Chapter 2: Perfect Timing
Sabine settled down once more to examine the pages her father had given her when she had gone to visit him for the last time. She still didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but given his condition when she had seen him, she had to assume that he had passed on. Since she hadn’t inherited any unusual powers, she also had to assume that Krosil was now in control of the towers in this dimension and was probably trying to find a way to bring Bertran back. She didn’t know what was on the pages her father had given her, but she hoped it was a solution to that.
The only problem was that the pages weren’t in any alphabet she knew. The writing almost looked like the swans on her wrists, so she assumed it was Lithilien, but she had never learned how to read Lithilien. She couldn’t even speak it. She understood it, but couldn’t speak it. Treza could speak it and she guessed that he could write it as well, but there was no way she could ask him for help. Not with everything that had happened between them.
Things had gotten worse after the ceasefire, if that was even possible. The anger among her troops towards Lohen was almost palpable. She tried to tone it down, but there was only so much she could do. And it was the same for him as well. His prisoners, who had once been so polite and well behaved, now retreated into complete silence the moment she took them prisoner as if they expected to be tortured at any moment. And in truth, many of them were, but she tried to prevent that as well.
Treza had taken one of her core planets recently and she had been expending all of her resources taking Ysel back. She didn’t know how he had managed to claim it, since she had been there in person and usually that was a sure ticket to victory, but he had managed and it shook her army’s confidence in her. She still won far more often than any other leader, but they were used to her being invincible and suddenly, thanks to Treza, she was not. She would never forgive him for the loss of morale that he had caused. But she would eventually have to ask for his help in deciphering the pages. Someday, they would be friends again, or at least allies, and he would tell her what the pages meant. After all, he had sworn to help her defeat Bertran and he always kept his promises.
She had been attempting to decode the writing, but she couldn’t use the console or ask anyone else for help because whatever was on the pages might be highly private. So it was just her, and she was not doing well. She usually tried for an hour or two, felt like she was making progress, then discovered that it was all meaningless and gave up. She had been working on it for months now and had made no progress at all. Code breaking was apparently a skill she did not have.
Sabine sighed and looked out the window. She was in her royal suite in the palace on Hotaru with a view of the whole city stretched out below her. It felt odd to be in her father’s room, but it was hers now. She had moved all of the things from her old room that had survived the power struggle with Mammon and now she had some old trinkets from her childhood. She treasured those the most of all her belongings, because they were the only things left of her old life.
The city sparkled below her and she walked over to the window, then glanced at the full-length mirror along the wall. She still couldn’t get used to the sight of herself here, in this room, as queen. She resembled her mother more than her father but there was enough of his strong brow and cheekbones that her lineage was never in doubt. Her features were highlighted by her short hair, which she kept angled forward at chin-length despite her advisors pleas to grow it out. Unmarried royals had long, uncut hair, and she was breaking one more tradition by wearing her hair like this. Her mother had given her an aquiline nose and pointed chin and while she was sometimes uncertain whether or not anyone found her attractive, she knew that Mat at least did. That was enough for her and she quelled a wave of longing at the thought of him. She missed him, but it was necessary to push him away. She couldn’t be queen and commander while having him at her side. There was a polite rap on her door and she checked the console to see who it was. Helios. She was in her nightgown, so she transformed into Eve before letting him in. It wouldn’t do for him to see his ruler so improperly dressed, and besides, he was more used to dealing with her when she was in uniform anyway. It was convenient being able to shift into her alien body and always be prepared. He entered the room and bowed low.
“My lady,” he said. “I hate to disturb you at this hour, but we’ve received word of a large gathering of Treza’s troops around Sola. It looks as though there are three or four entire fleets located there and more arriving.”
Sabine tapped her fingers against her lips. The Council of Nobles was scheduled to meet, but was Treza actually going to turn against Alexander or was this protection in case Alexander turned against him? More importantly, though, if all of his troops were there, then the rest of his system would have only sparse guard while the Council took place. Lohen had negotiated a ceasefire with her during the Council but there were areas not covered that she could still strike. And she could finally get her core system back if she acted fast enough.
“Any idea where Treza is right now?” she asked, even though she suspected he was already on Sola.
“There’s an attack from Kreutzer, he’s occupied there,” Helios said.
“Then let’s hurry and get to Ysel before it’s too late,” she said. “I’ll meet you on the warship in five minutes. Ready the troops,” she added, calculating the time it would take to get to a gate.
There was a hidden gate they could take which would minimize travel time and get them to Ysel in less than two hours. If Treza was occupied with an attack from Kreutzer and he had the Council of Nobles to attend, there was no way he was going to have time to deal with her. The timing was perfect.
