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Emergence (Concertverse) Chapter Cover

Emergence (Concertverse)
Book 2 - Chapter 8
[]

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The Calm Before The Storm[]


Receiving Guests[]

The Triad
Tharkad City, Bremen Continent
Tharkad, Donegal Province
Lyran Commonwealth
Transglass Inner Sphere
14th June, 3143


The Lyran Royal Court was known for many things. Ceremony was certainly one of them.

Uniformed officers and officials stood in the Tharkadian cold at tightly-arranged places by their rank, social status, and closeness to the Archon. A military band drawn from the LCAF stood ready, instruments in hand, along with the battle-armored honor guards of the First Royal Guards RCT's infantry regiments. A long red and blue carpet was even now being rolled over the retracted blast shields of the DropShip pad where the AFS Hawk's Nest rested. Nearby pads held the vessel's sister ships and the troops ferried aboard them, but for the time being they would remain aboard. The ceremony came first.

Melissa Steiner waited patiently for the protocol team to finish rolling the carpet over the plates of the retracted blast shields, bringing them all the way up to the disembarkation hatch built on the ship's second deck. The Hawk's Nest extended a gangway from the hatch with mechanical precision and her people, with similar accuracy, put the carpet up to the very edge of the metal steps before stepping aside.

Moments later the hatch slid open. Power-armored soldiers stepped out, rifles at parade ready stance in their arms. They journeyed to the bottom of the steps and took up flanking positions where they put their arms at parade rest.

As soon as the next figure graced the hatchway entrance, the LCAF band struck up the anthem they'd spent weeks rehearsing. The triumphant strains of "Pride of the Free" filled the air at the descent of High King Nathaniel from his ship. The music had some familiar chords to Melissa, but she would never mistake it for a Lyran anthem of any sort. Nearly four hundred years of bloody history separate us, she thought at examining Nathaniel from the distance. He walked in proper time with the anthem and the trumpets hailing his arrival. His eyes never left the space in front of him and the dais where Melissa waited to formally welcome him in person. He did not want this, but he bears it well. Indeed, he'd protested "I'm coming as a commander of troops, not a sovereign on a state visit", but she'd won him over quickly enough with the fact of the gravity of it all. For the first time, two instances of their reality were seeing the face-to-face meeting of rulers. He was the first monarch to cross the expanse of infinity within the Glass and come to this side. That alone justified the majesty of the official state visit ceremony.

Yet she'd made a concession too. Nathaniel was presenting himself in military uniform, not official court wear. Because the truth was, he was here as a commander of troops to lead his army into war, a war to save her Commonwealth. She could hardly begrudge him the presentation.

It was quite a presentation. His red and blue military uniform was as formal and well-made as the LCAF uniforms around Melissa herself. Orders hung from his neck, representing those he typically handed out and stood as the master of by right of rank, and braided epaulets of golden color joined the double-looped silver aiguillettes at the shoulders that marked his status as a MechWarrior graduate of a military academy. A platinum tiara circled his head to function as a crown, cresting upward into a winged hawk shape above his forehead. Melissa knew he was young, but to see Nathaniel in person was to be strongly reminded of that fact.

Yet the most interesting part of all was the object affixed to his waist and uniform belt. A leather scabbard and sword hung from his left hip. It was not a thin officer's sword but a proper European double-edged sword of almost a meter's overall length. She recalled Trillian's reports on the coronation ceremony. The Sword of Liberation. He brought his regalia with him? She felt a bit of pity for his chamberlain and protocol ministers for dealing with the thought of it. But it is symbolic. For his people, this is not merely a war of alliance but a crusade.

The thought of it brought an instinctive chill to Melissa's spine. Her mind could not help considering the examples in her own history of such causes. The Capellan Crusades and the Blakist Jihad had been utterly brutal wars, well above the norm for the ferocity of the combatants proclaiming their side not simply in the right but "holy". Yet they are on our side. And they may need that belief in their cause to fight a foe like the Wolves.

Following Nathaniel were a file of his advisors, all in military uniform. Without a single misstep Nathaniel led them up the carpet to the steps of the dais, ascended, and stood before her. Melissa, as host, spoke first. "Your Majesty High King Nathaniel, I, Archon Melissa Steiner, welcome you to Tharkad in the name of the Lyran Commonwealth."

