Understanding: A Fueled Story

“Do you enjoy hurting people?” I frown, crossing my arms and staring at him from the doorway. Tate turns around, mumbling under his breath as he goes to his small knapsack by the closet. The others were asleep, but we were both wide awake. Now was probably the seldom time that I would be thankful Tate and I shared a room. At least now when I chewed him out and got angry, they wouldn’t be able to hear, or at least they wouldn’t be too bothered by it. “We have to lead a group of people and the example you choose to set is stealing candy from a baby-”

“Don’t you get it?! The world isn’t happy and fun and safe all the time! I figured you of all people would know that by now. What with your family probably being dead? Yeah. I guess not.” I cross my arms and let the frown sink into my tired face. He looks up at me with a similar scowl, and doesn’t seem at all eager to change his ways.

“We didn’t need it. Not like she did-”

“What would they have done, Cara? This was our last viable raid, god forbid if they hear that. We had to give them something!”

“What about the starving girl?” I cry, throwing my hands up in the air, and watching with malice as he lays back nonchalantly on his bed, hands behind his head.

“What about her? Someone will give her food. If she is truly as starving as you recall, someone will find her something. I was thinking about my group and the needs of my people. If you truly want to help me lead, I suggest you start doing the same. We won’t survive a day with this charitable soul of yours. Pssh, hell, we wouldn’t be comfortable living another week here with an attitude like yours. She will find something. I gave her our grapes. It’s not as much as you would have given her, but I didn’t let the poor thing go empty handed. We have enough, but we don’t need to give away our rations to one person. Now, will you shut up so I can sleep?” He concludes, as if ashamed he even gave the girl food in the first place. My mouth hangs open slightly, and I attempt to hide my shock as I close the door behind me.

“Thank you for doing that. I had no idea you did. Why didn’t you tell me? I was practically in tears on the way home!” I say, running a hand through my hair before resting my head in my hands. He looks at me now, his anger having subsided greatly.

“You would have to learn rational thought eventually. In truth, I wasn’t planning on telling you at all, but I knew you would never shut the hell up if I didn’t.” He grumbles, his blue eyes staying connected with me as I talk. Something about the eyes. Pascal had mentioned it before. Something about his eyes told me what he truly wished to say, but this time I couldn’t read it.

“Tate, I-”

“Am I going to get to sleep?” He grumbles, turning over on his side to get himself nestled under the covers before looking at me again, this time with annoyance. That I could read clearly.  

I smirk. “Nope. I want you to tell me why you won’t let anyone see you as a good person. Out of all the people here, you think you would at least be able to trust me.”

“Every second you keep me up is a second I trust you less.” Tate wipes his eyes, scrunching his nose like a child. I suppose rooming with him did allow me to catch glimpses of the Tate he wouldn’t let anyone else see. The extremely attractive male who was also sometimes not an asshole? It was quite the conundrum. Not one I wanted to get close to, but one I wanted to understand. I mean, if I was going to have to work alongside him I might as well know the dude on a more personal level.

“Tate.”

“Sweetheart, don’t ask questions that will only disappoint you.” He rolls over to his other side as if that would keep him from my pestering. Every second I kept him up, was a second of revenge for all of his rude remarks and crude behavior. My smirk persists happily.

“I didn’t ask a question. I made a demand.”

“Look. You seem nice enough. I’d disappoint you. If you come off as an asshole, nobody gets hurt. I don’t want to hurt anybody more than I have to. I just want to stay alive, and if that means bringing you guys with me, then I will gladly do it. Gladly. Now, that is the only ‘demand’ I will allow you to make tonight. Let me get some rest so that I don’t bite your head off tomorrow.”

“Goodnight Tate. If it helps, so far you’ve only impressed me.”

“You aren’t original, go to bed.” I roll my eyes at his response, knowing he was hiding a smirk of some kind on the other side of the bed. As loud as I could possibly make it, I climb beneath my own covers, trying not to laugh as I blow out the candle on the nightstand.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Cara.”

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Decode {1939}

“Sing the alphabet. Not the english one either. I’ll remind you, I was hired to teach you.” Louis says, running a hand through his hair before sitting back in his chair. We could hear Lewis talking in his office next door, but I still felt completely isolated from him within the closed room. “Pay attention.”

My head snaps back to Louis and Ben chuckles from his armchair in the corner, a paper open in his lap. I glared at him and began singing the Russian alphabet. The grey walls seemed to close in on me as I sang, and I became all too aware of the close quarters. Louis and I sat at a small table next to a short bookcase, the two of us resting on wooden chairs. Ben was in the far corner, required to attend training even though he wasn’t being helped at the moment. There were two armchairs in that corner, Ben taking up one, with a lamp in between. We were sure the room was initially supposed to be a broom closet, but Lewis had turned it into an unsuspecting office and training center. On the outside it looked like nothing more than a filing cabinet, but inside were future agents, training to end the impending war.

I finish with a breath and Louis gives me a dazzling smile. It became harder for me to concentrate around him, however much I hated to admit it. “Very good, much better than your last lesson.” Ben mumbles something in German and both boys laugh.

It was impossible to stop my glare at Ben, he knew I didn’t know German, hell I barely knew Russian, hence my butchered alphabet. “Calm down, fraulein. I didn’t say anything mean.” Ben said coyly in the thickest German accent he could muster. I resisted the urge to punch him. He was an asshole. He had been since I met him, yet he was the only one I felt close to here. Lewis was a good man, I couldn’t deny that, but he felt more like an owner than a friend. Louis, while mysterious and suave was still worlds away as my tutor. Ben was there. He was going through the same things I was, feeling the same pressures and confusion. He understood, and whether he was an asshole or not, I could not deny that he could relate to me.

Lewis walked into the room before I could throw any punches. “Louis you are needed with Colonel Hodges downstairs. Leave her assignments with her, I am sure Ben will make sure she stays diligent.” Lewis says with a smile, his salt pepper hair cascading down his face in a way that assures me he had gotten little sleep in the past few days.

“Yes sir.” Louis says, leaving a single piece of paper in front of me before hurrying out of the room. I had never met Hodges, but I knew his department was kept a secret, kind of like Lewis, but if possible it was more elite and more dangerous.

“Don’t let his absence deter you, get to it.” Lewis smiles, clapping me on the back with a strong hand before moving out of the room and closing the door. Ben chuckles.

“What a productive day. The war in Europe is escalating and we are reading the papers and learning preschool Russian. Fabulous.” Ben says sarcastically, lighting a cigarette in front of his mouth.

“No smoking in here. The smoke would surely kill the both of us.” I reply, pulling the fresh cigarette out of his mouth and smashing it in the ashtray. He sighs, but doesn’t fight it.

“Cigarettes don’t kill nobody. War kills people.” He continues grumbling, and I roll my eyes, momentarily forgetting about my worksheets in order to argue with my counterpart.

“So what? You want to go on the front lines with no training whatsoever? What is the point? Truly, explain to me what we could possibly gain from that? At best we would lose our lives.” I’m on the edge of my seat now, facing him head on. His cold eyes bore into my own, his posture unforgiving. “You may feel sure of yourself with now, but war destroys people it- it-”

“You can say fuck, fraulein.” He mocks me again with that fraulein bullshit, a smirk forming on his face from his minor victory.

“War fucks people up. If the strongest man in the world can’t handle it, then surely you can’t either.” I snap back, not wanting him to hold on to victory for long. His paper is long forgotten, sitting in the armchair next to him.

“Lewis had me on the front lines. I was his German liaison. Then you came along and fucked it up. Yes. If my predictions are correct, you are the hardest war I will ever fight, but I expect to win. At the rate you are learning, you won’t last a month in this program. Give it time, doll. I’ve seen girls like you crumble in a week. You do Lewis’s dirty work, bedding soldiers, convincing them to tell their secrets, now what? You can’t survive war either-”

“That’s why I’m training. He just saw a German last name and selected you at random. You think we are on the same playing field? No. Hell no. I worked to be here. I’m working to fight for my country. Doing more than any American girl could ever dream. And what are you? Men are lining up to enlist, yet you are here. With me. Learning – what did you call it? – preschool Russian. I bet you feel mighty proud right now. If you want to be on the front lines so bad Hoffmann, then enlist. I know you can’t handle it, but if you still have unnaturally large ideas of yourself, by all means, go enlist and get the fuck out of my face.” His face softens. His brother was in the air force, he was here. I had hit a nerve. His never ending pride had been injured. Ben sat back in his seat, holding his breath. Then he smirked.

