Chapter 1
The Capital Beyond the Sky

Guitou Mountains, Tiandao Province

The mountains were mostly barren and inhospitable. There wasn't a single town or village of any significance for the proverbial thousand li, even if Tiandao Province was supposed to be the very heart of the Empire.
This day was a long time coming. Ever since Tío Jorge was killed, Yasuko dedicated herself to training, learning every skill she would need to get her revenge. After all her work, all her training and preparing, she was finally going to do it. One way or another, she was going to bring down the Celestials and this was her first step.
Yasuko checked again with her binoculars. The supply train would be there in a few more minutes. She had to be ready. The Celestials had their floating cities and their flying fortresses, but their heart was the Capital Beyond the Sky. The Capital needed supplies from the surface, which meant daily supply trains going to the Hidden City from all four directions.
The Hidden City was aptly named because it was invisible to the naked eye, just one of many examples of the advanced technology the Celestials kept to themselves. In the center of the Hidden City was a tether that connected the surface to the Capital, a space elevator some people called it.
Her plan was fairly straightforward. She'd hitch a ride in one of the containers on the supply train, which would be loaded onto the space elevator and delivered directly to the Capital. It was the last thing they would expect. Just about any other route required you to be a Celestial or one of their slaves.
A flickering in the distance meant the train had passed the marker she had rigged up down the line. She had twelve minutes to get to the tunnel exit before the train would emerge out of the other side of the mountain. She would then have somewhere between four and seven minutes before it would go back to full speed. The reason she picked the mountain in the first place was because the train would slow down while it passed through the tunnel. It made it actually plausible for her to jump on and survive the attempt, but she was flirting with death all the same. It was entirely possible she'd only succeed in getting herself killed, but if she wanted to get into the Capital, this was about her only choice.
She scrambled among the rocks and dry brush as she made her way around the mountain. It was over 500 meters to the tunnel exit and that was the shortest distance she could make it and still see when the train was approaching from the west. By the time she got to the exit, the train was already on its way out. She quickly put on the mag pads over her gloves and turned them on. This would be a very short trip if the containers were completely non-ferrous.
She didn't have time to worry about mistiming her jump, getting her arms torn out of the sockets or the mag pads failing. If she was going to get on this train, she had to jump and jump now, so that was exactly what she did. It was only about three meters down, but it wasn't the distance of the fall that was the problem. Like the one retired science teacher who gave her physics lectures would tell her, it's the delta-V that gets you.
She landed hard and for a moment it seemed like she was going to fly right off, but after sliding a bit, her mag pads finally held her in place. It would seem that the skin of the container did nothing for her, but the underlying skeleton had enough iron to work. She had to get off the roof before the train started speeding up or the mag pads alone wouldn't hold her.
It was a tricky maneuver, but she had to half-crawl, half-slide from rib to rib until she got to the end of the car. There were several different container designs and she needed one that had a man-sized access hatch on the front or back. She wasn't going to try to get in from the side while the train was moving and if the entire end opened up, there'd be no way to get in until it was being loaded or unloaded. Fortunately for her, the car behind her fit the bill.
The container had an electronic keypad instead of a mechanical lock. She just hoped the code she got would work. She punched in the code and was rewarded by a little green light and the sound of the lock disengaging. Perfect. It was worth her while getting that one yard rat drunk enough to confide in her that most of the containers all used the same code. It was bad for security, but it made the work quicker and so long as there were no major thefts, meeting their quotas was more important.
The container was a freezer for meat, another stroke of good luck. It was exactly what she needed. Where they were able to raise all this meat, she didn't know. There was more beef in this container than most towns would see in a whole year. It didn't matter. The cargo handlers would take good care of the Celestials' precious meat, which meant her own precious meat stood a good chance of surviving the journey too.
She shuddered. The warmth from being outside had left her. The container was only as cold as it needed to be to preserve the meat without damaging it, but for as long as the trip was going to be, an ordinary human couldn't survive like this. She was prepared for it, though.
She found a partially concealed corner and pulled out what looked like an oversized foil pouch from her pack. This would help ward off freezer burn, but it wasn't enough. She took out a small case with an autoinjector and three capsules packed in foam. She inserted one of the capsules into the autoinjector and pressed it to her neck. The autoinjector hissed. She only had two or three minutes to get in position before the drugs kicked in. Her vitals would drop down to minimal levels for the next seven days, the approximate time it would take to reach the Capital. In her dormant state, she wouldn't need food or water and could survive the low temperatures and the changes in air pressure and G forces. That was the idea at least. She had only tested the drugs once before to make sure they worked and she had the dosage right. Even more so than the first time, it was entirely possible she wouldn't wake up from this sleep.
