First off, what would you think of this first chapter?
It was almost sunrise when I stood on the deck that night, looking over the vast ocean spread out before me like an endless canvas of blue and black. The sun had yet to dawn in the horizon far away, while the wavy sea was already itching for the first light. It was a scene some person more poetic than myself would see as romantic or captivating. Unfortunately, I am not one of those dreamy, good-for-nothing poets.
My name is Wladyslaw. My surname, though dear to me and my kin, is of marginal importance, as is the name of our ancestral fiefdom, and irrelevant to the story of my time. Know that my father and his father before him had been many things – warriors, knights and champions as well as true Polish patriots and respected landowners. And now, I was walking their path... or at least that was what I believe I was doing.
It had been two months since I began serving under Colonel Julian Philippe de Chevalier as a Varangos Kataphraktos Somatophylax. Two rather uneventful months those were, filled with nothing but sparring, drilling and the occasional tourney just like the good old times. After surviving the five grueling years of training to become a worthy Imperial Guard Cataphract of the Black Eagle I had expected a far more exciting task to challenge me.
That task I was ultimately rewarded with just shy of two weeks ago. At the behest of the Empire, my company took to the sea to a land where my father and his father before him had not much heard of, much less traveled to. If that task sounded exciting at first, it had an incredibly slow start. Or at the very least, one that did not involve being packed into a human oil tanker and shipped across the oceans.
The deck of this behemoth I had been calling home for the better part of the last fortnight was tall, towering many dozen yards over the sea below my feet. At first, the waves crashing upon the hull below was an overwhelming sight, bringing with it the fright of dying at sea should a wave too high and too rough sweep across the deck and pulling us all with it. By now it had become somewhat of a usual part of everyday life on board. After all, for all their weaknesses, humans were especially skilled engineers and technicians.
“Slow day, isn’t it, recruit?”
I was forced to abandon my train of thought as that voice rang behind me. That brusque, rough yet none the less friendly as far as a veteran was concerned, with a rather heavy Hellenic nasal accent would indicate only one person I know of.
I turned back to find Lieutenant Mitildates Euclides was already standing next to me before I knew it. He was probably the oldest of us all, as the wrinkles on his face and mostly grey hair and trimmed beard could testify. In his Hemothorax he still looked as grand as a Cataphract in his heyday, with a remarkably muscular build for his age. And if the last few weeks’ worth of drilling was of any indication, his lancing arm was far steadier than any of the new additions to the Black Eagles.
“Lieutenant Euclides, sir,” I saluted him as a proper soldier should. “I never thought you would be interested in a late night stroll on the deck.”
“I was, back when I was your age,” he said, lifting his lips as his voice relaxed. “Back in those days of the Ducal Succession War, seafaring was part of the average loyalist infantryman’s everyday life. And what better way to pass the time on board other than gambling your salaries off than...”
He took a deep breath as he threw a calm look at the horizon far away.
“... appreciating the beauty of the night at sea with a bottle of Thessalonikan blood-brewed rum.”
“I don’t like the sea,” I admitted as my eyes followed the Lieutenant’s example. Albeit, as hard as I looked, I could not see anything remotely alluring from what the vast ocean had to offer us both.
“For all I know, young man, to us recruits of the old days, the sea was more than just a stretch of water. It was a sanctuary – a place of respite,” Lieutenant Euclides answered. “For the economy of all sides as we know them depended so much on smooth sea trading, none would dare attack a sea vessel even if it bore the flag of the opposing side. The moment we’d leave the ship’s dry decks, that respite would be over.”
Then he inhaled deeply as he himself became lost in his reminiscence for the moment. Reminiscence which I was certain he had more than enough of given his lifetime on horseback to defend the right and honor of His Majesty Kaiser Sigismund Ioannes Komnenos.
“I was born on dry land, sir,” I answered, “and would prefer to never have to leave it, regardless of what the ocean may have to offer.”
I was not lying. Neither my father nor his father before me had been at sea half as often as the Lieutenant. Being a Polish – continental – noble did confer benefits other than an idyllic fiefdom with fertile farms and green pastures. The only campaign my sire had to take that involved any seafaring at all was that dreaded border war in the fifties of the last century. Almost everyone in the Empire, up to and including His Majesty would want to erase any memory of it off their minds, books or any other recording implements.