“Get to work, Soviet. We have a long war ahead of us, don’t we?” His words didn’t bite as much, even the nickname he had scaled back on. Soviet would do much better, but I still wasn’t eager to work with him.

Before I can stop him, or even muster a retort, he stands and moves to sit next to me. “Find a sheet of loose leaf paper. I’m going to teach you German.” Learning languages was easy enough, but decoding Ben Hoffmann? That was a battle – a war – I wasn’t sure I would win.

Phlegethon: A Carina Malikov Story {1945}

We were too late, so we ran. Luggage in hand our feet padded down the cobbled roads. First to the closest way out of town, the flooding of Nazi soldiers cut that one down though, so sharply we moved on, to the clogged and crowded backroads and side streets. Then the acrid smoke filling the passages from burning corpses and buildings kept us sheltered in the city to a greater extent.

He gripped my hand.

I held my breath.

The streets were cluttered, my mind was blank. I held my luggage tightly in one hand, the other clutching Ben’s with white knuckles. The darkness helped to shroud us, but it didn’t help, we could be hit either way. Pilots only saw what they wanted to: large Nazi flags and gilded eagles with close trimmed mustaches and swastika adorned ribbons. They couldn’t see the spies who were doing their best. The spies who went in knowing there may be no way out.

The only person who knew we were here was the one person who couldn’t help us, despite his status and fancy ribbons.

I took a breath, inhaling the jet black smoke, and was jerked to the side, my luggage swinging like a pendulum.

“Carina!” He screamed, his hand losing touch from mine as Nazi soldiers pulled us apart from one another. He dropped his luggage to try and reach for me, but failed. The Nazi picked up his luggage and pushed him along in front of me, believing Ben to be a good Aryan man. He still had his uniform pants on from the night before. He was still distinguishable.

“Come, be safe.” They say in harsh German, the tone of the Fuhrer dripping from their lips. A phlegethon streaked from within the darkness of the sky, a conscious stream of light, from a bomb of course, and a conscious symbol as well. This was the last hope. Screams rip through the night as the SS soldier pulls me along with him intently, hustling my soot covered body to a shelter. At least I think he said shelter. Ben would know, but my mind wasn’t very good at processing languages in times like this. I couldn’t process much of anything in fact, except for the everlasting night, billowing smoke, and the screams. Sirens can scream, but so can the people, and so were the people, burning people.

“Carina!” Ben calls again, his arms clawing for me past the bulk which is the Nazi. His body was attempting to turn 180 degrees while still walking forward with the SS officer. The other one, the taller one, grabs him again, and pulls him forward, further in front of me, hustling us down a flight of stairs. A baby wails in the distance as we are shoved into a tunnel underground, the soldiers running back up when they have “safely” deposited their cargo.

We are then left in a world of darkness. A cellar by the looks of it. The smell of urine and sweat filled the densely packed tunnel, and only eyes and outlines could be seen in the bleak darkness. People stare, as if waiting for us to do something. I stare back. I wait for them to speak up while my eyes adjust and my ears relax from the heavy sounds and sirens of battle occurring fifteen feet above us.

He pulls himself against me, holding me tight to him as we shuffle to find a place among the small crowd that had gathered in the wine cellar. More crashing and booming. The baby cries from somewhere next to us and a woman screams. “Shut up or they will come for us again.” I hear next to the woman and she stifles a cry of acknowledgement. Our neighbors. The Steins.

“Sofia.” I whisper, and I can see her figure shift towards me. Norman looks too, I can see his boxy outline better than I can see his wife’s slight, delicate one. Ben’s grip on me tightens.

“Helene? You made it? Is that Ben with you? Are you okay? Is the baby okay?” Hearing her voice return to a motherly glamour calmed me in the slightest, until I realized I was supposed to be pregnant. I wasn’t, of course. Ben and I had never laid hands on each other in that way. We just had to pretend to in order to keep cover. Ben had already lost his cover name, Bernon, and had gone by Ben as a nickname. We were too deep in to stop, so Lewis suggested we go deeper, and we did.

“Yes, Sofia, the baby is fine and we are here, safe. Bless the reich we are safe.” I sigh and Ben moves a hand to my stomach, where the baby should be, as if covering up the lie itself.

“Thank god the soldiers found you two. Such young lives, those filthy heathens should not take that away from Germany.” Sofia says, her strong love of the fuhrer seeping out of her as if she, herself, had been shot.  “No matter what happens, Germany will remain strong because of young, courageous survivors like you two. Now, Norman, I’m going to try and sleep, hold my ears so I can try my best.”

Norman tries to shuffle Sofia into the back corner to help her sleep better, and when they get back there I hear him sing to her. Ben tries to the same thing, only in the opposite corner, to shuffle back and face each other, our back against the curving walls. Ben sets our luggage up in the corner so we can lean against it, and then grabs my hand once more. “Have you told them we are leaving? Or that we were trying to leave?” Ben whispers, and I shake my head no, knowing that even in the dim light he can see it.

“I wouldn’t dare. We need to get out.” He nods and squeezes my hand.

“I’m just glad we are alright.” Ben sighs and leans his head against the wall of the shelter, until another bomb hits and he is sitting straight up looking towards the entrance of the cellar. I pat the spot on the ground next to me and he moves closer to myself and to the entrance. It is unsure what he expects us to be able to do, but his alert posture suggests he has a plan. Ben always had a plan.  Another bomb drops, the whine echoes in the small tunnel, and I hold my breath. I couldn’t see, and the ringing was nearly causing me not to hear, but I knew we didn’t have much time left. It was now or never.

The woman next to us has her eyes on us, and our luggage. Her daughter is sleeping, or trying to, on the floor in front of her. They were all trying to hang on to whatever normalcy they could find. Amidst the dropping bombs and burning carcass of Nuremberg they were still trying to sleep as if everything would be fine. I admired them, in all their irrational courage to sleep in the face of death, but between here and Moscow I had learned something valuable: never underestimate death.

“They will come back down with more people. When they leave, we leave. Discretely, behind them. They wouldn’t expect people to leave a shelter in the middle of an allied attack. We take our suitcases and follow. The train tracks are close to here. We follow them from the brush, and get out of this city. We get out of this city and out of this country. There is nothing left for us here.” Ben whispers, his breath tickling my ear, and I can barely hear him over the wailing and sirens. I just know he is there. That’s all I need. The air seems to still, holding itself like bated breath. I could see Ben’s eyes in the dim light. He was ready.

The Nazis entered the quiet bunker, filling it with noise and movement. People at the base of the steps hurried to get out of their way before they were trampled by the immaculate black boots of the SS. The soldiers screamed in German, Ben and I looked at each other warily. They were screaming quiet. “Ruhig! Ruhig!”

Ben’s hand finds my arm and he holds tight. “When they leave, we leave.” He repeats, noting the tension in the air. It was looking like this was truly our last chance. The men tell us to sit and be patient, that Germany is on the verge of victory. Ben squeezes my arm at that. They were calming us down before death. They tell us to be quiet again and march up the stairs. Ben crawls across the floor, sticking the wall so not to be seen, and I follow him. We crawl up the stairs behind the nazis, wide eyes watching us, including those of Norman and Sofia, both wide awake with Nazi ruckus. Ben has our suitcases in hand, crouched over like a hunchback as he slides out the door behind the Nazis. He was only out of my sight for two seconds but shouting ensues. They spotted him. I leap out of the tunnel in time to push a Nazi out of the way suddenly his armband clad arm attempts to slam down on Ben’s skull.

You reject safety for death? You reject the reich!” One screamed at us in German, coming to smack me across the face. As his calloused hand made contact with my cheek, my fist made contact with his jugular. Strongest fighting force in the world? Please. If you can’t block a throat punch can you even call yourself a soldier?

