A Sword of Ivy, Part 9

Hana woke up with a jolt, as the shuttle dropped out of subspace with a shudder. She groaned as she looked over at her clock. 1157. Even though she’d ordered her squad to sleep in, she certainly hadn’t meant that order for herself, and certainly not this late. She grumbled as she crawled out of bed and started getting dressed. She didn’t have time to shower now, because the shuttle would be landing any minute, and she needed to get to the Grand Hall and give her report to the Supreme Commander.

She strode out into the corridor and almost immediately ran into Xeliana. “Captain!” Xeliana exclaimed. “I was just coming to wake you up!”

“You could have done it a little sooner,” Hana growled. “Now I’m not going to have time to shower before I meet with the Supreme Commander.”

“Oh, the Supreme Commander’s tough enough to handle a little stench,” Xeliana said, giving Hana a playful wink. “Besides, I figured you needed the extra rest.”

“I suppose I did, at that,” Hana said in a resigned tone. “Well, can’t do much about it now. Anything to report?”

“Retico and Moratino are dueling for the title of Most Hungover, but other than that, it’s been pretty quiet this morning,” Xeliana said with a shrug. Hana snorted and smirked at that, and the two of them went into the observation lounge to watch the approach to Numoris.

It was a truly beautiful planet. Zhemeen Fortulis had known what he was doing when he chose this world as the Fangalin capital. It had only been 54 years since Numoris was colonized right under the nose of the Empire, and already it rivaled ancient provinces like Endragar and Parnora for economic and cultural sophistication. But its youth also meant that it still had vast wilderness areas, unlike those older, more densely populated worlds. It really was a fantastic place to call home, and it made Hana’s heart swell with pride every time she saw it.

“Home sweet home,” Xeliana said softly, echoing Hana’s thoughts. “It’s always good to get back.”

“You can say that again, Commander,” Hana said with a smile. She opened her mouth to say more, but was interrupted by a beep from the shuttle’s intercom system.

“Go ahead,” Hana said.

“Captain, I just received an urgent message from the Supreme Commander,” the shuttle’s pilot replied. “He wants you to go meet with him at the Grand Hall as soon as we land.”

“Understood, Ensign,” Hana said, and then looked at Xeliana quizzically.

“What’s that all about?” Xeliana asked, her face as puzzled as Hana’s.

“I don’t know,” Hana muttered. “I always report in with the Supreme Commander when I get back from a mission. He knows that. I don’t know why he would feel the need to remind me.”

“Well, I guess you really don’t have time for a shower now!” Xeliana said with a mischievous grin. Hana gave her a sour look and stuck her tongue out, causing Xeliana to laugh in response.

“Thanks for reminding me,” Hana grumbled.

***

Hana was ushered into the Supreme Commander’s office without preamble by the Commander’s assistant, a young man by the name of Morken Velenoth. Velenoth was slightly built, with short, dark hair, no facial hair, and penetrating brown eyes. He was quiet and diligent, the very picture of a hardworking administrative assistant. Despite that, there had always been something about Velenoth that Hana didn’t trust. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but it had always seemed as if Velenoth was a little too hardworking. Which didn’t make any sense, so she hadn’t ever bothered to voice her concerns.

The Supreme Commander’s office was as impressive as always, but Hana had spent so much time in it that she barely even noticed the opulence. She approached the Commander’s desk and stood at attention while he continued to peruse the documents on various tablets spread out in front of him. The expression on her face was impassive, but inside she was fairly perturbed at being ignored. For being so desperate to talk to her that he had contacted her shuttle the moment it dropped out of subspace, he sure wasn’t showing a lot of interest in her at the moment.

“I’ll be right with you, Captain,” Dren Calabane said without looking up. Hana’s facial expression didn’t change, but she felt like growling at him. He could at least do her the courtesy of looking at her!

Finally, he set aside the tablet in his hand and smiled up at her. “Welcome back to Crez, Captain Lodimeur,” he said pleasantly. “How was your time on Weblish?”

“Surprisingly productive, Commander,” Hana replied, still standing at attention.

