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Emergence (Concertverse) Chapter Cover

Emergence (Concertverse)
- Chapter 16
[]

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Ripples on the Water, Near[]


In the Federated Suns[]

First Davion Guards RCT HQ
Near Roslyn, Eastern Islay
Ronel, Draconis March
Federated Suns (Nearside)
29th October, 3142


“IDs confirmed, sir,” the young naval Leftenant reported, her fingers flickering across her control panel as she updated the main holotank, dark grey unknown icons turning the gold of friendlies. “One Kell Hounds DropShip, Union-class, IFF tags her as the Sunfang; and Tyrannos Rex leading a group of four inbounds - two Mammoth cargo carriers and an Arondight Pocket WarShip.”

Julian Davion, Marshal in the Armed Forces of the Federated Suns, General Officer Commanding the First Davion Guards, Lord Markesan, Duke of Victoria, and currently heir to the throne of the Federated Suns, resisted the urge to utter a chain of obscenities he’d originally heard from a Terran stevedore, right after they’d nearly been run over by a LoaderMech. Brilliant, just ****** brilliant. Right now, he needed a visit from “The Flying Duke” about as much as he needed to be shot in the head; even assuming this was completely innocent — never a safe bet when Aaron Sandoval was involved — Caleb was going to scent a conspiracy if he ever heard about this.  It was also going to complicate getting the Guards ready to move to Lyran space; that hadn’t been confirmed yet, but he was expecting the order from Caleb to turn up any day now, and this was going to leave even more of the prep work out of his hands.

“Understood, Leftenant,” he nodded. “Inform General Nanava. If he’s not announcing himself, we don’t need to roll out the gold carpet, but Duke Sandoval at least merits an honor-guard.”

As the Leftenant acknowledged, Julian turned and walked out of the command center, not trusting himself to say anything more without giving away just what he was really feeling about this new arrival.

Outside, in a thankfully deserted corridor, Julian took a moment to center himself, focus; be as you wish others to see you. His father’s advice, and mated to that was knowing what they would see. He sketched a picture of himself within his mind; a tall man, in his mid-thirties with the solid build of one used to hard work and exercise, close-cropped red-blonde hair framing tanned, rugged and, according to Callandre Kell at least, ruler-straight-edged archetypical Davion features, wearing the red-trimmed dark green field uniform of an AFFS mechwarrior, complete with golden rowel-less spurs and the single epaulette — red, with the four white bands of his rank — tradition dictated. Now, if I can just make everyone else believe that’s all there is.

He headed for the ‘Mech bays, taking a quick glance at his wristwatch. Fourteen hours until Tyrannos Rex landed; good. That gave him time to take his Templar out onto the gunnery ranges and burn off some energy and stress, at least.

Templar (OmniMech) (by Papercraft on Battlefield)

Templar Assault OmniMech

“Yo, Jules!” Callandre’s shouted greeting stopped Julian in his tracks, and he turned to face her; long dark red hair unbound, and dressed, as usual for ‘Calamity’ Kell, in tankers’ fatigues she’d had recut and styled to provoke a riot — or maybe an indecent proposition — across half the Inner Sphere. “What’s wrong,” she added, seeing his expression, “and don’t tell me ‘nothing’. You wouldn’t have a face on you like a Liao’s arse if it was nothing, so. Let’s hear it.”

Nothing for it but the truth; he'd never been able to lie convincingly to Callandre. "Aaron Sandoval's in-system, coming here. And no, I don't know why," Julian forestalled Callandre's inevitable question, "but it can't be good if he didn't want to let us know ahead of time. And, worse news for you," he added, with the carefully studied malicious politeness you learned after a decade's association with Callandre Kell; from being victim to it if nothing else, "there's a Kell Hounds ship an hour ahead of him, carrying a message from Duke Martin."

"Probably another 'come home, some stuff's forgiven' message. I told Dad — and Uncle Evan — if they want me back they're gonna need to ask in person." Credit where it was due, Callandre didn't show any sign of actually being surprised. "Still," she continued at a look from Julian, "I'll hear them out — before I throw them out."

