The sun was only just beginning to rise when Verona woke up.
She was alone in bed, but Alexandra was nearby, stripping out of her night clothes. She tugged on a sports bra and exercise shorts. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s all right,” Verona assured her mistress. “Did… you sleep well?”
Savoy hesitated before answering, but she nodded. “Yes. Better than I have in weeks. Thank you.”
Verona felt herself smile at that and her olive cheeks flushed slightly. “Would it be all right if I was here tonight, too? If it would help.”
Another pause, longer this time. Then a nod. “Yes.” Alexandra slipped on a pair of track shoes. “I’m going for a run. You can go back to sleep.”
The Minnesotan fall morning was cold. Not as cold as Northern Europe in the winter, though. The Finns had fought the Hegemony’s forerunner forces to a standstill and the 13th had been sent in to clear away the largest points of resistance. The Scandinavians had expected to take heavy losses at the outset, but make everything back as the winter closed in and the super-soldiers who’d been bred and first campaigned in equatorial regions succumbed to the cold, just as every other invader of their nation had. Instead, they’d received an unpleasant education in what an invictus was capable of. Savoy remembered hunting a squad of Jaegars through a blizzard. She’d picked them off one by one, leaving their bodies for the rescue teams to find. Just before she’d killed a pair of the spec ops troopers, she’d overheard them laughing. She’d been bred big, they agreed, but dumb. Coming after them herself after she’d been separated from her unit? They didn’t expect to see her again at all, chuckling at the thought of someone finding the ‘ubermensch’ frozen in a snowdrift. They’d been half right. They’d never seen her.
Still, Alexandra loved the snow. She’d seen too little of it in her life. There’d been something… peaceful about the way it covered the land. It wasn’t the cloying humidity of South American rainforests or the pounding heat of Africa. It had been a beautiful lie, making the world fresh and new and for a few moments, she could pretend that she hadn’t been a weapon. She could pretend that she believed the pretty words. She missed that. She wondered if it would snow here, too.
She kept running.
Mistress Savoy was fast.
Verona was sitting on the master bedroom’s balcony, watching her mistress circumnavigate the grounds – at least the parts of the estate in view of her perch. The invictus was still not fully healed from all her injuries, but she was pushing herself to get there. The familiar hoped that she wasn’t pushing herself too hard. She was still recovering from ninety years of cryosleep, extensive surgery and the ongoing treatments to stabilize her primagen modifications. She might be an invictus, but they still had limits. Sometimes they needed a reminder of that. That’s what familiars were for.
To that end, Verona had also taken it upon herself to memorize Savoy’s calendar. Lady Vipress hadn’t specifically said what role she wanted the familiar to fill and Verona wanted to be useful. She already had some ideas about bringing culture from the capital to the Territories, but she could certainly juggle that and manage her mistress’s schedule. If Alexandra objected, Verona was certain that she would make that known in short order. Until and unless that happened, Verona would do what she had been born and trained for: she would serve.
One of the staff brought Verona breakfast, a small smile on the other girl’s lips. It was equal parts jealousy and congratulatory. Verona had blushed, but she hadn’t said anything, one way or the other. The other familiar understood. It wasn’t her place to ask, just as it wasn’t Verona’s to tell. Whether or not Verona and Lady Vipress had done anything and what that ‘anything’ might have been was no one’s business but their own. Familiars knew that better than any sapiens and Verona felt a brief flash of irritation as she remembered Darren and his questions.
She took a sip of tea, quashing the frustration. To be fair, Darren’s confusion was understandable. Verona had felt – and often still did – off-balance in Lady Vipress’s presence and he hadn’t asked her to divulge anything improper, nor had he gone fishing for prurient details like some sapiens would have. He had been kind to her. She remembered his conduct at the theater with Sir Ying and felt that flash of irritation again, sighing. He did seem like a good enough person but he was still a sapiens. She hoped he wouldn’t do anything to embarrass Lady Vipress.
It was 8:10 on the dot.