“Indeed?” Calabane said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m glad to hear it. At ease, Captain. Have a seat.” He gestured to one of the two expensive-looking chairs facing his desk, and turned to Velenoth as Hana sat down. “That will be all, Morken. I will contact you when my meeting with Captain Lodimeur is concluded.” Velenoth nodded silently, and then swept out of the room. Calabane gazed somberly at Hana for a few minutes after Velenoth left, and Hana just continued to stare back at him impassively, but she felt her blood beginning to boil.

“Okay, what is this all about!?” Hana finally burst out, unable to keep up her neutral facade any longer. Calabane smirked slightly and leaned back.

“You’re such a…passionate person, Hana,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “That’s one of the things I like about you.” Hana just rolled her eyes in response. “Okay, I know how much you hate being strung along, so I’ll knock it off. I have a special mission for you.”

“Oh yeah?” Hana asked, raising an eyebrow. “What Army unit needs us to change their diapers now?”

“Nothing like that,” Calabane said, shaking his head. “I have a mission worthy of your talents.” He paused for a moment, and gave her a hard look. “I need you to be my bodyguard.”

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 8

Hana and Xeliana were quiet for awhile, just enjoying each others’ presence and trying to sort out their thoughts. Hana couldn’t quite believe how stupid she’d been. She had been trying to convince herself that she hadn’t been paying attention to Xeliana because she was trying to keep everyone at arm’s length so that she wouldn’t get hurt again if somebody she cared about died under her command. But if she was going to be honest, she had to admit that she’d been keeping her distance from Xeliana because of jealousy.

Which was stupid, because it wasn’t as if she’d ever cared about her looks. Even when she was in college, she’d been too busy, first with her classes, and then with revolution, to pay any attention to how she looked. Her best friend at Imperial University, Veshryk Jilorin, had often joked about how she would have been pretty if she’d ever bothered to brush her hair. Her usual response had been to roll her eyes and ignore him. There was too much work to be done to worry about being pretty. That had been true in college, and it was certainly true now. So why did she feel so threatened by Xeliana’s beauty?

Suddenly it dawned on her that it wasn’t even just Xeliana. She’d been keeping Vedregela at arm’s length for years as well, and for the same stupid reason. Not that Vedregela looked anything like Xeliana, but she was beautiful in her own way, and certainly more beautiful than Hana. And as she reflected on this further, she realized that it wasn’t even just Xeliana and Vedregela. Hana had kept her distance from every woman who’d ever been through the ranks of Starfengt.

“Do you remember Megoren?” Hana asked Xeliana in a quiet voice. A smile spread over Xeliana’s face, and her eyes lit up.

“Remember her?” Xeliana exclaimed. “I still get together with her every chance I get! Every time I have shore leave on Hechelen, Megoren and I paint the town red!”

“I see,” Hana said in a small voice.

“Why?” Xeliana asked, a thoughtful frown replacing her smile.

“Just…just curious,” Hana said, shaking her head dismissively.

“Wait,” Xeliana said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You don’t mean…? That’s what happened with you and Megoren? You were jealous of her looks too?”

“No, don’t be ridiculous!” Hana said, not looking Xeliana in the eye. Xeliana just looked at her, with a firm expression on her face and her arms folded across her chest. “Okay, fine! I admit it! I kicked Megoren Vigoral out of Starfengt because I felt threatened by her beauty! Happy now?”

“Hana, I don’t understand you,” Xeliana said, shaking her head. “Every man that has ever passed through our ranks has been smitten with you. Every woman wants to be you! Heck, despite the fact that we’re the most classified unit in all of Fangalin, half the people in Fangalin know who you are and are jealous of you! You’re a hero! I just don’t understand what you of all people have to be jealous about!”

“I know!” Hana moaned. “It’s stupid! I can’t even explain it. I’ve certainly never cared about being beautiful. But maybe that’s just because I was so convinced that I wasn’t beautiful that it seemed like a waste of time and effort to even try. And then I look at you, or Megoren, or Vedregela, and I just think, what would it be like to just be beautiful?”