A burst of memory sparked a chuckle from Julian. “I hope it won’t be out of a third-floor window this time,” he commented.

“Hey! We were on a low-gravity station, and there was a perfectly serviceable awning right under that window.” Callandre snapped back, smiling at the recollection.

“I’m going to assume that you knew that second one.” Julian felt some of the tension melt away at the memory of the Nagelring; of being young, and carefree, with much less responsibility to worry about. "Anyway, I'm headed for the live-fire ranges; burn off some tension, so that hopefully I can get some sleep before Sandoval gets here. You in?"

"Sure I won't show you up?" Callandre replied, grinning. "Hell yes I'm in."


Aaron Sandoval was showing off, damn him.

After his range session, a shower, a shave, and six hours’ uninterrupted sleep had left Julian in a much better condition to deal with whatever scheme the Duke of Tikonov had come up with, or so he’d thought. But now, watching Tyrannos Rex maneuver with balletic grace and deftness into landing, he could feel his teeth grinding in frustration at this ridiculous grandstanding; not helped by the mammoth Swordsworn insignia — an uncomfortable reflection of House Davion’s own, with an amber disk surrounded by a white circle, representing a dark planet with the burst of a rising sun around it, and in front of it all an upthrust sword, the blade inlaid with some kind of mirrored material that glinted in Ronel’s early morning sun — painted on the Excalibur-class vessel’s flanks.

“Calm, Julian,” Countess Sandra Fenlon murmured from beside him. “He’s trying to throw you off; I’ve met Aaron Sandoval, he can’t help it. It’s just the way his mind works.” Alone among the group — small; just Julian himself, Sandra, and a squad of infantry in Infiltrator Mark II armor as guard team — waiting to greet Sandoval personally, Sandra stood out; as the lone civilian, in a dark, expensively understated business suit rather than titanium-composite armour or dress uniform, a contrast made more striking by her hip-length braid of ash-blonde hair and soft build — "Rubenesque" was the descriptor Callandre liked to use, both displaying a classical education Julian wouldn't have guessed at her having the patience or temper for, and leaving him profoundly glad she wasn't around to make comments about "the prom king and queen" again; currently, she was closeted with Martin Kell's messenger, briefly introduced to Julian as Captain Andromeda Brahe. "Given that this is going to happen anyway," Sandra smiled, "we might as well enjoy the show."

"Something to that." Julian allowed, grudgingly, as he forced himself to relax. There was, truthfully, a certain pleasure in seeing a job done, and done very well indeed; and whatever their problems with flamboyance, Tyrannos Rex's captain was a master at their trade, bringing the 16,000-ton DropShip down precisely centered on the landing pad, and gently enough that there was barely a shiver as the pad took the weight. As heat distortions — fading fast but still visible — rippled the air, the pad descended, bringing Tyrannos Rex’s main access doors to ground level with a faint whine of charged myomer; not surprising, as the vast trunks that controlled its raising and descent were made up of the same material that drove BattleMechs.

Rather than use his BattleMech, or a vehicle, Aaron Sandoval chose to walk down the main embarkation ramp, his own guard squad — in light Kage batttlesuits — flanking, and nearly seven feet of suited muscularity that had to be Ulysses Paxton, Duke Aaron’s bodyguard, at his shoulder. He’s in uniform, at least, Julian thought, putting irritation aside with an effort; a plain, unadorned Field Marshal’s uniform, which meant a minimum of ceremony, thank God — Federated Suns tradition was that military rank superseded civil titles. Julan’s eyes flicked briefly to either side, where the double-company honour guard he and General Nanava had arranged was drawn up; infantry, half in Cavalier battle armor and half in conventional battledress. The infantry’s Hasek and JI2A1 infantry carriers were arrayed behind them, their square-bodied bulk forming the second rank. And, to crown it all, a lance of BattleMechs; Third Battalion’s command lance, nearly three hundred and forty tons of metal, myomer and quiescent destruction resting in their missiles, particle cannon, lasers and autocannon. Humanoid designs all, painted in the parade colours of the First Guards - deep royal blue, striped with red and white - standing at as close to parade-rest as a ‘Mech could come; a pair of Black Knights, a BattleMaster, and the skull-visaged enormity of Major Chloe Tran’s Atlas III.

