A sheet of crystalline white lay across the silent ground of the naval base. Through the thick mist and solemn clouds, faint streams of sunlight broke through the barrier and into the iced windows of the dormitories. Inside, two rows of thirty bunks lined the wide but narrow room, the insignia of a spear-wielding eagle perched above the dead fireplace and mounted upon the oak wall. Beneath the parchment sheets, men stripped to their underclothes tossed and turned against the lumpy and stiff mattresses, catching what few moments of sleep they had.
Outside, however, told a different story.
Grasping at the iced railing, Radomir kicked like a frenzied horse at his attackers, fighting to find any means of escape from his tormentors, captains from the East Dorm. One, a tall and burly officer, wrapped his hands around Radomir's thin leg and easily yanked him away from the rail, his face slamming into the frost below. He struggled to push himself up, only to be felled by a sharp kick to his stomach. Air flew from his lungs, shifting into a faint cloud of white and vanishing. He broke into a series of coughs, his small frame shaking with each expel. His ears caught the high-pitched laugh from above before two pairs of hands grabbed the scruff of his coat and lifted him to his limp feet.
"You'd think he'd learn after the first two warnings," said the presumed ringleader of the three, taking his time pulling his glove off, "but that would be raising our hopes. Guess the Stanislav family ran out of brains when you came around."
The leader jabbed a finger against the soldier's lips. "It's rude to interrupt when a superior is speaking to you, Lieutenant! So uncivilized." He pried the glove off, cracking each finger while he continued. "You've been here for
how long has it been, six, seven months? That should have given you well more than enough time to abide by the rules: lieutenant sergeants and below wait until captains such as myself and these two are finished at the medical wing. It's not the other way around."
"My comrade nearly died because you
you morons took your precious time for a cold!" Radomir struggled to free his arms. "He was sure to freeze to death if I hadn't taken him to the doctor."
"It would have been no big loss to our army. There was no need for a ru
A gray blur pried free from the tight grasp, pounding into the cheek of the captain. Like a stone he dropped, groaning while he wiggled to his feet. The lieutenant yanked his other arm out and moved to make his way to the nearest dorm, but the nearest man kicked at his feet, plummeting to the ground, his broad nose striking the earth. A warm liquid soon began to flow from his nostrils, a coppery tang staining his lips.
The burly captain lifted the stunned Radomir, pinning him against a wall, smirking as he watched the blood paint the front of his uniform. "You're stupider than the Sidhes, you ugly little cretin," he said, his voice grating. "Striking a superior officer is immediate death during a time of war."
There was a low growl. "Move, you braying ass!" The ringleader was helped to his feet and he shoved the other away. "He's mine."
"Go at him, Slobodan," said the third captain, reaching behind his back. He pulled forth a bayonet knife, wiping the blade across his sleeve before elegantly handing it to Slobodan. Peculiarly green eyes watched their every move, yet failed to register the motions to Radomir's mind. Instead he let out a hoarse moan, his nose pouring blood, head screaming in pain.
Slobodan chuckled, taking the knife and pressing the tip into Radomir's neck. "I think we need to pay a visit to the bay, gentlemen. Our little warrior here wants to take a swim!"
"How about we deliver him to the Sidhes? They'll be more than happy to gut him open."
"Let's stuff him into the cannon and see how far he flies."
Slobodan chuckled again, sliding the tip of the blade up and down Radomir's neck. "So many decisions, don't you agree? Hmm, hmm
" His eyes traveled up and down at his prey, rubbing his chin as if he was examining a slab of meat. "You know, I'm feeling charitable today, Stanislav. Put him on his knees."
They tossed Radomir into the white blanket like he was a doll. Slobodan sat him upright, wiping snow from his shoulders and hair, humming. "Perfect. Let me just do this
" He grabbed a handful of the soldier's hair, jerking his head back, exposing his neck, dried blood caking over the skin.
Another chuckle. "There we go. " Slobodan placed the knife upon Radomir's neck once again, the tip pressing under his chin. "Don't fret your little heart out, dear Lieutenant, I won't cut too deep."
