Chapter 21
No Place to Lay His Head

Mileyuan, Jiangteng County, Jiaodao Province

Baron Ning stood alone in his aviary, watching his collection of rare birds perched here and there throughout the artificial jungle his grandfather had commissioned. Aviaries, menageries and botanical gardens were the particular hobbies of most noble families. No estate of any repute was without one. When other nobles and their extended families would make the circuit from estate to estate, banquet to banquet, visiting such sites was an essential part of the trip. Some houses would play a game of ruthless one-upmanship with each other, though the stock of necessary rare plants and animals was sorely limited. They were organisms that could not survive on the surface and had to be maintained under strict environmental controls. Most were grown in labs from the bank of genetic stock, but some were brought over by the original exiles to this world.
Were it not for the Calamity, this world might have flourished as Old Earth itself, but now it was a wasteland with precious few pockets of arable land, just enough to survive but not enough to thrive. In truth, if the Celestials dedicated their technology to the improvement of the surface, it might rise above mere subsistence, but that too was all part of the system, just as maintaining the Unincorporated Territories to ensure a state of perpetual warfare on the surface to control the Infernal population and prevent them from coming together as a threat to the Celestials' rule.
When he was younger and more idealistic, Baron Ning hoped to work a change in the system when he succeeded his father. Surely there were many even among the Celestials who were dissatisfied with the status quo, members of the younger generation like himself who yearned for something more just and compassionate.
Only after witnessing the horrors of war firsthand did he come to realize that the tumult that would come of upending the existing order would destroy far more than it would create. Lord Kunihiko helped to teach him the bitter necessity of the world as it stood. The best he could hope to do was work for gradual change to improve the lot of Infernal and Celestial alike, but he had no great power in and of himself and the death of Lord Kunihiko lost him a powerful advocate in the Imperial Court. His own liege Count Edo was not so generously minded and few had Lord Kunihiko's standing to effect even cautious change. Eventually the system would crack and crumble from its own rigidity, but what could one man hope to do against it?
His philosophical rumination came to a swift end when he sensed a foreign presence in the aviary with him.
"You would dare to violate my own house?" he growled. "Whatever you mean to do, your master will be made to answer for it."
The intruder said nothing. Surely he knew that words would accomplish nothing.
Even if the Baron called for help, it would not come in time, but if he could kill this Feng agent, his case against Count Feng would be secure. Drawing the hidden blade from his sleeve, he whirled around to meet the intruder, but he was not fast enough. The intruder moved in, took hold of the Baron's wrist with one hand while driving a knife between his ribs with the other.
"Those who cling to the dead will join them," the intruder whispered into the Baron's ear.
Whatever Baron Ning would have liked to say in return, he could not. His lung flooded, all he could do was cough up some blood. Though he had taken the precaution to wear light armor under his robes, it was not enough to stave off the specialized tools of the assassin.
Before his consciousness left him or the assassin could deliver the deathblow, he activated the signal to alert Sir Nedak. So long as Lady Masako was able to escape, his own death would count for little.

* * *

Batista lay in his bed staring up at the ceiling, which was imitating the night sky with unfamiliar stars, not that he was that good at identifying the stars on this world. He'd declined the offer of the pleasurable company of one or more of the courtesans in the Baron's employ. There really was something wrong with him, turning down high-class whores like that. Maybe it had something to do with that Mandate of Heaven thing. Masako somehow turned him into her eunuch slave.
So in a couple days they'd be off to Lingmu, he'd get his reward and he'd never see Masako again, most likely. She could be a pain in the ass at times, but he'd gotten used to having her around and might actually miss her. Of course, if it wasn't for the crazy circumstances that brought them together in the first place, he would've never met a girl like her. He'd do just as well getting to work on forgetting her sooner rather than later.
Not that it was going to work.
Batista wanted to hit something. Surely the palace guard had a training room. Maybe they'd let him use it for a while to work out some of this pent-up frustration.
The door to his room opened and voice shouted, "Rodrigues! Get up!"
It was Sir Nedak, carrying a bundle under his arm. As Batista sat up, Sir Nedak threw the bundle onto the bed.