"Your Royal Highness Archon Melissa, thank you for your greeting." he said, sketching a courtly bow. Melissa matched the bow, a bare ten percent curling of her spine just as his was, and extended a gloved hand. He accepted it with his own. "I, High King Nathaniel Proctor-Steiner, greet you and the Lyran people on behalf of the Royal Federation and its peoples. I come as your lawfully sworn ally to sweep the enemies of Humanity from your worlds."

"We are grateful for your courage and readiness to stand with us in these dark times." Melissa replied, knowing that millions, likely billions, of Tharkadians were watching from their homes. JumpShips would take this meeting to every corner of the Commonwealth. "My finest stand ready to greet their new allies."

"Before we begin with the review, Majesty, it is my honor to present to you the Archon-Designate of the Lyran Commonwealth." Melissa gestured to Trillian who, it had to be said, bore the regalia of the official heiress of the Commonwealth with the same dignity she always brought to courtly work. Trillian stepped forward and offered greetings to Nathaniel who returned them with the same dignified grace. There was no denying the familiarity between them even through the ceremony. Our people will certainly see it. And I'm quite sure it will fuel scandalvid rumors. Not that I would object to unifying our realms by marriage.

Melissa waited until they were done before she signaled the commencement of the arrival review. Maurer was present with some of the High Command, including Jasek and Roderick. Martin Kell and Patrik Fetladral would be introduced afterward and Julian Davion following. Nathaniel, in turn, introduced his generals and Colonel Laughlin with all due formality. The Court came next, of course, and from there they filed into the vehicles for the parade ground viewing of the First Royal Guards' detachments. The Wolves are still days out, but they will be in range for real-time communication in the next forty-eight hours. The battle is upon us. Melissa surveyed her best soldiers with quiet melancholy that the years of discipline kept from her expression. All my fault. If the worst should happen, Trillian, it will be up to you to see us through my mess. I have faith you will.


Trillian remained with Melissa and Nathaniel throughout the review, providing him a familiar face and showing in public the importance she'd attained as the Archon-Designate. The same held true for their arrival at the reception.

Nothing less than the Grand Ballroom of the Triad would due for a visiting head of state, and that meant guest lists in the hundreds that would include virtually everyone of the slightest noble rank on Tharkad, along with the rest of high society. The room was full of gowned, coated, and uniformed figures, with wait staff coming and going bearing fine wines and finger foods prepared by the best chefs on the planet. The flag of the Commonwealth hung from the walls, the blue Steiner fist on a diamond-shaped pentagon set on a darker shade of blue, now joined by the crowned gold-winged white hawk of the Royal Federation set on the bisected field of blue and red. Among the islands of blues and whites of the Lyran nobility, red uniform coats from Nathaniel and his officers were visible, with Melissa having insisted on every officer of Colonel rank or better being invited. There could be more, but a number refused to see to their troops' needs on landing. The Wolves are just a few days out.

As much as many present would wish to forget it, it was quite clear that the attendees were enjoying what might be their final night of reverie before dying at the hands of the Wolf Clan, or being driven into exile. That was an unavoidable subject to consider, for Trillian recognized a disturbing number of those present as the native "Homeless". They were those with noble titles on worlds lost to the Commonwealth stretching back to planets captured by the Combine during the Succession Wars. By law and custom the Archon had to assume the costs of their housing until such a time as they were either granted new estates on other worlds or returned to their lost holdings. Now their ranks swelled, and with every DropShip carrying them, the strain on the Commonwealth's budget grew worse and Melissa's popularity, and legitimacy, slipped further. Not even the arrival of the Arcadians was doing much to dispel the nervous feeling she felt in the air. The Wolves had been unbeatable so far. Who was to say a young ruler like Nathaniel, with an army that had never been tried in battle with the Wolves, could succeed where the Commonwealth's best and brightest failed?

The reception brought no reprieve. Even if there were no cameras watching, the cream of the Commonwealth were lined up to be introduced formally to Nathaniel. At this rate all the food will be cold before he gets to have any, Trillian pondered as the next well-dressed figure came up. Margrave Leopold Hatzfeld, a deposed noble from Kitzingen, executed a courtly bow towards the two sovereigns. "On behalf of my poor suffering people, I thank you, Your Majesty, for coming to our aid," he said, his Star League English accented with the particular German of Kitzingen "You carry our hopes with you into battle with the Wolves."