Ben is to my side, trying to wrestle a gun out of the other Nazi’s hand. A shot goes off and I whip my head to look at them while still trying to get out of the radius of my nazi. Ben’s nazi is on the ground and I see his nametag: Geiger. Ben had taught me during war not to learn the names of the enemy, but that was the name of our mission here, and now I would be able to add another name to the list of many Germans we would lose.

“Carina!” Ben yells as the other Nazi’s knee collides with my stomach. I stumble back, trying to carefully control my breathing. It was going to be okay. When I have caught my breath and can look up from my bent over position I see Ben with the Nazi’s gun in hand and his other hand pressing against the Nazi’s throat. “Let us go and I won’t shoot you.”

I don’t wait to see what happens next. I’m cleaning up our suitcases, some of which have spilled across the dirt, getting lost in the dark of night. Ben pulls me up by my arm as I close the final suitcase. “Let’s go, more will be coming soon.” I knew he shot him. I didn’t hear the shot, but I wasn’t listening for it. I didn’t want to listen for it. Ben had to do things only a soldier could do. Only someone who had lost part of themselves could shoot their own countrymen point blank.

We follow the tracks, the only sound existing is of crackling fire and our own heavy breathing. A train comes barreling down the tracks after a couple of hours walking near the brush. Ben runs towards the train and I move as fast as my weary legs can to catch up with him. An empty train car was coming up, and we were going to jump on it. For better or for worse. 

We were getting out of Nazi Germany.

Moving In: A Fueled Story

“On second thought, I’d rather live with him.” She says, brushing her hair back with her muddy hands and moving to the corner. Pascal tries to be innocent as she moves closer to Chris, but I see the gleam in her eyes. She just wants to force me into a shared room with Tate. Of course. The master of deliberation and schemes has bested me yet again. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I can’t help the betrayed expression that slides onto my face. If there was any gasoline left I would definitely douse her in it.

“Really? Are you sure you don’t want a girls room… That might be the safest thing.” Tate says, stepping forward, his five o’clock shadow looking even darker in the setting sun. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised that Tate was the one to step forward, but he was. He and I acted as our leaders I suppose, even if we disagreed on almost every single issue we faced. Except for this one. I was planning on running full force with this agreement while it still lasted.

“Look, I know neither one of us want to have to change, or do anything private of that nature in front of one of these goons, no offense.”
Tate shrugs. “None taken.”

“It’s a matter of privacy, Pascal. This world has become a cesspool of disease and rot, I’m simply trying to keep us as comfortable and sanitary as humanly possible.” She smirks and absentmindedly twirls a lock of her hair between her fingers.

“Look, I’m thinking about protection. You and I wouldn’t be able to save ourselves, well maybe you would, but I wouldn’t. The boys, however, karate kid and Mr. Dark and Gloomy here would be able to take anyone out with ease. Face it, I need Karate Kid to keep myself alive. Now, are we going to keep bickering over this trivial issue? I mean, you have to find your family don’t you? This isn’t a permanent set-up. I’m sure you will get over it eventually, and maybe one day you can even thank you. You know, ‘cause you’re still living.” With that she walks inside without another thought. Chris follows her with an anxious expression. It was true he did have a martial arts background, but the kid was an introvert, and was now being forced to share a room with the most extroverted person on our team. By now everyone realized that in a world without electricity or fossil fuels, we were our own distractions. I’m sure that’s what scared Chris the most.

With their exit, that left Tate and I standing beside each other awkwardly, neither one of us wanting to make the first move into the abandoned vacation home. Neither one of us wanted to admit that we would be okay with sharing a room with one another. Pascal was right in one aspect: Tate was Mr. Dark and Gloomy. There was no denying that.

It wasn’t until Pongo came out that one of us actually moved. Gale, and Pongo had taken the master, which left two more bedrooms for Pascal, Chris, Tate and myself to split. The three had gotten settled long before Pascal had even thought to challenge our partnership.

Pongo looked us up and down, and then rolled his eyes. “There is one room left, and I’m guessing I know what that means. Tate, I thought you at the very least wouldn’t give up without a fight, but now that you have lost, you might as well accept defeat and learn from it my boy.” Pongo pats his good friend on the back and walks off into the forest, probably to identify mushrooms or something.

“Fine.” Tate hissed through gritted teeth as he shoulders his bag and walks inside. I follow him, reluctantly, exactly as Chris had with Pascal. The room was the farthest one down the hall and had two windows, one to the side of each bed. The beds were separated only by a small night stand, but they were far enough apart for me. As long as I wasn’t directly touching Tate, I would be perfectly fine. Absolutely fine. I could make it like we weren’t even sharing a room. I would have my own space and he would have his. It was okay to be like children about this. We were forced to be adults about everything else, so why not have some childish banter with this.

Tate throws his stuff on the bed and proceeds to unpack some of it with an obvious pout. I try to do the same, although the small space between the beds makes it increasingly hard for me to get away from him. Our elbows kept bumping into one another as we tried our best to work, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I knew Tate had his classic grim frown plastered on his face.

“Tate!” Gale comes in, bracing himself on the doorway as he takes a deep breath. Both Tate and myself whip our heads to the door expecting to hear news of local gangs or maybe some toxic material. His cheeky face breaks into a grin despite his dramatic entrance. “There’s a freshwater spring nearby. Swimming?”

Tate straightens himself as Gale’s smile continues to widen. “Hell yeah. Are the other guys out there?” It was interesting what weird things like a chance to go swim could erase his pouty mood, but it happens. I roll my eyes and continue unpacking.

“Yeah, of course. Chris has already set up a diving board. C’mon let’s go before it gets dark!” Gale says, moving quickly out of the doorway, knowing Tate would follow close behind.

“Don’t wait up for me.” Tate says harshly, the pout returning for a fraction of a second as he speaks to me. As if this were my fault. I wish this were my fault. No. Instead I have to remember that Pascal betrayed me. Friend my ass.

With Tate gone being a dumb teenage boy I finally had room to unpack my things the way I wanted. Of course, this wouldn’t last for long, as when I turn around Pascal sits on the edge of Tate’s bed. “So, my roommate is just delightful, how about yours?”

“Asshole.” I mumble, laying out my pajamas for tonight neatly beside the pillow. The next stack of clothes contain my intimates, and suddenly I’m glad that Tate went swimming. While it was slightly immature of me, I would be royally embarrassed if Tate ever saw them. Another reason I wanted Pascal as my roommate and not the depressed and violent oaf I had now.

Pascal just chuckles and helps me sort through the underclothes sprawled out on my bed. “You won’t be calling me that in a month.”

“You know he hates me now because of you. He blames me. You know that right?” She rolls her eyes and puts a pair of panties in their assigned pile.

“Tate is the poster child for anger, yes, but not for grudges. All you have to do is bat your eyes in the right way and boom! He’ll be all over you. I know that, and I think you know it too. Anyways, he’s not a terrible guy, and honestly the rest of us are tired of you two fighting every time we face a big decision. Chris and I talked before they found that cesspool and decided to take a dive. We want to be sure our leaders won’t lead us to our death. It’s a scary time. Surely we aren’t the only ones wanting certainty.” She says, resting a hand on my shoulder as a gesture of condescending comfort. I knew I shouldn’t take it as it appeared, Pascal was truly trying to comfort me, but I couldn’t help but feel hurt.

“I’ve tried getting along with him, he’s just stubborn and we have different mindsets. Sharing a room with him isn’t going to change that one bit.” I say.

“He isn’t the only one that is stubborn, Cara. Try your best. For the good of the group.” She smiles at me, and I know, despite my reluctance and reservation, I would do it. This group was my family now. I have always protected those who I consider family. Always.

“Am I interrupting something?” Pongo asks, standing in the doorway with a soft smile on his face.

“Of course not! What do you need, Pongo?” Pascal says, both of us smiling at the older man.

“The boys wanted me to call you two out for a swim. After debating for a minute, they told me to come invite you two. No pressure though, however it is a very nice little stream.” Pongo says with a twinkle in his eyes.  I look to Pascal, with her smug smile I know she knows she is right. At least about Tate. The boys will come around. They always do at some point.

