The quaint groundskeeper’s cottage that had felt too large after Janice’s death was now stifling hot and much too small for Patrick Field’s liking. As a simple man who’d never longed for intrigue or life in politics, Patrick couldn’t believe that his young friend, Archel, the servant boy, was really a griffin, much less the new king. How in Mercury’s name did I get mixed up in this? Patrick wondered while staring at the trio blocking his doorway. Yesterday, the boy helped me bury Meranti in that open grave back of Sentinel. Today, I’m acting guardian and the boy’s my king. Oh, Janice. Would that you could tell me…what should I do? He sighed to himself and sat heavily into his recliner.
“My help?” Santos asked in confusion.
Archel answered, “the Kaiser trusted you. It’s a chance I gotta take, too.”
“But…it’s true. You’re a griffin.”
Leading the awestruck Merc to Field’s couch, Cassie sat him down. “Yes, Kaiser Archel is.” She glanced over her shoulder at Archel who blinked his giant eagle eyes, his neck and head feathers ruffling as he fought the urge to yell at her again. “Kaiser Imler trusted his Mercs. He…” she breathed deeply, holding back the last image of him that rushed to her mind, “he trusted you to come today. And, here you are.” It was too difficult to meet Santos’ gaze, so she stared at the couch next to him instead, “we don’t know what…” she swallowed. Starting over, she said, “we don’t know what to do now.”
“I-I…” Santos bit back the, I don’t know, either, that had sprung to his lips, “I’m under orders from Commander Felis to protect you.” He looked at Archel, shivered, and then added, “I must get word to the Commander. He needs to know that a new griffin king has risen.” Santos bowed his head to Archel. “Sir, your safety must be my priority. Does anyone else know that you’re here?”
“I don’t know,” Archel said softly. “Mr. Field, did you tell anyone else?”
“It’s Patrick, Archel. Oh, uh. I mean, Kaiser Archel,” closing his eyes, he thought about the question. “Just him,” Patrick nodded to Santos, “and the guard on the Phoenix Rose.”
“Private Mack. He’s fine. Well, he should be. He’s a Merc initiate,” Santos explained. “Hasn’t been confirmed yet.” Scratching his chin and chewing his cheek, Santos made a quick decision, “Patrick?”
“I need you to relay a message to Commander Felis.”
“Yeah. I can’t go. I have to stay here to protect Kaiser Archel.”
Seeing this request as an opportunity to get out of his own house, Patrick stood up, asking, “what’s the message?”
“You’ll have to repeat it verbatim. Okay?”
“I may be crazy as a loon, but a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, even if the early bird gets the worm.”
“Carmel,” Praline slurred, “what’d’ya wan’em to lose now?”
“Their virginity,” Carmel laughed.
“Too late, ma’am,” Machine retorted, “lost that when I was 15.”
“Late bloomer,” Locos ribbed, “lost mine at 12.”
“Well, that presents a problem,” Carmel leaned against Machine, “you boys don’t got no more clothes to lose. ‘Cept those necklaces.”
“That what you call’em?” Praline purred into Locos ear while petting the tuff of black chest hair surrounding his dogtags.
“Yes’m,” he answered.
“Well, take’em off, my gorgeous little slave boys,” Carmel ordered.
Machine and Locos eyed each other before both removed their dogtags. They raised their glasses to one another in salute, then polished off their drinks.
“As you wish,” Machine said, turning to Carmel, he added, “anything else, milady?”
“Oh, you have no idea,” Carmel said, caressing the inside of his thigh.
The nondescript white house, with light green door and windows, sat at the end of a dead-end street and was surrounded on two sides by old growth forest. The front room of the safe house was set up like any normal living room, as the only room visible from the front door, the Inquisitor had insisted it appear proper. Of the three bedrooms, one contained three bunk beds and a walk-in closet large enough to hold all their travel clothes. The other two were specialty rooms. The back bedroom, originally a master bedroom, was converted into a workroom with two large tables, and a perfectly organized hanging wall shelf holding every tool necessary for creating, testing, and tweaking explosives. The third bedroom, directly across the hallway from the bunk room, was a gun collector’s wet dream of wall to wall shelves with every type of gun and accessory they could possibly smuggle into Poterit Don. It’d taken them a full year to deck out the house. While it was probably not the best idea to go directly to the safe house, it was the only place where Jougs and Vorant genuinely felt secure. With enough weaponry and explosives to start a war, and an underground passage that led into the middle of the forest, they knew they’d be able to escape if necessary. Jougs religiously checked the front window looking for any trace of being followed, while Vorant paced between the backdoor and Jougs. Obviously, they weren’t working with complete information, that damn politician must have set them up. The Inquisitor needed to know. If they didn’t make the rendezvous, he would switch to Plan B. But, if nothing else went wrong, they’d be there within the hour. As it stood, they needed to regroup and reequip.