It was too late to back out now. She climbed into the pouch like she was some big potato and lay down. It was already starting to feel like she was floating. She closed her eyes and hoped to wake up in the heart of her enemy.

* * *

Yasuko's sleep wasn't an eternal one in the end. Consciousness returned to her slowly. For a while, she didn't know where she was or even who she was. She felt cold, dizzy and weak. That was all she knew until she felt a jolt and heard some sort of droning sound.
They were offloading the container. Yes, that was it. She was in a freezer container bound for the Capital. They must have arrived. She had to get moving before she was discovered. She started by trying to flex her fingers and toes. It was more of a challenge than you might think. Once that worked, she kept on flexing her fingers and toes while getting her other joints to join in. When she tested the drugs she took for the first time, she left a clock on the nightstand to time her recovery. It took nearly an hour to get out of bed then and she didn't know if she'd have that much time now.
Try as she might. she couldn't rush the process and move her body any faster than it would let her. Eventually she was able to shed her foil cocoon, but she immediately regretted it as it was much colder outside the pouch. She had a hard time standing with her legs all wobbly like rubber and an even more difficult time stumbling over to the hatch.
She promptly cursed her carelessness. It didn't open from the inside. That meant she was going to have to wait until someone came along. Who knew when that would be? Also, how was she going to get out without being detected?
For the time being, all she could do was get back into the pouch to conserve her body heat while she waited. Though she had practice lying in wait for hours on end, she was having trouble staying awake. Maybe it was an aftereffect of the drugs or maybe it was just the cold. Whatever it was, she ended up nodding off and woke with a start to the sound of the hatch opening.
Footsteps. A voice muttering in thickly accented Celestial. Just one person.
"Why must I hand-count meat? Machines can count."
Yasuko cautiously opened the pouch and peered out to see a man wearing a heavy coat and thick goggles, going around the container with a flashlight. He seemed sufficiently distracted, so she slid out of the pouch and gathered it up, then worked on sneaking out of the container while the man was looking elsewhere. All the meat provided plenty of cover and the man wasn't looking for anything else, so it wasn't too hard to slip out.
The moment she stepped out, though, she immediately had to duck around the corner before another worker caught sight of her. She was in some sort of loading bay. Hundreds of containers were spread out all over the place. Several cranes suspended from the ceiling were busy at work stacking empty containers onto the pallet of the space elevator to send them back down to the surface. There was actually a queue of pallets in all four directions with containers being loaded and unloaded, but only one line down.
Now what? The odds of her making it to the Capital were so low that it took all her planning just to make it this far. She knew absolutely nothing about the Capital other than the fact that it was the home of the Emperor and that it was connected to the surface via the space elevator in the Hidden City.
If she was able to come up with a way to blow the cable for the space elevator, it would only prove to be temporary inconvenience at best as it wasn't the Capital's sole lifeline, just the most heavily used. Speaking of blowing things up, why not the entire Capital? Places like this were supposed to have power sources called reactors. If she could make that blow up, overheat it like a boiler or something, it could take out the whole thing, couldn't it? The only problem was that it probably had the toughest security next to the Emperor himself and she didn't know the first thing about those reactors, so even if you put her right in front of the controls, she probably couldn't do anything with it. She didn't eve know how she was going to get out of this loading bay.
"Who're you?" a voice asked.
Yasuko followed the sound of the voice and found a little kid sitting on top of the container. What was he doing here? He sure as hell didn't work here.
The kid hopped off the container, landing with unexpected ease. He may have just been a kid, but he'd obviously had some training. Most kids his age would've botched a three-meter jump like that and been bawling right about now.
He extended his hand to her and said, "I'm Snorri."
"What's that? Some kinda nickname?" she asked as she found herself accepting his little hand for some reason.
"It's a good name!" the kid protested. "I'm Snorri Sturlusson, like the poet!"
"Never heard a' him."
The kid--Snorri--tilted his head.
"Don't you go to school? Ne, what's your name?"
"Yasuko. Yasuko Esposito Rodrigues."