A sudden bang shattered the winter sky, all four heads whipping towards the left. The knife slipped from Slobodan's grasp, sinking into the snow. Whisps of smoke snaked out from the silver barrel of the pistol, the rank of gunpowder filtering to their noses. Before them stood a brusque man, middle-aged, grizzled. His uniform was a light gray with blue shoulder epaulettes, adorned with three curved, black chevrons above a black crescent. Through his fuzzy vision, Radomir spotted the leather sheath dangling inches from the ground.
"I come out here to sound reveille, and instead I find savages." High Captain Slavko holstered the flintlock, black boots crunching the frost. "Get on your damned faces before I do it for you!"
Slavko was infamous for his steel voice; rumor had spread that it made a renowned Sidhe Admiral and his fleet turn tail. Slobodan and his men fell on all fours, bodies rising and falling with each push. Radomir stumbled to follow suit, but a calloused hand took him by the shoulder and hefted him up.
"Lieutenant Sergeants do not belong anywhere near the North Sector, boy. What gave you the bright idea to wander out here in the dead of the morning? You could be written up for this."
Radomir completely forgot about his bloody nose. "Sir, I was ordered to retrieve
retrieve Corporal Fedoruk from the medical wing and bring him to his dorm, by the order of Major Homolka."
"Ah, yes. I was wondering why that buffoon of a soldier was standing out alone. I had an orderly bring him to his dorm, don't worry." Slavko finally looked at Radomir. "Get your scrawny rear to the wing for that nose, then back to your dorm. I'll not have an officer under my command look like a warmonger."
"Yes, sir. Thank you," said Radomir, throwing up a salute. He bounded past the captain and away from the scene, not daring to look back; he could feel Slobodan's eyes piercing into his back. The blood had finally stopped and was freezing against Radomir's skin, biting him. He broke into a fast jog, making a sharp turn and hurrying towards the bathhouse. The image of laying in a soft and clean bed while waiting to be seen by the doctor flared in his mind, warming his numb fingers and toes and face. The bathhouse, on the other hand, was closer and easier to get into without sneaking through the superior's sector. Inside lay a heated pool divided into different sections, which could be felt from outside the building, as if beckoning the freezing men like a siren.
Upon entering, a blast of invigorating steam struck him, nearly toppling him head over heels. He leaped inside and pushed the oak door shut, wasting no time tearing his tunic and shirt aside. The bathhouses were normally closed off until the evenings, when the day's duties were finished, but this year's winter was especially harsh to the base, icing over the pipes in the factories and the railways. Only by keeping the heated room running day and night were they able to keep disasters down to a minimum.
Once stripped to his nothings, he hopped into the nearest pool. He clasped a hand tight around his mouth, stopping a loud yelp of surprise as he looked around the building. An impenetrable wall of steam hovered a finger's length above the water; his chances of capture were slim. The blood trickled from his skin into the bath, leaving faint red dots, then vanishing.
Though enveloped in a never-ending blanket of heat, Radomir shuddered. Slobodan was sure to be on the hunt for him now; this morning's incident made sure of that. He rubbed his nose, his fingers brushing over the small bump the fall caused. He winced, quickly pulling his hand away, then looked at his rippling reflection. Silence overcame him.
The Stanislav name was known around the Perunis nation, due to the famous lineage of military generals and victors since the creation of the empire. Whenever a war was born, a Stanislav emerged triumphant, or sacrificed their lives in doing so. They were considered masters of the armed forces; some would go as far as to say they were the rightful holders of the crown. Sidhes would use the family name as a warning to their disobedient children, describing them as horned, cloak monsters dragging about a large battleaxe, waiting to cut the brats up into little pieces for their stew.
Radomir shared their bloodline, being the last born son of General Damir, 'Slayer of the Skies'. However, it was all he shared with the family. They all held similar looks, ones of grace and the gleam of bravery in their eyes. None of that was mixed into Radomir; it was a challenge to convince his fellow officers that he was truly a Stanislav. His face was long, his nose hooked, protruding like a small mound of dirt. In his eyes the courage was veiled by a film of uncertainty, more proof for the skeptics.
