Yael Clearborn, Guardian of the Crystal Empire and Arch-Mage class Aetherial spell caster glared at the mouse that stood in the grime covered bathroom with her.
“I’m not getting out of this tub until you leave,” she told the non-magical, non-sapient rodent.
It froze in place and twitched it whiskers at her.
Even naked and unarmed, Yael knew she was more than a match for the mouse, but she wasn’t interested in killing the small creature, and her more subtle abilities weren’t worth using on so small an adversary.
If only it saw itself like that.
It wasn’t a question of the mouse being trapped. The tiny creature had plenty of bolt holes to scamper into. The hotel room Yael and Zyla had rented might have earned a one-star rating at some point in the past but it had long ago sold that star and anything else it could pawn. Where the money the hotel took in went was a mystery, with the only clear answer being that none of it was invested in upkeep or accommodations for the guests. The base boards showed that neglect clearer than a building inspector’s condemnation order. Or at least clearer than the order which somehow always wound up buried under a small pile of money before it could be officially served to the hotel owners.
“Seriously, you need to go,” Yael told the mouse and loomed over it, careful to stay on the far side of the tub’s small wall as she did so.
She wasn’t scared of the mouse. She’d wrestled rodents the size of small houses and survived swarms of creatures that covered entire mountain ranges. She just didn’t want to squish the little thing. It was kind of cute. And it probably had a variety of plagues or whatever that would be a hassle to be treated for. And she was finally clean after a week of trudging through slimy streets and meeting with slimier people.
But mostly it was that the little thing was cute. With it’s big black eyes and pale violet fur. It’s little hands rubbed over each other like it was waiting to speak but had to fight crippling shyness to do so. Yael imagined it asking why a giant monster was in it’s home and had to concede that she was more the interloper than the mouse.
“We’re only here for a little while longer,” she said. “Just put up with us and I’ll leave you some food when we go.”
The mouse glanced away, reviewing its exit options, but stayed frozen in place.
At least until Zyla came in a moment later.
Zyla saw her partner standing in tub, below the dripping shower head, with a towel wrapped around her, and a small mouse sitting in the middle of the small bathroom blocking Yael’s escape.
The rodent turned to look at the new arrival and Zyla locked eyes with it.
“Leave,” she said. Her voice held the annoyance of a royal command and just enough heat to unfreeze the mouse. It flinched in surprise and bolted into the nearest hole in the wall boards it could find.
“My hero,” Yael said, stepping out of the bathtub at last.
Zyla shook her head.
“Truly a fearsome beast to have held you at bay.”
Zyla started to undress, being careful to place her clothes on what few surfaces were both off the floor and relatively clean.
“Did you have any luck tracking down the arms merchant or the ship contractor?” Yael asked as she toweled herself dry.
“Yes and no,” Zyla said, adjusting the water to her preferred, near freezing, temperature. Frosty but clean water gushed from the aging faucet into the tub. “The arms dealer was easy to find. He’s in the city morgue, currently occupying collection bins five through thirteen and awaiting processing. Our ship contractor has fled the planet, for perhaps understandable reasons.”
“And just so I can report on this honestly,” Yael said. “The arms merchant was at the morgue before you found him correct?”
“He hadn’t made any threats against you,” Zyla said. “So yes, that’s an accurate guess on your part.”
Yael wrapped her towel around Zyla and drew her in close.
“What would I do without you to protect me?” she said.
“A lot more damage,” Zyla replied and kissed her on the nose. “Let me get clean though. Morgues aren’t nice places to visit and I can feel the preservatives still clinging to my hair.”
Yael breathed in, inhaling the scent of Zyla’s hair. After a second she wrinkled her nose.
“Yeah, that could use a little shampoo,” she said and released Zyla from the towel grapple.
“We’ll want to hit the Silver Saucer tonight,” Zyla said. “There’s a thread leading back there that resonates with both of our revolutionaries.”