“Okay, first of all, you are beautiful,” Xeliana said with a sympathetic smile. “So I don’t want to hear any of this nonsense about you trying to be as beautiful as me, because you already are, whether you believe it or not.” Hana gave a skeptical snort, but Xeliana ignored her. “Second, even if you were as ugly as you seem to think you are, what do you think you’d gain by being more beautiful?”

“Yeah, I know,” Hana said, rolling her eyes. “I already told you that I know it’s stupid. You don’t have to convince me.”

“I just want you to think, Hana,” Xeliana said. “And I want you to know that I care about you, and that you can rely on me, and you don’t have to feel threatened by me in any way. You need a confidant, somebody you can trust and lean on and rely on. And it doesn’t have to be me, if you don’t think you can trust me. But I want you to know that you can trust me, and I will always be here for you, no matter what happens.”

Hana was quiet for a moment, processing this. Finally she said, “Thank you, Xel. I mean it. That means a lot to me.” Xeliana looked at her with a winsome smile on her face for a few moments, and then she stood up, walked around the table, and wrapped her arms tightly around her commanding officer. Hana’s body seemed to melt, and tears poured from her eyes, as an entire lifetime of tension and worry seemed to bleed out of her. For a long time, they stayed like that, Xeliana’s presence reminding Hana that there were still people in the galaxy who cared about her, and that even if some were lost, that didn’t mean they all were.

“Well, I suppose I oughta listen to your orders and get to bed,” Xeliana said as she let go of Hana and stepped back.

“Yes, it wouldn’t do for the XO of the unit to have to be disciplined for insubordination,” Hana replied, wiping tears from her eyes and grinning at the same time. Xeliana returned Hana’s smile, and walked toward the door.

“Xel?” Hana called, just as the door slid open.

“Yes?” Xeliana replied, looking back.

“Thank you,” Hana said, her voice heavy with emotion.

“You’re welcome,” Xeliana said with her typical winning smile. “Just promise me that you won’t shut down like that again. Everybody in this unit cares about you, Hana. Even the dumb ones.” As she turned to go, Hana found herself laughing like she hadn’t laughed in a very, very long time.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 7

The celebration on Starfengt’s shuttle ride back to Numoris was not quite unrestrained, but it was close. Normally, Hana tried to keep a pretty tight lid on her squad, but it had been so long since they’d had anything to celebrate that she figured it was okay if, just this once, she relaxed the rules a little bit. Besides, everybody still had their clothes on, so it wasn’t as if things had gotten too out of hand. Yet.

“I would like to propose a toast!” bellowed Shalaminas Retico suddenly. Unsurprisingly, he was the drunkest of them all, and the drunker he got, the louder he got.

“This is the twentieth toast you’ve proposed!” Velencias Moratino yelled back. Somewhat surprisingly, he was probably the second drunkest person on the shuttle. “I know! I’ve been counting!”

“Well, this toast is different!” Retico said, standing up and swaying slightly as he did so. “This toast is for our beloved Captain!”

“All of your toasts have been for our beloved Captain!” shouted Moratino, as Hana and the others laughed uproariously.

“But this is different!” Retico yelled. “This is different! Before, I was toasting her captaining, which is the best captaining in the whole damn galaxy. But now, I wanna toast her body!”

“Careful, Master Chief!” Hana warned, but she was still laughing as hard as everybody else.

“No, I mean it!” Retico said earnestly, leaning forward and dumping a substantial quantity of Cortaran ale out of his mug onto the table. “You are one hot, sexy lady captain!”

“And you are the drunkest drunk I’ve ever seen!” Hana yelled back over the howls of laughter. “And you’d better shut your face before you say something you’ll really regret!”

“But I’ve got so much to say!” Retico exclaimed. “So many feelings to share!”

“Shut up, Retico!” Moratino yelled warningly, grabbing at his friend, but Retico brushed him off.

“I’m in love with you, Captain!” Retico blurted, causing even more laughter to erupt, especially from Hana.

“Tempting offer, I’m sure, but I think I’ll pass,” Hana said, rolling her eyes.

“But you need a man!” Retico shouted. “Ever since Commander Sidel died, you’ve been so lonely!” Suddenly the laughter faded, and a deep silence fell over the room. “What?” Retico asked, blinking in confusion.

