In our world, February is an otherwise dreary month brightened up by Saint Valentine’s Day. Within the City of Five Sails, the celebration of love is instead called “Saint Ferni’s Feasting day.” However, with the City as tense and posed for violence as it is – the Feast will not be going smoothly. As the title of this month’s fiction states, It’s All Unfair in Love and War. That title is also the name of our upcoming online Salon.
Starting March 3rd, 2023, and continuing over the following six weeks, we are organizing an online Salon on our discord server. To stay in the theme of love that’s launched this metaphorical boat…. The winner of that Salon will sit and chat with our Story Team, and pick two characters to permanently tie together.
Are they lovers? Are they scornful exes? Is their love platonic, yet stronger than steel?
One of you will decide, and forever change the fate of two of our citizens. The Salon’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place finalists will also get a smaller story decision of their own, to be revealed later! 🤐
It’s All Unfair in Love and War
By Carmel Rechnitzer
Rena Klingenhalter was a six foot five fortress of unassailable steel before she put her armor on in the morning. A decorated veteran of the War of the Cross, she had earned more medals and scars than anyone else under Kaspar Dietrich’s command. When someone referred to an Eisen soldier as a “tough sonnuva bitch,” it was universally understood that Rena was the bitch in question who’d turned that mewling recruit into a worthwhile man-at-arms. Rena did her best not to let these facts inflate her ego. Nevertheless… why in Theus’ name had Old Iron put her on desk duty?
Kaspar’s decision to occupy the Forum of the ancient city of Five Sails had been made in a furious flash, the morning he’d learned his church had been defiled and robbed. He’d acted fast and made his grand entrance into Five Sails politics within the span of four hours. It was, generally speaking, a successful power move. The whole city was abuzz with eager bounty hunters out to find the thief and placate the Eisen faction.
It was, generally speaking, too successful of a power move. Occupying the Forum didn’t just win Eisen the attention it sought, it had won them responsibilities. Contracts and charters had to be signed here. Policy debates were organized here. The City dole was dispensed here. Each day of the working week, a different district would send their poorest citizens to the Forum at the crack of dawn. The Forum’s garrison would start their shift by dispensing a week’s worth of free grain to every poor petitioner who came.
Kaspar’s mercenaries had dislodged the garrison with ease, laughing at their completely inadequate strength. The morning after, Rena and her soldiers learned that the enlisted garrison weren’t soldiers by design. The garrison was built of logisticians, coordinators, and managers. Literal bean counters who could calmly and efficiently handle the mob every morning.
During the War of the Cross, Rena had been promoted to Quartermaster because other soldiers were too afraid to try and steal food from her, specifically. She knew how to keep order within that context. Distributing supplies was easy to do when you could court martial every idiot who got in your way. Doing things nicely? That was a lot more difficult.
Kaspar had assumed that the skills would transfer, but Rena hated this work with the cold fury of an Eisen winter. Her muscles were strong enough for the job. Her heart wasn’t. Every morning, she had to look orphans, the elderly, and the disabled in the eye and give them not-quite-enough to get by. Every morning, she would watch the Red Hand Gang’s loan sharks extort the meager rations away from victims they kept perpetually in debt. Each day, after the crowd dispersed, she was left heartbroken and angry. In the midst of that turmoil, she would have to sit down, look at the City and Eisen ledgers, and then do hours of bookkeeping.
Unfortunately, it took more than arithmetic to handle a task as complex as the dole. Each day presented new challenges, which presented delays, which made people panic, which presented further challenges. Every single district was hungry and furious. By putting her in charge, Kaspar had assured that they were all furious at her.
It was damnably overwhelming, much more so than war had ever been. There was no one she could stab to get this matter over with, which was a disaster, because stabbing foes was her actual specialty. She was a Master-at-Arms, not a –
“Excuse me, Señorita,” came a husky voice, accompanied by an infuriating tap of a finger on her desk. The man hadn’t tapped the wood. He’d reached forward and tapped her ledger, and his black leather glove had smeared fresh ink from one column into the next.
Rena looked up after a slow exhale. She did everything in her power to keep her temper in check. The veins in her temple popped, her jaw muscles twitched, but she did not reach out and break the offending finger, because she was a professional.
