It’s only after spending a decent amount of time in the shuttle bay do I find myself fed up with idly waiting around, content with keeping myself amused by twirling the empty cup in my hands. I call for a lackey passing by and instruct him to fold and put away the chairs. “Do you want me to take your cup, Madame?” The man asks, eying my now-empty container. I shake my head and hold it close to me.
“Thank you, but no, I’ll still be using it,” I reply softly. I inform the lackey that I’ll be leaving the bay area, which is merely met by a silent chest salute in affirmation. Then I leave behind both the bay and the lackey keeping himself preoccupied with busywork. Traversing through the subsequent corridors, I notice that the passageways are devoid of any real activity. Except for the occasional drunk fast-asleep after extensive partying, the corridors are rather quiet. Even the glance into some rooms is full of people caught under the same spell; various beer bottles lie about. Some snore and drool while hugging large bottles of poisonous liquids.
To see these sorry men in this distasteful state is, well, in poor taste. But crossing my arms under my breasts, and contemplating the moment, I can’t help but come to the conclusion they deserve this. They deserve to let loose and lose themselves in irrational behavior. We have fought and endured so much, knowing that any moment could be our last. And now that it’s over, they have thrown out all logic and unwind in degeneracy. Even regardless of our meager break at Lübeck, many must have been at their breaking point, and the scene before me makes it all the more obvious. If the fight had gone on for even a second longer, I do no doubt that there would have been aromas of mutinies abound. And yet, they trusted me with their hope—with their lives. And in parallel, I have entrusted every man to give their all. And give their all they did.
I stop for a moment and wonder if I should procure a bottle or two for myself. But upon closer inspection of the bottles in question, I realize those are the same brand as the one Brutus has. I would think that trying to take one would be too difficult and require effort in prying one from the cold intense embrace that some of these men seemingly have of their bottles. To effectively steal a man’s best friend from his very grasp is not something I would look forward to, and I imagine in their irrational stupor they would stubbornly resist without realizing who their ‘assailer’ is.
Before moving on, the thought of Brutus crosses my mind. The imagery of the sad, towering oaf hunched over a bottle of spirits, alone in his cabin room makes my heart ache. It wouldn’t hurt to head to his room instead of mine, will it? Now that the business with Skop and the other men are done and over with, I have no further obligations for the time being. So there would be no reason not to visit the man and makeup with him over my rejection. My cheeks, and especially my mature scar, flush hotly the more I deliberate on the subject. I clasp my wintry hands over them without a second thought, but all it does is warm my hands more.
What am I doing…? I should leave the man alone. If I go now, it would only add to the awkwardness, would it not? A man and a woman, alone, together in a room, mildly, if not moderately intoxicated. Not allowing for my imagination to run rampant, I aggressively rub my scar and cut a heavy sigh. If Olga or Sergi saw me now I bet they would both remark that it would be unbecoming of me to fantasize about something so embarrassing. Olga…
I smack myself again and shake my head. Brutus is right, I can’t rule out the possibility that she’s alive. It would be wrong to… do anything nefarious with Brutus,alone, in his room, under dastardly spirits. If it turned out that Olga is alive, I don’t think I could look her in the eyes afterward. But even so, my heart aches badly, and in a vain attempt, I clutch my chest while soothing the burning scar tissue with my other hand.
As much as I desire Brutus’s company, I will have to endure this horrible loneliness for a little while longer. For his sake as well, since I don’t want to make things awkward for him after our little intimacy. Perhaps it would be better to see Brutus after the two of us recollect ourselves, and after the other lieutenants—Richter, Sergi, Darcy, and Jung—convene at my ship. Or rather, I imagine it would make more sense for the Donto convene at his for reporting. Whichever the case, it wouldn’t hurt to lose myself to Ruthenian vodka alone in my compartment. If there is one thing the vodka and I have in common—at least right now—is we both lack capable company.
As I stroll through the hallways deep in thought, I find myself increasingly sick, but I trudge on choosing to ignore it. Eventually, though, the dreadfulness gets the best of me, and I have to stop with deep breaths amid severe lightheadedness setting in. My arms feel nearly numb, and I can’t help but think I have worked myself more than I would think is possible. The more I march on, the worse the feeling gets, and it finally compels me to stop and prop myself up against the wall.