“Sure.”

Unwelcome Encounter: A Fueled Story

“Grace, what’d you think this was? You know I don’t do relationships. I tell you that every time, now please… leave me be Grace.” I say, starting to close the door but she forcefully pushes it open, stepping inside my apartment.

“So then I suppose it was fate that my car ran out of gas in front of your apartment Tate.” She says crossing her arms over her chest, I roll my eyes. Grace was a casual hookup, and every single damn time she tried to stay the night I had to shove her out. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but she was annoying. A very good kisser, but a pain in the ass.

“Do you not know how to take a hint?” I ask her carefully, if my tone was ever threatening then she would yell, and the last thing I needed right now was to hear her shrill voice several octaves higher. My roommate was missing and my phone was dead. The campus had run out of oil, and God knows two reckless college aged boys don’t have any candles. My home had been pitch black for a while, and I kinda liked it. It helped calmed me down amidst all the screams and shit that went on through the night.

“Do you know how to treat a girl? Here I am willing to give myself to you and you’re shoving me out on the street. You know how I feel about you Tate, what if we were the last people on Earth?” I knit my eyebrows together.

“Then I still wouldn’t date you Grace. I told you that’s not my thing.” I hadn’t had a solid relationship since Junior year of high school. I loved that girl and did so much for her only to realize she was sleeping with the rest of the lacrosse team. Not a surprise really, she was good at what she did. I didn’t love her for that though, I loved her for her smile and the way she looked up at me during prom like she was having the time of her life. Somewhere deep down I knew she had loved me too, but I didn’t care. The dating scene was no longer for me. I didn’t have to fall in love and wreck my heart to get what I wanted. I was very good at getting what I wanted. I was used to the psycho types like Grace, but Grace in particular just kept coming back.

“Ugh. I should have known you were that type. Well, I suppose you owe me-”

“Grace! I have told you way too many times that I am not that type!” I shout, pointing a shaking hand at the door. I was done with her bullshit and if yelling would get her out then I would do it. She smiled and shook her head. “Whatever this is it was over right after you screamed my name understand? Have a safe walk home, and please never speak to me again.”

“Fuck you, Tate Callahan.” She says before stomping out of my apartment and slamming the door behind her. I sighed and sat back in a chair, running a hand through my hair. It had been a week since Cory had shown up around here. There had been more and more gunshots within the past week, I was starting to get worried. Maybe it was time to go find my Uncle’s shelter and hide out there until the worst stages have passed. My stuff was already packed, and I knew in my gut Cory was dead. My best friend was dead, and my only chances at survival were hiking to the middle of nowhere Oregon.

Normally I was up for challenges, but this one could only end badly. Nothing was certain, nothing was sure. Then again, that was just the way I liked it. A little danger never hurt anyone.

That’s when I made up my mind. At midnight tonight I would leave for Oregon. It would be a hundred miles to his safehouse, roughly three days of travel if I timed it right. Travel during the day, except for tonight which is when I would sneak out and make camp. If I left during the day people would want to come with me, the filthy savages that roam the streets especially. I couldn’t have that. I would be lucky to make it there with the minimal supplies I had. Stragglers certainly wouldn’t help.

My uncle was a prepper. He always said this would happen. There was never a doubt in his mind. After my mom died Uncle Tyler was willing to take me in, him and his buddies always had supplies for years. I just hoped that was still the case. I couldn’t risk going out only to be stranded, but I suppose with no way to communicate with my uncle, I would have to guess.

With all the marauders on the roads now, I was sure I would probably die trying. Somehow dying from some crazy person’s bullet was much more comforting than staying here to rot with the prospect of seeing Grace again. The thought sent shivers down my spine. I probably wouldn’t get any sex until this oil thing was figured out. Damnit. Maybe I should have kept her around. I almost die laughing. That’s too ludicrous of an idea even if it’s for sex.

I make my way slowly into my room to begin packing. About a week ago someone busted open the window of our apartment with their fist and stole Cory’s radio. Ever since then I have to keep reapplying duct tape over the hole to keep people out. Needless to say, last week I ran out of duct tape and I’m pretty fucked if I don’t find some soon. I creep into my room and make sure to check every available crevice before shutting the blinds over the window. Three hours until midnight. The sun was starting to set. I could pack everything in the house in three hours. Hell yes I could.

Dip: An Aoa Story

I dip my hands into the water. My cool skin becomes coated in the flowery scented tonic, easing the pain I felt only slightly. Delia looks at me tenderly, clasping her hands in front of her, her hood drawn close over her hair. If we were in the palace right now she would have gotten Landon. She always trusted Landon over any one of  my ladies. My ladies were supposed to protect me, but she always trusted him. Funny for a handmaid to trust the person I needed the least.

“Was it diving?” She asked, knowing I wouldn’t utter a word unless she did.

“Yes. There was a turtle caught in a crevice. It was too small for him, but he tried to test the odds anyways. I had to help him get out. He would have surely been stuck there for another week or two otherwise. Anyway, I didn’t even cut my hands that bad.”

“Miss Cory. Stop. It was splinter stone, and you could have gotten infected. I know you are new to me taking care of you, but it is sort of my job to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you get yourself into trouble. Now come on, what would Landon think?” She gently pulls my hands out of the bowl, placing them gently on a towel in her lap.

“Landon wouldn’t care. You know he doesn’t care for me like that. It isn’t my place to force him to. What is between us isn’t natural, it is political, and it shouldn’t have been me in the first place. I don’t do this for Landon, I don’t do anything for Landon.” I say more forcefully than I probably should, causing Delia to purse her lips tightly.

“It is what we need, now come on, put this shawl over you and let’s go.” She says quietly, her hood coming further over her face as she turns away from me, cleaning up all of the healing tonics. I pull a shawl over my swimsuit, and pull my hair back with a band. “I respect you, your majesty, I just want you to know your new life now isn’t as carefree as it was when you were just a politician and tactician. Eyes are on you now princess.”

“I’m not a princess yet.” I mumble as we step inside the pod. The automated vehicle sends us through the coastline a little bit before dipping into one of the offroads that leads to the palace. While royalty still used horse drawn carriages for parades and such, the pods were the more economic and efficient modes of transport. I was more used to their speedy delivery anyway, all of this horse-drawn, bumpy road bullshit gave me headaches anyways.

Delia smirks as the pod opens to the palace. Landon stands on the steps, waiting with his arms crossed and face bitter like the slight chill that was in the air. “Cory, we need to talk. Can I escort you to your room?” Despite his regal and firm appearance, he looks like he used to when we were growing up, fragile, afraid, everything his father forced out of him was suddenly coming to the surface.

“Certainly. Delia, if you would kindly bring my belongings up while we walk, I will be with his majesty for the time being.” Delia nods, a giddy smile threatening to break lose. Every time we wished to be alone together she always believed it was so that he could declare his love for me or vice versa. Landon brings his arm up and I take it reluctantly, our elbows knotted together as we enter the palace. This was mainly for looks, before the engagement we would have been perfectly fine with strolling down the halls arm in arm, but now, we didn’t want anything to do with each other. We don’t speak as we walk, knowing Delia is right behind us, but I can feel the weight of the impending conversation like a brick.

My room is on the upper west corridor of the palace, one hallway down from the suites of the royal family. Down my hallway the walls are lined with portraits of the royal family, all staring down at you as you walk. I had never liked it before, and I hated it now. The thought of producing one of the figures in the portraits on the wall made me sick to my stomach, especially at the thought of the involvement of someone who used to be my friend.

I pass by those stoic portraits everyday, and now, with my arm in his the pictures seem menacing, and my breath feels tight in my chest. Landon stops in front of my door, and moves to the side so that Delia can get past and put my stuff away properly. I still wasn’t used to that, but I never said anything of my discomfort because Landon would throw a fit if he knew. Delia was quick to set my things down, she always has been a deft worker, but it still felt like an eternity, waiting in breathless silence with my betrothed.