In front of her stood a pair of Castillians, judging by the man’s accent. This didn’t bode well for her mood at all… The Castillians were a frivolous, melodramatic people as a rule, and these two characters seemed no exception. The mustachioed man was clad in black leather from head to toe. The smirking woman was armed to the teeth. Each of them stood posed in that vaguely sensual way all Castillians obnoxiously insisted on standing. Eyebrows cocked provocatively at all times, shirts unbuttoned dangerously low, and those stupid, ornately scrolled silver belt buckles. Castillian duelists, instead of resting their hands on their sword hilts like a sane person, would hook their thumb over their belt, with their forefinger tapping rhythm on the buckle itself. The message was clear: I’m here to fight or to fornicate, either is fine.
Rena did not dispense any niceties. “State your names for the record and disarm. Then you can meet Herr General.”
“Maya de la Roja,” introduced the woman, her voice also husky. “This is my former partner, now just a regular partner, Lorenzo de Zapeda. We have business with Kaspar.” She pronounced it KAHS-pahr. Rena had to take another deep breath.
“Your marital status is irrelevant. What is your business?”
“It is more than relevant,” Lorenzo said indignantly. With a dazzling flourish of his cape, he began to monologue. Rena immediately cut him off, and insisted he explain in 30 words or less.
“We are married, and business partners. The business has flourished, but our passion has not. We seek to divorce, but Señor KAHS-pahr currently controls the Forum. The records require his adjustments.” He said this all with a smile, and Rena wondered if he’d picked thirty-one words on purpose.
Rena sighed. That was another of the useless responsibilities they had accidentally overtaken. Their cause, tragically, was legitimate. Rena nodded her assent. Maya began disarming by taking off her wide brim hat and setting it on Rena’s desk. The Quartermaster almost issued her a reprimand, but then realized that the decorative hatpin was actually a five-inch stiletto.
Rena had to admit she was impressed. The woman carried a whole passel of weaponry in what amounted to not very much clothing. Her simple ruffle shirt had somehow housed three pistols of varying sizes. Next came all the knives in her belt, her sword, along with several pouches of bullets. To Rena’s dismay, the woman even un-snaked her belt.
“That won’t be necessary,” she promised.
“You misunderstand,” Lorenzo explained. “There are razor blades sewn into the leather. The belt functions as a deadly whip, or a garrote in a pinch.”
Rena took another long, drawn-out breath.
‘Don’t worry,” Lorenzo tried to assure her, “she is halfway done.” Rena beckoned for him to start doing the same. “Señorita Klingy-jalter,” he protested, “we are here to separate assets, not combine them. I won’t have my weapons strewn in with hers.”
Rena was aware that her anger was now clearly showing on her face. Completely refusing to acknowledge that fact, Lorenzo proceeded to assail her with humor.
“Madame, do not let Maya fool you,” he winked, “There are four different throwing knives in her boot, but also a fifth in her garter. I know, for she has thrown each of them at me.”
“By the way,” Maya added, arm currently down the front of her pants to retrieve the fifth throwing knife, “where are you even finding so much grain for the dole? El Gato has barred you from the Bazaar, have they not?”
“As spies go, I won’t call you subtle,” Rena responded.
“We would never,” Maya protested. “Well, he would. Spy, I mean. On other women. It is why we’re divorcing. I’m merely asking out of curiosity.”
“I only looked,” Lorenzo explained, which Rena very much wished he wouldn’t. “My dear Maya actually touched! The other women, I mean.”
“I take it as a point of pride,” Maya smirked even more broadly, “to woo the objects of his affections. He’s fast in bed, but I’m faster to bed.”
Rena had meant to roar ‘enough!’ at the two of them. Her patience had run so thin that she’d instinctively switched back to her mother tongue. The words ‘halt diene Fresse’ reverberated throughout the Forum.
Rena’s voice was generally considered her last remaining soft, feminine feature. Hearing it harshly echo between the marble columns at thunderous volume brought the whole Forum to a grinding halt. The Eisen mercenaries paused in their drinking and gambling. The seventy odd aristocrats and dignitaries stopped their discourses with mouths agape in mid-speech, turned to her. Even the afternoon wind came to a screeching halt, seemingly interested in why Rena had lost her temper.