The Mazard Apartments stood as a bleak testament to the nature of neglect. The 10 story brick and cement building was graffiti covered. Its originally bright orange, now chipped, paint had faded to a dingy grey-brown. Aside from the fresh layers of graffiti, the building looked exactly like it did the last time Lt. Musgrove had visited his uncle. The lieutenant smiled to himself, good to see the Waste never changes. So glad I got outta here. He looked up the street at Trinity Orthodox, the 400 year old church with intricate stained glass windows, ornately carved stone walls, and rainwater vomiting gargoyle statues. As he always did, Musgrove wondered how the practically abandoned church still called people from all over Poterit Dan to pilgrimage.
“Thanks for the lift,” Jessup said as he shoved open his door.
“Not a problem, soldier,” Dante said.
“Not anymore, sir,” Jessup groaned.
“Are you still in?”
“Did you take the oath?”
“Did you mean it?”
“Yes, sir.” Jessup sat up a bit straighter.
“Lieutenant Musgrove, what is a soldier after the Army’s done with him?”
“A veteran,” Musgrove replied instantly.
“Private Jessup, what is a veteran?” Dante asked.
“No. Never,” Dante spit. “Lieutenant?”
“Oh,” uncertain, Jessup smiled anyway, “thanks, sir.”
“You’ll never again be a civilian,” Dante explained, “you lost that title when you signed up. The day you get out, you’re a veteran. And, as a veteran, you’re obligated to your oath until the day you die. Unless,” Dante grew very serious, “you’re an oath-breaker. Are you?”
“No, sir!” Jessup responded with vigor.
“Well, there you go, soldier.”
The Silvans were an elderly couple that lived in the top half of the two story house that served as office, mortuary, and funeral home of Sentinel Cemetery. Using the courtesy phone located next to the main door, Ensign Osborne waited for someone to pick up, half-heartedly listening to General Michaels, who was telling of the first time he’d met the Silvans.
“Marcia looked like a doll,” General Michaels smiled at the memory, “we were here for Lieutenant Commander Hershiser’s funeral. Must have been the hottest day of the year,” a sweat bead rolled down his silver hairline, as if emphasizing the point, “and the whole command was dressed in full regalia. She wore a black dress, but it must have been thin, ‘cause she walked around like it was early spring. Had cups of water for anyone who needed it. All the younger crew tried acting tough, but what’s the first thing they teach us all? Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydr—”
Ensign Osborne held up a hand, “hello, ma’am?” He paused, “an emergency.” After another moment, “I’d rather explain in person.” Nodding his head, though she couldn’t see him, he finally said, “we’ll wait. Thank you.” Then, he hung up. “She’ll be down in a minute. Said Mr. Silvan is out.”
“As I was saying, they always tell us to hydrate, so by the time we were midway through the funeral everyone had a water cup in hand. The funeral party was so large, I just know she had to grab their personal cups from the house. I’d say most everyone had the same cups, but probably a full fifth had whatever she could find: coffee mugs, glasses, and those cheap little plastic cups that everyone throws at parades. You know the ones?”
“Yes, sir,” Osborne answered.
“Ever been to a military funeral?”
“Ah. Well, I’d say count your blessings, but it’s better not to count your chickens before they hatch.”
Before General Michaels could respond, the plain wooden door opened, revealing a well-lit foyer and the matron. Marcia Silvan wore a rather sensible set of maroon scrubs with a matching smock, though her neon yellow fluffy bug slippers were quite out of place.
“Marshall!” she exclaimed with a smile which evaporated when she asked, “who?”
General Michaels couldn’t help but smile back, for a moment, before answering, “Kaiser Imler, dear.”
Contemplating whether or not he should just say it, Ensign Osborne had waited too long, and quite suddenly found himself standing by silently watching as the general and the mortician spoke.
“It can’t be,” she said incredulously.
“Have I ever lied to you?”
“Oh, Marshall,” she sorrowfully shook her head. “Please, come in. Jason ran out to grab dinner.” She escorted them to the office, “what do you boys need?”
“You two handled his father’s passage,” General Michaels said. “You tell me.”
“That we did. As you know, I generally prepare the bodies, while Jason handles the funerals. Of course, with kings some things are handled by the Templus Ministrae. Have they been notified?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“No? Well, they’ll need to be. They’ve got procedures for this kind of thing. Where is he?”
“Back of Primrose Path, near Hershiser.”
She shivered, “the open slot?”
“Yes’m,” the general nodded.
“Just dug it for Robert,” Marcia said sadly.
“Lara and I saw. Willard Tomlyn’s father?” General Michaels asked.
The general bowed his head, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “This year hasn’t been kind. She’s taken so many of our fighters.”
“We just did the math last night. Four months in and we’ve already buried double last year.”
“I thought we’d seen more graves.”
“Not your imagination, Marshall. Where is Lara?”
“Not sure,” he said through clenched dentures, “soon as we finish up, this young man’s gonna help me look for her.”
“Lara’s missing?” Marcia nearly fell into her office chair. “Go find her, Marshall. We’ll get everything ready for the Kaiser. You come back here and tell me when you find her, otherwise I’ll worry myself sick.”
“I promise, Marcia,” he breathed heavily out his nose, his hand tightly gripping his cane. “You need anything else?”
“Just the Kaiser.”
“The Mercs are bringing him.”
“Then, go on. Find her.”