Charles Fine straitened his grey coat and under tunic, checking the buttons to ensure that everything was fastened strait. No matter how careful he was when he buttoned his coat; he still seemed to miss a clasp or two every time. The clothing was dirtier than he’d liked it to be, but there was no helping that now.
The outfit had no visible dirt and no discernible wrinkles, but Charles had not had them dry cleaned in well over a month, since before he started this journey to the outlands. The outlands were a primitive place. Without the support of the colonies, every planet considered themselves their own unique identity, governed by themselves.
Charles had even heard of a planet that had three rival governments across its surface; this was complete anarchy. The outlanders called themselves the free colonies, but the truth was, they were merely rejected from established colonies. They took over planets and systems that were considered too unprofitable or inconvenient for one of the SPIGs to claim.
The system he was in now, Meridian, was rejected because its awkward position required two jump gates and almost two weeks of travel in between to reach, in account of a massive gas cloud that blocked the system from a more direct route to any of the colonies. Still, people traveled there, and lived there, for the one planet designated for producing D Class resources, which was food and farming. It was important to be sure, but not the most profitable resource.
The planet, named Meridian 1, also named Meridian Prime as a joke by some, was where Charles Fine found himself now, traveling down an unpaved road in a horse-drawn carriage. This was absolutely ridiculous, Charles knew that some nobles kept horses, and horse-drawn carriage rides were a popular form of entertainment for them, but he had never been to a place that used them as a primary form of travel.
Besides the rather inconvenient travel, the only hospitable planet in this system also suffered from strange geomagnetic disturbances. Fine was neither an astronomer nor a geologist, but he knew real estate that caused many unprotected electronics to malfunction to the point that the planet’s residents lived life with only basic access to technology held little value to the colonies.
However, the planet was settled anyway, by those who sought after simpler lives as well as those looking to work outside the laws of the common man. It was the later that Charles himself was seeking here on this rock. It had taken him a great deal of effort to make this contact on this particular day, and more work still to find an adequate reason to get here without raising any suspicion.
The old noble honestly wondered why he even bothered. He opened a small pocket on the inside of his fine gray coat, pulling out a ripped and beaten picture. The picture was of himself as a far younger and stupider man and one of his close friends. They both had an insolent grin on their faces received from having lived a life of luxury. He recognized that grin, often present on the faces of his grandchildren and their friends. It was nice to be young.
The friend in the photograph was none other than Deiron Cleefe. They had posed for that photo together after having built their first rider. At the time, young nobles often made a hobby of assembling antigravity riders from scratch. While Deiron was 10 years younger than Charles Fine, it wasn’t abnormal for younger nobles to hang out, and he had always taken to Deiron as a younger brother. More often than not, the noble would completely mess up the assembly and eventually hire a technician to finish putting it together correctly. However, Deiron was determined, and after 3 months of work, the two had completed their project.
Charles’ father had found out about the rider two weeks later, banning either of them from driving it. Riders were actually quite dangerous to drive, and many people had died from rider related crashes. Deiron had never blamed Charles for his father finding out, nor did he blame him for the beatings he received after Charles’ father had told his own.
Charles put the picture back into the inside of his pocket. When you became as old as Charles Fine, sometimes you needed a reminder of what your purpose truly was. He resolved himself to do what had to be done, his other hand tightening on a small envelope he had in his hand. He hadn’t realized he had been grasping it, and laid it back down on the seat next to him, using his hand to flatten it out the best he could.
The carriage finally pulled to a stop. The driver got up and opened the door for Charles, who quickly grabbed the letter and left the cart.
“Thank you, and please wait, as this will not be a long trip,” Charles Fine said, pressing a credit into the man’s hand.
It always paid to have good manners and pay the help a little at a time. His father had taught him to never pay a man all he’s due at once. If you pay a man everything at once, the man quickly forgets about the gesture and moves on. If you pay him a little at a time, he will keep coming back, waiting for that next payment.
Charles took in the world around him. He stood in front of an old dilapidated building that looked like it was in desperate need of repairs. The area of this city did not look particularly dangerous or foreboding, but it did have a certain degree of wear as if the buildings and structures had simply been around and weathered for too long.