The moment of silence did not dissipate. The crowd would not return to their business. It had been a long week full of exciting and scandalizing changes in the Forum, and each gawking bystander didn’t want to miss the next big event. The whole world watched her with bated breath.
Rena refused to flinch. Refused to feel embarrassed on behalf of these two Castillian buffoons. Her voice was hoarse and raw from shouting, but she kept it level. “Before we continue,” she demanded, “show me the marriage certificate you want to annul. I’m not letting you through to Herr General without seeing it first.” She refused to believe that these scoundrels had actually paid for falsified paperwork. She could simply catch them at the lie, right here, right now, before they had a chance to waste Kaspar’s time and try to swipe something important off of his desk.
Lorenzo made a dramatic show of patting his pockets. Before he could even get through his embarrassing ‘oops, I left it at home’ routine, Rena held an accusatory finger up to silence him.
“Whatever game you are playing, I have no patience for it,” she growled. “Take back your cavalcade of toys and go. Warn your mewling kitten of a boss that the next time I have to deal with such harebrained theatrics, I’m clapping someone in chains and throwing them into the Vaticine Gulf.”
Chastised, the two idiots finally snapped out of their smarmy poses and collected their ludicrous collection of weapons off of Rena’s desk. The crowd, disappointed at the lack of violence, began murmuring and returning to their dealings. Rena took another deep breath, watched the two dejected Castillians leave, and then turned her head back down to her ledger.
The ledger, which had rested open on her desk. The ledger that outlined where Kaspar kept their many coffers. The ledger that listed which merchants broke with El Gato or Don Costanzo’s orders and would still sell them grain and gunpowder. The ledger that would allow El Gato, or whomever they sold it to, to completely cripple the Eisen district’s economy. The ledger that no longer reposed upon her desk.
By the time she looked back up, the two of them were running out of the Forum at full speed. Half of the Forum members stared in shock at the audacity. The other half laughed at her gullibility. With Rena’s vocal cords already hoarse from yelling a moment earlier, her command to seize Lorenzo and Maya did not carry far enough for the lack-witted soldiers at the entrance of the Forum to hear her.
To Lorenzo and Maya’s credit, they anticipated her throwing a knife in their wake. They ducked underneath it with grace, despite the cumbersome weight and bulk of the ledger. To their credit, they were surprised when she tossed her wooden chair over fifty feet, but still managed to dodge that too. To their credit, they couldn’t have possibly imagined that she would pluck an Eisen Langschwert out of her underling’s hands and toss it with accuracy.
Maya had to tackle her partner to the floor to prevent his beheading. The Langschwert had been thrown with so much force that the blade snapped into pieces against the marble arch of the Forum’s east entrance. Without breaking stride, Rena grabbed weapons and tools from the hands of bystanders and tossed them with pinpoint accuracy. Maya and Lorenzo were reduced to rolling on the ground just to stay alive. The chipped sprays of marble pelted them, but no weapon struck the mark.
In the instances between tosses, Rena saw how much the two cared for each other. They worked in tandem to pull one another out of harm’s way. When the barrage didn’t let up, they locked eyes in terror, as if to say goodbye. So they did actually love one another, Rena registered. She’d kill them both quickly, as an act of mercy for whichever she had to smash to a pulp second.
She caught up with them before either could fully scramble back to their feet. Without hesitation, she grabbed Lorenzo by the the back of his belt, and swung him into the stone of the archway. Like a worm, he twisted in her grasp, curling himself up protectively to reduce the force of impact. No matter. The impact still bruised and cracked his bones. She flipped him over, in search of the ledger. Where was the damn thing?
When she did not find it, Rena abandoned him to his pain and reached down to Maya. She grabbed the woman by both ankles. Rena fully lifted her victim over her head, ready to crack her spine like a whip as she slammed Maya face first back to the floor. Before she could make the fatal swing, Lorenzo’s pistol rang out with a deafening bang.
The thick plating of Rena’s armor was built with strong, central ridges. These created angled surfaces that greatly reduced the chance of penetration, instead guiding a bullet to skate and glance away from center mass and vulnerable organs. This was an ingenious bit of design that worked wonders at range. Lorenzo was all of two feet away.
The bullet slammed into her shoulder. Maybe all the way through her shoulder. Between shock and adrenaline, Rena felt pain, but couldn’t tell the extent of any damage. Her left arm crumpled all the same, and she was forced to drop Maya. Seeking revenge, she moved back to Lorenzo, ready to smash a steel toed boot straight through his skull.