“Field Marshal,” Julian snapped off a textbook perfect salute, in perfect time with sergeants’ roars and the crash of boots as the infantry came to attention. He could even hear the almost-clatter as one light infanteer nearly dropped and just barely recovered their rifle, and winced internally at just what their sergeant was going to have to say about that. He’d made the same mistake in his pleb year at the Nagelring, once. “Welcome to Ronel, although I confess I’m surprised at your being here.”

“Marshal Davion,” Sandoval returned the salute, letting Julian drop his and bringing a rustle and more clattering as the honor-guard relaxed fractionally. Nearly as tall as Julian was, Aaron Sandoval looked shorter than that, thanks to his broad-shouldered, big-boned and muscular build, filling out his uniform well, dark blonde hair bound up in the topknot that it seemed every male Sandoval Julian had ever met affected and his face marked by scars from, as rumor had it, an assassination attempt on New Canton nearly a decade ago. “As to why I’m here, well,” he pitched his voice to carry further, “Ronel was once a world under my rule. Why shouldn't I keep affection for her?” He slid a comradely arm across Julian’s shoulders, cover for a whispered, “I need to talk to you and Fenlon later — on the Rex.”

Julian very carefully didn't react beyond a fractional nod to the whisper, despite the sinking feeling that he'd just been conscripted. "Well, Marshal," he said, catching Sandra's eye and signalling — in the quick, flickering finger motions of nobles' hand-code, something they’d both learned long ago at Amanda Hasek's knee — that they needed to talk, "I'd be quite happy to show you some of the work we've done here, in that case."

For something that they were essentially making up as they went along, the “inspection tour” actually went quite smoothly; better than Julian had hoped. Aaron Sandoval really did know Ronel well, and he’d pointed out some useful terrain features that Julian had missed for defensive use, although the number of people he seemed to be able to recognize and casually chat with among the Guards’ ranks was leaving Julian wondering, as they walked up Tyrannos Rex's main access ramp, just how many supposed “volunteers” from the Swordsworn regiments were actually spies.

"The answer's none," Aaron commented suddenly, jolting Julian from his thoughts. "You're wondering how many of your people are serving two masters; and — in respect of me, at least — none of them are. I'm not a mind reader," he continued with an easy, confident smile at Julian's shocked reaction, "but I am good at reading people."

The interior of Tyrannos Rex was, Julian reflected, pushing past the unpleasant surprise of just how transparent he was to Aaron Sandoval, exactly as described, right down to the stonework framing the main personnel airlock. Most of it was normal, for a DropShip, with half a dozen ‘Mech cubicles, four of them occupied — by a pair of the most battered, disreputable looking LoaderMechs Julian had ever seen, a Thunderbolt in Swordsworn olive-drab with the distinctive high sheen of laser-reflective armor, and Aaron’s white and gold Black Hawk — infantry, armor and cargo securement points running up and across the vast, multi-level space.  The rest, though -

“What did you do,” Sandra asked, her voice thick with a shock Julian shared — hearing about it was one thing, seeing the finery built into a DropShip’s hold was another, “rob the Hotel Duquesne?!”

“I bought it, actually.” Aaron replied with a sharp, barking laugh. “The penthouse suite of a hotel I was staying at in Prefecture Five, not long after New Canton.” A very precisely enthusiastic smile. “Captain Clancy was none too happy about it at the time, but we did manage to reach an understanding.”