“Well, I’d see no reason to be on deck if you aren’t thrilled by the ocean,” he spoke, his voice challenging and amused.
“I would have stayed down, sir,” I confessed. “But then again, compared to the unholy stench of those barrels of black stale dye the humans call petrol, the sea would be a welcome respite.”
The Lieutenant raised an eyebrow as he paused for a second to contemplate my issue.
“Oh, that,” he finally said with a smile of trivial jest of sort. “And yet to the humans that blackish liquid is worth more than its weight in gold. They would guard each and every barrel with such avaricious zeal as an Imperial citizen would his lifetime’s saving in blood, maybe even more so. I wonder why?”
“I couldn’t care less about their stinking oil, sir,” I spoke my mind. “Neither would I give a piece of my mind to their so-called ‘technological advancement’.”
My father and his father before him had never exactly been fond of human technologies apart from those the Empire had, throughout its glorious history, successfully assimilated, which were not all that many to begin with. Never would I disagree with their view, and this was no exception.
We Imperial Vampires, after all, have every right to be proud of our heritages. We invented metallurgy and steelworking way before the humans did. We discovered the method of infusing our innate magic into arms and armor, so that the best-made human sword and plate looked like dilapidated blunt daggers and dirty cloth rags in comparison. We developed far more ways to apply said innate magical capabilities than a human could shake a stick at. We had every reason to be proud, and proud I am.
From the way the Lieutenant eyed me with all due sternness, I realized he did not necessarily share my point of view.
“You sound exactly like I did many decades ago – proud, arrogant yet ignorant,” he finally said. “No wonder our people could never advance as much as we’d like technologically when the younger nobles keep looking at the marvels of human development with animosity.”
“Why would we ever need human technology?” I asked back, my voice crowning to a crescendo. “We have our magic, we have our hemothorakes, we have our enchanted weapons, and that is all that should matter!”
The Lieutenant looked at me incredulously, as though I were some kind of moron. From the depths of his eyes though, I realized he might as well be speaking from firsthand experience.
“Oh yes we do, young man,” he said. “Our thorakes and enchanted weapons might be strong, but they are next to useless against what the humans managed to come up with in just the last decades.”
“Since that day when I first set out as a conscript in the Nikephoroi, I have travelled far and wide enough to know the world,” he said, his eyes shining with the tempered experience he was flaunting. “Outside of our fiefs and havens, the humans’ average farming yield is five times as much as the best-kept Imperial estate. Many of their citizens live in the kind of luxuries reserved only to our high nobles. And they flaunt the kind of military might that could vaporize entire countries in seconds if they would so wish.”
At this point he was looking straight at my eyes, like a father disciplining a son.
“Is there something not desirable in all that? Is there not something we, no, you young people of the next generation, can do about that?” he questioned, his voice loud and clear, yet calm and tempered. “Think about it, recruit.”
I shuddered. The topic had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. I would rather not discuss any existing issues of the Empire myself.
This was the Holy Komnenian Empire we were talking about. The beloved Empire I was born in. The Empire that had granted my father and his father before me wealth and glory in equal measures. The Empire that had always remained an incorruptible paradise of pure goodness and morality in the heart of the younger me. In my mind at that time, the Empire was never wrong, the Kaiser was never wrong, and anyone who would say otherwise just wasn’t worth my time of day.
As I grew up, unfortunately, I gradually became aware of the fact that the Empire was not the paradise I thought it was. My beloved Empire had, without me knowing it, always been plagued by economic shortcomings, rampant bureaucracy and corruption, and worst of them all, feuding between noble houses that splintered the imperial court into hostile factions. I remembered as a teenager to have lost many days’ sleep as I contemplated the dawning of such new… such blasphemously new information to my mind.
In the end, I elected to do what a lesser noble in rural Poland would do best when it came to the grander scale of politics - hide. Suppose that the Empire required changes… reforms, what difference were there between losing sleep over matters I had no jurisdiction over and pretending it did not exist? I would be powerless either way, and at least I would have the benefit of peace of mind. If the Empire would ask of me to fall in battle, I would gladly forfeit my life, but other than that I knew all too well I would be just as useless on the stage of grand politics as the next Imperial Vampire citizen.