She was brought to a halt by a quintet of uniformed strangers. Each of them wore a dazzling blue tunic emblazoned with a gold-threaded sun. Each of their master-crafted rapiers was sleek, civilized, and pointed to one of her vitals.
“Out of my way, dogs. Back to your master,” she warned, “before I kill all five of you.”
The Musketeers regarded her with skepticism. “You’re deeply outnumbered,” Jean Urbain commented, as if she hadn’t noticed.
Rena’s rage receded, replaced by a keen, cold hatred. Her left arm would be useless without medical attention, but her dominant right was just fine. If she had a chance to draw her own weapon, the numbers wouldn’t save them at all.
“Return the fearsome woman her ledger, please,” said François Dufort. There was a gentle note in his voice which caught Rena off guard. The other musketeers were intervening, because obviously, there was something in it for them. A secret alliance with El Gato, maybe? But this Dufort gentleman, all scruffy and salt and pepper, and perfectly average like the rest of the Musketeers were not? He seemed genuinely heart-broken at this situation.
His pleading did no one any favor. The two Castillians’ hands were empty, and the ledger was nowhere to be seen. For Theus’ sake, Rena prayed, let it be stashed away somewhere in their lack of clothing. If the ledger had slipped out of their hands, and into the claws of some third, unnamed party? Herr General would… He would! Theus knew! Probably, inadvisably, seize the Docks next.
“It is Saint Terni’s Feasting Day,” Dufort continued. “It is a day for love, and not war. Whatever short-term gains you’d win from killing each other? Nothing in comparison to the evening of bloodshed that would follow in revenge. Let our districts enjoy their wine and their kisses tonight.”
Rena was not impressed by his entreaty. She’d never been in love. Her devotion was strictly to military command. These Castillians had stolen from Herr General. They would pay.
“That ledger,” she warned, “contains the details of the dole. On the Day of Golden Liberation, the whole of the Sarmatian District burned with glee, revenge and riots. That will be nothing… nothing! Compared to the wrath of all five Districts if the dole were to stop.”
“What ledger?” asked Maya, and all five musketeer blades were forced to keep the raging Rena at bay.
“Killing the two of them starts a war as well. Your conquest of the Forum is only tolerated, because it is so far bloodless,” Dufort insisted.
“Señor Dufort,” promised Lorenzo. “Thank you for saving my life. You can tell the gorgeous Madame Dubois d’Arrent that El Gato will finally grant her an audience.” As he spoke, Lorenzo once again repeated the pantomime of searching his pockets. Expecting trickery, Rena braved the sword points, and lurched forward to stop him. To give the two of them credit, it was a neat bit of misdirection.
The moment Rena stepped forward and away from Maya, Maya reached into her endless secret pockets, and set off several smoke grenades. In the blinding aftermath, Rena made a mad grab for her. She felt the five blades scrape against her breastplate, and thankfully the musketeers pulled back and relented. If they hadn’t, chances were that at least one of their points would have found its way between her armor plating.
Her right arm found nothing, and her left burned with agony as she tried to swing it forward. Damn them all to Theus! Rena wanted to take a slow, deep breath to refocus and find her center. But she wasn’t about to choke to death on otherwise harmless smoke. She heard the sounds of everyone else scrambling, and agreed it was a good idea. She stomped her way out of the smoke.
The bewildered Forum crowd were each shouting at her, pointing in opposite directions. Different voices swore that so-and-so had gone that way or this way, and she ignored them all. On the ground, at her feet, was the thick leather cover of the ledger. It was laid open, split, and bare. The two thieves had swiftly cut the pages out of the binding. With horror, she realized each of her painstakingly detailed columns was now either rumpled and creased or worse, pressed against the sweaty skin of either Castillian. If Theus had any mercy, their perspiration would make the ink run and ruin. If Theus had any mercy, she quickly changed her prayer, may He spare it for my left arm.
First, she’d need medical attention. Second, she would apologize to Old Iron, and make it clear she wasn’t fit for desk duty. Third, assuming her general would let her… she’d mobilize every soldier and hired mercenary at her command and ruin Saint Terni’s Feast for every worthless Castillian or Musketeer she could find.