pain across his throat as bright hot blood spurted out onto the wall. In an instant the knife had run the course of his throat and he felt all the breath in his body escaping through the wound. Instinctively, he clutched his throat as more blood poured out between his fingers.

He slumped against the wall and tried to turn around. He saw Roman panting and holding a straight razor in his left hand. Mark could feel his pulse slowing against his fingers as he crumpled to the floor, his blood making the tiles slick. He looked up at the kid standing just far enough away to avoid any incidental spray and felt hatred pouring out his eyes. Roman stood there with a cruel and satisfied smile on his face like he’d just unloaded some great weight.

Mark’s head grew light and his vision greyed. The pain in his throat became more and more distant as his eyelids grew heavy.

Roman leaned down, his face close to Mark.

“Ваше оскорбление было возвращено”

Homecoming

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.

Occupied Dublin, 1955

Liam adjusted his cap as the rain poured down the brim. The streetlights shimmered in the rainfall and cast a glistening twinkle of yellow light on the wet pavement. At the end of the block, he could see the green lights and sign for the Wild Geese pub. The prospect of a pint and a warm place to enjoy it were extremely enticing. He shivered and contemplated what the hell he was even doing out in the cold.

The old pre-war postcard contained simple enough instructions:

I’m not dead.

Meet me Tuesday night at 8 on Grafton Street.

Connor.

Liam thought of every possibility for how a postcard from a dead man arrived in his flat a week ago and could come up with nothing. His first thought was maybe it was the police, but if the Nazis were interested in him, they’d have kicked his door down. Even the British auxiliaries were prone to overt and loud actions against enemies of the state. Nobody else would think to pull such a despicable prank like leave him a note signed by Connor days after his funeral. It had to come from the man himself.

A fresh gust of wind slapped more rain against his overcoat and he looked up the street. It remained deserted. Liam checked his wrist watch and saw the time was exactly 8 PM. He sighed and gave a thought to heading in for a drink.

Even amidst the static of rain falling in puddles and on rooftops, Liam made out the sound of footsteps in water. He turned to see a man in a soaked grey overcoat and hat reaching out a cigarette.

“Do you have a light?” the man asked. Liam couldn’t quite make out the face underneath the hat but he knew the voice. He felt a million questions suddenly charge to the front of his mind and didn’t know where to start.

Connor repeated the question.

Liam dug his hand into his pants pocket until he found his lighter.

“Ahh grand. Best step out of this rain eh?” Connor said, motioning to the alley between the two brick buildings Liam had been using for shelter. The two stepped into the darkness. The neutral damp air of the street was replaced with a stale odor of mold and still water.

Connor checked down the alley and when he was satisfied, adjusted the brim of his hat, revealing his face. He reached out and took the lighter from Liam’s hand to light the damp cigarette still hanging between his fingers. With the illumination of the flame, Liam could see the Connor’s face clearer. The man looked older than his years with his baby face was now etched with a week old stubble and his cheeks thinner. His blue eyes sparked and flared with the lighter’s flame He exhaled a stream of smoke as he closed the lighter and with a smile tossed it back to Liam.

“Thanks” he said, his smile disappearing as he did.

“What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were dead!” Liam declared, trying to regain his wits and control his voice.

“Did you really think I’d kill myself?”  Liam thought for a moment. Connor was too vain for suicide.

“No.” Connor gave him a half smile at that. “You still lied to me. To everybody”

Connor’s smile vanished and remorse colored his face. “I know and I’m sorry for that. If there were a different way I’d have happily taken it.”

“So why the funeral?”

“Jackboots tried to arrest me last week. I had to disappear. Being dead seemed like an easy way to do it.” Connor answered.

“Who was in the coffin?”

“The German who tried to take me in. We switched wallets and gave him my time piece when we dumped my car in the river.”

That’s what the mourners at the funeral said; that it was a car driven into the water. They’d commented on such a dramatic way to end it all.