“So, Duck, what’s this; you going into the marriage business now?” The gruff, almost rasping voice preceded its owner — a short, wiry man, in a dark blue merchant marine shirt untucked at the waist and decorated with a golden pair of DropShip pilot’s wings and an insignia Julian didn’t recognise, a pair of tank treads crossed with a red lightning bolt, and a white cap with captain’s bars perched at what the man evidently considered a rakish angle on a head of snow-white hair, moving with the rolling gait of someone used to working in microgravity — down the nearest personnel stairway. “And who’s this one,” he added, giving Julian an appraising look up and down, “Little Lord Fauntleroy?”

“That’s Lord Markesan,” Julian snapped in reply, hitting the DropShip officer with his best irritated glare — which washed off the man like water off a tank’s hull.

“Well, excuse me, ‘my lord’,” Captain Clancy retorted with mock contrition that bordered on insult, “lemme just get out my doilies and good silverware.”

Julian felt the flush of anger rising above his collar, but before he could step forward and give Clancy a piece of his mind, Sandra placed a restraining hand on his shoulder and Aaron stepped in with practiced, tutored diplomatic smoothness.

“Captain,” he admonished gently, “be polite. Julian is a guest, and one I do have business with. I’m sure there’s something suitably ship-related for you to be doing.”

“True that, Duck.” Clancy returned, grinning as he ducked down a companionway to the DropShip’s engineering spaces.

“I apologies for Captain Clancy,” Aaron said, “I’m afraid he has a lamentably low-brow sense of humor that he insists on sharing with all in proximity to him -”

“I heard that, Duck!” echoed from the engineering hatch.

“You were supposed to....” Aaron shouted back before continuing, ushering Julian and Sandra into his office — decorated and fitted out with the kind of comfortable, understated austerity that cost far, far more than mere opulence — Ulysses Paxton taking station at the door, “I suggest that you — as I do — tolerate the noble-taunting. His talents as captain, pilot, procurer, and so on are worth it.”

“As fascinating as that is,” Julian chose to stand, adopting the same semi-parade rest stance that had served him well in numerous chewings-out from the Nagelring’s commandant and prolonged official speeches, while Sandra went for the most comfortable-looking chair, “I’m assuming, Field Marshal, that you didn’t come here from Tikonov just to provide a lesson on personnel management?”

“No, I did not,” Aaron agreed, sitting down rather heavily. He seemed older, suddenly, as though he'd dropped a mask hiding deep, stress-riven lines. "Tell me; what do you think of Caleb? Personally and politically." he clarified.

Julian winced at that, not even bothering to hide it this time. This was exactly what he’d dreaded from receiving the first report of Tyrannos Rex arriving in-system; that, again, Aaron was going to try and get him involved in politics that — he tried and failed to convince himself — weren’t his to get involved in. Unbidden, his thoughts went to the data-wafer hidden away in Callandre’s quarters, that poisonous final bequest from Riccard Streng, and everything that might come of it.

“Erratic,” Sandra spoke first, marshaling her thoughts and words with the quiet care and attentiveness of a master jeweller. “I can’t speak to personally — I only met him a handful of times, on Terra, and that was nearly a decade ago — but politically, he seems almost, well, mercurial; freely granting local autonomy for some things, but pulling it back the instant it’s used in some way he disapproves of without any warning. And,” she frowned, worry lines furrowing her brow, “I don’t know about his judgement. He’s appointed some good people — even ones that Aunt Amanda approved of, and we all know how she feels about New Avalon — but others … some of them are worse than just useless.”

“Personally,” Julian took over smoothly, feeling on more stable ground with that. Ground he knew, and was confident in lying — if only by omission — on, “at least when I knew him, impulsive. Prone to acting first and second, and thinking third — if he ever did. By turns forceful, and then almost timid.” He remembered the Exarch’s Ball, on the eve of Victor’s funeral; Caleb brash and aggressive in goading Yori Kurita into nearly drawing her katana in lethal earnest, then withdrawing the instant Jasek Kelswa-Steiner proposed a simulator match instead. The memory still stung; not managing to fight the sim match to a draw, but Caleb’s efforts to use him as a shield for his own mistakes. “Politically, I can’t say. That isn’t my -”