Try as I might, however, my legs refuse to go on, and I eventually collapse to the cold flooring, nearly face-first but my shoulder bores the brunt of the fall. The cold surface makes my mature scar tissue burn from the iciness. The most I can do is roll over slightly to avoid agitating the wound any further. As I let out a muffled groan, my stomach responds in kind with a mildly loud rumbling.
A single thought crosses my mind: I have pushed my body past its limits. I can only afford a weak, lackluster scoff as I should’ve realized exhaustion would occur one way or another. The impossible overexertion on my body from all these warps, battling, and fleet commanding all accumulated to the point where I simply can not contain it anymore, like a dam unable to hold back violent torrents of water. Even my eyelids feel as though they weigh as heavy as lead. The lightheadedness gets worse, and it feels as though my head starts to spin, but I do not yet lose consciousness.
How unsightly I must be, and how embarrassing it would be if someone saw me now. And just as my vision shrinks and fades out to blackness, I hear echoes of distorted voices, but I simply cannot muster any strength to respond. There is one last thought I have before blacking out, and it is the regret of not trying that slimy Ruthenian vodka with Brutus.
The next moment, I sit up straight, dazed, and with a splitting headache that makes it difficult to make out my immediate surroundings. It truly does feel as though my head—or rather, my scar—has been split open, on top of the screaming pain originating from my facial scar. Try as I might, though, no amount of massaging is capable of soothing the excruciating pain. After a few moments of painful grunts, it finally seems as though the pain subsides, albeit at a marginal pace. But it’s enough for me to bear through the pain and attentively recount what happened, and observe my new environment.
Sure enough, I am no longer in the cold, lifeless hallway, or passed out on the equally miserable floor. Rather, I’m in my all-too-familiar cabin compartment. Leaving me to believe that the faint voice I heard was someone rushing to my aid. I must’ve been far too unconscious to immediately revive, so they did what they felt was right, and carried me off to my room.
Next to my bedside is a silver tray containing a half-filled glass of water and some medicine, leaving me to believe they administered me out of concern for my wellbeing. And given that the pain has more or less resided, I’d say they had made the right call. Across the room comes a woosh of the door sliding, and my gaze shifts to a startled orange-haired woman carrying with her a tray of some peculiar-looking food and drinks. I smile meekly, and she calms down and approaches me with the food.
“Er…” the young girl sets it down and gives me some space “are you feeling better…Madam Li?” The odd choice of addressing me by name makes me twitch an eye, causing her to take another step back with trembling lips. With another pained smile, I brush my bangs out of my eyes.
“I’m still in a little bit of pain,” the young girl averts her eyes and fidgets “but don’t fret about it too much, because it’s thanks to you I think I’m feeling better now,” I reply warmly. She looks up at me with surprise, caught off-guard by the reassurance.
“Oh, um…” she twirls her bangs “it was actually someone else who carried you back to your room. All I did was prepare the food,” she states as she rushes over to my bedside. She takes the medicine tray with one hand and sets the food tray down in its place. “I hope you enjoy it, Madam, I did my best to cook it…!” She beams a smile as she distances herself from me.
“I see… thank you,” I reach for one of the oddly shaped food, but stop. “…Who was the one that helped you out with carrying and reviving me, then?” I ask the girl with a frown. Could it have been Brutus?
As if further intimidated by my glare, the girl takes a step back and clutches at her coat. Before she can say anything, there is another emitted woosh from the door and I look behind her at the oversized ape ducking his head as he enters the comparably-small compartment. The squeamish girl sidesteps out of his way so he can present himself before me. Though I avert my gaze and draw my poncho over me. Brutus clears his throat before addressing me. “I’m relieved you recovered, Madame… when Haru and I saw you unconscious, it practically made my heart skip a beat!”
“Thank you. Brutus, once again, I’m sorry for causing you trouble,” I say apologetically, lowering my head, then turn my attention to the worried girl “and thank you—Haru, for making us some food.”
“Um… should I give you two some privacy?” the orange-haired girl asks, her eyes darting between us. Brutus opens his mouth to speak, but I cut him off.
