Commander Huxley walked at the head of her army, as they marched the long road between Lady Bastille’s estate, and the capital of the border province known as Owlsmoor. It was one of the many prodigal lands that had joined neither side in the recent war between Regina Maxima and her brother. Both had attempted to conquer it, both had failed. Attempts at diplomacy met with similar fates. Owlsmoor considered itself an independent state, and seemed happy to be so. As such, it was now one of the most stable and prosperous lands around, as it had escaped much of the current strife relatively unscathed. The nobles were convinced that if they were to face the Archbishop on the field, they would need Owlsmoor’s support - or, at the very least, their non-interference. Commander Huxley, on the other hand, was less than convinced.
“You still question the wisdom of this march,” Lady Ravensdown said to Commander Huxley as they walked. Lady Bastille rode behind in a carriage, and Lord Captain Briarwood marched with the rest of the officers, but Lady Ravensdown wanted a word with their commander. Plus, she thought it best not to set herself too far apart from the troops. She had no desire to go quite so far as Briarwood, but riding safe and comfortable in a carriage while the soldiers marched was no way to endear oneself to the military. Lady Ravensdown knew that for what she had planned, she would need to endear herself to the military.
“Not the march,” Huxley replied. “The march is fine. In fact, I think it was high time we took our recruits out into the field, even if it’s just a march into neutral territory. They’ve all performed well these past weeks of training, but the field is where a soldier is made.”
Huxley nodded. “Or that.”
“So?” Lady Ravensdown asked. “What troubles you?”
“Who says I’m troubled?”
The tall noblewoman laughed. “Oh, Commander, you do not hide your displeasure, nor any of your emotions, as well as all that. To one who has lived her whole life amid the numerous intrigues of the imperial court, you are something of an open book, I’m afraid.”
Huxley grinned. “Yes,” she admitted. “Well.”
“It’s Owlsmoor, yes? You don’t think we need them.”
“We don’t need them.”
“So you say.”
“So I know.” Huxley looked sharply at the woman walking next to her. “You recruited me to your rebellion because you valued my military experience, and my knowledge of current legionary strength. That strength was in serious decline when I left, and I am certain it has only diminished further since. The Archbishop squandered what hold she may have had on the Imperium, and the disappearance of the Empress only exacerbated the problem. By this point, I doubt she has much more than a rag-tag group of drunken sell-swords under her command, if that.”
“Perhaps,” Lady Ravensdown said.
Huxley made to argue the point again, but Lady Ravensdown held up her hands.
“I do not attempt to dispute you, Commander,” she said. “You are right, we did recruit you for your knowledge and experience, and it would be foolhardy indeed not to heed them. And it could very well be as you say. The Archbishop may be easily routed, with little effort on our part. In fact, I have heard rumors through my spies that she is dead already.”
“Well, then,” Huxley said. “My point is proven further still.”
“Ah,” Lady Ravensdown said, “but who killed her, and why? And what will become of the remains of the Imperium now?”
Huxley pondered this.
“We march into chaos, Commander,” Lady Ravensdown said. “We would do well to have all the strength we can gather at our backs.”
“Mm,” Huxley nodded. “I can’t argue that. Still, Owlsmoor...”
Realization dawned on the noblewoman. “Ah,” she said. “You served in one of the Owlsmoor campaigns?”
“Both of them.”
Lady Ravensdown laid a gentle hand on Huxley’s arm. “I had heard...”
“What you heard, my Lady, was no doubt the palest shadow of what I experienced.” Huxley’s jaw clenched involuntarily. “The people of Owlsmoor are not to be trusted,” she growled.
Lady Ravensdown slid her hand up Huxley’s arm and gripped her shoulder. “I know,” she said. “I assure you, I have no intention of doing so.”
Lady Ravensdown offered a kind smile, and a final pat on the shoulder. “Well, we shall arrive soon,” she said. “I had best prepare myself. With your leave, Commander.”
“My Lady,” Huxley inclined her head.
Lady Ravensdown walked back down the line toward the carriage, offering smiles and kind words for the soldiers as she passed. Walking may ingratiate her with the troops, but a Lady must arrive in state, and for that, she needed the carriage.
They crossed into Owlsmoor lands by afternoon, but the sun was beginning to set by the time they reached the capital city itself. As a large army on the march tends to attract attention, they were met several miles out by a contingent of Owlsmoor’s Republican Guard. Their Captain, who appeared as little more than a towering mass of solid muscle topped by a scowl, was less than pleased by what he saw as an intrusion into sovereign territory by a foreign military.
“Understand this,” he said in a voice like two stones rubbing together, “the first sign you give me of treachery, I slaughter the lot of you. Aside from yourself and maybe a few others, you’ve naught but green recruits here. I’d gut them before they had the chance to piss themselves.”
“So you keep saying,” Commander Huxley said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.
“I just want it made clear.”