“Who’s ‘we’?” Liam asked, the picture still not clear. Connor glanced around before tossing his cigarette into a nearby puddle.

“The war’s not over Liam.” He felt anger twitching in his hands.

“You fake your death and all to start some damn trouble with the Germans?” Liam said, his voice sharp and his words aimed directly at Connor. “Why the hell did you reach out to me?!”

“Cause Jerry’s a bad landlord. Even you have to have noticed that.”

“Jerry took on the world and won.” Liam said, “He fought us, the Tommies, the reds and the yanks and he still won.” Liam shot out, his own frustration and depression heating his words. Right after the war, everybody spoke of resisting and of carrying on the fight. But one by one, the agitators disappeared or tempered down as the Reich settled in across Europe. The free radio stations and underground newspapers were shut down and fewer people showed up to protests. Soon the apartment raids and German troops became infrequent but the fervor of resistance was gone.

“Aye he won in ’45. But the Jerries are slipping now. Ten years of trying to tame the East, they’re relying more on the Brit fascists to govern now.”

“So what if they are? You cause trouble and we’ll have SS troops instead of blueshirts patrolling the street.” Liam countered.

“Didn’t our da’s say the something similar about Collins and the RIC.” Connor said with a half-smile. Liam grumbled but admitted that Connor had a point. Connor stepped forward, his weary but still energetic face coming into the light.

“We’re working with the boys up North, properly organizing this time. But we need volunteers for the Dublin station.” Liam could feel the invitation about to be extended. With it, he pictured his entire life of keeping his head down and scrapping together enough Reichmarks for his flat being uprooted.

“And I’m assuming you’re heading up that effort?” Liam asked. Connor nodded his head.

“Aye. It won’t be easy or pleasant. I’m sorry for what I did but I won’t apologize for asking you to join me.”

“Of course not. You must be the only Fenian to be unaffected by guilt.” Liam jabbed.

“Guilty about lying? Yes. But feeling guilty for making Dublin unwelcoming to these bastards? No.”

“I could use your help with the effort.” It was the same statement Connor had used whenever he was about to rope Liam into some foolish adventure or other. The warmth in his voice and the light in his eyes, visible even in the dark had been untouched by Nazi occupation. It was the same warmth and confidence Liam had seen in his friend before he slipped across the sea to join the RAF.

With a sigh, Liam put out his hand, ready to pick his head up and face the world.

A Sword’s Thoughts

Gabe wiped the sweat off his face as more fireworks exploded in the hot night sky and the sound of revelry filled the city streets. Everybody was in the streets, celebrating and waving flags. The soldiers were embraced by men and kissed by women. Even the police were caught up in the spirit of victory as they turned a blind eye to the prostitutes plying their trade. Gabe chuckled to himself at the sight of delirious joy. It was hard to imagine that the city was forlorn and sorrowful that morning or that it was a battlefield six months ago.

The waiter brought over a bottle of American whiskey and Gabe slipped him a fifty dollar bill. Gabe took a swig from the bottle itself and his mouth burned with the taste of Tennessee sour-mash. Of the few patrons in the restaurant, Gabe was the only one not standing in jubilation or toasting to the crowds outside. He simply sat with his boot resting on the chair opposite him and his equipment in a duffel bag by his side. He still kept his .45 secured in his holster, just to ward off any trouble or rowdy locals.

The restaurant was an old, pre-war style establishment that had once dreamed in white marble and Parisian design. The civil war had not touched it but it was clear that this once opulent eatery was a relic of a bygone era. The Romanesque statues had seen the fortune and splendor wither away across the span of generations while the once pristine tiled floor slowly chipped and faded. Even the waiter’s pressed white shirt and bow tie hung loose on the aging wearer. Gabe felt like his very presence was somehow accelerating the decay.

A handful of young soldiers stepped into the dining room and were greeted like heroes. Men raised glasses to them and the pretty redheaded hostess let them all kiss her on the cheek before showing them to a table.