"I thank you, and God willing, I shall carry those hopes to Kitzingen, a world I am honored to consider a part of my Federation." Nathaniel replied in accented German. Margrave Leopold's eyes widened at it. "My German instructor hails from your fair world on my side and was a devoted servant of House Hatzfeld. Your world's liberation is my goal, that I assure you."

Leopold nodded gratefully before turning to Trillian and executing a second bow. Trillian offered her hand for him to plant a kiss on. "Lady Trillian, radiant as ever. I owe you my thanks for bringing the salvation of my House and world."

She brought the hand back, smiling despite the thoughts in her mind. You say that now, but you were, I recall, quite irate when last we met, as the Wolves advanced and your world's conquest remained certain and I'm well aware you sided with Vedet and Maurer. "I was fortunate that His Majesty and his people are generous and kind. But thank you, my Lord, for your kind words."

"I don't suppose that a greater bond is in store?" Hatzfeld asked, and the tone of his voice put Trillian on alert. This was not a mere pleasantry being shared. He was fishing for information. "You remain unmarried, and His Majesty is as well. You two are said to be quite close."

Trillian fought to keep the blush from forming on her face. An urge to slap Hatzfeld arose but stopped before it reached her shoulder, let alone her hand. "His Majesty was quite kind to me as a host, but there is no such engagement." she said with forced politeness and a forced smile that she intentionally placed an edge on.

"My bride-to-be awaits my return from the war, I must say." Nathaniel added. He'd not recovered as quickly but his composure was still intact.

"Ah, my apologies then. Once more I thank you." At that Hatzfeld moved on.

Others came, and the question was repeated far too many times for Trillian's liking. They are not happy I was made the heiress. They dare not say much, at least not now., but they would certainly tutter about it behind my back if Nathaniel and I were betrothed. She glanced at the younger man as he fielded another noble greeting with practiced warmth and propriety. I suppose I would not be opposed to such a match. But today's savior could become tomorrow's 'foreign influence', and I am already a reminder that the Federated Commonwealth once existed. It would cause far more trouble than it solved.

Once the noble visitors tapered off Nathaniel's control briefly slipped. Relief showed on his face. "There is much to your court culture I am not used to." he admitted.

"So I recall," Trillian said. "It was an interesting contrast to experience for me, but I imagine it is very different from your position."

"I read that you were both more formal and yet informal than our own." Melissa said.

"Yes. My entry into a room, and how I am received, is dictated by ritual and form, but among the nobility there is less of a distinction for social status, at least when mingling." Nathaniel accepted a small meat-filled pastry from a passing waiter, a bite-sized hors d'oeuvre that he chewed and swallowed in about five seconds. "Once my formal entry is made and any ceremony and protocol is complete, I would be treated little differently. A certain distance due to rank, of course, but I would be approached freely by the others, even commoners in attendance, and we could speak on matters casually."

"I see." Melissa nodded. "Among our nobility being mindful of the social rank of those we associate with, and paying the due respect, is important at all times. No one wishes to snub someone with the means and influence to impact their House and any ambitions."

"So I imagine." Nathaniel took a small drink from the wineglass in his hand. The velvety-red liquid was the same as Trillian's own choice, and every bit as good as what she knew he enjoyed back home. "Truth be told I am eager to meet with Generals Maurer and Kelswa-Steiner to finalize dispositions for the defense. My generals and I have already discussed our part in your defense plans but we need to make the final arrangements."

"You will do so soon enough, I promise," Melissa said. "But for now, the reception is every bit as important."

Skepticism showed on Nathaniel's features, but he was too perceptive to voice it openly. "Morale is what you are concerned with?"

"Yes. Many of those here are officers of the LCAF, or related to those who are about to fight." Trillian said. "Having this reception gives them a chance for a final evening of pleasure before the bloody work of defending Tharkad begins. Moreso, it would be taken as an insult if they were to be snubbed the chance to meet with you, Majesty, as a visiting Successor Lord of a Great House. Archon Melissa's authority would be undermined."

"I see. Then I shall take this as a duty to my ally, and bear it as any other." he said. "It is, at least, an easier exercise than what I shall face shortly."