The door creaked open and his head shot up, his body tense. Hushed voices bounced among the walls as the faint silhouettes floated past Radomir, boots clicking against the stone floor. Silently, he slipped deeper into the water until only his eyes and forehead were visible, holding his breath as the figures walked past and to a bath halfway across the building.
Radomir felt himself grow cold. Had he been caught sneaking in? Slavko had ordered him to the medical wing; did the high captain go to see if he had made it, and was now going the way of a headhunter? The punishment for disobeying a direct order was a week in a concrete room, with only a small window on the steel door being the only means of light. It lay near the harbor of the base, where the frigates and skyships of past battles were placed to forever rot: the Boneyard.
"Winter just begun and already it's cursing us with the worst luck," said a voice, snapping Radomir from his thoughts. "We should count ourselves lucky that the Sidhes haven't thought of invading."
"You fools think this is bad? I was raised up north; it never stops snowing there," said another, tossing his boots aside.
"Oh, shut up. If we're caught in here, it's the Boneyard with us. All the high captains are raining down on the dorms and writing anyone down with so much as a hair out of place. Why now?" The third man's voice could have mistook him for a young woman. Radomir glided over to the other side of the pool, keeping as low as possible.
The man who spoke first hacked, spitting on the wall. "I figured you would have known. You work with Slavko's people." A groan wavered through the air as they eased their feet into the water.
Seems I wasn't the only one with the idea, thought Radomir, lifting his head slightly out. His mind hollered to leave and run to the medical wing like he was ordered to, but the conversation happening yards away grasped him by the hands, greedily keeping him prisoner.
"If I knew I wouldn't be asking, dolt. What're you hiding?"
"Well..." The third man fell silent, possibly taking a quick survey of the room. "I heard from Major Karpov that the High Lady Branka is coming here...!"
"You're mad! Why would she bother to come here? We should be the last place Her Lady should be visiting..."
"Apparently, she is coming on official business. I heard from the major that she is to be giving us orders for battle."
Radomir's eyes flashed. Battle?
The first voice didn't bother to lower his voice. "If you weren't speaking madness before, you are now! The Naval Force never goes out to fight the Sidhes; we're merely here to attract attention. The Land Brigade and Air Corps are the ones who do the real fighting."
"Show some pride, you insolent brat. We'll have our time soon, trust me." The second man sighed. "We should be getting to our dorms soon, before we're found."
Radomir didn't need to hear that twice. He climbed out from his bath and rushed to his clothes, drying himself off as quick as he could before messily dressing himself. The medical wing would have to come another time.
~ ~ ~
Radomir barely got two steps into his dorm when his name was called. He looked up, spotting the form of a tall, lean man standing in the middle of the room, numerous medals covering his blue tunic and a metallic, skeletal limb poking from his right sleeve.
High Captain Polak's face twisted and his artificial hand clenched. "Look who decided to show, now... how about you mind telling me where the hell you were during roll call!"
He suddenly remembered the stain on his jacket. He told his superior about his orders, then about Slobodan and his cronies ambushing him. Polak's face turned sour, his thin lips sinking into his mouth at the story. Nonetheless, like all officers, he wasted no time tearing it apart.
"So it took you forty minutes to come from this incident back to the dorms? Your legs appear to be not broken; were you caught in another fight, Lieutenant?"
"No, sir. I..." Telling him about the bathhouse would be signing his death wish. "I was ordered by Captain Slavko to go to the medical wing, but they were too busy to attend to me, so I left after waiting half an hour, sir Captain."
Polak's 'hand' relaxed. A good sign. "This damn winter should be hurting those dirt-skins, not us. Anyway, you've been ordered to Major Homolka's office; he didn't say what, but he needs you there immediately."
"Now...?" Radomir gestured to his uniform. "But, should I not change?"
"When the major says now, he means it, moron. If you keep him any longer this whole dorm will be written up. Go!"