As she exits I see her devious smile. The formal rules of courting are that we are not allowed to be in a room alone together until our wedding night, but most servants knew to let that rule slide. Delia, with her romantic, fever heart, wouldn’t be the first to question us about that particular rule.

Once the coast is clear, Landon walks inside without waiting for me. I hurry in after him and close the door behind me, not bothering to lock it, even though that is always my first instinct. He clears his throat, and I move to sit on the bed until I realize he has already made himself comfortable. As always, the next best thing will have to do. “So… do you have anything you want to talk about?” I roll my eyes and move from where I had sat in my desk chair to my closet, where I can sift through clothes to distract myself from this brute.

“If you are looking for a confession, I am afraid you are going to come up dry.” I say, pulling a blue tulle dress out of the closet and laying it on an unoccupied part of the bed. Landon is unfazed as I begin to undress from my swimsuit in order to put on the gown. Only Delia would know I didn’t have it on when he first came in. Either way, Landon is no stranger to the female body, and he certainly couldn’t care less about mine.

“Please, for once in your life stop thinking that everyone is out to get you. I was simply asking as a friend.” He crosses his arms over his chest, his feet laid out in front of him.

“We haven’t been friends since you put this ring on my finger.” I say through gritted teeth, pulling the snug dress up over my bossom. He just chuckles.

“I miss your fire. We never get to be ourselves around each other anymore, have you noticed that?” I turn away from him, and he takes the cue to lace up my dress, something he had done many times before.

“It is for the best, Landon.” I turn around and look at him when he finished, the same youthful look still on his face from earlier. I thought surely it would have worn off by now.

“I miss my best friend sometimes. I’m not invincible like you seem to think.”

“If a king isn’t immune to emotions, then he should at least be cognizent of others.” I say from my desk, putting a light powder sheen on my face as he takes in my words. Yes, I was still hurt over the incidents of the night of our engagement. Wouldn’t a bride have every right to be?

“In all honesty, I was escaping the nobles. Lords of the eastern provinces or something of that sort. They had the markings of magic ones. Anyways, I knew, despite your incredibly long grudge, that you would be there for me.”

“You could have told me flat out and I would have come to your aid. I am not always to be ordered around like some rag doll, you know.” He smiles, and I can see, even in the reflection of my vanity, the twinkle in his eye. Another thing his father had beaten out of him. Not with a stick or his hands, but with words, his father had beaten out everything that made up my old friend. I missed him, the old Landon, but I also knew he was too far gone for me to bother hoping for his return.

“Cory, I know you are loyal to me as a subject, but as a fiance there is still some lacking. Understandably so, of course. These past three months have been hard on both of us, I know. Our friendship has gotten lost somewhere in there and I was hoping, if you were willing, that while I wait out the nobles downstairs, we could… discuss.” I don’t even have to look in the reflection to know he is nervous. His voice proves everything that I can’t see.

“Well, this is my room, so unless you planned on leaving, I don’t think I have a choice.” I say, turning around in my chair to face him. We had talked about this before. Many times actually. Whenever one of us got drunk it usually came up. One night it even went as far as him getting angry enough with me to do it again. Since then my anger had only grown. His father had noticed, but didn’t seem to care as much as one might think. Either way, my rage had been three months coming, and if I knew anything it is that this conversation wouldn’t change much.

“Cory, you must know by now that I am sorry, for that night, for the other night, and for everything in between. The pressure is hard on both of us, yes, but I let the pressure of a wedding, of a coronation, I let it all get the best of me.”

“Yes you did.” He gives me a puzzling look, as if he expected me to just forgive three months of hell over that half-assed introduction. “Oh please, don’t let me stop you. Go on.”

“Fuck, Cory you make this too damn hard. I’m mad at you too okay? I’m mad at you for abandoning me immediately after the public ceremony. That’s why those girls came up to me. You know who else came up to me? My father. He said if I didn’t make this look believable, if I didn’t make the people happy through our union, that he would declare me illegitimate, and pick the next ruler. I needed you then. I had no idea where you were and I couldn’t find that one boy, the one you had been riding with. I assumed you had gone of with him. I was paranoid and stressed because of my father’s threats and so I drank. I drank and drank until those girls didn’t look like a bad idea. One last night of true freedom. After that I was yours. When you came back I wanted to prove to you that I wasn’t tied down to you. I wasn’t responsible for your feelings, but I am, and always will be, as your best friend. So I’m sorry that I let my anger and stress and paranoia get in the way.” He takes a deep breath and seems to sink further into the bed.

Some of that was news to me. Not the drinking, or the girls, both of those I saw clearly. It was the conversation with his father that made me even contemplate forgiving him. His father was a cold calculating man. He hadn’t always been that way, but after the death of his wife, it seemed as if everything was a tipping point for the aging man’s temper. I had been caught in the rage before. I knew what it felt like to be scrutinized from head to toe by his beady eyes and alcohol-ridden, breathless hisses. What I did not know, was how it felt like to have that be your own father. It was true, Landon was under intense pressure that night and the week after. I could forgive him for that, but the three months after that would take much longer to forgive.

“Landon, I can’t possibly know how hard that was for you, and I’m sorry he would threaten that, but that doesn’t forgive the hurt, tears, and heartbreak you have caused. While we were never romantic with each other, I was going to pledge myself to you, and you alone, because you were my best friend, and I owed you that respect and courtesy. It hurt me when you didn’t show me an ounce of that in return. Your infidelity, while nothing in the eyes of the law, broke my heart that night. Then for you to do it again… It is going to take a lot more than a mean talk from your father to make me forgive that.”

“I understand that, so let me show you. Tomorrow morning will you come with me to the farmers market in town? Just us. No Delia, no press. Just us. Well and a few guards, but they will keep their distance if I order them. Or they could stay close if you would like. I just want to do something we used to do, back when it was easy and natural for us to be friends. Back before I ruined it. Please, Cory. If you are going to give me a chance to prove myself, at least let it start tomorrow.”

“As long as you will let me go diving afterwards. Delia will try to object, but I need to dive, Lan. It’s my entire world and she is trying to take it away from me.”

“You called me Lan…” He says with a smile. I turn away from him to hide my blush, not noticing I had used my old pet name for him.

“Diving, or no more chances.”

“Fine, yes, diving. You know the power my smile has on Delia. Maybe let me give you a little peck on the cheek and then she will have no choice but to say yes. Also, I will be in the falconry after our morning tomorrow, my leading lads and ladies would like fresh fish. If you pick that up for them, I am sure they would be eternally grateful, as would I.” He says, finally getting up from my bed and crossing the room to stand behind me at my chair. From my turned position, I look up at him, oddly feeling more comfortable beside him, even though my brain says I shouldn’t. If I let him in too fast, my hopes of truly trusting him will be gone for good, and it will be old habits and old ways with no relenting and no respect for me. This may be his one chance, but it was mine too. I would not rest until we were on an equal playing field again.

“Of course. Don’t send any guards with me either. I prefer to do my diving without the fear of being watched.” He smiles, and leans down to kiss my forehead.

“Done.” Then he walks out of my rooms, sending Delia scrambling in.

“My prince! My lady! They need you immediately in the council room. A craft has landed in a northern province and they found a girl. They found you Cory.”

Final Steps: An Aoa Story

She liked to be able to see everything around her. That’s why she insisted on living above her little grove, but everyone assumed it was to keep herself hidden from her neighbors. Her horse, Baskerville, grazed calmly, outside her enclosed front porch. Everything was silent and calm, and I knew she knew I was here. My steps had been quiet to match the setting around me, but I knew that wouldn’t work. It never did with Polly. My supervisor was all too in tune with her surroundings, the surroundings she had created and nourished her entire life.

“Camina? Can I help you dear?” She asks loudly, stepping out onto her balcony. She is braiding her hair, her brown dress tied at the waist with a green scarf. Her red hair made her appear to have Arja influence, but she was about as Eto as it got. She was a lifegiver, and a caregiver, but her appearance could deceive her. Polly placed her hand on some ivy curling up her balcony and grows a flower to put in her hair.

