Friday, 21 September 2012

Abyssal Zone: Teaser

For your enjoyment, while we wait for the release of Book #4 in the Sacred Breath series, here are the first two chapters of the novel.
Hope you enjoy them! =)

Chapter 1: Pretense of Pleasure

     “Ten years is a long time to take deciding if you’re going to go out on a simple date with a fellow.”
      “Maybe to you land-dwellers,” the redhead responded, staring down at the food on her plate in disappointment. “I have spent fifty years pondering over whether I should share a meal with a man, and I still regretted those decisions. My mind is usually too occupied with more important issues. Do they have oysters here?”
     The bald man’s lips curled upwards. “Oysters are an aphrodisiac, you know.”
      “I’m currently more interested in the zinc and selenium,” she muttered. With a sigh, Sionna pressed the tips of her fingernails into her forehead. “Marshal Landou, you know I’m only doing this because my sister forced me to, right?”
      “She said you lost a bet.”
      “An unhappy married woman can never stand to see a happy single woman get away unscathed—she must try to compromise her liberty at every chance.” Sionna finally relented to the meal before her and used her utensils to deftly deposit a piece of swordfish against her tongue. She closed her eyes at the flavor. Acutely aware that she was being observed by her dinner companion, she lifted her eyelids to reveal sharp jade irises. “Visola shamelessly conned me into this, even though she knows that I find your character and your face both hideous.”
      “Did she also tell you how irresistible I find a difficult woman?” Marshal Landou asked casually, picking up his wine glass.
      “No,” Sionna said, lifting a condescending crimson brow, “or I would have been acting easy and accommodating.”
      “Come now, Dr. Ramaris,” Marshal Landou said with a smirk. He took a generous draft of wine as he considered her smugly. “We both know that for all of Visola’s schemes, you can hold your own. You wouldn’t be here unless it suited your personal purposes. This evening may be strictly about business for you, but since you have lured me here under the pretense of pleasure, I intend to have some. Let’s be direct: tell me what I can do for you.”
     Sionna sliced the spiky head off a spear of asparagus before inserting it between her lips. She stared thoughtfully at the man as she chewed. “So you think you know me,” she observed.
      “No,” he answered, ignoring the bloody steak before him as he gazed hungrily at her face, “but I recognize that mischievous glint in your eye. Everyone thinks that you and your twin sister are so different, but in addition to your identical bodies, you have identical body language. I can read you like a book, Sio. You have the same tells.”
     Sionna snorted at this, grasping her fork a little too firmly as she pointed it at the man across the dining table. “Visola has no tells. She is the most unpredictable phenomenon on this planet, and any man who presumes to think he can read her will surely end up crushed under a pickup truck.”
      “And you, Dr. Ramaris? What of the men who underestimate you?”
     She lowered her eyes and her fork, realizing how aggressive and threatening she must appear to the American man. Inhaling the warm air of the restaurant to produce a soothing effect on her body, she stabbed a spear of asparagus before slicing it in half. “I generally don’t provide anyone with the opportunity to underestimate me,” she answered softly, “but you will find that my methods are much more subtle and much more effective than a pickup truck.”
      “I have heard of your methods,” Marshal Landou said with a smile. He swirled the dark liquid in his glass briefly before inhaling the scent of the contents. “You intrigue me, Dr. Ramaris. Tell me what you want and how I can help you. Then I will tell you how you can help me.”
     Sionna tried to conceal her grimace. “Actually, I have a business proposal. I have developed a serum which I am currently testing on Homo sapiens sapiens…”
      “A serum?” he asked with a frown. “Your country doesn’t have to be concerned with science and research any longer. Adlivun is in the free market now. Relax and let the big boys deal with the pharmaceuticals, little lady.”
     The knife in Sionna’s hand twitched before descending to dissect the unsuspecting asparagus. “I came to you first before going commercial with this product because I believe it can be very beneficial to your military. I thought you might consider using government funding to help test and tweak my product so that it can be FDA approved. Are you interested or not, Landou?”
      “What does the serum do?” he asked curiously. “I’m guessing it’s not an aphrodisiac.”
     Ignoring this completely, Sionna picked up her napkin and dabbed the corners of her mouth. “For a few hours, it emulates our adaptation.”