Why did she tell him her name? She was supposed to be infiltrating the Capital with the intent to destroy it. You don't go around telling people your name, even if it wasn't like her name was supposed to mean up here. And because her name didn't mean anything up here, all Snorri did was crinkle his nose.
"Funny name. You're an Infernal, aren't you? Infernals aren't supposed to be here. The Peacemen'll shoot you."
It would just go over the kid's head if she told him that shooting people didn't sound very peaceful to her. It did bring up the fine point that she would certainly be killed if she was caught and now there was a witness who could identify her. It didn't sit right with her, but she had to kill him. It was the only way to be sure.
As she reached for the hilt of her sword, though, she was hesitating. Killing Celestials, their soldiers and officials, that was one thing. Killing a kid in cold blood was another. Could she do it? Was she prepared to go all the way for the sake of her revenge? Now was a fine time to put her resolve to the test.
Snorri leaned in, giving her a sly look, and said, "I won't tell if you play with me."
He didn't seem to realize how close he was to dying, but why should a kid his age think that?
"I'm good at sneaking," he said. "I'll show you around."
Yasuko didn't know the first thing about the Capital. Why not use one of the locals, especially someone as gullible as a kid? She could learn more about the place and it'd buy her time to gather her nerve. Or would the extra time just make it harder for her to do what needed doing?
"Alright, kid," she said, "you got a deal."
"Awesome! Well, c'mon, Yasuko, this way."
And so Snorri led her on a merry chase, first guiding her out of the loading bay, sneaking past all the workers, then into the maintenance tunnels that apparently ran all throughout the place. According to Snorri, you could get anywhere through the tunnels except for the Forbidden Precinct where the Emperor resided. Yasuko wondered if they used all the mumbo-jumbo about the Emperor as a way to hide critical systems like the reactor in the Forbidden Precinct. Of course, even if something as important as the reactor was outside the Forbidden Precinct, there was no way they'd allow easy access via the tunnels. Unless they were that stupid, but she didn't think they'd be holding the world under their thumb so long if that was true.
This was Snorri's first time showing anyone his secret routes and he proved to be a regular little chatterbox, energetically telling her about all the different places they passed along the way. Yasuko struggled to commit it all to memory, the places and the paths. She might have a need for it soon, but it was a lot to take in.
They spent a good two or three hours going all over until there was an electronic beeping sound and a little blue light that flashed from Snorri's wrist. He looked down at the bracelet and muttered something to himself.
"What is it?" Yasuko asked.
"Nothing," Snorri replied. "Let's keep going."
It most certainly wasn't nothing, but she wasn't going to press him for answers just yet. He was a lot more likely to tell her stuff she could use while he was under the impression this was nothing but fun playtime. Once she showed her true colors, she probably wouldn't get anything useful out of him.
A few times he had insisted on shortcuts outside of the tunnels and as much as Yasuko didn't want to be seen, she made the dubious choice of believing his premise of sneaking around and so far it had worked out for her, so she thought nothing of it when he went to the access hatch to leave the tunnels. Just another shortcut, she thought. She was wrong.
She emerged to find herself in the intersection of a wide open thoroughfare. There wasn't any traffic to speak of at the moment, but she could easily be spotted from hundreds of meters away in all directions. This was bad.
"Snorri, what's goin' on here?" she asked warily, trying keep her voice level and not show any signs of her nervousness.
"That beeping, that was Mamma telling me to come home," he said. "I wanted to bring you home with me."
He what?
"Where are we?"
"The Royal Precinct," Snorri replied. "It's where I live."
The Royal Precinct, second only to the Forbidden Precinct in all the Capital. And there she was, out in the open, exposed.
Fear gave way to anger and without thinking about a smarter way to play the situation, she grabbed Snorri by the shirt and hoisted him off his feet.
"You planned this from the start, didn't you?" Yasuko growled.
"We, well, yeah," Snorri said. "I've never been able to play with an Infernal before. All the other children around here are so boring. I'm sure Mamma will let me keep you if I ask her."
"Do I look like some kinda stray dog to you!?" she demanded.
It was finally starting to dawn on Snorri that he was in some danger. He didn't get the chance to grasp how dire his situation was because of the intervention of a man's voice.
"Oya, oya, what's this?"