Trillian nodded and felt a tinge of guilt. Melissa would be, against all advice, presenting herself as bait for the Wolves to distract them from Trillian and other leaders. Nathaniel would be with Jasek and the others but, upon the Triad being threatened, intended to take the field with the rest of his bodyguard regiment as the final line of defense. She would meanwhile be kept safe in the command center, to be rushed to a DropShip if the worst happened so that some continuity of government could be maintained while they awaited reinforcements to reclaim Tharkad. Out of the three of them, she was the most likely to walk away alive.

Though if the worst happens, the Commonwealth will disintegrate, and I will be Archon of nothing. So I must only hope that the Wolves are stopped when they land three days from now.


Swapping War Stories[]


“Give me the thunder of a thousand guns over the fanfare of one trumpet.”, Talia Yuen muttered irritably.

“Quoting Victor Davion now, boss? Isn’t that grounds for being kicked out of the Guards?” Virgil smiled at her, flourishing his uniform’s half-cape.

“Victor was Steiner as much as Davion.” Talia replied absently. That was a long-running argument. Then she noticed the flirtatious looks Virgil was sending at an Arcadian staff lieutenant; actually quite an attractive young man, flattered by the dress reds the Arcadian forces used. But, unless she was very much mistaken, wearing what was either a wedding or engagement ring. She sighed. Virgil was her friend, and a reliable subordinate, usually. But sometimes he took perverse pleasure in living down to ancient stereotypes of his sexuality.

“Leutnant Pentecost, may I remind you we’re on duty tomorrow morning.” Talia hated how much she sounded like one of her less humorous instructors. But, it suited. “That means I need you functional. That means not hungover; not absent so I have to send the Snowdrops to drag you out of your latest boyfriend’s quarters; and not,” she finished with a tone of waspish irritation, “fighting another duel with an enraged husband.”

“Hey, when have I ever done that before?” Virgil protested, smiling still.

“Please,” Talia choked off a wildly inappropriate laugh. “Tell me I didn’t just hear the Rooster of Tharkad City, the Stud of Donegal Province, the man who’s fought three duels over married men in the last year, protest innocence!”

“I’m not stupid, Talia.” Virgil shook his head. “I know better than to pick a fight at the Archon’s reception. General Clarkston’d throw me into orbit if I did. But,” his smile turned impish. “Got you relaxed a bit, didn’t it?”

Talai refused to dignify that with a response. But, it was true; she found herself far less wound up while people-watching. At least, the military groups were mingling; Lyran blue and white uniforms mixed with Arcadian red, and the occasional splash of sombre Davion green. She shifted over to the nearest; mixed pilots and Mechwarriors, listening to a Davion flier describe her Huscarl OmniFighter.

“ … turns like a battleship.” the Davion pilot explained, her hands moving in complicated gestures, “but with a rotary autocannon and a pair of the new heavy re-engineered lasers tied into a targeting computer,” a grin, white teeth standing out against dark features. “Ain’t nothing the Dracs or Cappies have that can eat fire from it.”

“Bah.” That came from a heavyset retried Kommondant, and Talia couldn’t stop smiling as she recognized him. The Baron Mannfred von Claudeitz had been one of her instructors at the Nagelring, an air-breathing fighter pilot in his active service days and a good one, at that. He’d made ace flying for the Tharkan resistance. This was an old theme for him. “All these lights, all these bells and whistles. Gadgets, nothing more!” His thick, snow-white mustache and sideburns bristled as he continued. “In my day, we flew like men! No working instruments, not even a gas gauge. A pilot’s skill came from his heart, his mind, and the seat of his pants.”

“Pretty big instrument panel you’ve got there, Baron.” the Davion pilot shot back, pointedly eyeing his more than ample build. Von Claudeitz just laughed it off.

“Hah! I remember my last dogfight. One on one, right here over Tharkad City. I was on a routine patrol …”

As the Baron continued his story, Talia tuned out. She’d heard it often enough to have it memorized, as good a tale as it was. Movement caught her eye. She turned to see that the Archon, the Archon-Designate, and the Arcadian High King were coming down from the dais. They were going to mingle.

Resolution crystallized at an opportunity that might never come again. Talia moved towards the trio. They noticed her approach at about the five pace mark. Some recognition of just how bold, and potentially career-threateningly-dangerous, this all was occurred to her, but she was committed and her legs did not stop. "Highnesses," she said respectfully, bowing in court fashion."