“I’m going to stop you there, Julian.” Aaron spoke quietly, almost regretfully. “I’m afraid that if Harrison — or your father — ever let you think politics wasn’t a matter you needed to be involved with, they did you a grave disservice.” A harsher edge crept into the next words. “Politics is your concern, and it always has been. Julian, you are noble-born; you command a regiment of the First Prince's own Guards, and you're a Davion — one step from the throne; if Caleb slipped in the shower and broke his neck today, you’d be the First Prince. Everything you do is political, it has been since you first drew breath. For the good of the Suns, you need to make peace with that, and do it soon." Aaron chuckled ruefully before continuing. “It’s not pleasant, I know — I am a politician, and by your standards, I’m a cheat and a liar; who, when I’m not kissing babies, is stealing their lollipops. But,” harshness returned, “it also means that I can see, and act for, the good of the realm. And I’m not convinced that, long-term, that includes Caleb on the throne.”

“If you’re suggesting —” Julian began hotly.

“Oh calm down,” Aaron snapped. “I’m not suggesting anything. Firstly, I don’t believe in assassination on principle; it’s too unreliable, and even when it works it causes no end of long-term problems. And second, even if I wasn’t opposed to it, right now would be a bloody stupid time for me to try. I don’t trust Caleb in the long-term, but at the moment, he’s doing things that need to be done — that Harrison should have gotten done decades ago — and isn’t the kind of disaster who needs to be dethroned at all costs. Right now, the Suns can’t afford an internal war. That, above all else,” he finished emphatically.

“Then what are you suggesting?” Sandra asked.

“For now, nothing more than what we’re already doing, just better organized. It’s not much, but,” Aaron shrugged, “without something definite to use as a cause for deposing Caleb, it’s what we have. And, as a first step there,” he added, looking at Julian intently, “I understand the Guards are having supply issues?”

“Equipment issues,” Julian corrected. “We’ve got, are getting, more supplies and people than we need, but we’re short about a battalion of ‘Mechs overall and more in tanks and artillery. Corwin Sandoval was helping out there but,” he sighed, “with the casualties his forces I’ve been taking in PELAYO, that’s dried up.”

“Then it’s a good thing I bring gifts,” Aaron smiled, a little. “Both the Mammoths I brought with me are fully loaded with supplies and equipment, care of, well, various interested parties in the Capellan March. Mostly heavy and assault gear, but I managed to get something special from Kallon’s Wernke planet; a company of their newest Shadow Hawk variant.  Think you can use them?”

“Yes,” Julian nodded absently, running through the numbers in his head. That should let us bring the RCT back up to full strength, and more besides.

“Good,” Aaron seemed uncomfortable with what he was about to say next. “We also need to start building support, for if, or when, Julian, you need to take the throne.Which means, among other things,” Aaron aimed significant looks at Julian and Sandra, “you two need to start thinking about marrying, soon.”

On Terra, during the fighting in Siberia, a salvo of missiles had cracked his Templar’s canopy. They hadn’t hit Julian harder than that blunt statement had; he knew his expression was something close to a slapped mackerel, and Sandra turned scarlet and snapped off a shocked, “What the hell” in response.

“Don’t act surprised; you both know it’s how things are done, at our level.” Aaron continued the significant looks. “And you two are lucky; you’re a better match personally than most political marriages I’ve known; Ki-linn Liao and Jacob Bannson, for instance.” A dark chuckle at that.

Before Julian could offer his opinion on that idea, a raised voice came from outside — raised in a blistering tirade of obscenities in gutter-Deutsch, from a voice that he knew well.

“— so get out of my way or I’ll kick you through this door!” Callandre Kell finished as — shoving Ulysses Paxton aside — she slammed the office door open.

“Major Kell, what the Hell do you-” Julian started to shout, rounding on her, before realizing that Callandre wasn’t enraged; she was grinning, a hard feral smile that stretched almost ear-to-ear.

