Overthrowing the tyrannical Tathadann government should have been cause for celebration. But as Eitan City announces its independence, soldiers from the northern province of Vårgmannskjør storm the ceremony and annex the city. The cruelties of the Tathadann soon pale beside their new rulers' atrocities.
Henraek finds himself resettled in the north, in a city where the people seem happy and well… until its labor camps and enslaved spirits come to light. The rebellion must begin anew, in Eitan City and throughout Vårgmannskjør, and now the stakes are higher than ever.
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They took their time dying.
After the water distribution center collapsed, before the flames of the Gallery were even smoldering, the Tathadann declared Eitan under riot law, allowing their troops to use any force necessary – including lethal – to subdue the rebels. It should have been a death knell for us. It should have crushed the nascent uprising. It should have set the streets of Eitan City awash in blood. And it did.
But not with our blood.
Citizens of all ages, colors, races, abilities, we armed ourselves with pistols, knives, rocks, rebar, pieces of wood. Everyone drew on anything within their means and ability to strike a blow against the Tathadann and reclaim the city as our own. The Tathadann's soldiers were massively outnumbered, yet we were just as massively outgunned. Still, although technology and armaments gave them a tactical advantage, there was nothing they could use to compensate for our heart.
All of this, six months' worth of battles and operations and bullets and bodies runs through my head as I crouch behind the chest-high crumbling rock wall that rings Lady Morrigan's estate, the last vestige of the Tathadann's rule, inside of which cower the remaining Tathadann soldiers, driven into hiding by a Ragjarøn squad. "Estate" is a generous term for the place – I've seen bigger farmhouses back in Westhell County – but it's a term propagated by the party for stature's sake. Although the rest of the Tathadann has been destroyed and we could walk away from this place, let these soldiers run off to whatever hollow they choose, we need the sense of finality, in the same way that you cut away all of the gangrenous flesh, lest the smallest portion of disease begins to multiply again and rot away the rest of the body.
I press on the comm device in my ear. We took them from a group of soldiers we captured two weeks ago. As much as I loathe the party, I have to say their toys make fighting a hell of a lot easier.
"Are you in position yet?" I say to Emeríann.
"Yet?" She laughs. "Me and Lachlan already ordered food. We needed something to do while you all were taking your sweet-ass time."
Yeah. She's taken to the whole revolution thing pretty well.
"Once you're done eating, care to finish this?"
"We've got your cover."
I smile to myself and motion for the four people in my squad – one from Eitan, three from Vårgmannskjør, Ragjarøn's base – to advance. We hoist ourselves up over the wall, digging the toes of our boots into the gaps between stones, and roll down the other side. Bullets from Tathadann soldiers ricochet off the nearby surfaces, plumes of dust sprouting around us, but they're quickly pushed back into the house by suppressing fire from Emeríann's squad, hidden behind the burnt husk of a military transport vehicle that sits on a slight hill to the east of the estate. We duck behind the statues dotting the yard, spreading out over the area to ensure we can cover Emeríann's squad as they advance to take over the house. Macuil had these installed not long before he died, each monument a variation on himself or Fannae, depicting selected accomplishments throughout the Tathadann's history, ensuring they'd live on long after he was gone. However, the one above me is currently missing half its head, a bird's nest now occupying the space where the left side of Macuil's face should be.
I glance up and down the line, make sure everyone is safe.
"Now would be a great time for a power outage," says Vanda, the boy crouched two statues away. "Though I never thought I'd be wishing for one."
"I was thinking the same."
Vanda's skin is still shiny from the burns he sustained in the alleyway six months ago. I feel a little bad, for how slow his healing has been and for the amount of scarring that remains, but he and his friends were trying to murder me before that lagon father immolated himself. Once the uprising began, and Vanda realized his father and I fought together during the Struggle, he changed his tune pretty damn quick. He's not a bad kid, aside from giving his friends more credit than they deserved. If only we could marry the passion of the young with the experience of the old.
When everyone is ready, I radio Emeríann.
"We're in place."
"Time to pull up your socks," she says.
We all peer around the statues, our rifles ready, waiting for the report of gunfire, the bright points of light from the soldiers trying to pick off Emeríann's squad while they're in the open, but the Tathadann soldiers must be waiting for perfect shots, conserving their ammo in preparation for a prolonged fight. I'm surprised they haven't surrendered yet, thrown themselves on the mercy of the rebels, but perhaps they don't realize they're the last of the Tathadann. I heard a story once, about soldiers who had been stationed on a remote island during a war. They lost radio communication with the mainland and stayed isolated for forty years. The whole time, they operated under the assumption they were living in wartime, unaware that their country had surrendered within months after their last transmission. It made me wonder if those forty years were pleasure or purgatory.
Vanda lets out a long breath and looks over at me. I can't get a clear read on his expression, but he doesn't look good.