"Lady Talia." Trillian spoke first and recognition showed quickly on Melissa's face. "Your Majesty, this is Lady Talia Yuen, heiress to House Yuen the Landgraves von Summerisle of Loxley."

“I also have the honour to hold a Hauptmann’s commission in Your Majesty’s First Royal Guards." Talia added respectfully.

"Hauptmann Lady Talia, an honor." Nathaniel executed a short, polite bow. "Yours are the forces that will be defending the Nagelring, I believe?"

“Some of my fellow Guards have that honour, Highness.” Talia replied. “My command’s assignment is to defend the Tharkad City railyards.”

"Ah, true, the First is to be spread out, thank you for the clarification," he answered. The error was a minor one and he took the correction with obvious grace. "I imagine you have seen quite a bit of combat these past few years, but either way, I'm confident you will hold the Wolves in that quarter. Depending on how matters go I may well be joining your defense."

There was a familiar sort of energy to his words, ones Talia had heard many a time before from any number of Leutnants. It was not the vainglorious confidence of a noble's child convinced of their imminent martial glory, nor the exuberant lack of caution from a young officer heedless of danger and ready to do their part. Nathaniel reminded her of a freshly-minted First Leutnant who, while having never seen combat, was mature enough to be aware of what it meant and of his responsibilities as a leader. Except his responsibility is not towards a lance of MechWarriors but a whole army.

“I … would consider that a signal honour, Highness,” Talia chose her words carefully. “But, for duty’s sake, I must hope that such circumstances do not occur. It would, after all, mean that the situation has become considerably worse than we all hope it will be.”

"That is typically the case when the reserves are given a new assignment," he observed.

“True, Highness,” Talia acknowledged. She turned to Trillian next. "Lady Trillian, please accept my congratulations for your position, and my thanks for all the work you did to serve the Commonwealth. Not only for the allies you've brought, but for restoring the rightful Archon."

"Thank you, Lady Talia." Trillian replied politely. "Would that I could do more."

An uncharitable thought about Trillian not being in the battle slipped through Talia's mind, but she recognized it for what it was and paid it no heed. There are enough nobles willing to charge headfirst into battle; and few who could have brought the Arcadians here in a mood to help. "You have done more than enough." Conscious of the amount of time she'd taken up, she gave a final bow of her head to Melissa. "Highness, I hope to hear of your good health when the fighting is over. We have just gotten you back and the Commonwealth would be poorer to lose you again."

"Thank you for the kind words, Lady Talia, and I hope to hear of your's when Tharkad is safe. The Commonwealth and House Steiner would likewise be poorer for the loss of the future Landgravine von Summerisle."

Nathaniel nodded. "I hope to hear from you as well. God be with you, Lady Talia."

Nothing more need be said. They continued on, having given Talia more than her fair share of their time. She watched them walk off before turning away. Virgil's wide grin greeted her. "Leutnant!" she hissed, stunned at how quietly he'd approached.

"Don't mind me. I just wanted to get a better look at that handsome young man who led his army to our aid." Virgil said cheerfully.

Images of the social fiasco of Virgil trying to seduce High King Nathaniel played through Talia's mind. General Clarkston would probably have them both thrown into Tharkad’s system primary, impracticality be damned. A volcano, at the absolute minimum.

"My, you wouldn't be my competition there, would you?"

The very thought brought a blush to her face, not just from her having not thought of it, but from the instinctive realization it was not a suggestion she would be opposed to. "Leutnant, I think you may have had entirely too much to drink." she said in a voice that would have chilled the hottest 'Mech back to ambient temperature.

"Quite possibly so, but you know the saying. 'Eat, drink, and be merry…!'"

"'...for tomorrow we die'," she finished for him. "Or seventy hours, in our case."

A somber look crossed his face. "My point, Hauptmann, is that you have done everything humanly possible to ready us for the storm. So while we still have the calm, enjoy it."

He's not wrong, she reminded herself. "Very well. Just don't land us both before an honor court before the night is out."

"They'd never finish the proceedings before the Wolves arrived." he pointed out jovially.