     The large bald man froze. “It emulates your…”
      “Did I stutter?” Sionna asked, returning her napkin to her lap. She crossed her arms across her chest and glared at the man. “For a few hours after ingesting this serum, a land-dweller is capable of breathing underwater, similar to our people. Obviously, it doesn’t recreate every advantage of Homo sapiens marinus, but the most essential…”
      “That’s impossible,” Marshal Landou said briskly. “It can’t be done.”
     Sionna cocked her head to the side. “That’s true. But I did it anyway.”
     The bald man sitting across from her stared without blinking for several seconds. Finally, he tossed the remaining contents of his wine glass down his throat. “What in God’s name prompted you to create such a thing?”
      “It was an accident really; a personal project for a family member. As you know, a few years ago, the king’s brother had a daughter who was unable to breathe underwater. At first this was fine, and Callder and Brynne kept her mostly in Upper Adlivun. As she grew older, around her sixth birthday, she began to express her wishes to swim below and started sneaking away to… well, it’s not important.” Sionna shook her head. “Basically, I solved the problem. I have discussed the other possible applications with my sister, and we concluded that the primary use for such a serum should be national defense.”
      “Yes,” Marshal Landou said quickly, “definitely defense. You must keep this confidential and tell no one else.”
      “Obviously,” Sionna said, swirling her fork aimlessly in her mashed potatoes. “We’re not stupid. We could use this serum to explode the tourism industry, or even to explode our populace, but we are already seeing a decline in the birthrate of humans capable of breathing underwater. It’s more important to us that we preserve our natural abilities. We want to protect our culture and heritage as much as possible, and avoid assimilating too much with Americans.”
      “That’s too bad. I was hoping to assimilate with you.”
     Sionna’s fingers lightly pressed against the bridge of her nose. “Yes, Visola warned me you would say such things. Therefore, I am only repulsed and not surprised. I believe most of the power of any feeling is in the surprise, and I try to avoid being surprised to avoid having feelings. Do you have anything to say about my serum?”
     Landou cleared his throat. “So, this substance gives human lungs the ability…”
      “To produce an enzyme which catalyzes the extraction of oxygen from water.”
      “I see,” the man replied, pouring more wine into his glass hastily. “Well, I’ll have to consult with some of my officers and see if this can benefit us.”
      “Of course it can benefit you,” Sionna said with a frown.
      “Yes, yes, but you know, there could be a really huge market for this outside the military. Are you sure you’re not interested in pursuing the commercial options?”
      “I’m well aware of the potential market,” Sionna said in a low voice, leaning forward. Her green eyes hardened as they locked with his. “Do you want to do business with me or not, Marshal Landou?”
     The man stared motionlessly. Finally, a slow smile overtook his face. “Please. Call me Gaston.”

*                *                *
     A soldier grasped a brunette’s slender forearm, yanking her roughly through the inhospitable hallways of a rundown ship. He did not notice that the pale flesh did not yield under his grip, but instead remained rigid as rock. It was only the small size of the woman’s physique that he registered, not its solid quality, as he continued to drag her through the narrow corridor. When he reached the door number inscribed on her bracelet, he wrenched her wrist up to his eye level to confirm the numbers. He nodded, shifting his eyes to his captive’s face, which was mostly shielded by plain brown locks. He barked at the woman harshly. 
      “Employee number Five-Nine-Zero-Seven-Three! Stay in your cabin. This is your final warning!” The soldier used his left hand to swing the thin panel of wood open, and shoved the woman roughly forward onto the floor. Her head slammed against the wall of other side of the small cabin before she crumpled to the ground. There was contempt on her face, but she did not turn to look at the soldier in the doorway until she heard him close the door and turn the lock. Once she heard footsteps, her chin slowly swiveled so that her blue eyes could burn through the flimsy door.
      “Employee indeed,” she said.
      “Mama,” whispered a small voice. The woman’s head snapped to the right to observe the small girl huddled on the narrow wooden bed. “Why did you let him hurt you?”
     Aazuria briskly lifted herself from the ground and rushed over to the disappointing piece of furniture. Planting herself beside her daughter, she swept the child up into her arms. The makeshift bed creaked under her as she hugged the girl against her chest. “Trust me, darling. We can learn more from lurking in the shadows as faceless nobodies. If we revealed ourselves now, we would never know the truth of what is happening in Adlivun. For if your father knew, he would not allow this to continue. Trevain would surely...”