“No—no,” I retort softly “I don’t mind the extra company,” I heartily glance at the concerned giant “I’m sure our friend here wouldn’t mind it either, isn’t that right, Brutus?” Taking the hint, Brutus sags his shoulders with a hearty sigh. In compliance, Haru draws up a chair and plants herself next to the nervous Brutus. He eyes Haru before looking back at me.
“Madame, er, about earlier…” Brutus starts dryly, scratching his chin. I shake my head and wave off the man before he can continue.
“Please… don’t fret about it too much, Brutus. You mean as much to me just as everyone else does. We were both vulnerable in that moment, and…” I trail off rubbing my disfigured cheek “…earlier, I reflected about what you said, about it not being fair to Olga…
“But it’s not fair to you, either. You mean a lot to me, Brutus, just as much as everyone else,” I rub my face with both hands, my cheeks increasingly flush red “er…I’m not good at this whole making-up business. I just hope that you will continue to act as my confidant, Brutus. I need you almost as much as I need Olga.”
A hoarse, sighing scoff. Having avoiding eye-contact with Brutus and Haru this whole time, I shift my gaze back to the duo and find Brutus has shifted his posture with one leg over the over, arms crossed. Brutus must’ve been nervous if he has been twitching his leg this whole time. But upon noticing my unflinching gaze, he stops and briefly gets up to change posture. Next to him, Haru looks on with perplex, and glances behind her at the door. I can’t help but think I have an unfortunate ability to put others in bad spots. Maybe I am wrong in not letting her go and avoid this awkward confrontation between Brutus and I.
Brutus clears his throat. He looks at Haru before partially returning my gaze. “As long as you’re not mad,” Brutus remarks “falling out of your favor would mean falling further into liquor, and believe me, the liquor makes it all the more bitter by my lonesome,” Brutus forces a chuckle and uncomfortably shifts around in his seat “I’m your Castelforte lieutenant first and foremost. So I couldn’t ask for any greater honor of being able to continue serving under you,” Brutus says, finishing with a sigh of relief. I stiffen a smile and give a nod of approval.
Sensing an opportunity, Haru clasps her hands together, catching our attention. “Now then! If the lovely-dovey stuff is done…” it’s a remark that makes Brutus and I emit surprised scoffs “—I’d like for us to, er… give a toast to this rekindled friendship between you two,” Haru gets up and snatches a few pieces of the peculiar-looking dough off the tray, then hands me and Brutus about two each. It’s rather steamy, and the texture is soft, as I caress it in my hands, I can’t help but find it smooth—almost rubbery. In all my time in Toscana, I’ve never quite seen anything like it before.
“I figured you would be hungry. You didn’t eat at all even during the tense ultimatum, right?” Brutus asks before taking a large bite out of one of the steamy dough pieces. Brutus is correct in his assumption—mostly. Come to think of it, I haven’t eaten since our leisure break near the Brunsbüttel Cluster colonies. As I stare intently into the pure-white texture of the steamy hot food, I’d reckon I haven’t even eaten since this conflict started. As if awakening from its slumber, an eerily growl resonates from my stomach. I awkwardly cover myself with my poncho and look out the window biting down on my lower lip. I hear a stiffened laughter from Brutus, but Haru remains silent. She must be suppressing a chuckle, I imagine.
“Even if you don’t admit, I think your body agrees wholeheartedly,” Brutus says, stiffening another laugh. I glare back at him and he raises his hands. “Sorry, sorry…don’t give me such a mean pouty face. I just wanted to lighten up the mood.”
“It’s really good, Madam!” Haru says excitedly, brushing off Brutus’s rudeness, “usually the scary chefs make all the grub, but I insisted on making something myself…”
“What is this, exactly?” I ask caressing the crescent-shaped, impressively pleated design. When I think about it, it resembles a mi hand-sized fan in a way.
