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The Best of Enemies (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 5 – The Best of Enemies[]

“No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.” -- Sun Tzu, 孫子兵法 (The Art of War)​​​


Playing with Cousins[]

Winter Palace, Forbidden City, Liao, Tikonov Commonality, Capellan Confederation
25th December, 2796


Ilsa Liao smiled at her cousin Mei Ying, while the third child of the Mei family, one of the Barduc warrior nobility, was shown into her working office by a guard. The smile widened at the sight of a wide-eyed Mei Huiquing looking around the room with her two-year old curiosity as she dragged her newly named Bǎobǎo behind her by one stuffed ear.

She gestured to preempt Ying’s bow to her. “Please, I get enough of that from the courtiers. I wish to speak to you personally as my cousin.”

“Of course, Ilsa”, the older woman took her seat and scooped Huiqing into her lap with the ease of practice, “, what made you call for me?”

Ilsa sighed. “I… wish to offer you a choice of service. I know that you are Dispossessed. After the destruction of my mother’s Mech on Calloway and now yours on Mirach as well as the wounding of your brother fighting on the Sarna front, House Mei are at some risk of falling out of the ranks of the Barduc. If you say the word, I shall make arrangements to divert one of the mechs from Tao Mechworks to your personal use out of my private funds as a gift for you as a replacement. Or….”

Ying’s breath sucked in like she had been punched.

Huiqing looked up at her adoptive mother’s face and asked, “Why cry?” in her innocent voice.

Ying closed her eyes and thought. “That would be a return to frontline service and away from you, yes?”

Ilsa spoke quietly. “Sadly, yes. The CCAF needs officers badly and I cannot in good faith keep you from the battlefield if that is where you would serve the Confederation better, in your judgement. The other option is to stay Dispossessed as my personal aide and advisor to share with me what wisdom you can. And your friendship, of course, but the demands of the State and my people come first for me always.”

Ying opened her eyes, looking at the young woman opposite from her, seeing the beginning of crow’s feet and the subtle signs of exhaustion, worry, and stress in her face under the mask of Celestial Wisdom.

“How can I forsake my Biǎo mèi, Ilsa? Send the Mech to a better warrior than I.” Ying said with a sad smile. “We all have our roles to play for our common good, and I can do more good at your elbow than on the battlefield.”

Ilsa’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Thank you, Biǎo jiě. I can now give you the other reward that I had planned for you. Tomorrow you shall be invested by me as Hereditary Barduc Lady Mei, with your landholding encompassing the Eight Thunder Dragon Orchard and Winery from my holdings here.” Ilsa grinned. “I know you like the plum wine from there after dinners. Huiqing also likes plums as a treat along with Bǎobǎo, as one would expect with a hungry rabbit like him!”

With that Ilsa pointed to the stuffed rabbit in the young child’s arms, now adorned with a green silk ribbon as part of the mending from the injuries that the ‘Magical Rabbit Doctor’ in the Palace staff had cured (in reality, two of the seamstresses). Huiqing recognized the Chinese word for plum and squirmed. “Want plum!”

Ilsa laughed and pulled a handful of purple candies from her desk drawer. “Have you been a good girl today?”

“Yes! Want plum!”

Ilsa laughed again and handed a pair of the plum candies over. “As you command, Plum Blossom Empress! One for you and one for Bǎobǎo”

The first of the candies were promptly stuffed in Huiqing’s mouth before she ‘fed’ the second to her stuffed rabbit. “Good plum!” She said with a happy smile. “Yummy!”

Ying laughed as a maid arrived to wrangle the ‘Plum Blossom Empress’ and her rabbit before she could convert the contents of the room into her private playpen. “Ahh she is a ray of sunshine! So, what do you wish to talk about Ilsa? The marriage proposals again?”

Ilsa slumped in her chair and rested her forehead in the palm of her hands. “Yes, those. I shall have to wed at some point, my duty to the dynasty and the State demand it. But the politics are… treacherous. Half -- no, four of every five! -- of the bachelors among the Sheng nobility view me as a stepping stone to power for them and their families. I have been using my availability to get them to court my favor for political support, but I shall have one winner and many spurned suitors when I make the inevitable choice.”

Ying walked behind the chair and began to massage Ilsa’s shoulders through her heavy silk robes. “I know you, Ilsa. You will do what you must as you must for duty, but you are still the young girl who would giggle along with me when we read The Water Margin instead of more proper fare in our studies of Chinese.”

Ilsa giggled and waggled a finger, relaxing into the massage. “Aaaaiieeee! Such impertinence saying that the Celestial Wisdom would dare read a book banned by the Ming emperors for obscenity despite it being one of the Four Classical Novels….”

Ying leaned close and quoted one of the more infamous passages from the book in a badly faked male whisper while she worked a knot out of Ilsa’s collarbone.

Ilsa called for her attendants.