Talia sighed but, despite herself, smiled. "Perhaps not." A scan of the hall caught sight of Berry, disconsolately meeting what was probably another unwelcome suitor. And her grandmothers momentarily not in attendance. “Now, come on my lad,” she indicated, “we’ve got an extraction under fire to perform.”


Answering the call to Battle[]


With the reception finally, thankfully, over, Nathaniel joined Melissa and Trillian in the Triad's War Room. While different from the one he knew from experience in the sublevels of the Royal Palace back on Arcadia, it shared the predominant feature of the great holotable in the middle projecting a map, though this one was centered on Tharkad. His eyes instinctively drifted down to the world of his birth and recoiled at the sight of Arcadia not in magenta or even blue but Clan Wolf's amber color. It is not my Arcadia, he reminded himself, startled by the fury he felt within at the thought of it. Father was just a small child when Scipio came for us in 3099. But Grandmother and her father, Ethan, how they must have felt at the thought of Arcadia colored O'Reilly red! His eyes took in all of the systems marked in amber color. The Wolves' Empire, while not to the size of his Royal Federation, were nevertheless an impressive achievement in terms of volume of space. Many of the worlds they hold are ones in my nation on our side of the Glass. Those people, those cousins of ours, now labor under the domination of the Wolves' eugenicist warriors. This will not stand!

It was not a new sight, he'd seen this map before, but seeing it in this size and detail reminded him of the scope of the Wolves' ambitions, and of how far he and his army would have to go to put an end to them. It will take time. Maybe years. And yet, it must be done. I cannot go home until I have fulfilled my pledge.

Jasek Kelswa-Steiner and Roderick Steiner were still in their LCAF dress uniforms and Julian Davion in the AFFS dress uniform, complete with sunburst vest along the left side of the jacket. Nathaniel's commanders were now in duty reds, presumably having swapped after leaving the reception early. Maurer, who had not attended the reception, was in regular LCAF duty dress.

"Gentlemen and ladies." Melissa nodded to Brigadier Luisa Fraser, the wide-shouldered and strong-jawed woman in command of the Arcadian Rangers who, unlike the others, wore a green beret with her unit's patch. "Are we prepared?"

"Our final assignments are confirmed, yes." Jasek said. "General Proctor-Steiner-Davion and General Bridger made suggestions and we've taken them into account." With tap of a key at the control beside him, Jasek switched the holotank to a projection map of Tharkad. Strategic positions were as Nathaniel remembered them with no new adjustments of major note. Jasek laid out the assignments of the Second and Third Proctor Guards to Heidelberg and Franz respectively, as well as the final assignments of the First Davion Guards and the other Lyran formations that made it planetside. The Arcadian Rangers would be distributed to a fortified series of DropPorts on Grolsch and the Tatiana Islands that would let them rapidly deploy in their DropShips as raiders or emergency reinforcements.

"There was no debate on your Lifeguards, Majesty." Maurer said. "We expect Seth Ward to assault the Triad as quickly as he can, and we cannot rule out any number of strategies to bypass our defenses. Having your bodyguard regiment protecting the Triad makes perfect strategic sense."

"We will be ready, I assure you." Nathaniel said.

"Aye." Laughlin nodded. "We train for this kind of fighting. The Wolves will get an iron boot to their jaws if they come here."

"Hopefully it will break their teeth," said Jasek. "At minimum, we need to hold them until the rest of your troops arrive. But the sooner we eject them from Tharkad, the better. The more we fight here the greater the damage, and the Commonwealth's taken enough hits already." He gave Melissa a stern look as he said those words."

Melissa smiled thinly. "My mind is made up, Lord Jasek. I have played my part in this fiasco. Let the Wolves come for me if they choose it. It may make them easier to defeat in the end, and it's important to keep them from the rest of you."

She said the words like a woman who didn't care that it might mean her death. Nathaniel pondered what might drive him to make a similar decision, to simply sit in his throne and wait for an enemy to charge their armored infantry or 'Mechs through his Palace. I would want to be in a 'Mech. Grandmother would have gone to her machine whatever the doctors warned.

"Your Highness, my Lords." One of the LCAF CommTechs looked up. "We are detecting an incoming signal from the Wolf fleet. Message only, we're still not close enough for effective real-time communication."

Melissa nodded. "Play it."