"You're going to be OK," I reassure him. "Take cover behind me if you're unsure."
"You look scared."
"I am a little worried," he says. I cock my head. His words are wavering but his voice is steady, strong. He nods toward the house and says, "I'm worried because I don't know what I'm going to do when this is over. This is what I'm best at."
"No," he says. "Fighting."
I can't help but smile at him. "Don't worry. Even when this is all over, the real fight will just be starting."
Vanda considers this for a minute, but as he opens his mouth to reply, I see a shadow in the window nearest Emeríann's squad.
"We've got movement," I say into the comm device. "Second floor, third window from the edge. Advancing toward you."
"You got him?" Lachlan says through my earpiece, his voice a low whisper. I can hear the other rebels grunting in the background as they advance on the house. The shadow moves back from the window, staying out of the line of fire. I fix my rifle sight on the spot where it had been.
"As soon as he appears, he'll disappear."
"Keep them off us. We're almost to the house."
And he no more than says the words when the shadow appears at the edge of the window. I set my crosshairs on him, then exhale as I pull the trigger.
Shattering glass. An agonized scream. Bursts of gunfire. A bullet smacks the statue, chipped cement hitting my face.
Emeríann's squad stays tight to the house, a few feet below the bottom of the windows, unable to point up and return fire.
"We need to advance. Stay low," I say to my people, then pop off a few shots before we move to get a better position. We leave the statues, running at a crouch, and slide behind one of the two ornate fountains in the yard. A small puddle remains in the bottom, the last bit of water after six months of evaporation. I wager a glance around the corner and see no barrels sticking out of the windows.
Then a bright explosion near the base of the house makes me take cover. White stars float before my eyes. I blink as quick as I can, trying to clear my vision.
"Everyone OK?" I ask the other squad.
"That was too close," Emeríann says, her voice strung tight. "We need to end this."
"We've got you," I say. "Wait for our cover."
"Get ready to move," I tell my people. I point at the three on the end. "You give us cover. Vanda and I will draw fire, taking pressure off the others. You understand what I'm saying?"
"It's insulting that you keep asking us," one of the men says in heavily accented English.
"I'm sorry, but now's not the time for something to be lost in translation." I turn to Vanda, clap my hand on his back. "Now's your time. Keep moving and don't go straight."
We set the rifle butts against our shoulders and break from the fountain. Bullets pepper the ground around us but we zig and zag and make abrupt turns on our way to the other fountain. As I strafe across, I take three potshots in the general direction of where the fire is coming from but hit nothing. Behind me, I hear the rattle of my people's guns, punching scores of holes in the exterior walls. One of them screams when he's hit and the rattling dampens slightly. Vanda pauses a moment, sets his feet to aim. I start to yell at him to keep moving, but before I can, a soldier appears in a second-story window.
I imagine Riab all over again. His blood splashing on my lips, his death hanging on my shoulders.
Then the soldier's head explodes in a red bloom, his body toppling forward and crashing through the window.
Vanda doesn't react, just turns two ticks to the left and fires again, killing another soldier I hadn't noticed.
I want to hurry over to him, to tell him he's a great shot or offer my condolences because someone so young shouldn't be so at peace with killing. But before I can, a concussive blast vibrates the thick air around us. A tongue of flame reflects off Vanda's eyes. Screaming erupts inside the house, coupled with calls for a medic, which just makes me laugh. We're way past that kind of military order. There's another explosion after Emeríann's squad launches a second pulse-grenade. I do my best to hold it in but I flinch slightly, not because of fear but because I so badly wanted to be in the group that ended the Tathadann.
After some discussion – and, to be fair, some hard-handed persuasion – we came to the decision that Emeríann's group was the best to go in. Several of the fighters in her squad had extensive hand-to-hand experience, and my people were better shots and could provide cover. Plus, she planned the bombing of the water distribution plant that sparked this uprising – along with Forgall, Nahoeg hold him close. Still, as I stand outside with my rifle trained on the windows, listening to the cacophony of shouting and the occasional gunshot, I have to consciously tell myself that I made the right choice.
Vanda and I duck down behind the fountain and keep our rifles on the house, though it doesn't look like they'll fight any longer. A few minutes later, members of her squad emerge from Morrigan's house, guns pointed at the Tathadann soldiers – no, our prisoners – with their hands atop their heads. One of the men calls out to us: "Clear."
I survey my squad. Everyone in position, rifles at the ready, just in case. I look over to Vanda. "You ready for this?"
"Watch the squad while I check on the house."
His chest inflates, back straightens. "Sir, absolutely, sir."
"Don't call me sir."
"Right." He readjusts himself. "I can handle it."