“Where I’m from, we call them dumplings,” Haru says matter of factly. She pauses and then reaches for a bowl with soupy texture in it, and carefully hands it to me. “Careful! It’s mildly hot,” the orange-haired lackey says, helping to wrap my hand around it. The bottom of the bowl keeps my hand nice and warm. It’s filled with floating lumps of yellow or light-green colored… things. “Those are called hominy,” she says as she gestures for me to dip the crescent dumpling in the soup “it’s a bit embarrassing to say… the dumpling itself is rather bland—so you dip it in the sauce to soak it with flavor.”
“I see…” I murmur, submerging half of the steamy dough into the tomato-like liquid. At Haru’s suggestion, I lift it out and take a bite out of it, being careful not to let any of the soupy liquid drip over me. It’s warm. And surprisingly very tasty. I eat the rest and sample some of the soup with a spoon. When Haru and I exchange eye-contact, I give her a nod of approval. “It’s very good, Haru,” I remark warmly “I’ve never had anything like this before.” The orange-haired lackey radiates another smile and takes the leftovers from me and Brutus, who pats his full belly with a barbaric belch.
“Thank you Madam Li!” Haru exclaims, again brushing off Brutus’s rudeness. She gives us a delightful blow. “Brutus also suggested I make some tea… he said he would do it himself, but you expressed distaste for it.”
“Don’t mind what Brutus said,” I said wincing a wink at Brutus, who scoffs embarrassingly “I’ll drink some of it. That aside, Haru… do you normally cook?” I ask, receiving a cup of tea from her. She looks at me briefly with a blank stare before coming back to her senses.
“Not usually…” she anxiously spins the silver plate in her hands “since joining the, um… Mafia, I usually act as a courier, sometimes I help transport goods between areas. Things like that,” she stops spinning the plate in her grasp and rubs the back of her head “but I was lucky to get some cooking done! And seeing you two enjoy it—and even seeing some of the other guys love it made me happy.” I look over at Brutus who takes in her every word with a nod before noticing my gaze. He takes a deep breath and nods again.
“Haru, once this is all over,” I begin warmly, getting to my feet “I would like for you to be a chef for the Castelforte —” I pause to look briefly out the window “better yet, you could serve me directly as my chef,” Haru looks shocked—as if she didn’t expect this at all “the choice is yours, however, and I’m not expecting an answer from you immediately—”
“I, I would be honored, Madame Li!” She jumps toward me with dazzling eyes. She looks back at Brutus in excitement before turning to face me again, step closer, her silver plate hugging her chest “if that’s okay with you, I mean!” Bearing a pained smile, I gently pat her a few times on the head.
“Then it’s settled, then. Once we return to Brunsbüttel, I’ll get things settled for you and get you whatever you may need,” Haru gives me an over-excited nod of approval. After that, we finish up our meal and I gesture for the three of us to leave my room. On our way out, we are approached in the hallway by a subordinate on the bridge. He gives a solemn chest salute, which the others respond with also. Sensing that she’s no longer needed, Haru happily excuses herself and runs off in the opposite direction. “What a wonderful girl, don’t you think, Brutus?” I look at him and the man shrugs with a pinkish-red face “almost a darling even, I would have no qualms blessing you two if either of you decided to go steady.”
“Madame, we can talk about this later,” Brutus says nudging me, indicating the bridge lackey waiting for our attention. I only respond with a scoff and turn my attention to the patient man.
“Madame, if it’s not a bad time,” he starts, observing me behind his dark-lenses.
“No, no, my apologies,” I brush some of my bangs and rub my mature scar “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, please continue.”
“There’s been a message from the Montepuez —the Don has requested all captains and able-bodied lieutenants to convene at his ship for an emergency council meeting,” his eyes shift between Brutus and I “as you may expect, that includes you as well. He told us he expects his daughter there in a timely manner.”
“A timely manner, huh,” Brutus muses in my stead while stroking his chin. He looks at me, curious at my response. Though, if I say so myself the answer is more or less already set in stone.
“Very well, inform him we’ll be there momentarily,” and with that, I turn the other way—but stop. I could not have been out for long, so it’s likely most of our shuttles are on business. Because of this, there will be a bit of an issue immediately converging at the Montepuez. I turn back to face the bridge lackey, “actually… considering that all of our shuttles are still out, ask the nearest ship to spare a shuttle and ferry us to theMontepuez.