     Drawing a ragged sigh, Aazuria reached up to unclip and remove the drab brown wig from her head. Her own long white locks tumbled down her back, blanched from lack of sunlight. She used her fingers to gently feel her eyebrows, which were irritated from waterproof makeup. They had been darkened to match her wig and were now rather itchy. Tossing the wig to the floor, Aazuria lowered herself to the rickety bed, curling up beside her daughter on the thin mattress. A giant yawn escaped her lips.
      “You were gone for sixteen hours, mama,” Varia said, frowning down at the tired woman. “Did you work very hard?”
      “They forced me to do a double-shift,” Aazuria explained as her eyelids glided closed. “We were working on fortifying the foundations of the bridge deep underwater. It was taxing—they shot a man when he tried to leave.”
      “Are they allowed to do that?” Varia asked.
     Aazuria shook her head. “According to the treaty, each citizen is only required to work for forty hours a week—but everywhere I go, they are violating the terms to abuse our people. Look at these living conditions. Adlivun was built with echoes of sixteenth century grandeur. Now our people are holed up in tiny cabins of rundown slave-ships. This brig is the worst kind of hovel, and I do believe there are fleas in this mattress.”
     Varia twitched, looking down at the bedding suspiciously. She clenched her tiny fists, intending to strike the bed to pummel the fleas into oblivion, but changing her mind when she realized that a strike would collapse the bed altogether. She sighed in defeat, allowing the fleas a temporary victory. “At least when we were held captive in Lake Vostok, we weren’t separated for most of the day! Now I only get to see you when you’re sleeping. The rest of the day you’re being worked to the bone. This is worse, Mother. This is far worse than before.”
      “I know, dear.” Aazuria sighed and reached out to pull her daughter down beside her. She cuddled the little girl as if she were a teddy bear. “I promise I won’t submit you to this for very much longer. This is not the way that any child should be raised, least of all you.”
     Her mother’s soothing words seemed to placate Varia, but the girl soon grew restless. “Mama, I learned more every day when we were stuck in Antarctica, just the two of us. Now I’m surrounded by the other children in the classroom all the time, but no one teaches me anything. It’s so boring.”
     Aazuria’s eyes opened and she was suddenly wide awake. “Are there not teachers?”
      “They do nothing. The kids just goof around all day,” Varia explained, “and everyone hates me, because I just ignore them and spend all day reading.”
      “I was told you would receive a decent education! This upsets me,” Aazuria said, shaking her head, “more than anything else I’ve heard so far. If the children of the bridge workers aren’t being properly educated, what does this mean for the future of Adlivun? It is impossible that my sister knows of this; Elandria would not have allowed our country to deteriorate this way!”
      “You can change it, can’t you, Mother?”
      “Yes,” Aazuria answered, “but not all at once. I can’t undo ten years of deterioration in a single breath. First of all, I need to get you out of this place. You need to be somewhere safe while I stay here and collect more information.”
      “You want to separate us?” Varia asked hesitantly.
      “I’m sure that they still teach the children properly and privately at the palace. I know that Brynne has a young daughter, and Princess Yamako of the Ningyo people has a small son. I do not know their names or ages, but I am positive that there is some kind of special school for Adlivun’s elite, probably run by my sister.”
     Varia swallowed. “Mother, please. I’ve never been separated from you for more than sixteen hours. Today was the longest ever. Why can’t we both go to live in the palace? You won’t have to work long hours and get abused by the soldiers, and it will be better for both of us.”
      “Darling, we mustn’t only be concerned about ourselves. It is very easy to seek our own comfort, but we have the power to make things better for everyone else as well.”
      “Why should they be our responsibility?” Varia asked with a frown.
      “Because a crown was placed on my head and I promised to devote my life to this country,” Aazuria explained.
      “But they abandoned you in the South-lands when you were kidnapped!”
      “Just because someone abandons you, does not mean you have the right to abandon them,” Aazuria said softly, staring into Varia’s different-colored eyes in the dark. One iris was deepest azure blue, like her own, while the other was Ramaris green, like her father’s. Aazuria’s mind drifted to the image of Trevain’s face, her thoughts lingering on the sound of his voice as she remained silent for several seconds. When she realized her lapse, she cleared her throat brusquely to chase the debilitating emotions away. “At any rate, I am sure they didn’t abandon me. They searched as much as they could, and no one could have known I was being held prisoner in Lake Vostok. We cannot blame them—you must not resent your father for what he has done.”