“I just need to talk with you. I was going to wait until work tonight, but I heard this issue was time sensitive. You’re the only person I know to go to.” She smirks and nods down to me. I push the thick layer of plants aside and climb up the spiral staircase to her balcony. The farther I go up the more it smells like green tea and biscuits. Polly wasn’t a superb baker, but she had gotten really good at two things: tea and biscuits. So that was all she ever had. It was all she ever needed, most of her food came from testing our projects in the greenhouse labs anyways. All of those fresh fruits and vegetables all of the time, I can’t imagine a true Eto would want anything more.

“So my dear, what is it that I can help you with? It has been a while since I have been able to help anyone outside of a greenhouse.” I nod as she sits down in one of her lawn chairs, looking over her land. After a minute she motions for me to do the same, and I don’t question her, I just sit, my mind stirring and my heart pounding.

“Have you seen the news? About the voyage?” She nods. “Should I submit an application? I’ve been so undecided over it, but I feel like this is the only way I can truly help Aoa. I’m tired of feeling useless, but at the same time I don’t know if this is how we should go about solving the issues at stake-”

“My pupil, pause and take a breath. No matter what you decide, you are the next generation and whether you like it or not, you will decide the future of Aoa. Now, this mission could potentially end in death, while we are not as ignorant as them, the Earthlings did teach us this. So you tell me, are you willing to sacrifice your life?”

“If it means a better Aoa, then absolutely.” I say, wringing my hands together in my lap. Polly takes a sip of tea, and then looks me in the eye.

“Camina, I know you. You would do well in that program, very well, and you would be able to make a life for yourself. A life that you would be proud of. I’m not sure you can achieve that here with your certain convictions. That being said, wherever you go, and whatever you do, you can make a difference. Your convictions, strong and stubborn. A lot of people feel the same as you do about these humans, but not as many would act with the truth and promise that you do. Submit it.” She says, never breaking her eye contact with me.

“Thank you Polly. Thank you. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be yet, but I need to find out, and I can’t find out if I am being suffocated by humans.” Polly chuckles.

“Strong independent truth. That is you, Camina. Now, go submit that application, and don’t be late for work tonight, you’re marshing.” Polly instructs, remaining in her chair as I hustle down the stairs, knowing there is only limited time before the deadline beats me. Seb would be so proud. My mother would be proud. Aoa would be proud of me in the end. I know it. I can feel it.

My envelope crinkles in my pockets as I walk out of Polly’s garden home. I was going to apply. I was going to save Aoa. My heart was racing. I knew I had to make it into the program before I got my hopes up, but somehow I had a feeling my dreams rested beyond Aoa. They rested wherever the voyage would take me.

A Hidden Agenda: An Aoa Story

 

The rich surrounded the oceanside cafe, sipping from their champagne glasses with ease and elegance, but he was still absent from the table. I had even picked the farthest, most discrete one. Yet, I was alone.  12:30. That’s what he told me. Yet, here I was, alone for lunch.

My manilla folder sat restlessly in my lap, waiting – itching – to be opened and devoured. The contents of this folder could change lives, and he was still absent. At this point it was more than a lack of priorities, it was a lack of common sense. The world, and other worlds, were at stake and he was blowing me off – for what? Other suits? Other corporate government monkeys?

Bullshit. The real world, right now, was more important than his “career.” What was in these folder changes everything. It is everything. If he was truly as smart as his business card claimed, he would be here right now. I know he would.

I take out my phone and dial his number, hitting the call button harder than I should as I bring the device to my ear. It only takes two rings for me to hear his voice. “Sandra! It’s so good to hear from you!”

“You filthy son of a bitch. Where are you? My project needs confirmation today! The fate of this dying world is literally sitting in a cafe and where are-”

“Slow down, missy. I’m here.” He said, plopping down at the chair in front of me, his hair a sloppy, but charming mess, and his tailored suit windblown with elegance. Please. I straighten my blazer as my glare deepens. “Now, let me hear about your little project, doctor.”

“Elias, we have found life. Habitability. Safety. There is a moon two galaxies away, but we can get there. It’s a moon that supports life, teeming, intelligent life. In order to save the planet from their mess, the infidels in my prison must go there. 25 teens, those are my high priority. Teen murderers, arsonists, and enemies of the law. Form a team and I will send them there. My husband will-”

“Look your plan sounds good, and I will fully endorse it, but how long has it been since Bob worked in aerospace engineering?”

“We have the craft built. Despite being paralyzed, my husband stays busier than you think. We can get it in the air. We can get it to Delta-9. Just help us, and our prisons will be clean, our Earth will be safe. Trust me.”

“I do. I truly do. Let me come by your airfield tomorrow and take a look at the craft. This could be groundbreaking, you know. Both for you and me. Careers made. Retire immediately. Money in our pockets. It is astounding how far you have come from being a prison warden with a disabled husband. Now you are a true American.” I stifle an eye roll at his offensive words and do my best to agree. He would be funding and promoting my project after all, putting it in the right hands and all. Getting it off the ground, so to speak.

“Wonderful. Can I consider you a partner then?” I extend my hand and my old friend scoffs, as if appalled I would actually want to shake hands during a business deal. “C’mon Elias. I’m the only one that would lose here. Just shake and secure prison reform. Do you know how many votes that would guarantee you and your cronies?” Eli smirks, running a hand through his hair before nodding and placing his hand in mine and shaking.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t call my well crafted piece of political machinery, “cronies”. That is highly offensive you know. They may be manipulated, but they are people just the same. Now, I have to run. Go home to your cripple and tell him the good news.” Elias Dubois slides a crisp fifty dollar bill my way before standing up and walking out of the cafe.

I shove the bill in my wallet, guilty for taking a handout from such a cruel man. Any normal situation and I would not have taken it. This was abnormal. This was a victory. A victory for me, for him, and for the world.

As I packed up my folder, I felt unstoppable. If only Bob could see me now, actually see me and be proud. This was his idea after all, I only took the credit. I was his wife once, but ever since his post-paralysis paranoia set in I had become his secretary. Separate rooms. Separate offices. Separate lives. Until now. The Delta-9 initiative had brought us together. I am more than thankful for that. This planet, however innocent it may be, brought my husband back just in time for us to destroy it.

He didn’t care what happened to the planet, and neither did Elias. The men were always similar in their self-driven nature. While part of me cared, the other part was thankful to have Bob back the way I knew him before: a gifted, young astronaut dreaming of the world and universe as a place of perfection. Then the incident. It changed everything.

Now he was back, if only for a moment, and I would be right by his side. Just like old times. It was like he had never left at all. That’s the way I wanted it. Just like it was before. Even though after this project gets completed, the world would never be the same.