“That’s what I expected,” Yael said. “We tracked them this far separately, but there had to be somewhere their paths crossed.”
“Oh, and one other thing,” Zyla said and beckoned Yael closer.
Given that they could fall back on telepathic communication for secure communication, Yael was puzzled over the need to whisper anything. Puzzled until Zyla pulled her in for a kiss that is.
“Thank you for getting the water running,” Zyla said and pulled away to step into the tub. A series of fortunate (read: Aetherial magic sponsored) accidents had occurred which ensured the delivery of nice fresh water to the otherwise dilapidated hotel. This despite the fact that neither Yael nor Zyla could afford to alert anyone that a new Aetherial caster had arrived on the planet. In Aetherial battles it was often the caster who used the least magic who won, but clean showers were worth the risk of detection.
Yael smiled and touched her lips which buzzed with a pleasant energy. Zyla was still reserved, still quiet and shy in her stern and stoic way, but little by little she was starting to trust the commitment they’d made to each other and take advantage of what that meant.
Yael stepped out of the bathroom before she could let herself be lured into the icy blizzard that Zyla called a shower.
By the time she was done with dressing and a simple set of her daily anima exercises, Zyla was out of the shower too and ready to go over the casefile they’d spent the better part of two weeks assembling.
“This is starting to paint the kind of picture we didn’t want to see,” Zyla said, spreading the key documents out over the spare bed in the small apartment.
“It is but something still feels off,” Yael said. “We’ve got proof of not only mass weapon sales but also capital ships being requisitioned and parked out of system.”
“More that out of the system,” Zyla said. “In direct striking range of two of the neighboring systems.”
“We’re missing a ‘why’ though,” Yael said.
“There’s an obvious answer to that,” Zyla said.
“Yeah. Conquest,” Yael said. “But does that feel right?”
“Consider who you’re asking,” Zyla said. “Do you want the answer I’d like to believe, or that one I was trained to believe from birth?”
“Both,” Yael said.
Zyla looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m serious,” Yael said. “You don’t have to throw your old life away. It gives you a lot of skills I don’t have, and it made you who you are today.”
“In other words someone I’m trying not to be anymore,” Zyla said.
“As in someone amazing, who’s a lot better than she gives herself credit for,” Yael said, laying her hand on Zyla’s.
There was a time when Yael would never dared to speak so intimately with Zyla. There was a time when Zyla would have instinctively jerked her hand away from the gesture. Yael smiled when Zyla didn’t flinch. The old days were fading away, as old days always do, and Yael liked what the new days were bringing.
“A warlord would find being confined to a single world unbearable,” Zyla said. “Having all of your holdings on one world makes them too vulnerable. Conquest was a necessity for a secure reign.”
“But Uronos has been at peace for close to a century,” Yael said. “Well before the Crystal Empire appeared.”
“That’s true,” Zyla said. “But it’s an unaligned world. The Empire’s rules don’t apply here.”
“Not here, but Barstow Sigma is the closest system and that is Imperial territory,” Yael said.
“Which means an attack there would definitely draw an Imperial response,” Zyla said. “So that won’t be their target. The strong do not attack the stronger.”
“Kremkin’s Reach is the next nearest system and that’s unaligned too,” Yael said.
“A viable target then, except Kremkin’s has a defense treaty with the Empire as well,” Zyla said, finding the dossier on the solar system in question. “Could they think the Empire won’t honor the treaty?”
“Maybe, but that’s a large bet to make and Kremkin’s seems like a poor system to make it for,” Yael said.
“Perhaps not,” Zyla said. “A good warlord doesn’t look at a conquest solely for its own sake. They look for the position it can put them in.”
“And what would conquering Kremkin’s get Uronos?” Yael asked.
“By itself very little,” Zyla said. “Some slaves if the civilians survived, some resources too, but Uronos still has plenty of those to mine from the asteroids and planets of its own system. On it’s own there’s not much reason to move against Kremkin’s, or there wasn’t until half a year ago.”