Darren brought the car around, waiting outside the mansion. If you didn’t count the dreams, he’d slept well enough… though that was much like saying that if you didn’t count the stomach cramps, your last meal had been pretty good. Savoy had a full day of glad-handing and meetings throughout Capricorn City ahead of her and he’d be driving her around. Unlike Lady Raven, whom he could have counted on being at least twenty minutes late, Darren was not surprised at all to see his new mistress emerge five minutes earlier than expected. There was a small coterie with her: a pair of local familiars – one a fussy-looking young Asian woman with a half updo and hair sticks, and the second a somewhat effeminate thin black man in a natty suit – Lieutenant Governor Sewell and his own assistant, all of them following the primagen like tugs caught in a carrier’s wake. The only one who seemed to be keeping pace with her was Verona. The familiar was looking spiffy, once again fully covered, dressed in a coat and short skirt that mirrored the style of Darren’s own chauffeur’s uniform. Also like him, she was wearing her House Vipress pin. There was also a slight bounce in her step. She looked like someone who’d slept well. He wondered if she’d done so in her own bed, or the mistress had finally called on her. Well. It didn’t matter, though he found himself slightly pleased and a touch envious that Verona seemed so well-adjusted to the move.
Those two most terrible words, a little voice whispered. What if?
He held the door to the passenger cab open, nodding respectfully to each of his passengers. Savoy gestured for Verona to go in first. Sewell’s nostrils flared a little at his superior letting a familiar precede an invictus anywhere, but Lady Vipress appeared to not give two shits about unspoken protocols and racial privileges.
Darren noticed the male familiar bristle at the Garamond girl’s eagerness to climb into the limousine’s seats. He looked like an officious little prig – probably Savoy’s actual aide, given to her during the founding of her House. All her staff were either inherited from Capricorn, or gifted to and set up by the other Houses in their gratitude for her service and tokens of their respect, etcetera. Still, it looked like the jockeying for Savoy’s favour had begun in earnest, and Verona was in the lead.
The chauffeur hid a smirk. He’d once watched a bit of a century-old science fiction program. One of the characters had remarked ‘even among the servants, someone has to be in charge’. It seemed that that was a universal observation. Familiars were no more immune to pride or jealousy than any other human. When he’d been serving House Raven, the competition between the Lady’s familiars to be her favourite had been fierce. It rarely spilled out into the open, but it had always been there. Even sapiens would get drawn into the politicking, fighting to be the first to lick their masters’ boots. Darren tried to stay out of those affairs, preferring to watch from the sidelines and only act when he felt he had to. His previous employers had noticed that and appreciated a man who knew his duty and didn’t get into petty squabbles with the rest of the staff.
As Sewell, his aide and the Little Prig got into the vehicle, Darren closed the door behind them, taking his position at the wheel. He’d do his job and be sure to keep an eye on things. As he adjusted the rearview mirror, he caught a glimpse of a predator’s green eyes staring back at him. Remembering the dream from last night, an involuntary shiver went down his spine.
I guess I won’t be the only one.
Listening to productivity reports, operational timetables and profit projections, Alexandra could only think one thing. She hated every moment of this. She was a soldier, literally bred for war. Her function had been simple: to forge the world the Primogenitors envisioned and destroy everything and everyone that stood in their way. She had never really expected to survive the war, but even after she’d become disillusioned with her creators’ promises, she hadn’t stopped fighting. Her people deserved to live. She deserved to live. They hadn’t asked to be born, but once they had been, they should have the same chance that every other living thing on the planet did.
The Coalition would never have allowed it. The sapiens would never let a superior species share their world. So she’d fought. For her brothers and sisters, her people, her very own right to survive. She’d planned missions, executed directives from her superiors, thought up new tactics and strategies on the fly. That was what she’d known, what’d she spent her life doing.
This was different, though. Now she was supposed to do… what? Rule over a province and a million people? She was a soldier, not a politician. Alexandra had no idea what to do and she was wondering if that was the point.
What a brave new world this was.
Darren checked himself in the limo’s rear-view mirror. He was, he had to admit, looking rather spiffy in his uniform. He was waiting in the underground parking annex beneath the Capricorn City Hall, where Lady Vipress was currently inside with her staff being briefed on local events. All morning he’d been ferrying the Vickie from one appointment to the next as she met with local governmental, military and corporate leaders as well as any citizen who’d been able to beg, bribe or wheedle their way onto the new governess’s first-day calendar.
He kept the privacy divider between the front seats and the passenger compartment down, though he was ready to bring it up when requested. So far no one had noticed or cared. It was perfectly innocuous; some people liked it down as the default, others preferred it be kept up. It allowed him to circumspectly eavesdrop on his Lady’s conversations. So far there wasn’t anything terribly interesting or particularly useful to take note of. If he had learned anything juicy, he would have been instantly suspicious. The mental chess game he found himself in never stopped, but until Savoy made a new move, it was a stalemate. Still, he had already learned something from the overheard comments and questions.