“Great ******’ news from Uncle Evan, Jules.” she explained, “Best I’ve heard in years. The Jade Falcons and Horses’ve gotten their ******’ heads kicked in, Malvina Hazen’s a prisoner, and the Commonwealth’s got some new allies. Captain Brahe’s putting together a full brief, but we’re better off than we’ve been for years.”

Decision crystallized. This might be a bad idea, but the hell with it. Aaron and Sandra’ve risked their necks — probably not literally, Caleb wasn’t as crazy as Etien Davion had been, but dangerously close — they deserve to know. “Callandre, you remember that package I told you to keep safe?”

“Oh shit.” Her good mood evaporated in a second, replaced by hard severity. “You really think now’s the time?”

“Now or never, Callandre.” Julian faced Aaron and Sandra, both looking severely confused. “I’d hoped I’d never have to use this, but — right after you left for Tikonov in ‘35, Aaron - Gavin Marik-Davion gave me … certain documents that Riccard Streng had left with him; ones that Harrison had intended for me to have.” Time to yank the bandage off. “Among them was a medical assessment of Caleb, from his training. When he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; functional, then, but getting worse.”

Sandra just looked shocked, but Aaron’s face was rapidly shading the red of anger. “Unfinished Book,” he half-roared. “Why the bloody Christ didn’t you tell anyone sooner?!”

“Two reasons, Firstly,” Julian counted off on his fingers, “I had to verify it — Streng’s analysis wasn’t always reliable after the Blackout, or before for that matter, in case you’ve forgotten him missing Daoshen treating the MMRP as a joke; and I still don’t know how much I can trust Marik-Davion — and by the time I could, Caleb was solid enough on the throne it’d take a civil war to remove him. And second,” his voice and expression hardened, spine stiffening, “I am not my grandfather. I wasn’t going to start a civil war, because you’re right, we can’t afford one. But if we’re going to be allies in this, you need to know everything. Now we’ve just got to figure out how to use it.”

There were nods at that, and if not acceptance — Sandra, for one, looked like she was going to give him a piece of her mind and then some later — tolerance for the deception, which was honestly better than anything Julian had hoped for, and about to resume discussion when Paxton spoke up.

“Marshal Davion,” he said, with a remarkable lack of irritation for someone on the receiving end of Callandre’s temper, “Messenger for you.”

The messenger was a young midshipman, snapping off a salute with a tense precision and swiftness. “Marshal,” he said, “the JumpShip Golden Farrel just arrived in-system; they have a courier ship inboard, carrying eyes-only messages from His Highness for you.”

What was that old line - I expected this, but not so soon? “Right. Callandre, take Paxton with you, retrieve that file.” Julian silently thanked everything that was holy they’d practiced all this so much. “He’ll bring it back here; you get to General Nanava and inform him and Admiral Moon we’re going with Plan Baker for deployment.” The one for Lyran space, and fortunately the one that they’d just finished a series of exercises testing the first stages of. “Aaron, how soon can those cargo carriers get down here?”

“Tell the truth, they’re already down and unloading to your supply people; have been for hours, actually.” Aaron shrugged. “I didn’t think you’d turn them down. And you can keep the ships; I didn’t get a receipt when I took them from the Liaos. I’ll hold Tikonov while you’re away.”

“And before you say anything, Julian,” Sandra spoke up, “I’m coming with you. You’ll need someone to deal with the Lyran bureaucracy while you manage the military side, and unless you want Callandre to be doing that…”

Any commander had to know when to yield an untenable position, and Julian contented himself with a nod. Despite how difficult this was going to be, he felt relieved, glad to finally have something beyond exercises or pushing back the occasional Kuritan raid to do.