Helios bowed and headed out of her room at a quick pace. She replaced the pages in their hiding spot and then threw some necessities in a bag, leaving shortly after him and heading to her warship. On the way, she talked with her advisors and explained the situation.
“We’ll need to reschedule tomorrow’s banquet,” she said. “I don’t know how long this will take, but I won’t be back until noon at the earliest. Can you handle the palace until then?”
“Of course, my lady,” they said, trying to bow while keeping up with her fast pace.
It was almost humorous, but they were serious people and wouldn’t approve of her laughing at them. After all, they were the ones making sacrifices here while she was running off in the middle of the night.
“Anything else that I’ll miss?” she asked, but they assured her they would take care of everything.
It wasn’t the first time she had run off like this, so they were getting used to it. She didn’t know how to tell them how much she appreciated it and gave a simple thanks instead, then boarded the warship. Helios and her crew were waiting and as soon as she was onboard, the ship began preparing for takeoff.
“The entire fleet is ready, lady, but how many will we need? The rest of the border might need guard.”
“We’ll leave three warships, twenty cruisers, and a hundred scouts on regular patrol,” she said. “We need the rest to help take Ysel.”
Helios efficiently divided his troops and soon the troops due to leave the area were at the jump gate. Sabine focused on the destination while concentrating on the entire fleet and they all slipped into the jump. It was so much easier jumping as a unit than relying on every single captain to jump individually, and she was glad her captains still trusted her enough to let her jump for them. She was also glad she was strong enough to jump with a fleet. People with lighter tattoos could only jump with a single ship and it was one reason why all of the army commanders had dark tattoos. She wondered for a moment about Nami and how she had gotten such a dark tattoo, since she wasn’t royalty and dark tattoos meant royalty. Mat had been born into the royal family in Rasdir, but his family had been stripped of their title during the revolution and his parents had been killed. Even if he hadn’t been named heir of Kreutzer, she probably still could marry him.
She shook her head. She needed to be focused on battle, not on love. She stayed focused throughout the jump and soon they were approaching Ysel. As she had suspected, the planet was not as heavily guarded as usual and it looked like the guards weren’t the usual guards. These guards were patrolling, but not with the sharpness or frequency of Treza’s usual ships. He must have put some lower ranking people on the planet, but she couldn’t imagine why. Surely he would know that she would hear about his troops gathering and attempt to retake the system.
Whatever the reason for his plans, he had made it easier for her and she quickly laid out a plan to retake the planet. Lohen’s troops hadn’t even spotted her yet and she had an entire fleet in the area. She would take them by surprise and reclaim the system quickly, then go down to the planet and make sure Treza hadn’t left a trap for her there. He sometimes did leave traps on the planets themselves, pockets of soldiers she wasn’t expecting who then coordinated with his ships in surprise attacks that allowed him to retake planets she thought she had just won. It was a brilliant scheme, one she had taken to using herself, and she wouldn’t put it past him to use it here.
She gave the commands to her captains and the scouts moved into positions. They were the first wave and as she gave the order to begin the attack, Lohen slowly became aware of her presence. At first they seemed to think it was a mere raid by scouts, but then she moved the cruisers and warships into range and Lohen’s organization collapsed. They still fought well, of course, but clearly they weren’t expecting this. The battle stretched on and the Lohen troops seemed to be delaying the inevitable, making her wonder if there were reinforcements on the way. That could be dangerous. She tried to speed up the fighting, but Lohen’s troops continued to kill time, dodging out of range, retreating and then unexpectedly surging, practicing all the tactics Treza had learned to use against her to great effect. But they weren’t using them as seamlessly as usual. Treza wasn’t in command of the army.
Maybe they were killing time for him to arrive. If he were in Kreutzer, it would probably take him an hour to arrive and they had been fighting for three now. Kreutzer must be keeping him busy. As they entered the fourth hour, Lohen’s ships unified into a single mass and began an orderly retreat as if they were finished playing games. Treza must have decided not to come and had given them permission to lose the planet. She ordered her troops to follow the retreating troops to see how much space she could claim but when the troops reached the very next system, they set up in defensive positions. There was no way she could win a second system. Still, she had Ysel again and that was all she had wanted.
She wondered why Treza wasn’t able to come to the battle in person, but figured he had finished with Kreutzer and gone straight to Sola for the Council of Nobles. After all, they were due to start today and if he weren’t on Sola, he wouldn’t be allowed to participate. Maybe he had figured that losing a system was worth keeping his position on the Council. She didn’t blame him, of course, and she would have made the same decision in his place. But she wondered how King Alexander would feel about his choice and suspected he would get into trouble for placing his career as a prince over his duties as a commander.