“Consider it transparent, Captain.” She turned away from him to walk back and check on her army, many of whom were growing wary of the grizzled and angry veterans marching beside them. Not for the first time, she wished she’d been able to find more deserters from the legions to join them. She was brought up short by the captain’s rough hand gripping her arm. He attempted to pull her toward him, but she planted her feet and he couldn’t budge her. She flexed her bicep and felt his fingers loosen their grip. Yanking her arm free, she glared at him.
“Commander,” he said, his voice low and angry, “I imagine you and I are going to have ourselves a serious problem, before all is said and done.”
“I look forward to solving that problem, Captain,” she said, her eyes burning holes through his. “Believe me.” She turned away again and walked off. This time he made no attempt to stop her.
Theodora Magna, First Consul of Owlsmoor, had been a young girl at the start of the Fraternal Wars. Her father was the provincial governor when the wars began, and initially he stood with the Emperor. Years of inept bungling on the part of Quartus Futilis, however, made him question that choice. Unfortunately, he found little to admire in the so-called Witch Queen, and decided both sides could go to the deepest Hells and Owlsmoor became the first province to break away. He organized the government along republican lines, with a pair of consuls that, ideally, would balance each other, and a senate to act as a legislative council. He was elected First Consul in a landslide, with one of his most decorated officers as his Vice.
Of course, the senate took over almost immediately. They were the wealthiest and most powerful of Owlsmoor’s landowners and merchants, and it wasn’t long before they owned Owlsmoor’s government as well as its land. The consuls, which, coincidentally, were the only elected offices in the government, soon became little more than figureheads who parroted the edicts of the senate to a largely complacent populace.
Theodora had served valiantly in the Guard during the wars, and was elected Vice Consul when her father died and his own Vice moved into the First position. She, in turn, was elected First a few years ago, with some foppish second child of a prominent senator taking the Vice position. Though she knew her office held little real power, she had inherited her father’s love of her people, and strove to serve them as best she could. Needless to say, that wasn’t much. Therefore, it was with mixed emotions that she welcomed the rebel army into the Hall of Government.
“I must admit, however,” she said, following all relevant introductions, “that there does not appear to be much for you to rebel against. From all we have heard, the dreaded Archbishop has been killed, and there are none but a handful of besotted mercenaries to defend the Imperium.”
“Hah!” the barking laughter of Alexius Regis, her Vice Consul, never failed to set her teeth on edge. “The Imperium has barely existed in name only for years. Now it doesn’t even have that.” He turned a bored gaze upon their visitors. “Tell me, what, exactly, are you intending to save, and from whom?”
“A good question indeed, Vice Consul,” Senator Arcadia, an old woman who owned half the viable farmland in Owlsmoor, said. She looked down at the Ladies Ravensdown and Bastille from her ornate chair on a raised dais. “What are you truly after, my Ladies?”
Lady Ravensdown offered her most deferential curtsey. “Illustrious Senators, wise Consuls, we seek only to restore the Imperium to its proper place, nothing more. We had believed it necessary to wrest control away from this foreign usurper, but, as you say, there is little need for that now.”
“You seek to reinstate an outdated status quo, you mean,” one of the other senators, Castor, said from his chair. “We have long lived outside the yoke of imperial power. What interest would we have in aiding you?”
Lady Bastille stepped forward, lending her voice to that of her comrade. “Think of it not as restoring the old order, but building a new.” She nodded toward the senators and bowed to the consuls. “Indeed, you may be right in saying the Imperium had outlived its usefulness, and perhaps it was time for it to die.” She spread her hands wide. “But from these remnants we could build a new empire, or perhaps a republic, modeled on your own government.” She nodded. “It will take work, to be sure. The numerous provinces of a fallen empire are in disarray. Most of the legions have fallen to banditry, and many people lack even the most basic necessities.” She smiled. “But we can change that. Join us, and make of Owlsmoor a shining example, so that your principles of liberty and democracy might spread across this land, uniting us once more!” She curtsied, then stepped back.
“That was a bit much, wouldn’t you say?” Lady Ravensdown muttered.
“Ten silver says it works.”
Their attention was brought back to Alexius, who was clapping slowly in exaggerated applause. “What a stirring speech, indeed, my dear Lady Bastille!” He sat back in his seat and looked at her as one might a precocious child. “Now, I don’t know about any of that ‘shining beacon of democracy’ rubbish, but you were right about one thing. We here in Owlsmoor have long pondered the notion that it may indeed be time for a new Imperium, built on the bones of the old and ruled from our capital. The thing of it is,” he smiled, and it was not a friendly smile, “what in the world do we need you lot for?”
The two Ladies and their army soon found themselves surrounded, and vastly outnumbered.
Looking down the barrel of several rifles, Lady Bastille whispered to Lady Ravensdown. “I’m afraid I may have some trouble paying you that ten silver.”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Lady Ravensdown whispered back. “I don’t believe I’d have much time to spend it.”