Somewhere in Deep Space[]

Merchant Vessel Carleuche
Flagship of Gamma Aimag, Tiburon Khanate
Clan Sea Fox
Deep Space Anchorage Omicron
6th November, 3142


Ordinarily, whenever the ships of the Tiburon Khanate came together at one of their many deep space rendezvous - to resupply, to share news and trade goods and simply to be among their own for a time - Master Merchant Antoinette Labov liked to spend much of her time watching. She had always found the vast shoal of silver-skinned JumpShips and DropShips a soothing, inspiring sight; just as was the jeweled glow of the continuous streams of shuttlecraft passing between them, and the lights of spotlamp and welding torch moving across the surface of each vessel in the endless cycle of maintenance.

Ordinarily.

But, as much as she needed that steadying influence, today was not ordinary, and as she airswam along Star Seeker’s access tube, she barely spared that vista a glance. The information she was carrying - Antoinette placed a hand on the data-wafer secured to her belt, just to make sure it was still there, still real - was too important.

She made her way deeper inside the converted destroyer, through armored bulkheads and past the feed mechanisms for the Carleuche’s naval-grade autocannon and missile tubes. There was only one place ovKhan Hammand was likely to be during this assembly.

Deep within the hull core, Antoinette presented her Codex to the Elemental Marine guarding one particular access hatch.

Within, ovKhan Orestes Hammond swam within a sea of stars. Or, at least, that was how it looked; the truth was actually quite close to that. The ovKhan floated, in truth, in amongst the vast — at least by JumpShip standards — holographic map that formed the core of the astrography section, with the Tiburon Khanate’s holdings, trade routes and vessels marked out in amongst that network of blue-white dots.

She waited, steadying herself, marshaling all that she knew and had to say.

“Master Merchant Labov,” Hammond acknowledged her, airswimming down to her level. A slim, neat man, he moved with the careful precision of a dancer; or the master savateur that she knew he was. “I take it, from the urgency of your request for a meeting, that this is not a social call?”

“It is not, ovKhan,” Antoinette acknowledged. “There is a great deal I have to explain, but it would be simplest if you were to observe the data on this,” she slid the data-wafer from her pocket, “first. With your permission?” That drew a nod, and she pushed off a stanchion to the holoprojector’s controls.

The briefing summary that her staff had assembled took some twenty minutes, and ovKhan Hammond remained silent throughout. When the last of it came to a stop, he interlaced his fingers and fixed Antoinette with a sharp look.

“Master Merchant, that was a highly informative and comprehensive presentation, which leaves me with one of two choices. The first, is that you have lost your mind, and this is an extremely elaborate prank. The second is that you are telling the truth. And I know which explanation I favor. I take it you have a plan for how to proceed from here?”

Aff, ovKhan.” Antoinette let out a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. “I have dispatched one of my flotilla’s trading vessels to Timkovichi, to make initial contact and learn more of these ‘Arcadians’. Whether their tale of being from a … different Inner Sphere is true or not, they seem ignorant of matters here, and in need of information from a source other than the Lyrans.”

“Wisely thought,” Hammond nodded. “For we have much information to sell to them; and it is an opening to begin ensuring that they see us as useful.”

“I also believe," Antoinette paused before forcing herself to cross the Rubicon, “that we should petition the Khan to send an emissary to the Bears with this information. Not all of it,” she clarified, “but enough to engage their interest. And,” she smiled, “I believe that, with the Horses’ raids against them, the Bears will be very interested to know what has befallen their collaboration with Malvina Hazen, quiaff?”

“Aff, that they would pay much to know, indeed.” Hammond’s hard, feral grin mirrored her own. “We will talk of this more later, in full council of the Aimag. There is a great deal of profit to be made here - and just as great risk, but that is what makes life interesting, quiaff?”

“That is so, ovKhan,” Antionette agreed. And the risk is why I fought to become Master Merchant, rather than remaining a mere - and safe - trading factor.  Along with being sure that I am one of those making the profits to be had.


Plans of Wolves[]

Wolf Empire Military Headquarters
Alliago City, Gienah
Wolf Empire Occupation Zone
16th November, 3142

With just eight days left before perhaps the most important meeting of his life, Alaric Wolf was surprisingly nonplussed to find out that reality was no longer working.