      “He betrayed you,” Varia said doubtfully. “Why should you suffer more while he lives in the big ice palace? It’s not fair.”
     Aazuria kissed her daughter’s forehead gently. “Varia, I could swim back into the castle at any time and reclaim my throne. I would be accepted with open arms and plenty of apologies and tears. Believe me—I want to do this so badly it feels like my chest is going to burst.” She paused, looking up at the ceiling thoughtfully. “But that would be the easiest thing to do. In most cases, drifting along with warm gentle currents is not the worthiest course of action; more can be gained by fighting our way upstream.”
     Varia nodded solemnly.
      “Our anonymity is our greatest asset,” Aazuria said firmly. “We must take advantage of it while it lasts.”
      “Anon… nymity,” Varia repeated, stumbling over the syllables.
      “Yes, dear.”
     Varia remained very still in the dark cabin, listening to the sound of her mother’s breathing. She could always sense what her mother was feeling by determining the intervals between and velocity of each gust expelled from her lungs. “Is there another reason we are hiding here?” Varia asked softly. “Why does it seem to me that you are afraid, Mother?”
     Aazuria pulled away slightly to regard her eight-year-old with surprise. “You are a very bright girl, Varia. Be careful with that brain of yours or you will get yourself into trouble.”
      “Now you’re avoiding the question!” Varia said with a laugh. “Are you scared to go back to the palace, Mother?”
      “Yes,” Aazuria answered truthfully. “I would rather face a hundred-thousand of Zalcan’s warriors on the field, or sea as it may be, of battle, than see my husband or my sister again.”
      “Because it will hurt them?” Varia asked.
      “It will ruin their lives,” she responded. “I love them both, and I do not want to cause them pain.”
      “But he was your husband first! I don’t understand,” Varia said in frustration. “I just never understand anything lately.”
      “You will, dearest.” Aazuria squeezed her daughter’s hand reassuringly, before turning to face the door. She was lying on the bed so that her body was between Varia’s and the doorway—a defensive habit she had picked up during previous captivity. She closed her eyes and gave light slumber the permission to overcome her, but it was interrupted by the little ball of energy behind her. Aazuria could feel her daughter’s lively curiosity buzzing in the room like a swarm of fireflies. Although she was exhausted, she could hardly sleep in the presence of such thirst. Turning back to the girl, she propped herself up onto her elbow and smiled at her daughter in the dark. “Okay, Varia. What have you been reading about?”
      “I don’t want to keep you awake,” Varia responded hesitantly. “You’ve been working so hard.”
     Aazuria ignored her protest. “What do you want to talk about tonight?”
      “Well, I was reading about the history of Adlivun, and some of the information in the books is different from what you told me before. Did King Kyrosed really take the throne in the year 1590?”
      “No,” Aazuria responded. “That was when we migrated to the Bering Strait. That was the founding of the new nation of Adlivun here in the Aleutian Islands, but long before that, my father ruled over an old kingdom off the coast of Norway.”
      “Was he really as mean as the books say?” Varia asked. “Did he really… die the way the books say?”
      “Yes,” Aazuria answered quietly. This was not a conversation she was prepared to have with her daughter; but then, Varia had already witnessed her kill a man once. She swallowed. “He was meaner than any book can describe—but he was kind to me. He might have been a good grandfather, if you could have met him.”
      “Tell me more about the Nordic seas!” Varia said, nestling against her mother’s side.
     Aazuria smiled and closed her eyes. “Well, when I was just a little older than you, we were being raided by the French nation of Ker-ys. It was a dangerous time, and Papa decided that I needed protection. He chose two fierce, red-haired warriors to be my defenders…”

Chapter 2: Transforming Helpless Ducklings


      “A hundred-thousand men!” Visola shouted as she slammed a brawny warrior into the ground. She straddled his back and twisted his arm behind him until he screamed in pain. Grinning up at the scattering of her elite forces, she lifted her eyebrows to indicate that this was the technique she wanted them to practice. The soldiers were gathered for training in a waterless cave, deep in the tunnels of Lower Adlivun. Visola reached up to brush some wayward red wisps away from her eyes, and continued to lecture them as she shifted her body and helped the overpowered warrior to his feet. “The Clan of Zalcan commands an army a hundred-thousand strong. That’s according to recent reports from our men on the inside. The whole force isn’t stationed at their home base in the Maldives—they’re divided, oppressing various foreign undersea cities. Some of the warriors are positioned strategically rather close to us, among the Rusalka, and even in the ruins of Shiretoko. You there!”