"Put that on," he said tersely. "Hurry now."
"What's goin' on?" Batista asked.
"No time for questions. Start with that black suit. Put it on next to the skin."
Batista recognized the black suit. It was something the Regulars wore. Supposedly it enhanced your strength and speed while providing some protection against small arms fire and bayonets. Though it fit as snugly as the nylon hose some well-to-do women would wear, it slid on easily. Batista was only wearing a thin cotton robe, so it wasn't like he had much to take off first.
The rest of the bundle was a set of some fairly inconspicuous-looking civilian clothes and some weapons: a knife, a shortsword and a pistol, all high-grade Regular kit. It only took Batista a couple minutes to get it all on. He was used to dressing quickly in the field whenever they had to move out at a moment's notice.
"Come on," Sir Nedak said. "Let's go."
Just outside Batista's room was Masako surrounded by four palace guards. She was also dressed like an Infernal civilian, wearing this shaggy brown wig that almost made him not recognize her at first, but that was the idea, he was sure.
"This way," Sir Nedak said, beckoning them to follow.
"What's goin' on?" Batista asked again.
"The Feng are here," Sir Nedak replied. "I fear my lord is already dead, but I was charged with getting you and Lady Masako out. I do not know how many of the enemy are here. We must be cautious. Be ready."
Sir Nedak led them to a hangar filled with all manner of fliers and skiffs. Going to a small four-man flier, he told them, "Get in."
They did so, leaving the four palace guards behind. Sir Nedak took the controls, punched several buttons on the console, then looked back and said, "My lady, Rodrigues, buckle in."
Batista fumbled around with his harness, trying to figure out how it latched, when Masako leaned over and buckled him in.
"Thanks," he said, more than a little embarrassed that he needed her help.
Masako just nodded. He had never seen this grave, but their host was likely dead, so it was little surprise.
The engine hummed to life and the flier shook as it started to hover off the deck. Sir Nedak carefully navigated the flier through all the other craft in the hangar and lined himself up with the bay door that was slowly opening a couple hundred meters ahead of them.
When the door was open, Sir Nedak gunned the engine, pressing Batista back into the seat as they took off. Batista had never flown before, but he was already pretty sure that he didn't like it.
"It will take us about an hour to reach Lingmu airspace, my lady," Sir Nedak said.
Masako's hands were all balled up, clutching at her skirt, which was being stained by the slow drip-drop of tears.
"I am sorry," she said weakly. "I am so sorry... Because of me..."
"I do not blame you, my lady," Sir Nedak told her, "nor did my lord, surely. It is the Feng who are to blame and it is they who must pay. You must survive, my lady. You are the one best eye witness to their crimes. So long as you reach Lingmu, your house and my lord's will be avenged."
Masako said nothing. It didn't stop her crying. Batista wanted to say something, do something, but he couldn't think of anything, so he just sat there looking out ahead.
And it was then that he noticed a green light streak past overhead. The flier then shook roughly, a red light started blinking and chirping alarm sounded.
"Damnation," Sir Nedak growled. "Stealth fliers..." He turned to Batista and said, "Rodrigues, it falls to you now. I am going to go as low as I dare and stall the engine. You will take Lady Masako and jump."
"Jump!?" Batista exclaimed. "Are ya crazy!?"
"There is a parachute under your seat, but only one. You must strap Lady Masako to yourself and jump in tandem. Your suit will bear the brunt of the impact. Land on your feet, do not lock your knees and roll with the momentum. There are helmets and a pack of provisions under your seat as well. Take them, quickly."
Batista and Masako reached under their seats and found the parachute and the helmets he was talking about and the small pack as well. Batista found himself fumbling with his harness again as he was trying to get loose so he could put on the parachute. Once again, Masako had to work the buckles. The space was cramped, so it was difficult putting on the parachute harness. Masako's own outfit wasn't exactly designed for parachute jumping, so she was clumsily trying to tuck her skirt up under the leg straps. A fine time to be worrying about something like that.
As Batista was putting on the helmet, Sir Nedak told him, "Be sure to strap it securely. It will do you little good if it flies off before you land."