She wasn’t happy and she was getting unhappier as the day went on. Twice, he’d looked in the rearview mirror to see her stroking Verona’s hair, like the familiar was a cat. Just like in Garamond, Savoy didn’t seem to realize it. The first time she’d noticed what she was doing, she’d taken her hand off Verona’s head. The second time she’d only hesitated a little before continuing. That reaction was something Darren was curious about; familiars had been introduced only two generations ago. Vipress had never encountered them. He wondered if there was something in a primagen’s makeup that made them more friendly towards the servant race, or if was particular to Savoy and Verona. Regardless, the redheaded young woman seemed to have a calming effect on her mistress. Something to think about, maybe exploit somehow…
The dashboard display pinged with a signal. The meeting was over and Savoy was leaving. Darren pressed his thumb to the ignition, the built-in scanner confirming his fingerprint and the car started. It was a sleek, stylish limousine as well-armoured as any IFV out there, with bullet-proof windows and paneling, undercarriage armour to protect against mines and explosives, ceramic plating to absorb energy wire, security measures up the wazoo (to use a technical term) and all the comforts of a penthouse apartment. It was responsive and handled easily and if weren’t for the fact that he was chauffeuring a genetically-engineered Miss Daisy, Darren would have been quite enjoying himself behind the wheel.
He pulled up in front of the steps leading to city hall, taking one last look at himself in the mirror, adjusting his cap before he went to open the door for his mistress and her entourage.
Alexandra did her best to hide it, but she was frustrated. The morning and early afternoon had been spent listening to sycophants, puffed-up industrialists and fawning government officials all trying to impress their new ruler. She’d listened to each of their interminably long reports with as much good nature as she could muster, but that had been less and less as the day wore on.
In the Hegemony’s military, the briefings had been kept brief and focused, with supplementary materials made available for personnel to read before and after. Here, all too few of her meetings seemed to follow that concept. She was a soldier, not a bureaucrat or administrator, but she could still spot padded accomplishments and smoothed-over flaws. More than once, she’d listened to a sapiens subordinate’s report, or a forerunner’s briefing and spotted the same kind of bullshit she’d been getting fed all morning. Her people hadn’t done that. The invictus soldiers had been direct with each other and the chain of command. Nothing had been candy-coated or spun. There was a faint sense of revulsion that she’d caught fellow invictus doing it now.
She remembered Patricia’s assessment of her peers. Cunts seemed about right.
Savoy stroked Verona’s hair. The familiar was leaning towards her attentively, while still looking over the notes she’d been making. The redhead did like to keep herself useful. She’d been researching more of the local art history as well as listening in on the meetings she’d attended.
None of the other invictus Alexandra had met with had commented on the former escort’s presence. To them she was just an objet d’art brought from the capital, toted about like a well-behaved pet and ignored like one. Alexandra had found the familiar perceptive, if naïve and seemingly incapable of recognizing invictus incivility. She told herself that she’d brought Verona along for her thoughts, and to see how the art-house escort adapted to other situations, but Alexandra was self-aware enough to realize that the morning’s meetings would be wearing on her a lot more if Verona wasn’t here.
The invictus had stayed silent for the most part, listening and attempting to absorb the information being presented to her, asking a few questions here and there, but leaving most of that to her aides and Sewell. Her mental faculties had been enhanced along with her physical capabilities, but she had no experience with any of this. She’d adapt, though. Somehow. Right now, she’d much rather be preparing for a combat op than learning how to manage hundreds of thousands of humans.
For now, though she had something she wanted to do. The invictus looked up at her driver. “Take us to the Sapiens Quarter,” she told him. In the 177th, she had frequently led patrol sweeps through hostile and potentially hostile areas, to get the lay of the land and make sure the people felt the Hegemony’s presence.
Darren complied, the town car rolling almost noiselessly down the city streets. It really was a beautiful machine. Capricorn City wasn’t big, not by the standards of Garamond or some of the restored cities in Europe, but more than a hundred thousand people and thousands more commuters and visitors still needed places to live, work, shop and recreate. The nicest properties went, of course, to the governor (now governess) and from there to other local Houses, invictus, familiars and well-to-do sapiens. They all got to enjoy the benefits of personal estates and gated communities. Under them came the wealthier middle class, who got to benefit from suburban living, or upscale flats and condos overlooking the city. At the bottom came the lower class. Those sapiens found themselves relegated to the ghettos and projects of the informally-named Sapiens Quarter, where townhouses were stacked next to each other with barely enough space for a fence between them, or cramped apartment buildings were overfilled with bodies.