The report coming from the opposite end of the Commonwealth would have ordinarily been dismissed as someone mixing an entertainment holovid into news items.  But the Watch's relayed reports of the Lyrans' press was adamant it was real, as were the Sea Fox Factors who relayed the news along with a recent shipment of war material to the Wolves.

From the other side of the room, his mother Katrina watched the image of the Red Talon burning over Timkovichi orbit with abject surprise, which quickly became concern.  "You just lost your main argument against Khan Ward," she noted.

"I did, but I shall adapt.  Flexibility is important when dealing with the unexpected, quiaff?"

"Aff."

Alaric allowed himself a slight, wolfish smile.  "You seem disappointed, Mother.  Is it because these interlopers, these 'Arcadians', saved the Kell Hounds from annihilation?"  He watched her face for signs of a reaction.  The Kells were among those who stood against her so many decades ago, when she'd asserted rulership of the Steiner and Davion realms as Archon-Princess.  They'd participated in the grueling civil war that ruined both realms and saw her cast from her throne and made a prisoner.

There were times Alaric wondered why her brother Victor, his genetic sire, hadn't had her executed.  Softness toward family, perhaps?  Spheroids had all sorts of taboos, restrictions, that a Clan warrior like himself did not necessarily share. But they are soft only up to a point; remember that. The Smoke Jaguars and the Word of Blake had both assumed that Spheroids could not be as hard as they needed to be, and both had paid for it in failure - the only sin Alaric allowed himself to recognize.

Whatever frustration his remark caused her, Katrina quickly recovered.  A very satisfied little grin formed on her lips.  "Morgan and his whelps are dead, and I am not.  I outlived them all, Alaric.  And when we are done, I will have undone everything my brother and his followers built."  She gestured toward the screen.  "Of more importance is that this changes everything.  Malvina Hazen is dead or a captive, and no longer commands the Falcons.  You cannot use the threat of her becoming ilKhan to goad Ward."

"True, I cannot.  But now I have something even better."  He walked up and ran his hand through the holographic display, as if he could grasp the colossal WarShips visible.  "Such power.  These Arcadians brought a naval force through that would have turned the tide of any naval battle in the last twenty years.  Who knows how much greater their strength may be?  They could be a threat to the Clans unlike any we have faced since the Word of Blake.  And if they are on the Lyrans' side, we are running out of time."

"So it is the threat of the interlopers, then?" she asked.  "Surely Khan Ward will use it to justify holding ground and rebuilding forces."

"He will, but I will demonstrate the cowardice of such a plan, and how it leads to inevitable defeat.  If we are to prevail, we must continue the advance, we must strike the Lyrans and take Tharkad before they recover or can summon more of these Arcadians to their assistance.  Tharkad's fall will break the Commonwealth to pieces."  Alaric noted his mother's thoughtful expression.  She was examining his argument for weakness.  "You have seen my work.  Three more galaxies, enough forces to sweep away the broken Lyran units that would hold us back from Tharkad, and to continue other pursuits."

"Terra." she recognized immediately.

"Of course.  That is still our main goal.  At some point the Republic's wall will come down, or we will find a way through.  Breaking the Lyrans will give us time to rebuild and prepare for it while the outsiders struggle in the resulting chaos.  Let them choke on the Lyran corpse when we have had our share."

The pleasure in her eyes showed her thoughts on that.  For all Katrina Steiner-Davion had once declared herself the champion of the Lyran people, she held no real regard for them, especially after so many fought against her, or failed to secure her throne.  That the Commonwealth would be destroyed mattered little.  It was the purpose she had in mind when arranging my birth, after all.

"A sound plan, then.  The Clan Council will see it as better than going onto the defensive.  Be ready, though, for Seth Ward is no fool, and the Loremaster despises you as well."

He accepted her advice with a nod, but inwardly he felt no trepidation, just confidence in the victories to come… and his own, unspoken plans for the future.  And the Commonwealth may be my prize after all, mother, regardless of what you think.


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