Yasuko turned to see a tall blond man who looked like this fountain statue she'd seen once in her travels. He seemed to be from one of the Man peoples, but there were some hints of mixed breeding to him. He was dressed in the uniform of a Celestial officer, but Yasuko didn't recognize the rank. It was higher than anything she'd seen before. She hadn't seen anyone when they first got out of the maintenance tunnels, so where did he come from and how did he get here so fast?
"Pappa!" Snorri exclaimed happily, seeming to forget all about his current predicament.
The Celestial officer--who was apparently Snorri's father--didn't seem to show much sign of appreciating the danger Snorri was in either.
"Who's your little friend here?" he asked.
"This is Yasuko, Pappa," Snorri said. "I found her. Can I keep her? You think Mamma'll say yes?"
What was Yasuko going to do? The officer was biggest threat, so he needed to go down first. Slowly, she set Snorri back down on the floor and started to go for her sword. However, as her fingers gripped the hilt, her body froze. The officer was looking right at her. Behind his lazy facade, he had the look of a cat ready to pounce.
"My, what a dangerous thing you have there," he said. "I wouldn't advise it, though. I'm afraid I don't know how to restrain myself, even when my opponent is a little girl."
The officer's hand rested on the pommel of the sword at his hip. Was it just false bravado? No, she could tell. She could sense it. He was playing with her because he could afford to. It wasn't empty confidence. She knew the difference between the way a man looked when he just thought he had an overwhelming advantage and when he actually knew it.
Confused, Snorri looked back and forth between Yasuko and his father.
"Pappa, what--?"
Even though she had the unshakable feeling that she was completely outmatched, Yasuko was about to force herself to try her luck anyway when yet another unexpected voice joined in.
"Prince Sturla!"
A prince? If the officer was a prince, that meant Snorri too...
"Just the man I was wanting to see," Prince Sturla said to the new arrival. "It's good to see you back here in the Capital after all these years."
Yasuko turned to see two men approach, officers by the look of them, but Yasuko had never seen uniforms like theirs before, all black with a yellow front and red piping. The younger one was Man, red-headed, which was rare. The older one almost looked like a paisano. He looked like...
It had been ten years, but she never forgot her father's face. What was more, even though it had been ten years, he seemed to recognize her about as quickly.
"Yasuko?" he asked, clearly not believing his own eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, so this is your daughter, Centurion Batista?" Prince Sturla asked. "I wasn't aware. Well, how nice that our children have made playmates of each other."
Still thrown off by the sight of Yasuko--and the feeling was entirely mutual--, her father could only reply distractedly, "Our... our children, Your Highness?"
Prince Sturla smiled.
"I suppose they're more than playmates, aren't they? Snorri, have you been behaving for your sister?"
"Wha--!?" Yasuko exclaimed.
Her father was just as shaken.
"Your Highness, what do you--?"
"Half-sister, to be precise," yet another voice chimed in, this time a woman.
Yasuko was about to go out of her mind. Where were all these people coming from and why did they all seem to be connected to her one way or another? A noblewoman in flowing robes with servants on either side of her and a stern-faced female soldier trailing behind joined in.
"Masako!?" her father exclaimed.
Snorri happily ran over to the noblewoman and hugged her.
Yasuko's head was hurting. She didn't understand what was going on. Was she still in the container suffering from hypoxia and all this was just some bizarre dying dream?
"I believe you should be addressing my wife as 'Your Highness', Centurion Batista," Prince Sturla said, still with that smug look of his.
Yasuko's father seemed just as confused as she was.
"Y-your wife!?"
"Surely you did not expect me to wait for you forever, did you, Batista?" the noblewoman said. She looked down at Snorri and stroked his head, saying, "I am princess now, with a little prince who may one day inherit the throne."
"Father was so angry when I took a woman sullied by an Infernal," Prince Sturla said, "but the flower still smells just as sweet to me."
Yasuko was still trying to make sense of it all, but her father wasn't wasting any time thinking. With a furious look in his eyes, he drew his sword.
"Centurion!" his red-headed comrade cried.
Prince Sturla's eyes widened, not out of fear but excitement. It was like a child given free rein in a candy store. He drew his sword, saying, "If I knew this was all it would take to cross swords with the legendary Batista Jiansheng, I would've told you about Masako and me a long time ago, ha ha!"
Her father had nothing to say to him. With a shout he lunged forward with a stroke that would kill most men, but Prince Sturla proved to be both faster and stronger than most men. He parried her father's stroke and the two blades strained against each other before her father broke off to swing again.