~ ~ ~
Major Homolka's office lay in the center of the base, a large, stone tower looking down at the grounds. Unlike most of the officers and soldiers, Homolka was born into poverty, surviving day by day in the slums before enlisting into the military and capturing an enemy battleship with only a broken sword and an empty pistol. Nothing escaped his eye (his other eye had been shot out by a flintlock pistol from a Sidhe ensign three years ago); his best view was towards the harbor, where twelve frigates were docked, impatiently awaiting the ice to thaw out. Some of the men picked and stabbed at the ice with their swords, pistols, and even some explosives, only to end up in the infirmary and be treated for hypothermia.
Homolka looked to his pocket watch, tapping the glass to make sure the blasted thing didn't break again. For a son of General Damir, Lieutenant Stanislav seemed to love to debunk the myth of his family's reputation! He shook his head, stuffing the watch into his tunic as a brief knock came to his door. "Enter!"
The door opened enough for Radomir to slip into the shaded room, the anxiety in his eyes blazing. He stepped forward, reedy fingers tugging at his pants. Though dark, Radomir could easily see the carpeted floor hiding under the white bear rug, its opened mouth baring bleached fangs at the officer. Portraits of Her Empress and previous leaders hung behind the oaken desk, various medals and awards collected in a sealed box propped upon the desk's corner. An unknown figure sat in the shadows, allowing a foot to soak in the faint morning sun. Radomir graced the figure with a quick glance, then down at his uniform. He had received disgruntled stares while coming to the room, mostly due to the dark blotch running down his tunic. Why didn't he bother scrubbing it out while at the bathhouse? He swore at himself for such stupidity.
Before he could gain his composure, Homolka spoke. "I'm so glad you join us, Stanislav. Unfortunately, you seem to have forgotten how to appear before your commander and Her Lady."
Radomir had barely a chance to open his mouth when a female voice stopped him, causing his entire body to turn. "If you please, major... be not so harsh on the poor boy."
A clutch tightened Radomir's throat, heart, and legs. Out walked a woman, clad in a long, violet dress with silver trimmings and folds, her golden locks falling just above her breasts. She was slender-built, reaching out with a delicate arm towards the officer. Bracelets decorated her left arm, adorned in emeralds, diamonds, and others that were unknown to Radomir.
She softly took Radomir's hand, offering a motherly smile. "A pleasure to meet you, good sir." She turned her head. "If we may have a few moments in private, major?"
"Of course, my Lady." Reluctance wavered in the commander's voice, as if he had been insulted. He bowed his head, silently shutting the door on his way out.
"M... My Lady, I..." He quickly lost his voice, coughing.
She guided him to a cushioned seat, barely wasting any energy to set him down. "Do you know why you have been summoned, Lieutenant? Take your time."
"I... N-no, Lady Branka. My captain merely said, said Major Homolka needed me to come to his office. Had I known you were here, I would not..."
"Please, save your words." Branka smiled again, folding her arms across her lap. "I have reviewed your history in the Naval Force, and I wish I could say I was surprised at your prowess. Your family's blood runs strong in your veins."
He could only nod in reply; his throat grew parched.
"However," she said, rising,"we are at war with a distasteful race; the Sidhes will stop at nothing until Her Empress is pulled from her throne. As her loyal children, we must make it so they cannot set one foot into our nation. Our spies apprehended information about a massive fleet preparing to cross the Carski Ocean. Their ships have been designed so that they can cut through the ice. They plan to come in from the north and the south, Stanislav. If they succeed, they will launch a massive offensive that will lead to devastating casualties. My council and I have discussed it, and we have decided that we must strike back.
"Your record is outstanding, Stanislav, but again, it is not surprising. Your family is the sole weapon that can bring the Sidhe to their knees. Lieutenant Serge... no. Not anymore." Branka turned to him, her smile broadened. "From this day forward, you are now a Frigate Lieutenant. Come next month, you will be sent out to meet the enemy and send them to their watery graves. Wear your new rank with honor and pride, child of Her Empress. Until then... go home. You deserve it."