“So this is where it is,” Charles thought scornfully, “a suiting place for terrorists and rebels.”
A small boy popped his head out the door, took a look at Charles, and shut the door. After a moment, he opened the door again, standing in the entrance.
“Is yous the Fine person?” he asked, his voice drawn out in the slow meticulous voice of the Delphie.
Charles Fine nodded. The young boy gave him a wave before turning. Charles quickly followed him into the building. The rooms and hallways seemed to be in better shape than the outside of the house. The hallway was clean, not dusty, and had a faint smell of lemons that were not completely unsatisfactory.
Still, the rooms within did not look natural. Despite having the appearances of a home, there was nothing on any of the walls, the furniture was minimalistic, and the rooms seemed empty. As he walked down the hallway to the back of the house, he was surprised to find that all of the rooms were empty of people as well as furniture. When Deiron ran the Lancers, the places he chose as bases of operation were often lively, full of children and other members about various tasks.
They came to a stairway and the young Delphie boy raced up it, using his hands to help glide him up. Charles took his time on the stairs, forcing the young boy to impatiently wait until he reached him. One more turn and they came to a door.
“She in dare,” The boy said, making an awkward bow before taking off around the corner.
Charles took a deep breath, and then knocked on the door with three sharp taps. After a few seconds, he heard a female voice inviting him in. He opened the door.
The room before him consisted of a simple wood desk, a chair, and the woman in the chair behind that desk. The rest of the room was bare, almost as if any convenience or frills were abandoned. The women herself caused Charles to gasp. It had been almost three years since he had last seen the lady Marideen Cleefe, but he had not expected the person before him.
Marideen had long dark brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail. Her face looked much older than the last time he had seen her. Once she had looked vibrant and youthful, but the childlike features that once touched her face seemed to be completely abandoned. So had the humor and mirth that once had been a part of that face.
The last time he had seen her, she had been distraught over the loss of her sister. Her features had taken on a haunted overcast that seemed natural for the situation. However, in the intervening years, that look did not diminish much. Her eyes, a beautiful hazel brown, looked almost black now. This was not because the color of her eyes changed, but because of how she looked at someone, drawing and holding their focus in a hawk-like gaze, a dark overcast seeming to be a permanent part of those eyes.
Her skin was not well tended. Where once she had used lotion and oil and maintained herself as any noble lady would be expected to, she had let her skin dry and harden. This had the effect of making her appear older than she should. She looked rough and worn, tired and wary. She looked at him, an edge of mistrust apparent in her eyes. He noticed that she wore a sword at her belt, and carried it with a grace that suggested she was used to it.
“Charles Fine, it has been a long time,” she stated, her eyes meeting his own with that hawklike gaze.
“Yes, it has cousin,” Charles managed to choke out, quickly gaining his composure; he quickly noticed her lack of honorific.
He pulled out a handkerchief, dabbing at his eyes and face before putting it back away.
“I don’t like to waste time with too many pleasantries these days, I’m sure you’d understand,” she stated.
He attempted to meet her stare directly. There was a bit of a sparkle of them. He was almost certain she was putting him down in some way, but he could not be certain. Charles marveled that once not too long ago he had looked at setting her up with one of his natural cousins. How things change in so short of a time. Was this how his good friend Deiron’s house ends? The line gone, him imprisoned, his only living heir a renegade?
“Yes, well I imagine this place affords little accommodation for formality,” Charles Fine awkwardly responded.
It seemed to be what she expected as she finally lowered her eyes. Charles Fine let out a little breath. It had been some time since he had felt himself intimidated. He told himself it was the location and not the company involved. If this was back at his manor rather than these lawless border worlds those eyes would not be quite so piercing.
“Why are you here Fine?” Marideen demanded sharply, cutting to the point as she said she would.
“As you know, your father and I were once very close friends. Our houses have been closed for many generations and we grew up together. I am very fond of him, and while I don’t personally have a brother, I have always seen him as close to one,” Charles swallowed as she looked at him darkly,” Quick, of course. As you know, a lifetime of friendship has lead to many debts. Debts owed by him, and debts I owe him in turn.”
“Once Deiron was captured some three years ago, I began safely inquiring about things regarding him and his location.”
