“Cailm the Unbeaten, first of his name, Emperor of the Earth Golems, was broken on his very doorstep,” Lucretia reported calmly. “His armies were scattered, all five of his Hierarchs were captured and beheaded by the allied forces. Many claim that such a daring and blazing offensive would be completely impossible without the Bounty Mechanical so-called ‘supermechs’.”
Alta’s smile was lazy. Although most of her body was covered in the sudsy bathwater, Lucretia knew she tracing the scars on her hands where she had burned and mangled herself working with the essence of the World Tree over the past ten years. Even once Alta knew what had to be done, even with Lucretia’s expertise, even with a budget that wouldn’t have been possible without Lucretia’s clandestine nighttime activities… it had taken eight long years to produce proof that Alta’s idea was feasible.
During that time, Cailm the Unbeaten had grown stronger and stronger. The wars in the lower lands became increasingly heated, as the Weavers became increasingly involved in the Monster and Earth Golem conflict.
Around the point that Alta had created her prototype, the Monsters, the Weavers, and the remnants of the Soulless had realized that their individual forces were being systematically eliminated. So they allied.
And still, they were losing. The forces turned on each other in a bloody melee as the Spriggits and their allies pushed downward through the Lands.
The rising voices in the Spriggit Ministry that clamored to allow the sale of mechs finally managed to eradicate the last of the resistance. Free trade with their highest value arms was possible. At Lucretia’s suggestion, Alta submitted a bid for a hyper-cheap variation of her prototype that contained very basic strength, speed, and weapons attachments.
But it included the Bounty Mechanical battery.
It was an innocuous box that would change the war. Very soon, Cailm who managed to pacify his entire Land was faced with a new threat. All the small factions he had beaten back were returning. With mechs to make up in the difference in their armies.
“Bah! It’s not like they will recognize my contribution,” Alta said, but her continued squirming clearly indicated that she would be delighted if anyone were to do so.
Lucretia smiled gently. This was her favorite version of the woman she had served for the past 35 years.
Cascading water off her body, Alta stood. Frowning, she swiped at the suds that clung to her body and held a hand out to Lucretia. Dutifully, Lucretia handed Alta a towel.
“Did they find his body?” Alta asked casually. Lucretia chuckled.
“No. They did not. Although my sources tell me that it was mostly because your heavy artillery turned the Earth Golem capital into an inferno.”
Grunting, Alta continued to dry herself off. Her jaw was constantly working, as though she was slowly tearing off a particularly resilient bit of gristle in her meal. “If we can’t find the body-”
“Why would the Council of Fates try and save him?” Lucretia asked patiently.
Alta flashed Lucretia a rueful smile. “Creta, don’t play games. This isn’t paranoia. Ever since you’ve begun sticking your nose into their honey jar, they’ve been hiring more powerful guards. He is what they need. Even in a mech, do you think you could beat him in a direct confrontation?”
There was a second of silence. Then Alta burst out laughing. “I suppose I deserve that. Well, if it was anyone else, I would tell them they are being a prideful fool. But if you say it… I’ll tell Cailm’s mother to order a closed casket.”
Lucretia’s nose wrinkled. “Your sense of humor has certainly gotten darker since-”
Both women stopped talking immediately when the door opened. Lucretia’s long talons stretching from her shoulder blades twitched. But although she entertained a brief fantasy of killing the intruder, she ultimately restrained herself.
“Ladies,” The man said with a charming smile. “Am I interrupting something?”
Much to Lucretia’s relief, his face was soon impacted by the heavy weight of a wet towel.
“Shoo, Ryal,” Alta said with a mock scowl. “We are talking business.”
“I’m delighted to report that I am an expert in business, Alta-”
“That is Madam Bounty to you,” Alta interrupted.
With the sort of smirk of a man in the know of an inside joke, Ryal Huln let the wet towel fall to the ground and walked up to Alta. “Whatever you say, Boss. But I have to ask: as your fiance, am I allowed a kiss?”
“With me naked?” Alta asked, arms akimbo. “Of course not. I am a lady. If I can’t be described as chaste, all of my maiden aunts will cluck like hens. Do you wish for me to be driven mad?”
With a low growl, Ryal ignored her words and pounced toward Alta. Alta shrieked and struggled against his grip, using her slippery skin to slide away. Both of them were giggling the whole time. Lucretia stood stone still, an aggrieved expression on her face.
Finally, Ryal captured Alta and moved in for a kiss, but then he paused. He looked up at Lucretia. “Creta, you are dismissed.”
“You cannot dismiss me, Mr. Huln.” Lucretia said, for the one-hundredth time. “I only follow Alta’s orders.”
“And those only when she wants to,” Alta added with a smile. She stood on her tiptoes and pecked Ryal on the lips. Then she placed both hands on his chest and pushed him away. “We are going to be married in a week; why can’t you wait until then?”
“Have you looked at yourself in a mirror recently?” Ryal drawled.
Lucretia repressed the urge to vomit. Not that Ryal didn’t have his positive traits, but some of the lines that he delivered with a completely straight face…
“Ryal, seriously, I have work,” Alta said, patting his cheek. She pulled away, but not before Ryal reached down and squeezed Alta’s ass cheek for several seconds. Then he sighed and slumped off, acting dejected.
“I’m never going to assassinate her, you know. You don’t have to be so protective,” Ryal called over his shoulder. Lucretia’s mouth tightened, but she knew it was pointless to talk to him. He was a lovely creature and spoiled for it. Teaching him a lesson was not her work.
After Ryal left, Alta gave Lucretia an amused look. “You know, I think you are growing on him. He barely swore at you today.”
“How delightful,” Lucretia said in a monotone voice. “Well, I must be off to continue the training with your bridal party.”
To this, Alta pouted. What irked Lucretia was that she had learned that inane act from Ryal. “I really don’t see why
couldn’t be my maid of honor! There’s no one else in my life, really.”
“Yes well, you doomed yourself by finding such a… charming mate.” Lucretia coughed into her hand, her very throat resisting the words she tried to deliver.
Alta smiled then, and it was a very different smile than what was there previously during Ryal’s flirting. “I know your thoughts. But he is exactly what I need right now. Trust me. It will work out.”
Repressing a shiver, Lucretia nodded. It was suddenly extremely cold in the room. This had happened often, of late. It seemed that from initially being afflicted by a heat wave the like of which the Seven Lands had never seen, it was not experiencing commiserate cold gales. For all that most of the Lands worried about the effect the war would have on the World Tree, Lucretia was much more concerned with the unpredictable nature of the weather recently.
Some thought this signaled the end of times. Others believed that industry was altering the health of the world tree past the point it could recover. Some have even pointed to the Bounty Mechanicals’ actions as the reason.
Few understood the world as well as Lucretia did. And although she didn’t know why, she knew it was not a good sign. The single ash grey flower of karma in Alta’s chest had grown into a full bouquet. Even though she didn’t want to, Lucretia couldn’t help but see it as a sign of a certain sort of blessing at the oncoming wedding.