The Guest: An Aftermath Story

Author Note: I currently have a story, tentatively titled Valmora, and this is a short story from the work that would follow Valmora, tentatively titled Aftermath. I will share more Valmora stories later so that you can become more familiar with the characters, but until then, enjoy “The Guest”…

~~~~

The carriage arrived early. Normally my days in the city market place were left untouched by my fiancee’s hectic schedule, but I suppose today would be the exception. Mirabelle smiled at me from inside the carriage, a quietly nervous smile that made my heart sink the slightest.

“Let’s go dear, we have to get you back to the palace. You have a – er – visitor.” I grab my bag of local trinkets from the guard, pull up my skirts and get in the carriage across from Mirabelle. She had been the former queen’s handmade long before she had been mine, but I feel she cared for me as much as she had cared for Queen Anna, Aussen’s mother.

Mirabelle’s kind face smiles at me, but her eyes continue to divert mine. Knowing we were on the road now, and that there was nowhere for her to run to, I decided to probe her with questions. Her diverted attention and silence made me uneasy, still. “Who is the guest, Mira?” That was it. Her eyes shoot back to mine, almost as if she forgot I was in the carriage with her.

“Nobody you know dear. Your husband, excuse me, fiancee, just begged that I get you. It is of the utmost importance apparently.” My mind couldn’t help but flash to the last thing that was of utmost importance: the book. Surely there wasn’t another curse. Surely after all of the stress we were put under less than two months ago, we would get a break.

“Mira, is it about the book?” I pull my shawl tighter around myself. It had been a while since we had pulled out the book. It was in a vault at the Tantuckt palace, but we knew its power was still alive and well. There was no doubt.

“Not the book of the kingdoms. In fact, I’m not sure there is any book deary. She’s mysterious, I haven’t talked to her, but Aussie seems nervous.” Her gentle face relaxed, she was telling the truth. I took a deep breath. A mysterious girl. We knew quite a few of those.  “Don’t you worry about it too much. You and Aussie make a good pair, this is probably nothing. A village freak accident perhaps.”

“Freak accident? Was she hurt?” Mira chuckles slightly.

“No, she looked scared, and frazzled, and overall unkempt. Oh, how I would have loved to sit down and clean her up, but I was instructed to come get you. Speaking of, how was the market today? Did you get anything nice?” She was always interested in my finds since her life revolved around the upkeep of the palace. Many times I had offered to bring her along with me, but she always declined, saying she would never allow herself to rest.

“Some silk for you of course. There was also some of the best bread I had ever had. I just had to buy some, I hope Darius won’t mind.” Darius, the royal chef, was often stingy about ingredients in the kitchen, but it was well known that he had a soft spot for me after I hid in the kitchen the first time I visited the palace.

“Ooh, deary, you know he’s a big softy. Now, what color is the silk, and how much did it cost? I’ll be more than happy to repay you.”

Out the small window I could see the castle coming into view. “There’s no need to repay me, I’m almost the Queen, remember? It’s a sunshiny yellow, I figured I had already picked up too much red.” I blush and she chuckles.

“You only bought that because they were Aussie’s favorite.” It was true, and I couldn’t deny it. After the red dress I wore that was pictured in the book, the color red had become my staple look throughout the kingdom as I was pictured by Aussen’s side.

The cart jerks to a stop and the footman opened the door to reveal Aussen on the front steps. “Carina, welcome home. Mira, thank you for grabbing her, this is urgent.” Aussen says as he helps me out of the carriage, placing his hand on my lower back once I’m down. Mira stays seated within the carriage, they will take her to whichever part of the palace she needs in order to fulfill her other duties.

“A girl showed up today, Cari. She’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.” He whispers in my ear as we walk quickly inside the palace. My demure market dress was unassuming of royalty, but it still had enough skirt to keep me from going any faster than a quick walk. He leads me into the parlor room, and locks the door behind us. The viceroy, state secretary, and the girl were all staring at us expectantly.

She was dirty, leaves strewn all about her worn cloak and hair. Her dark hair covered her tanned skin and her dark eyes peered from behind thick strands inquisitively. Viceroy Kinnon looked sharply to her as if she might need to be sliced in half at a moment’s notice. Upon taking in our entrance, Secretary Maddox did the same.

“Back away from her immediately.” I instruct them and they each take one step back from the defenseless girl. “Who are you? Where are you from?”

“My name is Mukhina. I’m from a kingdom you have probably never heard of, Maagiline, and it is dying. I am the sole survivor of my family and I have come here to find you. And the book.” My head snaps to Aussen and he solemnly nods.

“What do you know of the book?” I ask suspiciously, wanting to see if she truly knew the depths of the situation.

“It was created by one of my people for your people, to save your people, but it can also save my people. I need to see it. His handiwork can save an entire race, my Queen. Please-”

“How are you any different from us? Why are you a different race?” She looked just the same as myself or my husband, granted her accent was different, but still, to my knowledge she was a human.

“I am not like you in the sense that I practice a different religion, and I practice something your nine kingdoms forbid.” I raise my eyebrow, and she reluctantly continues. “I am an apprentice of a Volurian. I am a sorceress in training, and now my home is at stake. I am powerful enough to fix it, but only with one page from that book. Thousands could die if I don’t defeat this tyrannical beast that has destroyed my country. Please. I know I’m different, but help me, my Queen.”

Her hair attempts to hide a single tear that falls, but I can see it plainly. This girl must being telling the truth, and if she was that means her ancestors were the ones banished from the nine kingdoms long before the curse was ever enacted. Long before there were even nine kingdoms. Magic was always hated among our people, and that hatred hadn’t changed, we had just assumed that their “kind” had stopped practising magic all together.

I saw no fault in giving her the book as long as Aussen and I were in the room with her, but obviously the Viceroy and Secretary thought otherwise. I turn back to Aussen and he opens the door to motion for me to come in the hall with him. “No. I’m not leaving her alone in here with two mean who are clearly scared of her. We can talk here, openly, with her. Viceroy, if you would leave. Secretary, if you would wait outside the door. It is better for her to understand that we are not here to harm her like our ancestors did.”

Aussen looks as apprehensive as Kinnon and Maddox, but nods anyways. “Do as you’re told.” They leave the room quickly and Aussen leaves the door unlocked behind them.

“Now, Mukhina, we are not here to hurt you. Will you repeat your situation to us?” I pull two chair over as I speak and Aussen and I sit across from her.

“An evil, vile man killed the man that created that book and therefore took control of the country and the most powerful magical weapon known to man and beast. That vile dictator’s name is Alatu, and he killed my grandfather, Conrad, the man who wrote the book . He killed my father, and my mother, and my baby sister as well, but he did not kill me. I escaped to find the one thing that will give me the ability to defeat Alatu. Somewhere in that book my grandfather wrote me something. He gave me a weapon to use in case anything ever happened. He always said that despite past transgressions, the people of Valmora were our friends, and would not hurt us in times of need. I only hope he was right and that you will help me.” Mukhina finishes, and tries to discreetly wipe her eyes, but Aussen hands her his handkerchief anyways.

“Valmora? You have come to the wrong place. This is Tantuckt, the fifth of the nine kingdoms. I’m sorry, Mukhina. I thought we could help you, but it appears we cannot.” I feel my heart ache for her, but she just laughs.

“Long ago, before the book, you were called Valmora, one nation with nine states. The curse caused you to separate, but my grandfather then a young sorcerer of eighteen used his relatively new powers to create something that would one day change the fate of nations. He did not like seeing his birthplace ripped to shreds, even if they had exiled his family and neighbors to the hinterlands for being Volurian. I have come to the right place. I would not have traveled for three weeks to come to the wrong place.” She says with a smirk and crosses her arms over her chest, seemingly more comfortable with us now.

“What was the title of the book your grandfather, Conrad, wrote?” Aussen asks, eyes narrowing.

“It was untitled. Just a maroon journal, seemingly with empty pages, that is until the right person found it. I believe that would be you, Cymer of Sincoria? Forgive me, my Queen, for speaking out of turn. Please, understand I am telling you the truth, and as we speak Alatu is executing more people for siding with my family… The royal family of Volruia.” She says, staring my fiancee down with a force I hadn’t seen before.

“Yes, of course. We will give you the book.” Aussen snaps his head towards me. “Tomorrow.”

“Why not tonight?” She asks, not angrily, just curiously. In fact, there is even an air of relief in her voice, as if she thought we weren’t going to tell her the answer she wanted to hear.

“Well, we must get you cleaned up, fed, bathed, properly clothed. You know, the works. You’re going into battle are you not? Against someone strong enough to defeat your grandfather?”

“Well yes, but-”

“Listen, Mukhina. We owe your grandfather everything. Without him the curse would still exist, I would still be making no money doing something I hated, and all of my closest friends would not be able to have their happy endings. I wouldn’t be able to get married in two months if it weren’t for him, Mukhina. So, let us help you. How do you defeat a magician?” I say, resting my elbows on my knees and holding my head on my bent wrists. Her eyes widen. Aussen places a hand on my back, pressing in lightly.