Despite this, Capricorn City still had fewer people crammed into each square meter than Garamond, but that made the sections of town where the sapiens hung their hats no more beautiful. Oh, there were fewer acts of visible criminality than in the larger city, but the sentiment of neglect and despair was the same. Graffiti was splashed across several buildings, most of it nonsense. Maintenance efforts were few and far between here, only done out of absolute necessity. No one cared. The invictus certainly didn’t. The familiars barely thought of anything other than pleasing their masters and most of the sapiens themselves had given up, just trying to make it through another day, hoping to make it to the end of their lives without being made into an example.
Seeing things like this broke Darren’s heart and gave him that same feeling of righteous indignation that he’d felt since he was a child, watching his parents lose their home because some Victor wanted the property and they were told to pack their bags and get out.
Darren snuck a glance behind him. Savoy was staring out the window, an expression of vague interest on her face. With no further directions, Darren chose a route himself, taking the town car up alleys and across side streets, giving his mistress the view she apparently wanted. As the car passed, pedestrians and passersby looked up in surprise and occasionally fear. Stopped at a red light, he saw a pair of youths further up the street gawking at his vehicle. One tapped the other on the shoulder and quickly turned back up the street, trying not to look like he was hurrying. The other was talking to someone out of sight, growing more anxious as the car idled at the intersection. Darren flicked his right turn signal on, intending to head away from –
“No,” Savoy’s voice came from behind him and Hawke cursed mentally. She’d seen the teens and spotted their nervousness just like he had. “Take us there.”
The light turned green. Darren pressed his foot to the gas, taking the car towards the agitated teenager. When the vehicle didn’t turn off like he’d expected, the kid bolted, ducking into the first side-street he came across. Darren brought the car to a stop and cursed again as he looked out the window.
Behind him, the back door opened and Savoy climbed out. “Well now,” he heard her say. “That’s impressive.”
There was a sudden thunk as a can of spray paint fell to the ground. Its owner might have been about fifteen or sixteen, so entranced in his work that’d he’d either not heard or heeded his compatriots’ warnings. Behind her, Sewell and the familiars had gotten out of the car as well. Darren swallowed and opened the driver’s side door, standing beside the vehicle, but not moving any farther from it. He looked at what had caught his lady’s eye.
Spray-painted on the side of the building was a decently-sized, nearly-complete mural of Savoy. She was naked, her body somewhat embellished by the artist’s imagination. There was a snake sliding out of her nethers, coiling around her body and leering over her shoulder, resting its chin on the palm of her left hand. Hawke supposed it was supposed to be a viper, but the teen had obviously never seen one himself. In Savoy’s right hand she held a knife, the blood on its edge matching a wound on that arm. Behind her were the silhouettes of three hanging bodies. There were tears in her eyes, but the smile on her lips put the lie to them. Below the painting were the words ‘I suffer for your sins’.
The youth looked as if he were about to bolt, but Darren caught his eyes and gave him a tiny shake of his head. Don’t. It would only make things worse. Besides, you only ran if you had a chance. An ordinary Vickie would have him before he got two steps. If he made it any distance at all, it would only be because Savoy was playing with him.
Sewell was speaking into his phone, his voice pitched low enough that Darren couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he could guess well enough. He’d seen sapiens die for much less than this. An example was about to be made.
Next to Savoy, Verona, incensed by the insult to her mistress, was bristling like an attack dog… or an attack Pomeranian, though the familiar kept quiet. It wasn’t her place to speak.
“Did you do this?” Savoy asked the teenager.
At first, he looked like he might be stupid enough to try and deny it, but common sense won out and he managed to nod.
“Good,” Vipress replied. “I’d hate to start this conversation with you lying to me. Your name?”
“A-Alan,” the teen squeaked, his voice cracking. “Alan MacDory.”
Sewell’s aide typed something on his tablet, no doubt looking up the kid’s family.
“Lathan,” Savoy said. “What’s the fine for vandalism?”
“Minimum of five thousand dollars and thirty days rehabilitation training,” Little Prig answered almost immediately. “Given the disruptive extremist political ideology being represented, there are security concerns that should be addressed as well.”
Savoy tilted her head. “Are your parents wealthy, Alan?”
“No, uh, no ma’am. My Lady.”
“A five thousand dollar fine and losing their son for a month,” she said. “Will that make things easier for them?”
Credit where it was due – the kid was smart enough to know he’d fucked up and not to dig himself in any further. “Uh. No, My Lady.”
“No. It won’t. So tell me, what did you think this was going to accomplish?”
He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again and stared down at the ground. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
Hawke’s skin was crawling. It was like watching a cat playing with her food, but he kept an expression of professional disinterest on his face.