“Brutus and I will be waiting in the rear shuttle bloc for transport. In the meantime, I also want the shuttle pilots to relay their information to the Don’s ship,” with that order finalized, the bridge lackey gives the customary salute and hurries off. With a heavy sigh, I turn back and begin walking, and Brutus joins me by my side. Our brisk walk is mostly in silence, but after a while, Brutus does break the silence.
“To think that this is finally all over…” Brutus muses, looking out the windows. Well, Brutus is partially right. For the most part, this is all over. But there is one Brutus is unaware about; that is the impending events that will eventually play out atBrunsbüttel. I’ve mostly left Brutus in the dark about my foray at the capitol—he has no idea about the coup or the possible ramifications I may face once, in the words of Simon, Kamon catches wind of my little venture —and she will, sooner or later.Watching Brutus, I can only wonder what she may do to the Castelforte —what she may do to men like Brutus who are innocent and had no involvement in it.
Was this my real battle? Or was this merely the prelude to something bigger? I shudder at the thought of what may happen once we arrive at Side Brunsbüttel. But darker thoughts formulate—what if my summoning to the Montepuez is merely a pretext to whatever may occur at the capitol? The more I look at Brutus, the more I wonder if it is alright for him to come with me. If it truly comes to that, I don’t want Brutus—or anyone else for that matter to get hurt. The only one who should be sacrificed for my failed coup is me—and me alone.
I clutch my chest tightly. Simon… Olga, what should I do?
“Li…?” Brutus’s concerned voice brings me back to my senses. We have arrived in the hub area and his hand hovers over my shoulder, possibly unsure of physically jolting me back to reality. “What’s gotten into you this time?” I glare into his eye’s reflections at a nervous lady, and I clench my teeth.
I trust Brutus. There’s no doubt about that. Though he may be my confidant, not disclosing him about the true intentions of my visit to Brunsbüttel may better suit his survivability. If he doesn’t know, then Kamon or the Don may not torture him. The only ones who do face prosecution—at worst, death—are the veteran lieutenants and the squads who went with me to meet Simon. But would the Don… or even Kamon go that far into sniffing around the Castelforte? Would they waste time in seeking out the members of the conspiracy, or would they consider everyone a liability in my ill-fated venture?
“Madame…?” Both of his hands are planted on my shoulder now, caressing my cold neck. “Who was it that said if I act so critical, I might have graying hair before I know it?”
“Sorry, Brutus, er, I’m…” I clasp my hands over his and squeeze his hands tightly. I want to believe I’m overthinking things. There may be no ill-intent for father’s summoning. Besides… my father would likely have no idea, yet, of the result of my abortive coup at the capitol. I would’ve at least detected a signal—encrypted or not—as we marched away from Lübeck to relieve Velksland. Would either Simon or Kamon have reported it while I was fighting at Valspon, then?
Looking up questionably at Brutus, I can only wonder what the immediate future has in store for me. It’s possible, but no amount subjecting myself to tortuous paranoia can predict what will happen. “You’re going to give me a heart attack, Li,” Brutus grumbles, his hands tightening my shoulders.
“It’s—” I grit my teeth intently… would it be alright to continue having Brutus in the dark? “It’s… nothing, Brutus, I was merely overthinking some things. It’s nothing for you to worry about,” I bite down nervously on my tongue before biting down intently on my lower lip.
I can’t do it. I simply cannot tell him the truth. Forgive me, Brutus. Forgive me, Simon. Whatever happens to me, I have no doubt I may be drawing more suspicion to you in the event something befalls me. When I next observe Brutus, he looks more overly concerned than before, but he says nothing. I hold my breath and pray: please, Brutus, please do not pry into the matter!
Brutus continues to eye me closely, but he relents and lets me go. I cannot help but cut an exhaustive sigh and turn away from the man as we wait for a shuttle to retrieve us. “Life after the Federation, huh… well, whatever it is that’s nagging at you, I won’t get nosy, though, I do have to ask; what is it you plan to after we return to Lübeck? Will you return to your administration duties? Or did you have something else in mind?”