     The young man to whom Visola had pointed straightened and struck his fist to his chest in the traditional Adluvian salute. “Yes, Gen—General Ramaris?”
     She studied his small, wincing features and heard the Japanese accent in his stuttering voice. He expected her to assault him; she moved forward, intending to do precisely that, but not in the way he anticipated.  “You were in the city of Shiretoko when the Clan attacked?” Visola demanded. When the young man nodded, she frowned. “How did you escape, Takeshi?”
      “I—I ran, General Ramaris,” he said, with downcast eyes. A furious blush transformed his features.
      “Mhm. So how do you feel about that?” she asked, moving to stand mere inches from the man’s face, and allowing her hot breath to waft over his reddened skin. Visola towered over the small warrior at six feet tall, her voluminous red hair adding several extra inches of unnecessary menace.
      “Pathetic,” Takeshi answered weakly. “It was the ultimate dishonor, General Ramaris. They took my family along with most of the Ningyo people, but I didn’t fight. I left my mother and my sisters and swam for the mainland to save my own skin. I swam, I ran, and I swam some more until I was safe.”
     Visola turned to the other fighters in the room, observing their faces for the slightest hint of humor or mockery. None of the other men dared to laugh. This pleased the general, for she would have harshly disciplined anyone who sought to make fun of a war refugee. “This time we won’t run,” she said in a low tone. “Those brutes killed my best friend, and I will never let that go. There never was, and never will be anyone like Aazuria Vellamo.” Remaining quiet for a moment, Visola’s red eyelashes lowered in fond memory of the former queen. She gave the Adluvian salute across her chest, and every warrior in the room followed suit, honoring the lost heroine.
      “General Ramaris,” said an older soldier with a Caribbean accent. “Do you really believe that our protection from the Americans will soon be dissolved?”
      “I can’t say for certain, Marsden,” she answered, “but we need to be prepared for every eventuality. Queen Amabie of the Ningyo has been training another secret faction of warriors, and we will soon test your skills against theirs. You boys had better not disappoint me—I’m betting money on you.”
      “Clan Zalcan destroyed my country too,” he told her. “Bimini Empire was my birthplace, a glorious nation, but now all that remains is ghostly ruins and ridiculous rumors about the Bermuda Triangle. Like Takeshi here, I also ran. I ran and I lived. Since then I have called Adlivun home, learning to love a new country for over sixty years. I will never run again. No more running.”
     Many of the warriors around him echoed these sentiments in a chorus, glancing at each other to strengthen their neighbor with their sense of communal resolve. 
      “My wife was killed by the Clan of Zalcan,” said a large man with a buzz cut and prominent patriotic tattoo on his neck. “I have been raising our young son on my own since that day. My first chance to fight those sons of bitches, and I am really gonna let loose.”
     Visola smiled sadly. “You and me both, Bain. We have all lost someone by now. We all have a reason to fight—that’s why you were chosen. Not only because we saw the most potential in you, but because you’ll fight with the most heart.”
      “I will, General Ramaris,” Bain said, giving the traditional salute and bowing from the waist. “Just teach me, and I will do whatever you command. We all will.”
     Visola nodded ardently, narrowing her eyes. “I won’t let this nation fall,” she declared with determination. “If we do lose the American submarines for any reason, we will be all that stands between Adlivun and a watery grave. And we will stand.”
      “All twelve of you?” was the dubious query that echoed from the cave entrance.
     Visola’s head whipped around to behold the source of the familiar voice. She surveyed the muscular man with a small black ponytail, and released a deep sigh. “Honey, I told you not to bother me when I’m training the Ducklings.”
      “Where are the rest of them?” Vachlan asked. “Your flock seems smaller today.”
     She waved a hand, armored in a dark green gauntlet. “Most of the men were forced to work overtime on the bridge again.”