“Whether I need a man or not is none of your concern, Master Chief,” Hana said coldly. “And if I decide I do need a man, I can assure you that there is no way in Nerzaga that it will be you.” She glared at him for a long time, her eyes like icicles, boring their way into his soul. He stared back, wide-eyed with horror, and then finally swallowed slowly and lowered his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” he whispered. “Please forgive me, sir.” She watched him stonily for a few moments, the silence in the room deepening further, and then her expression softened slightly.

“I think we’ve had enough celebrating,” she said quietly. “But I don’t see why we can’t all get a little extra sleep. The shuttle is due to land on Numoris at 1200 hours tomorrow. I don’t want to see any of you until 1100 hours.” She smiled slightly as she said this, but it was very slight, and there was still a cold stoniness to the look in her eyes. Everyone around the table nodded and departed without a word. Everyone except Xeliana.

For a long time Hana and Xeliana just looked at each other. As they sat in silence, Hana found herself thinking about how odd it was that she was the one who young men in Starfengt always seemed to fall in love with. She had never thought of herself as overly pretty, and before she’d founded Starfengt, she’d never really attracted attention from the opposite sex at all. Xeliana, on the other hand, was effortlessly stunning. From her long and shiny black hair, to her luminous blue eyes, to her supermodel-esque figure, and to her open and cheerful personality, one would expect that Xeliana would be the object of male lust in the squad. And yet, she was always treated as one of the boys, while Hana, with her plain, brown hair, practically non-existent curves, and no-nonsense attitude, was the one who was always getting drunken pledges of undying love.

“You know,” Xeliana finally said quietly, “Retico is an idiot, but he’s got a point.” Hana rolled her eyes.

“Don’t even start with me, Commander,” Hana snorted. “My bed is quite warm enough without a man to share it.”

“I don’t mean that,” Xeliana said, shaking her head. “I mean that Commander Sidel was somebody you trusted, somebody you could rely on, both to back you up when you were right and question you when you were wrong. You need somebody like that.” Hana frowned silently for a moment.

“Yeah, I guess,” she finally said. “But it’s not like confidants just grow on trees, Xel. I can’t find somebody to lean on just because I want that.”

“Are you sure?” Xeliana replied, raising an eyebrow.

“What do you mean?” Hana asked, her forehead creasing in confusion. Xeliana sighed heavily, stood up, and began pacing back and forth.

“Look, maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I think I could be someone you could lean on. I care about you, Hana! You’re my best friend, my mentor, the person who taught me everything I know! But I feel like you try to shut me out, push me away, and I can’t figure out why!” She continued pacing back and forth for a few moments, while Hana sat and stared silently at her, a shocked expression on her face. Finally, Xeliana stopped and faced her. “Well?” she demanded.

“Is…is it really that hard to figure out?” Hana asked quietly.

“What?” Xeliana asked, her hands on her hips. “It’s not because of my looks, is it?” Hana lowered her eyes to the table, an abashed expression on her face. “It is! You’ve got to be kidding me! You’ve held me at arm’s length for years because I’m pretty!?”

“I know! It’s stupid!” Hana exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “I’m sorry! It’s just…well…you’re gorgeous, and I was jealous!”

“You? Jealous? Of me?” Xeliana blurted, her eyes wide. “That’s…I…wow,” she sputtered, and then fell silent for a moment. Finally she sighed and sat down across from Hana. “You wanna know something crazy? I’ve spent the last seven years being jealous of you.”

“We are quite a pair, aren’t we?” Hana said with a small, embarrassed smile.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 6

Once the battle was over, Hana felt a feeling of satisfaction that she hadn’t felt in a long time. It was the satisfaction of a job well done. As a child, her father had always taught her to take pride in her work. He’d always told her that he didn’t care what she did with her life, as long as she did whatever she chose to do to the very best of her ability. Until his death, she had always lived by that principle. But after his death, she’d become so consumed with her quest for vengeance, so consumed with obtaining justice for her father, that she’d forgotten to honor his memory by living the way he wanted her to.