“My father? You know where he is?” Marideen interrupted, her eyes brightening for just a moment before she reestablished her composure.
He had to give her credit. That was excellent mastery of her facial features and would have done her splendidly well in a court. The rest of her, unfortunately, was unkempt, dirty, and rough. Perhaps he could make a noble of her yet, but when those eyes stared him down again and he quickly dropped the notion.
“About three months ago I managed to acquire the location of the prison your father is at. As you can understand, I did not know what I could do with this information. I tried to inquire further, but I was not able to find anything more than just the name. I owe him, your father, you understand don’t you?”
They sat in silence for a moment before she responded, “Where?”
“Now, I need certain assurances. You and your group, they have a bit of a reputation, you understand?”
A smile formed on Marideen’s face, it held no humor, “Do you know what they call me, the public?”
The look on Marideen’s face quickly turned terrifying. This was a mistake. Charles knew this now. He had never been a supporter of the Lancers or their cause, but this thing that Marideen had turned it into was monstrous. He needed to leave.
“I…could not,” he began.
“The Butcher of Braun, or haven’t you heard?” Marideen stated, slowly getting to her feet.
“It is most assuredly an exaggeration,” Charles reassured her.
“It’s not,” She replied curtly, walking over to the room’s small foggy window peering through it,” I earned that name, twenty thousand men, woman, children… Whom I killed for no other reason than that they were in my way.”
Charles could not see her face, but her voice had taken an edge that made his spine shiver. Her voice was too calm, too steady. She was no noble. There was nothing noble about her. The Butcher of Braun was in front of him, the little girl they used to pick berries with her little sister on his estate was long dead. He silently made a prayer.
“So…” Marideen continued after he made no comment in response, “I will offer you assurance. Life. You cooperate with me, and you won’t die.”
Charles attempted to straighten his jacket and regain his lost dignity, “I will cooperate, but I do not have much time, I must return to my estates.”
A cruel smile curved on Marideen’s lips, “You’re not leaving.”
He had already expected that answer. He let his shoulders slouch in resignation. Slightly. There was still propriety to consider.
“You will be coming with us,” his eyebrows rose as she continued, “I would not have our information be flawed and finding myself without the culprit responsible.”
Charles Fine had not realized how bad things had gotten. He had put himself in this situation, so he squared his shoulders and prepared himself for a battle. After this, if he survived, he would be done with it. He had served his debts and responsibilities to Deiron.
Sometime later, Marideen finished with Charles Fine. She felt mildly sick to her stomach. She did not like intimidating people. Charles Fine had once been a significant family friend of her fathers, and that loyalty had driven him there. Or had it? The old man could just as easily be working for the Taerren government, waiting to betray her or lay false trails to trap her. It would not have been the first time the Boramont had tried to trap her. She absently fingered a scar on her left wrist. She couldn’t remember how she had received that scar. Was it the Run of Foxtra or perhaps the Bolstein sabotage. She was tired. Tired of fighting and tired of being an icon to hold up the Lancers.
She strengthened her resolve. This was her mission. If Charles Fine was right, she could finally take a step back. She could put her father back in charge and she could stop being the figurehead of this resistance if he was right… Until then, however, she did not have time to rest. She could not let herself be weak for a moment.
She walked down the hallway of the mansion. It had been abandoned long before she had taken over the location. She wasn’t sure who had lived there before it had been abandoned. It could possibly be a noble who was involved in the black market performing under the counter dealings. Perhaps it was a foreign dignitary looking for a place to secure information on Taerren politics. Maybe it was even a crime lord; they were always prevalent in the Outlands.
Either way, it became an ideal location for her to meet as well. As soon as she had heard tell that Charles Fine was looking for her, she had arranged this meeting here. It was a risk, any meeting with anyone who was not a lancer always introduced risk, but it was a risk she found acceptable. Charles Fine had helped them in the past, and his information in this point could potentially be invaluable. Her father? Who would have thought that information would have found itself to her in this way? She had ransacked dozens of facilities, hacked numerous servers, and never found any concrete information on the location of his whereabouts.