With they were exchanging blows, the noblewoman shouted indignantly, "Stop this at once! Put away your swords, both of you!"
Needless to say, neither one of them listened to her and they continued their fight. If anything, the match became all the more heated. Yasuko considered herself to be fairly handy with a blade, but seeing her father and Prince Sturla, she realized they were in a completely different league. She could visualize herself against either of them and see all the strokes she wouldn't have anticipated. Either one of them would've killed her several times over if she had been the one fighting. What would've happened if her father hadn't shown up just before she was about to attack Prince Sturla?
Strength, technique, she could scarcely find any flaws in either. Both men were near perfect swordsmen, but there was a distinct difference between them. Her father was overcome with anger, but Prince Sturla was completely calm. It was then that she realized the Prince wasn't fighting at his full potential. This was all just a game to him.
"This can't be it, Batista Jiansheng," Prince Sturla said. "Give me everything you've got! I want to see it for myself!"
The Prince started to change the way he fought. Before he stayed on the defensive, but now he was going on the attack. He was turning up the heat and the scales that had been held in a tense balance began to shift.
If her father was giving his all, it wasn't enough. He was starting to lose ground, have trouble keeping pace as Prince Sturla became more and more aggressive in his attacks. It was just a matter of time at this point.
"This can't be it," Prince Sturla said. "Maybe I need to bleed you a little to bring out the Guishen in you."
The Prince made a swing that her father narrowly dodged, and his blade was stopped by another. It was her father's companion.
"What's wrong, Optio Kieran?" Prince Sturla asked. "Don't you have faith in your Centurion?"
"Please stop this, Your Highness," the red-headed man Kieran said. "Please put away your sword or else Centurion Batista may do you some harm in his anger."
The Prince grinned.
"He can try. And you can keep trying to stop us, Kieran McAllister."
"Your Highness!"
While Prince Sturla locked blades with Kieran, he father made another swing, but the Prince caught him by the wrist. Neither of the Prince's two opponents could make him budge and Yasuko got the distinct feeling that even this wasn't his 100%. If he stopped holding back, even these two would be overwhelmed.
Yasuko wanted to do something, but she still found herself frozen in place. Even if she could move, would it make any difference if she tried to get in the middle of it? Would she just prove to be a liability if she got involved? She had to try...
Or she would have, but for better or for worse, something else came up. Somehow, yet another person emerged without Yasuko noticing. The fact that she was transfixed by her father's fight with the Prince was no excuse. What happened to situational awareness?
"What is the meaning of this!?" the new voice fumed. "Two men of the Imperial Guard turning their blades against the Prince! I will have your heads for this!"
This latest person was also an officer, but his uniform was far more elaborate with thick-corded fringe on the epaulettes, a broad sash, a chest full of overlarge medals, and a cape. He was a heavyset man who might've been naturally ruddy but now was almost purple in his boiled-over anger. He had three soldiers with him--an adjutant and two bodyguards, it seemed--and four civilian attendants. Apparently Prince Sturla was one of the few Celestials who didn't like to go around with an entourage.
Anyway, this red-faced ball of tin and ribbon succeeded in bringing the duel to a halt. The fury that had taken over her father's senses left him. Prince Sturla let go of his wrist and as Kieran withdrew, he returned his sword to its sheath.
"Calm yourself, Father," the Prince said as if nothing had happened. "Centurion Batista and Optio Kieran were simply engaging in a little light sparring at my request. It is quite enough to test my skills against the famous Batista Rodrigues, but Optio Kieran was kind enough to increase the challenge for my benefit. I am flattered, of course. Well done, both of you. Stand down, men."
Her father just stood there dumbstruck for a moment before sheathing his sword. There was no telling what would happen next, but then Yasuko saw the fat man eyeing her.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"She is my daughter, Lord Grima," the noblewoman said. "It would seem she snuck out again. I swear, my children are slippery as eels."
Her daughter? The noblewoman was Yasuko's mother? Try as she might, she couldn't remember her mother's face. Why did she recognize her father and not her mother?
She held her head, which was starting to ache again. All the while the fat man--Prince Sturla's father, Lord Grima--was watching her suspiciously.
"I have never seen her before," he said.
"You know it is our custom to keep our girls out of the public eye until their debut, Lord Grima," Yasuko's mother replied. "Perhaps that is why she has such a bad habit of slipping away from her minders. I will have them scrubbing the floor for a month for this."