But even that quest had had a sense of purpose to it. Once Neminatrix was dead, and Hana’s vengeance was achieved, it was as if all purpose had been sucked out of her life. She’d spent so much time, and gained so little, and lost so much, that it made her feel as if accomplishing anything was worthless. How could she have been so wrong about her direction in life? How had she felt so right about something that turned out to be such a huge mistake? The loss of Arcten had paralyzed her, making her feel as if her judgment couldn’t be trusted.

But today, everything had changed. She had rediscovered her purpose. She had a job to do, and she was exceptionally good at it. Starfengt’s capture of the ridges had been spectacular, a brilliantly conceived plan that was executed perfectly. And once in control of the ridges, Starfengt had been so ruthlessly efficient at pinning down the Imperial troops in the valley that the regular army forces had been able to overrun them almost effortlessly. Because of Starfengt, the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin had captured the Arabesh Wastes, and its vast mineral wealth, with almost no casualties. Hana felt like a hero, and for the first time in a long time, she was being treated as one.

“I have to admit, Captain, I had some doubts about you and your squad, but you certainly proved me wrong,” said a voice behind her. She was standing on the ridge she and her team had taken, with her hands clasped behind her back, looking out over the troops of the 4th Battalion as they set up camp in the valley that had so recently belonged to the Empire. She didn’t need to turn around to see who it was.

“Thank you, Colonel,” Hana replied, as Colonel Vondamisk Latrafai stepped up to the edge of the ridge with her. He was a tall man with a standard military crewcut, penetrating gray eyes, and a clean-shaven face. He looked like a soldier’s soldier, and his reputation matched his look. “I have to admit, I took a little bit of offense to your attitude before the battle,” Hana continued, “so I’m glad to see that our actions changed your mind, without me having to resort to words.”

A small smile appeared on Latrafai’s chiseled face. “I should have known better,” he said, “but when the Council starts interfering in military matters, I get a little skeptical.”

“The feeling is mutual, Colonel,” Hana replied, glancing over at him, “but the Supreme Commander knows what he’s doing. When I try to convince him he’s wrong, I very rarely succeed, and when I do, I always regret it.”

“So you do report directly to the Supreme Commander,” Latrafai said, raising one eyebrow. “I thought that was just a rumor.”

“I’m afraid not,” Hana replied.

“Guess I’d better be on my best behavior,” Latrafai said, his small smile turning into a small grin.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Hana said with a shrug and a straight face, but there was a twinkle in her eyes as she said it. She held her poker face for as long as she could, but after a few moments a smile crept across her features. It felt good to smile. It’d been so long since she had anything to smile about that she could barely remember what it was like.

Latrafai’s own grin broadened as he looked at her. “Thank you for your assistance, Captain,” he said, giving her a respectful nod. “The lives of my men are more important to me than anything else. Because of you and your squad, I had smaller losses today than in any battle I’ve ever been a part of. I owe you more than I could ever repay for that.”

“That’s not necessary,” Hana said, shaking her head. “I was just doing my job, using the skills I have. I’m no savior. I’m just a soldier, like you.”

“Tell that to the men who lived today, the men who would have died if you hadn’t been here,” Latrafai said, regarding her seriously. “You saved their lives. I would say that makes you a savior.”

Hana snorted and rolled her eyes. “Stop it,” she said with a frown, but the twinkle was still in her eyes. “You’re gonna make me blush like a teenager.”

A warm smile appeared on Latrafai’s face. “Okay, I’ll stop,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass you. But don’t forget what I said. Whether you believe it or not, I owe you a debt that I can never repay. Whatever you need, whatever you want, if it’s within my power to grant, I will give it to you.”

Hana raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re making a tempting offer,” she said, and then she grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to take advantage of you.” They both laughed at this, and then once their laughter had faded, Latrafai took one of her hands in his, brought it up to his lips, and kissed it.

“It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Captain, but I’m afraid the work of a battalion commander never ends. If you will excuse me?”

Hana nodded, and watched him as he turned and walked back down the ridge. What an interesting man. Her initial assessment of him had certainly been off.

To be continued…