      “That’s happening more and more often,” Vachlan commented. “Trevain and Elandria should really do something about all these treaty violations. But more importantly, darling, you really need to stop calling your elite military squadron the ‘Ducklings.’ Allow these poor men to preserve a modicum of their self-respect.”
      “They were handpicked to receive private training sessions from me,” Visola boasted, sticking her chin out arrogantly, “and we intend to fight for Adlivun. That provides all the pride we need.”
      “Really?” Vachlan said, turning to the warriors. “Are you lads comfortable with this arrangement?”
      “General Ramaris can call us anything she wants, sir,” Marsden responded promptly.
     Vachlan squinted, lifting a hand to rub the back of his robust neck. “Dear wife, I believe these young combatants would fight better if you gave them a less shameful name. Queen Amabie is calling her unit the ‘Water Dragons.’ That sounds far more intimidating to me.”
      “For Sedna’s sake!” Visola shouted, tilting her head back to look at the cave ceiling for validation. “We’re a secret army, not a sports team! It’s a codename, dear husband—we’re not permitted to organize, and I believe that the more harmless we sound, the less harmless we’ll actually be.”
      “Interesting notion,” Vachlan said. He fished into the waterproof rucksack he carried with him and lifted out a slender laptop. “Viso, I really need your opinion on my latest screenplay. It’s a romantic comedy set in New York, but with a twist…”
      “Let me guess: no action, again? Cheesecake, how many years has it been since you wrote about someone getting even a beer bottle smashed over their head?” She emitted a large, exaggerated yawn. “I think maybe you should train with my Ducklings, Vachlan. It looks like sitting on your ass and writing all day is making you a bit soft around the midsection.”
      “What!” Vachlan shouted, reaching down to feel his washboard abs. When all the warriors in the room snickered at his reaction, he glared at her. “You will pay for this, woman! Tonight you can tell me again just which sections of me have gotten soft.”
     When the men around her burst into laughter, Visola could not resist a grin. “How about I tell you which parts have gotten black and blue?” She cricked her neck to either side before smirking and lifting her hand to point at her husband. “Get him, boys.”
      “Oh, great,” Vachlan said as the twelve warriors moved forward slowly to surround him. “I’m really not in the mood for this, gentlemen. But if any of you are interested in reviewing this charming script—”
     Marsden was the first to dive at Vachlan, and the dark-haired warrior deftly slipped his laptop under his arm before using one hand to defend against blows, and delivering a swift kick to the man’s chest. The warrior from Bimini was sent tumbling back into another soldier, and they both stumbled to the cave floor, scrambling to get up.
      “—and perhaps proofreading for errors or typos—”
     This time Vachlan was interrupted by two men attacking him from either side, and he lowered himself to the ground to sweep their legs out from under them as if breakdancing. He pivoted on the palm of his hand, still clutching his laptop protectively under the other arm.
      “—that would be of great assistance,” Vachlan finished. “I want to email this off to the studio in the morning.” When Takeshi rushed at him suddenly, Vachlan moved inside his attacker’s strike and used the boy’s own momentum to drive his knuckles into his face. Another man dashed at him from the side, and Vachlan dropped to his knee, grabbing the man with one hand and twisting to toss him into another oncoming opponent.
      “Hold this for a second, would you please?” Vachlan asked, handing the wounded Takeshi his laptop. He swiveled and moved so rapidly that Takeshi could hardly keep up with the motions as he tried to process the battle in his mind. Before he could understand what was happening, several of his comrades were unconscious or writhing on the ground, and Vachlan was already retrieving the laptop. “Thanks, kid. Now, Visola Ramaris, what in the vast oceans are you teaching these men!”
     She sighed. “They’re just children, Vachlan. Some of them are only about a hundred years old. Lots of strength and energy, but very little experience.”
     Vachlan tossed his laptop down onto the body of an unconscious warrior before lifting his hands to arrange the three stray hairs that had escaped his ponytail. Rubbing his temples, he looked around, studying the lifeless forms of the men piled up on top of each other in the few yards around him. He had not moved an inch from where he had originally been standing. “Looks like I raped the Ducklings yet again,” Vachlan observed in disappointment.