“Nothing,” Savoy told the teenager. “It won’t accomplish anything at all.” She looked at the painting again. The image of her had blue eyes, wider hips and bigger breasts. “Verona,” she said and the familiar stepped forward.
“Give me your opinion on this.”
The familiar’s nostrils flared and she glared at MacDory for a moment before studying the youth’s handiwork. “The grasp of anatomy is competent,” she said, “but requires more study of the human and animal forms to move past that. There’s an adequate, instinctive understanding and use of symbology, but it is hampered by the explicit nature of the piece. The artist was interested raising a middle finger at his betters and saying something, but the focus on doing the former degraded the effectiveness of the message. It’s the usage of colour, especially given the limitations of the medium, that the artist’s talent is shown most highly, but overall it’s an amateurish, unrefined piece.” She kept her more acerbic evaluations of the painting and its creator to herself. Her mistress had wanted her expertise, not her ire.
Alexandra nodded. She was silent for a moment longer. “This is a public street,” she said. “Families come through here. Children. I want you and your friends to take this down. By evening, I expect the wall to be clean. Do that, and we can leave this here. Your parents won’t have to pay a fine and you won’t have to talk to HSS.” She turned back to the cowering sapiens, using the exact same tone she’d used with soldiers who’d she’d caught doing dumb shit in the past. “Do you think that’s fair?”
He nodded so vigorously it seemed like his head might come off. “Yes, yes! We’ll have it done, I promise. It-it’ll be done.”
“Good,” Savoy said, putting her hand on his shoulder. Darren thought the boy was either going to faint or piss himself. “I’m giving you a chance here, Alan. Don’t make me regret that.”
The boy kept nodding. “I won’t. I won’t.”
Alexandra smiled. “I hope so.” She turned to get back into the limousine, holding the door open. Verona took the cue and climbed in.
“That’s it?” Sewell asked, slightly agog. “This sapiens puts up this… this filth and we’re just going to walk away?”
“Yes,” Savoy replied. “Why? What do you think we should do?”
“This kind of seditious obscenity strikes at the very heart of our society,” the lieutenant governor asserted. “He should be arrested and questioned by Security. His family should be also interrogated for any potential ties to the insurgency. At the very least he needs to learn his place.”
This time, the kid did piss himself, his legs shaking at the thought of his stupid little act of rebellion getting himself and his family an HSS interrogation. People didn’t always come back from those. Sometimes they died ‘attempting to escape’ and other times, they just vanished. He fell to his knees and started blubbering for mercy.
Savoy looked at the sobbing teenager, her nose wrinkling at the acrid odour of urine, even as his terror invigourated the predator in her. She looked from the sapiens to her subordinate. “I think he knows his place,” she told Sewell. She climbed back in the cab. After a moment, the lieutenant governor and his aides followed, leaving the sapiens boy on the sidewalk, still crying and promising he’d have the building cleaned by evening.
Darren restarted the limousine, continuing his tour of the Sapiens Quarter, but they didn’t encounter anything else worth noting. As he kept the bulk of his attention on the streets, he listened carefully to the conversation taking place in the passenger compartment. Sewell was shaking his head. “-a disruption of public order,” he was saying, still pushing for a kid with more paint than sense to be thrown in prison.
Savoy shook her head and laughed. “I don’t know if you ever saw it,” she began. “It seems like everyone else at the time did, but I ended up on television after an encounter with a journalist. A few weeks after that, one of the local protestors made me the feature of his next work. It was an homage to Saturn Devouring His Son,” Verona’s head came up at the mention of the work, but she said nothing. “I was in the place of Saturn. He called it Invictus Ascendant. The Hegemony leadership felt this was a danger to public morale and had the artist arrested, interrogated and executed as an agitator and seditionist.” She leaned forward. “Ask me how many more leaflets, posters and wall murals of Invictus Ascendant turned up after that.”
Sewell opened his mouth. “How-”
“A lot.” Savoy told him. “Killing the artist didn’t stop it. It made him a martyr. It made everyone with an axe to grind against the Hegemony think they had a weapon to use against us.” She slouched back into her seat. “I am not going to have another fucking Austria here. Is that clear?”
“Yes, My Lady,” Sewell said. “I understand.”
Alexandra nodded, but Darren couldn’t tell whether she believed that or not. For a second, she looked like a very tired young woman. But only for a second. “Hawke,” she said, catching his attention. “Take us back to the estate.”
“Of course, My Lady,” he said. “We’ll be there shortly.”
“Good,” the invictus answered. She closed her eyes and, without even realizing it, reached up to stroke her familiar’s hair again. One life spared.
For today, at least.