What I plan to do after everything settles down? Truthfully, even though I may face execution for possible treason against the Don, I never thought about it too much. I stroke my poncho in ponder and stare intently out the windows. I do not doubt that resuming my tasks in the Mafia high command—particularly after my actions at Lübeck—will make Kamon grow suspicious of me over time. Craning my neck, I examine the vast number of Mafia ships cruising eastward toward Lübeck. With the Federation threat more or less gone, it’s now only a matter of time before cohesion is lost and the navy is dismissed. It boils down to what the Don has in mind for us at his Montepuez, and rather or not we will continue to stay here for a few more days as deterrence if there is a renewed offense by the Federation.
But after everything is finally said and done, many will return home, possibly to loved ones. Most will most likely go back to their boring, everyday lives managing local operations at Sides or planetary settlements. For the numerous dead, however, only the cosmic seas will be their final resting place. Leaving behind lovers, families, and any children they raised. A part of a generation raised under the Mafia, parent-less and without love, by a regime that has no sense of welfare.
In a way, many children and babies will share the same fate as me. Orphans left in a cruel world robbed of their futures—of a life they could’ve had. In a way, I truly am no better than Karwoski. But unlike that dreadful monster, I have the power to give those deprived of loving support another shot at life. I have the chance to be to them what Simon is to me. A surrogate mother to bereaved children.
“Before I began the assault on the Trinidad,” I reply softly “you said I was like a mother… or a sisterly figure to the men under me. I’ve sent many who perhaps found new life—new meaning in Toscana to meaningless deaths, and left-behind children who now unknowingly have no future,” I pause to rub my shoulders and turn to face Brutus “perhaps what I am getting at… is I should take an example out of Jung Lee’s book and part ways with the Mafia, at least a far less active role in its everyday operations—to seek out and oversee an institution for orphans that may have been produced from these needless battles.
“I could appoint you as a governor in my place, Brutus, if you like—or even as the new captain of the Castelforte. You could even join me at my orphanage, if you like, ” I smile meekly, wincing at the mild pain “even so, my suggestion is still up for offer for letting you get together with Haru, you know,” Brutus rubs his neck in contemplation, his eyes avert to the windows. He cracks a smile for a while and looks back at me.
“I don’t know if I have the patience for kids or not, but I might be able to help you out with supplying the orphanage if need be. And besides,” his grin widens “I think it may take a long time for the kids to get used to you. If I were a wee lad and looked up at a towering giant with an intimidating scar, I think I’d wet my diapers quite frequently” Brutus pats me over the head, messing my hair “so you might want to consider practicing changing diapers a lot,” the two of us spare a moment to chuckle, but there is truth in his statement as well.
“That aside, Brutus, if you won’t join me at the orphanage, then what do you plan on doing?” I ask gazing out the windows. If I squint hard enough, I can see the shuttle I requested hailing the Castelforte.
“What do I plan to do? Hmmm…” Brutus closes his eyes and lifts his head upward, arms crossed across his chest. He heaves a giant sigh and looks back at me. “Well, avoiding a life of changing pooping diapers, I’d reckon I’ll continue to serve the Castelforte —or wherever it is that old dog Simon or the Don will have me,” he strokes his neck and realizes the presence of the shuttle entering the bay “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to visit you every once in a while… say, Li,” Brutus frowns and silently sighs “if Olga happens to be alive… would you want her to join you, as well?”
I cross my arms under my breasts, tapping my mature scar tissue with one hand. Frankly, I didn’t give it much thought. “If Olga is up for it, then yes. But I want what’s best for Olga, and for her to follow her dreams—I don’t want to force her to follow mine specifically,” I shrug my shoulders and sigh “but knowing her, she’ll blindly follow me no matter what,” my eyes lower to the floor and my voice softens “this is just all assuming, of course, that Olga is alive…”
“Have faith, Madame,” Brutus urges me with a pat on the shoulder “Olga’s a tough one. It’d take much more than some naval ramming to take that lanky woman down. She would never let you down by dying that easily!” With those encouraging words, Brutus gestures for us to board the now-landed shuttle.
As the two of us board the craft, I am left to wonder with goosebumps what the aftermath of this bloody and deranged conflict entails. Will the dice rolled by destiny grace me with saving throws, or will I have to endure yet more pain on the path back to Lübeck?