      “This isn’t the only team,” Visola said, in a tone that was suddenly tired. “We can’t make it obvious that we’re still running military operations, so we have to be discreet and use fresh blood. We rotate the groups frequently too. In addition to Amabie’s squadron, Major Mardöll is training a regiment, and so is Lieutenant Namaka, Geira, Holma, Naclana…”
      “On the bright side, at least I had to put my laptop down to defeat those twelve men!” Vachlan noted. “If I can’t do it single-handedly anymore, then I would have to say that they’re improving. By a large margin, and quite quickly. Give these ducklings another few months under you, General Ramaris, and maybe they’ll be able to take me down. They’ll never be able to keep me down for a complete second, but you know—it’s an improvement.”
     Visola moved forward, stepping over the unconscious bodies of her warriors. “You should help out more often. These poor boys have learned so much from you beating the crap out of them today!”
      “I did help when I suggested we reveal ourselves and get military protection from the Americans,” he reminded her. “That’s working out well, isn’t it? The Clan doesn’t even bother trying to attack Adlivun anymore.”
      “But you adore fighting. You used to be all about the backup plans,” Visola said softly, putting her hands on his chest. “Just consider it, love. It’s a really rewarding career—transforming helpless ducklings into vicious predators.”
      “Ah, Viso.” Vachlan slipped his arms around his wife’s waist and tugged her close to plant a kiss on her nose. “For centuries they called me the Destroyer. But those days are behind me! I no longer relentlessly pursue ancient vendettas and amass sickening fortunes of sunken gold doubloons. I no longer squash nations just because I can—and have nothing better to do. I’m a family man! I have a loving wife and two foolish grandsons in need of my guidance.”
      “Yes,” Visola said, cringing as she stared up into his grey eyes, “but you also write romantic comedies.”
      “Don’t knock them!” Vachlan warned, releasing her waist to waggle a finger. “I’m a very versatile writer, and even Shakespeare diversified his portfolio. People don’t want war and heartache all the time…”
      “Sedna spare me,” Visola groaned, throwing her hands up in the air and backing away. She stopped when her feet banged into the skull of one of her soldiers. She began to pace in the few inches of room between Vachlan and her unconscious students. “Did you ever consider that maybe the reason I can’t get pregnant again isn’t because I’m nearly 570 years old? ‘Cause I’m thinking it’s your limp, ineffective sperm. Those little guys used to be so virile, but now they’re wearing petticoats, floating around in your maple-syrup semen, and having fucking tea parties!”
     Vachlan recoiled as if wounded. He gestured wildly to the men lying on the ground around them. “Bloody hell, Visola! I just knocked a dozen of your ‘elite’ warriors unconscious almost-single-handedly. If that isn’t manly enough for you, then I don’t know how to give you what you need anymore!”
      “I could have done that twice as fast,” she told him, unimpressed. She crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side.  “When I first met you, you bragged to me that you had balls the size of coconuts. Now that you spend all of your spare time writing sappy mush, I swear they’ve shrunken down to the size of walnuts… maybe jelly beans.”
      “You infuriating—!” Vachlan snarled and leapt forward, delivering a side-kick to Visola’s knee and tackling his wife to the ground. They ignored the messy sprawl of bruised, sweaty bodies beneath them as they began to wrestle brutally for several minutes.
Visola laughed loudly as he began to pin and lock her arms, allowing him to feel victorious for a second as she smirked up at him. In one swift motion she brought her leg up, using her flexibility to slam her foot into his ear before prying her legs under his elbows and kicking him off her. She followed, by climbing on top of him, pressing her elbow against his throat and clenching her thighs around his knees. “I miss playing with you,” Visola said mournfully as she choked husband amidst the chaotic pile of bodies. “This is nice. We should do this more often.”
      “Just keep insulting my sperm,” Vachlan said as he twisted out from under her elbow. He grappled with her until she was facedown on top of a warrior’s stomach. “There is nothing wrong with my sperm! Maybe if you stopped fighting long enough for a pound of fat to accumulate on your body, your uterus would remember that you’re a woman and it would start working again!”
      “That’s a low blow!” Visola gasped with a giggle, pushing the limp warrior out from under her torso. Her face was immediately gnashed into the dirt, and she sputtered and blinked it out of her eyes. Rotating her upper body and curling her abdomen for leverage, she used an arm to grab Vachlan’s neck. “Well, vanilla popsicle, maybe once your sperm stop wearing dresses, my uterus will stop wearing the pants!”