Zyla passed a folder over to Yael. It was one of the documents that Imperial data analysis techs had forwarded to them this morning so the contents were new to the Crystal Guardian.
“What am I looking for here?” she asked.
“A set of celestial ley lines were discovered recently in near orbit to Kremkin’s,” Zyla said. “They’re long routes but they open up dozens of new ‘neighbor’ systems.”
“So Uronos wants to build an empire of their own and now they’ve got the portals to do it with?” Yael asked.
“Maybe,” Zyla said. “It is a possible motive, but I think you’re right. Something feels ‘off’ about that.”
“For Uronos’ sake, I hope the feeling is correct,” Yael said.
“We can’t let them attack anyone can we?” Zyla asked.
“No,” Yael said. “And worse than that, if they do try to attack Kremkin’s, we’ll have to step in and place them under Imperial censure.”
“Or in other words, conquer them,” Zyla said.
“It’s not as simple as that,” Yael said. “Revoking the government of any planet, independent or otherwise, is considered a cataclysm level event. They’ll lose their independence and there’ll be teams of Imperial Auditors and socio-engineers working on the planet for years after that.”
“I thought the Empire revoked millions of governments though when the Empress swept into control of the galaxy?” Zyla asked.
“That’s the ultra-simplified version of the story,” Yael said. “The reality was much more complex than that. The Empress and her forces didn’t ‘conquer’ most of the worlds in the Empire. There were military actions but those were mostly limited to the most aggressive of the Galactic Warlords and their supporters. Peaceful systems like Uronos were approached diplomatically.”
“The Empire took over systems with diplomacy?” Zyla asked.
“In many cases, yes,” Yael said. “The Empresses forces had, and still have, a tremendous amount to offer member worlds. Especially for relatively poor worlds, becoming a member of the Crystal Empire meant receiving celestial infrastructure they could never have afforded on their own and they were given a voice in galactic affairs when otherwise they would have been ignored.”
“And the ones that refused to join?” Zyla asked.
“They stayed unaligned like Uronos,” Yael said. “The Empresses goal wasn’t to unite the galaxy. She just wanted to stop the stellar scale bloodshed that kept knocking planets back into the galactic dark ages.”
“My father claimed she’d overextended herself and had to pull back to delay the Empire crumbling through her fingers,” Zyla said.
“That sounds like the kind of story a defeated warlord would cling to,” Yael said. “You’ve seen the range that we can patrol though. And that’s with spell casting on a human level still.”
“Well, mostly human,” Zyla said. “They’re still worshipping you on Drexden as the Grand Harvest Goddess.”
“That was such a mistake,” Yael said, shaking her head. “My fake divinity aside though, the Empress and the Prime Guardians are on a whole different level than we are.”
“You’re saying they could subjugate the entire galaxy if they wanted to?” Zyla asked.
“Not subjugate,” Yael said. “From what I’ve seen, the Empress does have limits and removing free will from another seems to be definitely beyond her abilities.”
“That’s inconvenient for a ruler,” Zyla said.
“I’m not sure it’s even fair to call her a ruler,” Yael said. “She’s more a living symbol of the Empire, but when you look at who makes the real decisions, that’s all done by the Galactic Parliament.”
“How does that help us here?” Zyla said.
“It doesn’t,” Yael said. “If anything it puts us back to questioning what the motive for the military build up here could be.”
“With how well this was obfuscated by Aetherial anima, I think we’re left with only one option,” Zyla said.
“The Silver Saucer,” Yael agreed.
Zyla reached for her anima blade and flicked it to life. The deadly red brand hummed in her hands and illuminated her face as she spoke.
“So that means we get to fight it out to see who gets to be the visiting princess and who has to brave the gladiator pits.”
Yael called her blade into her hand from across the room, but the fight had already begun.