"These seduction cases are the hardest of all. There are five conditions that have to be met before you can succeed. First, you have to be as handsome as Pan An. Second, you need a tool as big as a donkey's. Third, you must be as rich as Deng Tong. Fourth, you must be as forbearing as a needle plying through cotton wool. Fifth, you've got to spend time. It can be done only if you meet these five requirements."

"Frankly, I think I do. First, while I'm far from a Pan An, I still can get by. Second, I've had a big Red Pole since childhood…."


Ilsa flushed scarlet and began to giggle uncontrollably at Ying’s words. She gasped out through her mirth as the tension left her for the moment: “You depraved woman! Reminding me of my schoolgirl days!”


A Message from a far[]


The phone rang.

Ilsa promptly picked it up as Ying stepped back. “This is the Celestial Wisdom, what is it?”

Her eyes widened at the words from the communication center. “Send the file to my desk holoprojector!”

After Ilsa hung up, Ying cocked her head. “What is it?”

“A reply to my diplomatic overture to the Suns.” Ilsa replied, with subtle tension apparent in her voice. “I can only hope and pray that this Paul Davion is no aggressive fool.”

The projector activated, showing the sword and sunburst crest of the Federated Suns. The image then shifted to a young military man in the dark green uniform of the AFFS with the rank insignia sunburst of a Field Marshal. He was standing in front of a window looking down over New Avalon from Davion Palace. Ilsa noticed that the surrounding wall was timbered in Highspire longwood, a luxury product from the Capellan Confederation that also decorated some rooms in this very palace thanks to its attractive color and grain.

The young man bowed at the chest like a European knight from a long gone age, an impression made more so by a collection of antique medieval-styled swords racked on the wall behind him. His dark-blue eyes sparkled as he spoke in a melodic tenor with the Anglo-French accent of a native of New Avalon.


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“Greetings, Chancellor Liao. Thank you for your kind words of sympathy for myself and my younger brother Peter. I was unaware of your own losses to the Mariks before I became First Prince, since my training and preparation were not complete. You already know that trial of character as well as I. Man proposes, but God disposes.”

“I wish to extend my own personal sympathies and prayers to you and your family for your own losses before I address the business of state. Thank you again, and know that I also hold no personal animus for you and yours, Lady Liao.”

“War is truly a great evil, but in our time it has become a necessary act against the greater evils that you identified. In consultation with my High Command and my High Council, I shall be formally accepting your proposal for a cease-fire and staged drawdown along the Sarna, Capella, Saint Ives, and Sian Commonalities of the Confederation where they border the Capellan March. As you said, the situation around Tikonov and Chesterton is too delicate to be handled this way. You should be aware that my forces will use Chesterton as a base for strikes into the flank of the Combine’s advance. Not least because Chesterton is one of the closest planets to Kentares IV, which I must relieve as soon as I can.”

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Ilsa started to weep tears of relief as she smiled brilliantly.


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“Unfortunately, I cannot in good faith join in your unconditional return to the Ares Conventions at this time, not with the Dragon at my doorstep and my realm in such peril. I trust that you understand my reasons why. I know that if the Dragon was threatening Sian instead of here, you would do as I must do and for the same reasons. I shall, however, mandate a no first use policy against the Capellan Confederation’s people and soldiers, and order that the Ares Conventions be observed if our realms face each other in battle once more.

”Send a diplomatic team to New Avalon to handle the specifics of an agreement to battle our own monsters. However, they shall have to deal with my deputies, for my place is leading my men from the front. While our realms might never be friends for the reasons we both know, we can agree to be the best of enemies if nothing else.”

Paul grinned boyishly, and then walked to the wall with a confident stride.

He pulled an antique Arming Sword from the rack with the unconscious ease of hours in the salle d’armes. Steel flashed brilliantly as he effortlessly swung the blade one handed in a sword form before sweeping it up in a crusader’s salute to kiss the Sword and Sunburst on the round pommel.

He reversed the blade, plunging the tip into the wood floor while he went to one knee. He looked into the camera with fire and determination equal to hers in his dark blue gaze and confident grin.

“Lady Liao, as for your stated desire in your message to my grandfather, your knight now shall sally forth to slay the Dragon and save his people! Fear not! For is he not also named for Saint George, who slew the Dragon to save a helpless maiden in distress in his day, as I shall in my turn! Until we speak again, be of good faith and good heart, for if your heart is pure, your strength is as the strength of ten! Montjoie Saint Denis!!”

Paul’s grin widened. The image faded to the Sword and Sunburst once more.

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The blushing Ilsa stared at the crest, and bit her lip with tears in her eyes and an uncontrollable smile. She felt the burden of rule she would dutifully carry ease its cruel weight.

Ying took one look at her ‘little sister’s’ face and got an unholy gleam in her eyes.

She leaned close to whisper teasingly in Ilsa’s ear. “So, is his Yang Root as powerful as Guān Gōng’s Green Dragon Crescent Blade then, Biǎo mèi~? He’s certainly as handsome as Pan An and as rich as Deng Tong~~.”

“YING!”


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