She held the data chip that Charles Fine had provided her. The information seemed sound. There appeared to be no tampering. Strong evidence, to be sure, but she could never let herself become hopeful. Being hopeful is what caused situations like Braun. She cringed at the thought of it but quickly turned the thoughts aside. They were weak thoughts, and she needed to be stronger. A stronger person could have saved Danelle. More pain, those were even weaker thoughts. The future, she had to concern herself with the future.
The prison he was located in would take some time to infiltrate. Basalt station was a maximum security prison for those considered a danger to the government and its people. It would require months of planning, another month of travel. At least six months to bribe the right people, set pieces in the right place, and trigger the appropriate attack. Everything had to be perfect this time. She could not afford another Vanderra, she could not afford another Braun. She would need to get the plans underway by the end of the day.
She became aware of her location as she walked down the hallway. She hadn’t realized where her feet were taking her until she was almost at the door. Perhaps it was her unconscious mind telling her she needed to prepare. The data chip slid into her pocket and she readied herself. As she walked through the door she dropped to a roll. The blow missed her by a hair as she crossed to the other side of the room. Her sword left her scabbard by the time she was back on her feet. She was shocked for a moment to see the glint of metal. It was a real sword.
The dark snakelike man slithered towards her. Within two steps he swung again she dodged, avoiding making contact with his blade. He made several more slices which she easily avoided. His exuberance waned as the moment of surprise was at an end. She, of course, new that he would be there. She had paid him to be there, but real steel?
“Good, you’re learning,” the man said with a sneer.
He always sneered. He sneered when he wasn’t looking at someone with complete disgust. So much different than Beiromon, who always held an air of nobility, righteousness, and pride. Of course, what did pride do for you? Pride let your little sister die. She didn’t want to know how to dual, she wanted to know how to kill.
Her thoughts had wondered, the man had moved to her side, he threw something from his pocket at her. She moved to block it with her blade, but as soon as it struck in burst into a cloud of dust. The dust spread across the room, striking her eyes and causing them to burn. The man closed the distance between her, his blade lashing out. It struck her right arm, a glancing blow that stung. She blinked the tears from her eyes. It was a dirty trick, and perhaps once she might have complained about it, but she had come to learn that all was fair in battle, and there was no such thing as honor in fighting.
When he backed to retreat, opening more space for him to strike with his sword again, she stepped forward, preventing him from gaining the extra room.
Pulling out a small dagger from the back of her pocket, she lunged to strike him. He had anticipated and ducked to avoid her, and then shoved, ramming his shoulder into her abdomen. He pressed forward, pushing her back. The handle of the dagger struck the back of his shoulder and she lost the grip on it. She collided with the wall with a grunt. Before she could react, there was a dagger at her throat.
“You’re dead,” the man said, his sneer not really changing much.
It irked her. Perhaps if he had shown any sense of accomplishment, pride, or gloating, it would have been different. However, he didn’t care. Defeating her had meant nothing to him. It was just a task, like brushing teeth or changing clothing.
“What did you do wrong?” The man asked; the sneer still on his face.
“That was a bold move. I wouldn’t have expected it from you,” She began, noticing the sneer on his face growing more condescending.
“Never do what is expected,” he lectured, “Trust no one, yourself and your own expectations least of all.”
Marideen nodded her face flushing slightly. She wasn’t unused to his berating, it was simply so unlike her old friend. Beiromon had always been hard, fair and just. However, Beiromon was gone, most likely dead, and she needed to be pushed to her very limits if she wanted to be able to do what she felt was necessary to do. She accepted the criticisms, made them a part of herself. She deserved them.
He removed the dagger from her throat. Stepped back a few steps, and then went at her again. She didn’t know his name. He was a psi-blade. She had needed a new one after she had dismissed Markus. She still wondered if he had been the one to betray her father. However, he had done enough good that she had spared his life. The new psi-blade had the privilege of being exceptionally skilled in combat as well as the other specialties of a psi-blade. For this reason, she had also assigned him as her swordmaster.
He simply referred to himself as E. Whether his name actually started with an E, or he wore that name for some other reason, Marideen did not know. However, he taught her to be like she felt she needed to be. She could not afford the nobility of Beiromon or the cowardliness of Markus anymore. Trust no one, not even herself. She lunged at him, her blade flashing like light; her eyes blazing with fury. No one would die because of her inadequateness again.