Batista fastened the chinstrap and tightened it as he was told. Masako was trying unsuccessfully to get the helmet on over her wig, quickly abandoning the idea and taking off the wig first.
The flier shook again.
"We are going down now," Sir Nedak said. "Get ready."
As Sir Nedak brought the flier down lower, the ground was racing by underneath them. Then Sir Nedak pulled some lever and the flier began rapidly decelerating.
"Strap in," he said. "You will only have a few seconds when I reach the minimum speed. As soon as you are clear of the flier, pull the the white strap on your right. You will only have about ten seconds before you touch the ground. Leave the parachute and continue east until you pass into Lingmu."
"What happens if the chute don't open?" Batista asked.
"There is no reserve," Sir Nedak said. "Protect Lady Masako as best you can."
That wasn't exactly encouraging.
Even though there was hardly any space, Batista had to secure Masako's harness to his and then move toward the door, which was thankfully on Masako's side or he might have never gotten the two of them turned around.
"Pull the emergency release lever, my lady," Sir Nedak said.
Masako did so and the entire door detached and flew off, causing another alarm to go off. The air rushing in was almost deafening, but over the noise, Sir Nedak shouted, "Good luck to you, my lady, Rodrigues! Be ready to jump in three, two, one! Jump! Jump now!"
Batista didn't give himself the chance to think about what he was doing or he might never have done it. He pushed himself out of the flier, pulled the white strap and prayed to God for the first time since he was six years old that the chute would open. It did, making Batista wonder momentarily about reconsidering his agnosticism before the chute abruptly jerked them back.
Even with the chute slowing their fall, they met the ground soon enough. Batista tried to remember how he was supposed to land, but the end result seemed to be little more than crumpling in a heap and tumbling around several meters.
Though he wasn't really hurt, it still felt like he had went through quite the ordeal.
"Y'alright, princess?" he asked Masako.
Masako moaned a little and said, "I am fine." She then looked up. "Sir Nedak?"
Batista looked in the direction Sir Nedak was flying too, just in time to see two dark grey diamonds zip past, firing off more of their green light. One side of the flier exploded, streaming smoke and flame as it careened down to the ground, exploding once more on impact.
Masako gasped and covered her mouth with he hand. Though Batista felt bad for Sir Nedak, he knew that they were next.
"Come on, princess," he said. "We gotta ditch this shit an' make for cover afore those thin's come back."
Rather than freezing up, Masako acted quickly to undo her harness. If only Batista had the same luck.
"Goddammit," he grumbled as he once again found himself struggling with the buckles.
"Honestly," Masako said with an exasperated sigh, quickly undoing the buckles. "May this be the last time."
"Yeah, yeah, sorry I don't know how ta work somethin' I never seen before."
"We can argue later," Masako said, undoing the chinstrap of her helmet. "We go now."
Batista was liking this more take-charge Masako. He could get used to it.
"Alright, princess," he said. "There ain't much in the way a' cover 'round here, so we're jus' gonna hafta book it."
As he was saying that, Masako was digging around in the pack of provisions before pulling out something that looked like a silvery poncho.
"Sir Nedak thought of everything," she said appreciatively.
"What is it?" Batista asked.
"This cloak will make us invisible to the eye and hide our heat signatures," she said. "Soldiers use them sometimes, but we also keep them to hide from marauding Infernals should we become stranded on the surface." She then looked to her Infernal companion and cleared her throat. "Anyway, the enemy fliers should not be able to see us, but there is only one cloak..."
"You ain't that big, princess," Batista said. "We can share."
He took the cloak and put it over them. Surprisingly, from the inside he could see out perfectly as if there was nothing there. Of course there was something there because though it was probably fairly roomy for one, it was a bit of a tight fit for two. Masako clung to him closely, looking uncertain but resolved.
They had been in close quarters together for a while now, but after being apart for a while at Mileyuan, he started to take notice for the first time. Was this just the Mandate of Heaven at work, making him attached to her like some sort of pet dog? Best not to think about it.
"Come on, princess," he said. "We got a long way ta go yet."