“My fiancee is not asking to go into war with you. Tantuckt can’t risk it’s military force to something with far greater power than we have. Yes, your grandfather was a patron saint of these nations, but surely he would not beg us to send in armies. He trusted you, yes? This means you have power, great power. If we give you the book surely that will be enough.” Aussen negotiates, and she smiles.

“I’m not asking for an army. Just the book, and just the neo-founders. Aussen, Cymer, Malaki, Tiana, Henley, Kalligi, Westbrook, Markos, Arbor, Halien, Naron, Pasaxi, Astella, and Fidelon. Together, the magic my grandfather gave you all, and my magic, will be more than enough to defeat Alatu. I have a chance on my own, but we would be unstoppable with the founders.” Aussen looks uneasily from me to the door.

“Maddox! Go grab Mira for me, she has a new lady in court to support.” Maddox mutters a reply and Aussen turns his head back to Mukhina, his dark waves falling in front of his face. “Mukhina, we are all heads of state now. You can’t expect us to leave our countries to defeat a threat that isn’t even ours! We will help you in any way we can, but we cannot leave our posts.”

Mukhina bites her lip. “I was afraid that would be the case. Supposedly, the book has a solution… some sort of blood potion that I can dip my hands in.” Aussen looked horrified at that thought and Mukhina chuckled.

“I wouldn’t kill any of you, it would just be a drop. As I use my hands to cast my spells the blood potion would amplify my power. It wouldn’t be as strong as having you all there, but it would be stronger than Alatu’s power certainly.” That sounded reasonable. I nod to her and Aussen’s hand on my back begins to rub circles, our secret code for when he agrees with something.

Just then Mira comes through the door, and Aussen smiles to her and waves her forward. “Mukhina we can discuss those plans tomorrow. This is Mira. She, or one of her ladies, will help you for the rest of your stay.”

“C’mon deary, I’ve drawn you a bath, let’s get you ready for supper.” She says with a smile and Mukhina gives us one last look before following Mira out of the room.

Once they were out of earshot, Aussen turned to me. “I know your patriotic sense of duty, love. We can’t fight her battle for her, but I’m not opposed to doing the blood potion. We will write the founders tonight and call for a meeting.” Aussen says, his kingly plan of action coming out in full bloom.

“That’s exactly what I was going to say.” Aussen smiles and kisses my cheek.

“Good, well, let’s go start with those letters my love.”

Living: A Ben Hoffmann Story

“Brothers! This is Living! Fighting for a Cause!” Sarge yells. He was always one for pomp and circumstances, especially in the face of death. Many crew members often joked that Sarge was death itself, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid of the impending case the Japs could give us.

It was night. Cold, blustering night out on the sea. We had been sailing for countless days now, each day coming closer and closer to the archipelago that would inevitably deliver our fate. I suppose it had been on the verge of a month now. There were thirty letters to her under my cot, tucked and hidden away so as not to be seen by any of the other sailors. Especially not Sarge. Sarge gave people the slightest bit of hell for having feelings, let alone thirty days of them. It had been months since Josiah had boarded the ship, and even in the sick bay he was given hell by Sarge. My cheeks heat up when thinking about it, finding myself pushing away thought of anything involving her when I face death. I pull my coat closer around my body and stare out at the expanse of black before us. The Japs would only see us coming through their radar. Would we be able to spot them in time?

“We are men tonight. Real. Unadulterated. Men. So, get dressed and let’s kill some fucking Japs.” Sarge said, always a man of confidence, even now standing shirtless in the bitter cold, his white navy pants blowing up with the wind like big balloons. Even with the funny image of our commander, he was still the picturesque virtue of everything we were supposedly to be taking from this war: courage, faith, and strength.

A chorus of hurrahs and hollers echo across the deck, and part of me wants to yell at them to shut up. Just shut up.

The truth was, Sarge’s optimism made me scared shitless. If there was one thing Colonel Lewis always said to me back home, it was that a person should never be too confident in their abilities. Isn’t that what we were being right now? Overconfident? Shouldn’t we be preparing to evade death, perhaps even win over death?

My voice pipes up over the crowd. “Assignments, sir?” I ask meagerly, ashamed at how much emotion was betrayed in my shaky voice. Some sailors laugh, but Sarge just smirks. My heart hammers in my chest, waiting to either be ridiculed, or given what could be my last assignment. My right arm tapped my pant leg, feeling the photos in the pocket. One of my brother, William, and my mother and father, and the other, of course, of her. This couldn’t be my last assignment. If only for them.

“Well, I think the only person here more eager to kill Japs than me is Lieutenant Commander Hoffmann! Funny. We all need some humor in war time, don’t we boys? Hoffmann, I need you in sonar, but listen to the gunners. If they need you, that’s where I need you. Brinkley, guns, as always. Jim Cross, sonar, follow orders from Hoffmann, it’s just you two down there.” I don’t wait for him to give any more names. I have all I need. Jim Cross and myself, in charge of the safety of the whole damn ship.

Cross follows me, I can hear him without even having to see. His shoes were too big for him and so every step was more like a clown shoe clip rather than an actual step. The sound it made was solely attributed to Cross, on the ship at least. On top of that he was humming a radio tune, “Lili Marlene”, that one I knew. It had been her absolute favorite, she absolutely adored the tune and the message. Often in her letters she would quote the song, but that was before we got out of range of recieving letters. It had been a month since I had heard from her, knowing her and her line of work, she was probably worried sick.

By the time we reached the cabin and hooked up all the equipment I couldn’t stop myself, I turned to face him and pointed a finger in his direction. “Any other song would be nice Cross.” Before I knew it he was humming Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition louder than he had been humming before. That was a tune I could get behind. The nation was at war now, had been for a while, so by god if we didn’t all come together to Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition in the hopes that this horror would end soon.

My fear had dissipateddissipated some. I was in charge of one person at least. I would pull them out of this alive. Rather, him, Jim Cross. The one man I was responsible for. “East! East!” He calls, and I look on my screen to see the same thing. Torpedoes.

My hand flies to hit the button and the alarms blare. The battle had begun. Gunners began to launch their array of explosives at the torpedoes. It was unclear which we had actually hit and which were still on their way towards us. My voice was coming out of the speakers without even registering it, telling the gunners where to aim, telling them where the ship approximately was. Cross and I kept talking, watching the monitors in front of me and pressing buttons. Then there was nothing. One by one each screen showed nothing. They were still operating but it was as if the ships had disappeared into thin air.

“Sarge get down here! I need Sarge now! Keep firing in the same direction boys! Don’t waste ammo!” I yell into the microphone connected to my headset, minutes later hearing the same words get repeated to the crew. In less than a minute Sarge bursts through the doors and looks at the screens.

“Where in the hell are they Lieutenant? They couldn’t have gone far, we’ve only been at this for ten minutes.” He’s frustrated, but I know it isn’t with me. His large frame pushes past me until he is standing in front of the controls rebooting them one by one.

Still. Nothing.

“Hold your fire.” I say quietly through the microphone. Where the hell had they gone? There was land 70 nautical miles north, but it was American controlled. Surely the Japanese didn’t go there. That was our next stop actually. To stock, refuel, and connect ourselves with the postal service once more. Several of these things I was grateful for. All of this could easily be jeopardized if even one Japanese torpedo was allowed to hit the ship. My job was crucial, clearly enough, but currently, it appears that my job was in fact in the hands of the enemy. What had they done?

“Still nothing, Sarge. My readings are clear as day.” Cross says, and Sarge frantically rubs his brow, a nervous tick from his one year in the Great War when he was eighteen.  

Suddenly Sarge points to the open cabin door and we both stand at attention. “Cross, go check the deck, tell them to be alert. Hoffmann stay with me, and help me get this damn thing working again.” His evidently frustrated tone shakes the room, and as Cross Scurries out, Sarge takes his spot by the sonar.

He turns to face me from his new position in the cabin, he stood a good head taller than me, but right now it looked as if he felt like the smallest man in the world. His face was grim. He was an army man, he liked to think in facts. Right now the absolutes were grim. We were under attack. The Japanese were nearby. Our sonar did not work. Death could happen at any moment. The date was June 19, 1945.

Josiah limps in, as fast as his legs can carry him, and stops in the doorway, face flushed. “Sir, important telegram. The boat was on it’s way back to Japan, there were torpedoes launched. All missed except for one which is unaccounted for. We bombed Shizuoka sir. Japanese surrender could be near. That’s why they are sending them back sir. At least, that’s what the man on base thinks. They were going pretty fast sir, the ship. They wanted nothing to do with us.”

Sarge nods, thinking it all through. All that goes through my mind is “one which is unaccounted for”. I turn my head back to the sonar equipment.

Green.

Red.

Green.

Red.

“FIRE!”