They tried to look the part of relaxed warriors but it was clear these lads were shaking with enthusiasm and drunk off of the adoration of the city. They had rolled the sleeves of their uniforms up and left their shirts open, trying to look the part of grizzled veterans but the cleanliness of their clothes and boots betrayed them. The patrons didn’t notice and Gabe wasn’t about to spoil their night.

“Hey! I know you!” one of them shouted, pointing at Gabe. Out of reflex, he put his hand to his sidearm as the soldier who’d recognized him encouraged his mates to gather around. The enthusiasm in the soldier’s eyes made Gabe relax, but only a little.

“You bailed my unit out of the Hotel Atlantic. You’re a mercenary right?” the kid recalled, excited and nervous. Gabe nodded the affirmative, remembering the battle. The government troops had gotten a little too bold and walked right into a rebel counterattack. What started as temporary rally point turned into a two week siege.

“Why aren’t you celebrating? The war’s over, friend!” one of the soldiers said, throwing back his drink and cheering.

“Your war’s over.” Gabe corrected him.

“Our war. You shed blood with us: you’re one of us.” The soldier who’d recognized him said.

“This is your country, your home, your victory. Not mine.” Gabe said, his tone calm but firm. The soldiers enthusiastic faces dimmed slightly as they looked to their ringleader.

“You saved my life, fought for us and helped us save this country. This is your victory too.” The boy said, unable to comprehend how someone could pass up the opportunity to take part in this celebration. Gabe knew he’d never be able to make these boys understand, certainly not on a night like tonight.

“A sword knows nothing of victory or defeat. It only knows battle.” He said with a smile and patted the boy on the shoulder as he stood.

“Sir! These heroes look thirsty!” Gabe called to the waiter who quickly hurried over. Gabe slid two more fifty dollar bills into the waiter’s hand and then hoisted up his gear. As he made his way past the soldiers, he winked at the ringleader, who could only look on with confusion.

On the streets, the roar of the crowd was interrupted with the thunderous clamp and dazzling gold and red light of the fireworks. Save for his partially concealed pistol and his boots, Gabe looked like just another person. He maneuvered through the mobs, recognizing buildings and alleys where he’d previously fought and killed. Each boom and blast of a firework reminded him of the mortars and grenades that used to sound nightly.

When he finally made it past the crowds back to the small flat that he and a few of the other mercenaries had been using, he thought for a moment about the last two years he’d spent here. He’d fought across the country, killed more men than he could count and helped stop these people from killing each other, if only for a moment. He’d seen heroism and cowardice on both sides and witnessed the cruel arbitrary nature of war inflicted on people too poor or unfortunate to get out of the way.

Yet for all he’d seen, for all the battles he’d fought, only one word seemed to summate his feelings: dispassion. Time would march on and perhaps this was the bloody prologue to an era of prosperity and peace that would heal the wounds of civil war to the point where all his actions faded into obscurity. Or maybe all his effort had simply set the stage for bloodier conflict to come. Perhaps he’d even be called back, fighting for one side or the other.

He thought of the soldier in the restaurant he’d saved. The kid was a scared little fisherman’s son who’d never held a rifle before. When Gabe saw him inside the hotel, there was a foul-smelling brown stain on the back of his pants. But tonight, that kid was a hero to his country. Maybe tonight, that kid would meet a woman and he’d begin to start life as a family man. Or maybe he’d decide to work to build up the ruins of his homeland.

Or maybe he’d simply turn in his rifle and return to his fishing boat.

Gabe wiped the fresh sweat from his face and loaded his equipment onto his motorcycle. As the engine kicked to life, Gabe took in the neighborhood landmarks that he’d never bothered to remember. Out of habit, he checked his pistol again and pulled out a grease-stained map. The runway where the rest of his outfit was waiting was roughly twenty miles east of the city. From there, the plane would take him to wherever war required him to be. There was always another war. Always a fresh world to make changes that would ripple unseen.

He slowly set off down the road, feeling the indifference of the city to his presence surround him.