"Good." I clap his shoulder, then hurry across the yard, passing two small tombstones set to the side. Macuil's name is etched on one of them, though given the family's penchant for excess, I'm surprised to see such a reserved resting place. On the other is a name I don't recognize, but the birth and death dates are only six years apart, which makes me feel both sad and disgusted at myself for feeling sad. I've never heard that the Morrigans had any children.
I climb the dull, scratched marble steps up to the looming mahogany front doors, split open and held by a length of rope wrapped around the brass handles. Inside the lavish living room, two rebels mill about, talking conspiratorially and pointing at some of the more ostentatious decorations. The gold candle sconces. The ornate ravens carved into a cabinet at least ten feet long, holding rows of crystal decanters, filled with gallons of water. The animal skins hanging on the walls like grotesque tapestries, striped and spotted and furry and scaly, some with the head still attached, featuring long, twisted horns or jagged, sharp teeth. I've never even seen some of these creatures before. Three prisoners sit on a thick rug with their hands and ankles restrained. One has blood leaking from his ear, dripping down and mixing with the burgundy and gold pattern of the rug.
The rebels glance over and straighten their backs when they see me standing behind them. "Ceanasaí Laersen," they say in unison.
"Ceanasaí Daele was looking for you," the shorter rebel says.
"Where is she?"
"Two rooms over."
I nod and thank them, then head toward her, pausing in the grand archway between rooms. "The water can go. But everything else stays."
I can feel them shifting uncomfortably behind me.
"We're not wasteful, but neither are we thieves. Got it?"
"Understood," they say.
"But after you've removed the water, if, say, the cabinet becomes unstable, tips over, and crashes into those abominations hanging on the wall, then so be it."
"How would the cabinet knock all of those down?" the smaller one says.
"Guess that's the question now, isn't it?"
I pass through the dining room. The table and chairs are a style similar to the dry sink Emeríann and I carried into Johnstone's – the one that landed us on the news – though I doubt that these rock on uneven legs with every touch. What's most striking about this house isn't the golden accents or ridiculous displays of wealth, but how sparse and empty it is. It's bordering on depressing. Despite existing at the highest strata in Eitan for sixty years, Fannae Morrigan was still an old widow who lived alone in a big house.
I find Emeríann in the sitting room, holding a ceramic teapot in her hands, something like sadness playing across her face.
"You OK?" I rest my hand on the back of her arm.
"My mom saved my tea set for me, from when I was little." She turns the kettle over, running her finger along the soft curve of the handle. "She said she wanted to play tea time with her granddaughter one day."
I nod because I don't know what else to do. This is not quite the conversation I expected to have at this moment, but the last six months have shown me that, if nothing else, nothing will ever turn out like you expect it.
"Are you saying you want to have a baby?" I say, my voice unintentionally searching.
She barks out a laugh. "Holy shit, are you serious? Can you imagine what it would be like to have a kid now? It's crazy enough with Donael and Cobb. A baby would be a terrible idea."
I almost say OK, good but manage to bite my tongue.
"It just made me think about Mom, is all. It'll be fifteen years next month ..." she says, her voice trailing off.
"You can bring that home for the boys if you want. I'm not sure they're really into tea, but–"
"There is no way in hell I am bringing anything from Fannae Morrigan into our house unless it's her head mounted on a pike."
"That, the boys might be into."
Emeríann holds the teapot up as if she's presenting it, then hurls it at the ground, shattering it into a hundred jagged pieces.
"Let's do this," she says, setting her backpack on the ground.
As we pull out a dozen charges, delay timers, and blasting caps, a wave of nostalgia washes over me. It's only fitting the actions that will complete this uprising are the same as those that incited it. This time, though, there are no pulse-charges, no atomizers, just old-fashioned, highly potent bombs – courtesy of a raid on the armory led by Brighid, Daghda Morrigan's daughter – that will reduce this house to no more than a pile of rocks and wicked ghosts.
The lights flicker as we attach the bombs to the critical points, the power grid groaning under the strain. Emeríann and I pause, making sure the lights will stay on. During the uprising, the Tathadann destroyed three power plants that fed rebel neighborhoods. It was a logical move – given that the plants not only supplied electricity but also powered the jerry-rigged water distribution system – except they failed to take into consideration that we could just siphon energy from other streets. That required the remaining plants to produce twice the electricity, resulting in the rolling blackouts we've been seeing for the last few months. While the lights stay on, we sweep the house quickly to ensure there are no remaining rebels.
Outside, we call for everyone to take cover, then move beyond the blast radius. Emeríann pulls the detonator from her bag, the big red button smiling like an old friend.
"You ready?" she says.
The neighborhood lays largely quiet, echoes of gunshots and shouting from a few streets over, the murmuring of rebels around the yard, the thrum of anticipation seven years in the making.
She takes my hand in hers, kisses me on the lips, then guides our hands to press the button.
Excerpted from "Queen of the Struggle"
Copyright © 2017 Nik Korpon.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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