     Visola squealed when Vachlan grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked it back forcefully. Using her moment of surprise, he seized her ribcage and rose to his feet, easily tossing the giantess over his shoulder. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he told the subdued men as he stepped over them. “I will need to take the liberty of dismissing class for the night. A pressing necessity has arisen to demonstrate to my wife exactly why she should continue to respect me.”
     Coughing out some sand that had found its way into her mouth, Visola smirked, loving that there was still someone who could wipe the floor with her face. “You jerk!” she whispered loudly. “Don’t undermine my authority in front of my men!”
     The ex-conqueror rolled his eyes as he stooped to pick up his laptop with one hand and used it to spank her on the bottom. Visola yelped and struggled to free herself from his grip, but he held her fast over his shoulder. “Don’t say another word, Viso, or I will undermine you in front of your men.”
     As Vachlan navigated over the carpet of fallen men on his way to the door, the sounds of cracking ribs were heard as Visola repeatedly pummeled her elbow into her husband’s back. The playwright continued to walk at a comfortable pace, making casual conversation with the woman whose thighs he had clenched under his bicep. When they were gone, the beaten warriors stared after them weakly.
      “I’ll never understand their relationship,” said Takeshi, shaking his head in confusion.
      “It’s easy,” said Marsden. “He’s the only man alive who can kick her ass, and she loves it.”
      “That’s a good point. So remind me—why did we attack him again?” Bain inquired as he nursed a dislocated shoulder. He grunted as he snapped it back into place. “This hurts like a bitch and I have to go to work on the bridge at 5 AM.”
      “Because she told us to,” answered Marsden, “and I’m much more terrified of Visola than her husband—she’s the one who gets to beat on us every waking minute that we’re away from that bridge.”
      “Fuck the bridge,” said another man, spitting out a clump of blood. “We’re warriors, not construction workers!  Vachlan Suchos is a brilliant military strategist, not a romance writer!”
     Takeshi looked around nervously. “I heard that he joined up with enemy forces for the past century. Only a few years ago, he was helping the Clan of Zalcan to plot against Adlivun! How can she trust him?”
      “It’s okay, boy. The righteous Queen Aazuria, Sedna rest her soul, forgave Vachlan and welcomed him back to this country,” Marsden explained. “Once that woman died, this whole nation went downhill under her harlot sister Elandria.”
      “It’s not Queen Elandria’s fault! It’s that man. He extinguished Bimini,” said another warrior, grimacing from where he lay on the ground. “Vachlan is known as the Destroyer of Kingdoms. It is dangerous to have him within the walls of Adlivun—but it is a hundred times worse to have him in bed with the enemy. We can’t afford an adversary of his caliber.”
      “I wonder if Visola really loves him, or if she just pretends she does to keep him close?” Bain mused. He tapped his relocated shoulder thoughtfully. “That would be the ultimate strategic maneuver.”
      “She loves him,” said a man named Evian. “He was the only man she ever married, and trust me, a woman like that receives thousands of proposals.”
      “But he has betrayed every country he ever belonged to,” Takeshi said. “I heard it was an old combat master in Bimini who trained him. Then he used Bimini’s soldiers to conquer Ker-ys—his own birthplace.”
      “Yes,” said Marsden. “That’s right. He used Adlivun’s soldiers to conquer the Yawkyawk in Australia, and he absorbed several South American undersea settlements, all within a decade. Then he turned his back on Bimini and Adlivun, and joined with the Clan of Zalcan to destroy the original home of the Japanese mermaids in the 1950s.”
      “But have you seen his romantic comedies?” Evian asked. “They’re not so great.”
      “They kind of suck. I agree with Visola there—you would think they were written by a thirteen year old virginal schoolgirl.”
     The men started guffawing when Bain began to protest, “Hey! That’s not true. They’re not so bad. I enjoy watching those films—they show the raw, vulnerable soul underneath the harsh exterior of the warrior.”
      “Oh, Sedna, please.”
     Marsden grinned. “Here’s something we can all agree on, men. As long as Visola has a vagina, Vachlan is a harmless kitten.”
      “Harmless?” asked the young Takeshi in shock. He gestured around at all the warriors, none of whom were standing, before pointing at his own bloody nose. “This is what you call harmless?” 

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