Before Lord Grima could ask any more questions, Prince Sturla stepped in, saying, "You wanted to see me, Father. Come, let's go somewhere a little more scenic. Snorri, you too."
"But, Pappa!"
"You're getting old enough to start hearing some of the boring politics you'll have to put up with. Yasuko, go with your mother. Centurion, Optio, I will have to hear your report later. Perhaps next time we cross swords, we can use our full potential."
He flashed that smug grin of his one more time as something of a parting shot before ushering both Lord Grima and Snorri down one of the corridors.
Yasuko was still reeling from everything that had happened, but she did notice that her father was standing motionless in his place, staring in the direction Prince Sturla went, his hand still gripping the hilt of his sword.
"He was so strong..." he muttered to himself.
Giving both her father and Kieran an indignant look, Yasuko's mother scolded them, saying, "What were you two thinking? If Prince Sturla was not so indulgent, your heads would already be on display in the Hall of Dishonor."
This seem to snap her father out of his trance. He turned to her mother and snapped, "What was I thinking!? What were you thinking!? You left me for him! After everything we've been through!"
Her mother unfolded a fan with a flick of her wrist and held it up to her face.
"It was a long time to wait, Batista," she said. "A woman has needs. And besides, technically I never left you. Women of rank have the right to take more than one husband."
"Perhaps if you apologize to Prince Sturla, I will consider letting you reclaim your rights as my husband."
Yasuko most certainly did not want to be hearing this right now. Ten years away from her parents and this is what they talk about the moment they're reunited?
Kieran cleared his throat.
"Centurion, milady."
Yasuko's mother glanced over to her, then snapped her fan shut, saying, "My, how uncouth of us to speaking of such matters in front of our child."
Kieran went to attention and said, "Centurion, I will excuse myself." He then pivoted toward Yasuko's mother and bowed. "Milady."
He then did an about-face and left, leaving just the three of them--well, the three of them plus the other three her mother brought with her. For some reason, Yasuko didn't notice her mother's attendants were even there for a moment.
Unable to respond to her mother, Yasuko's father turned to her instead.
"Yasuko, what are you doing here?" he asked sternly.
Even though she didn't really understand the situation, she remembered her anger at the sight of him in a Celestial uniform and asked him in turn, "What are you doing here, Papi?"
Her father held up his hands and said, "What does it look like? I'm a centurion in the Imperial Guard. I've been fighting the Turians under Prince Wusheng the past four years."
"You're working for the Celestials?"
"Everybody works for the Celestials, Yasuko, even the people in the Unincorporated Territories."
"I don't!" Yasuko shot back. "How could you betray our fellow paisanos like this? After what the Celestials--"
Yasuko stopped herself. She'd already said too much. She was in the heart of the enemy and shooting her mouth off was the last thing she needed to do.
Ignoring what Yasuko was about to say, her mother continued to berate her father, saying, "I cannot believe you left our daughter on the surface all this time. Just look at her."
"I couldn't help it," her father said. "You're the one who wanted me to join the Imperial Guard and it's not like I can pick where I get deployed. Besides, I knew she'd be safe with Jorge and Nayeli. That's more than I can say for here."
"Yes, but for ten years?"
"It was just as well."
"When I saw what this place was like, what it'd do to her, I knew she'd be better off down below."
"What do you mean?" her mother balked. "She would have been raised in proper civilization."
"The same 'proper civilization' that threw you to the wolves? That thinks it's okay to try to kill a woman and her child just to settle some petty grudge?"
"You cannot blame our entire civilization for the treachery of one feuding house or another."
"They're all feuding all the time. There's never a moment's peace!"
"Like the surface is any better! Do not try to deny it, Batista!"
Just when it seemed like the argument couldn't escalate any further without her parents coming to blows, Kieran returned, snapped to attention and said, "Centurion, I'm sorry to interrupt, but the Prefect has summoned us to report in."
The way he acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary would almost make Yasuko believe this was a regular thing if she hadn't already heard them say it had been years since they last saw each other. Maybe his family wasn't so different.
The interruption took most of the steam out of the argument. Her father clearly had more he wanted to say, but duty called.
"This isn't over, Masako," he said.
"It never is with you, Batista."
Yasuko's father then looked to her and said, "Yasuko, I don't know how you got here or what you're doing here, but just try to stay out of trouble until I can sort things out. Stay with your mother. It's the safest place for you right now."