The holotank shifted to show an image of a man Nathaniel felt to be not much younger than his Uncle Peter. He wore a gray jumpsuit marked with the Wolf's Head insignia of Clan Wolf and a red star over a brown square on the collar, a gray cape of wolf's fur flowing over his shoulders and out of sight. His eyes glistened with haughty pride. <<"I am Seth Ward, Khan of the Wolves. My pack comes to claim Tharkad for our mighty Wolf Empire and exact our rightful revenge upon your treacherous, Archon Melissa. Whom among you intends to defy the Wolves' vengeance?">>

Another data window appeared on the holo-tank, showing a list of forces. Nathaniel read over them. "Alpha Galaxy, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Zeta, and Kappa too." Roderick Steiner's jaw clenched. "The troops reported burning for Tetersen and Gibbs must be Epsilon then."

Nathaniel nodded. Numerically we may be superior, but the Wolves' reputation does not make me confident this will come down to numbers. They will choose where to hit and we must defend multiple points. And many of the Lyran formations are the remnants of broken units turned into composite brigades.

Matthew snorted at the list. "I still don't get it. Telling the people you're invading what you've got, even including full TO&Es?"

"It is the Clan way," Khan Fetladral said, speaking for the first time. "The defender can choose how best to bid. But the Crusaders do not issue the batchall for honor but for intimidation."

"Well, what do we send them in response?" Matthew glanced to Nathaniel. "I'm not comfortable giving them our TO&Es and the like. We'll lose the element of surprise with some of our machines."

"Odds are the Sea Foxes have already cost you that edge," Jasek said. "They've had enough time to get plenty of info on your 'Mechs and they'll be selling that to the highest bidder."

"Archon, I will leave that choice with you," Nathaniel said. "But if you might humor me, I would like my reply to the challenge sent."

"I can hardly refuse you given you intend to protect my palace," Melissa said. "When do you want to record it?"

"We can do so now."

The others stepped away and Melissa gave a nod to the CommTech. "We're transmitting, it will take a few hours for the Wolves to get the signal." He indicated the holotank. "Recorder in the holotank is taking your image, my Lord. Transmitting in ten… nine… eight…"

Nathaniel drew in a breath and steeled himself. This is as much about morale as it is ritual. Khan Fetladral is right that this is intimidation. Maybe this will make the Khan wonder just what he is fighting. Or make him underestimate me if he thinks I am a fool. Lord, this does feel foolish, like I am in a holovid of some sort. But theatrics can count.

"...transmitting."

Nathaniel focused his eyes forward. "Khan Seth Ward of the Wolf Empire, I am Nathaniel Proctor-Steiner, High King of the Royal Federation, and I answer your challenge. My army of crusaders now stands before your ravenous pack. We will fight to protect the Archon and people of the Lyran Commonwealth." In a long-practiced move, he pulled the Sword of Liberation from the scabbard and held it, blade flat, towards the holotank. "Here on Tharkad, your victories cease. Here on Tharkad, the Wolf Empire begins its end. And when we are done, not a single world will fly your cursed standard, and not a single wrist will bear your vile bondcords. So I swear, on the honor of House Proctor, and by the blood of my ancestor the Liberator and all she built. So come, Khan of the Wolves, and face the might of the Crusade!"

After several seconds Nathaniel lowered the Sword and nodded to the CommTech, who seemed half-bemused and half-impressed before pressing keys on his control. "Transmission sent."

"Send to them our roster of defending units as well," Melissa said. "Not our troop placements, I will let Seth Ward wonder just who and what is where. His aerospace crews can do some of the work for him. But let him stew on what he faces here."

Patrik crossed his massive arms and smiled at Nathaniel. "You have goaded him quite well, King Nathaniel. His Wolves are proud of the title 'Crusader', and you declare it your own. He will certainly be furious with that."

"Either way, show's over." Jasek said. "It's time everyone started making their final preparations, we're at sixty-eight hours before they're on landing approach and there's plenty of work to be done."

"We'll be ready," said General Allen Proctor. The gray-haired commander of the Second Proctor Guards was a very distant relation, a descendant of a cousin of Sara the Liberator, one of Nathaniel's namesakes in the family.

"Just keep in mind we've got no room for error here." Roderick reminded the assembled. "This is for everything. Let's make it count."

Nathaniel nodded in agreement.


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