Her father left with Kieran and now it was just Yasuko along with her mother and her attendants. Showing an unsettling reserve, as if a ten-year absence was no more than ten minutes, her mother said, "Come along, Yasuko. It has been a long time and we have a lot of catching up to do."
Was that really how a mother was supposed to react when being reunited with her daughter after so much time? Then again, her own reaction seemed a little off, too. Just because all the evidence pointed to this woman being her mother, she wasn't feeling it. You could probably put any other woman in the Capital in front of her, say she was Yasuko's mother and it wouldn't be any different.
Her mother was looking down at the floor, bending her fan in annoyance, muttering to herself, "That man... I will never understand how he thinks."
The feeling was mutual. Her father was a paisano. It was bad enough to be one of the Regulars, but an Imperial Guard? He sold himself body and soul to the enemy. What was she supposed to think? What was she supposed to do?
"You stand out a little much, dear," her mother said. "We should take the private tunnels." She then told the manservants, "Gentlemen, meet us back at our estate."
"It shall be done, milady," one of the manservants replied as the lot of them bowed.
As the manservants were leaving, the female soldier stepped forward with an eye on the hilt of Yasuko's sword.
"Miss Yasuko, I will be taking that blade."
Yasuko didn't have any intention of giving up her main weapon, but when she started to size up the soldier and guess at her chances, her mother said, "I would not give Jung-hwa any trouble, dear. She is quite formidable."
Regardless of how her own abilities stacked up against the soldier, it wasn't smart to start a fight here and now. Reluctantly, she reached behind her to undo the snaps holding her sword's sheath to her belt, keeping her eyes locked on the soldier the whole time. She extended the sword in its sheath to the soldier, who took it from her. This didn't leave Yasuko completely defenseless, but that sword had gotten her through quite a few scrapes in the past.
Once the sword was out of her hands, her mother said, "Dear, oh, dear, you look like such the savage. You probably do not remember a thing about living in proper civilization."
Yasuko wanted to throw back some barb about the so-called 'proper civilization', but she bit her tongue. It wasn't smart to start a fight here, she reminded herself, and fights weren't just a matter of swords, after all. She said nothing, which seemed to be the most prudent thing to do, and her mother didn't go out of her way to get a response out of her.
Her mother led her to a door along the wall which connected to a more secluded, narrower corridor. Maybe that was how people managed to show up without her seeing them coming. The pileup that happened strained credulity, though. The moment she arrives in the Capital, she meets her apparent half-brother, then his father, both her parents, and lastly Prince Sturla's father as well. You couldn't get a family reunion that convenient if you planned it.
It couldn't just be simple coincidence, so was it planned after all and if so, by whom? The only one who was in control of his emotions the whole time was that Prince Sturla. If he arranged all this, what was he after? She couldn't even begin to imagine, but she was going to have to tread lightly around him. He seemed like the sort of person who'd take full advantage of even the slightest opening.
While she was thinking over all this, no one tried to interrupt her and before she knew it, they were emerging from the private tunnel into the thoroughfare running past a large medieval-style facade, the like of which she'd only seen once or twice in old library books.
She followed her mother in through the front door into the foyer. Servants were lined up to greet them, males on the left and females on the right. Standing in the center was a middle-aged woman. When she bowed, the rest of the servants followed in suit.
"Welcome back, milady," the middle-aged woman said. "I trust you have brought back the young master." She looked at Yasuko when her effort to catch site of Snorri among the entourage yielded no results, asking her mother, "Milady, who is this young woman?"
"Ji-yeon, my daughter has finally returned to us," her mother said. "See that she is bathed and properly dressed. I want a maid attending to her at all times. Yoon-hee will do."
The middle-aged woman bowed, saying, "As you wish, milady." She then approached Yasuko, extending her hand to beckon Yasuko to follow. "Young mistress, if you will come with me."
Her mother nodded to encourage her. Yasuko knew that she needed to play along. There was still too much she didn't know. She had to get a better handle on the situation before she could give any serious thought to going forward with her mission. Intelligence-gathering. That was what she was doing. That was how she had to think of it.
Things may have taken an unexpected turn, but she may well have found herself in a better position to succeed than she ever would have gotten through her efforts alone.
The day of reckoning for the Celestials may have been postponed, but it would be coming all the same.