And so I would choose to ‘sleep’ through it all, ignoring what I could and running away from what I couldn’t. Like what I was now doing.
“That is not what we come to this land for,” I said in an awkward attempt to change the topic. “We came here on a glorious mission in His Majesty’s name, one that has nothing to do with human technology whatsoever!”
The Lieutenant raised his left eyebrow at me very quickly, presumably out of disappointment.
“You say that knowing full well that Japan is a technological capital of the human world. And that many of our difficulties in the next few months might as well stem from their technological superiority. Quite typical of a young overconfident noble,” He said with a passing notion of disdain – a very mild and subtle one at that before raising his voice in a mockingly stern tone. “Or alternately, you’ve failed to read the mission briefing after all those days. There is no other explanation.”
Once again I shuddered, but this time for an entirely unrelated reason. The Lieutenant’s guess could not have been closer to the truth. That fifty-page briefing document I was supposed to have read well before I embarked on this ship was now lying on my bed in the Black Eagle headquarters’ chapter house back in Bucharest, under my pillow, biding its time.
My only excuse was that the whole thing, or at least its first half, read like a travel guide, detailing pretty much every facet of native culture, local customs, cuisine and whatnot. There was even a map of Tokyo circa 2001, with proper emphasis given to tourist attractions and other places of interest thrown in for good measures, probably ripped off whole from a human travel agency’s brochure or something. And no self-respecting Polish noble would give such trivialities as a travel guide their time of day.
The only thing I remembered from the document was that I was here today as part of Colonel de Chevalier’s bodyguards, and my mission was to make sure nothing ill would come of him as long as I drew breath in the war to come. I had no idea what Japan actually entailed before I left the headquarters, and even now I was none the wiser about that matter.
“Yes, sir,” I confessed, keeping my head down like a student forgetting his homework, a comparison that could not be truer.
The Lieutenant rolled his eyes at me in disbelief, before shaking his head as he sighed of pure, unadulterated disappointment.
“May the Lord above have mercy upon you, recruit,” he said, lowering his voice. “If this were my old commander in the Ducal Succession era you were addressing, you’d have been flogged for disobedience so badly your legs would stop functioning for a month, noble or not.”
“My apologies, sir,” I muttered as I still kept my head down. “Won’t happen again, sir.”
“Better not,” nodded the Lieutenant, somewhat pleased by my display of obedience. “That’s basic military discipline and etiquette there.”
“Well then, I guess this is the part where I’ll have to play the good old soldier and fill you in, isn’t it?” he grinned as he spoke.
“What did the paper say about this ‘Japan’, sir, aside the obvious?” I asked, somewhat curious at what I might have missed out. “Could you give me a brief recap, sir?”
The Lieutenant rolled his eyes at me amusedly.
“So let me make this straight,” he said, his voice halfway between jest and graveness. “You failed to do your homework, know absolutely nothing about your immediate assignment, and now expect me to summarize the eleventy thousand pages’ worth of info you are supposed to know into a couple sentences?”
At this point I was both confused and panicked, with the latter gaining prevalence with every passing second.
“I… No, sir, not at all!” I tried to explain myself. “I mean, if you could possibly…”
I never could finish the sentence properly, instead being interrupted by a mighty, audible whack on the shoulder that shook my entire left arm.
“Nah, I jest,” the Lieutenant said as his grin returned. “In all seriousness, the only thing you absolutely have to know is that Japan is the homeland of the Dragon Wolves. In other words, we came uninvited, we are the aggressors, and should therefore act accordingly.”
“True and false, Lieutenant Euclides.”
That voice coming from nowhere managed to startle both of us for a split second before our soldier instinct kicked in. My hand reached for the flanged mace on my belt on reflex as I spun around to face the voice, almost at the same time as the Lieutenant’s reaction.
“Who goes there?” we both hollered in unison, only to fall completely silent once we realized who was standing before us.
He wore a suit of Hemothorax Kataphraktou with a pair of hussar wings protruding from the back, his sallet helm held under his left arm. That suit of superbly made scale mail and plate so perfectly enchanted with blood fit for a general bore the distinctive heraldic device of the soaring red-eyed black eagle with a Chi Rho symbol emblazoned on its widely spread chest. That was the sacred symbol of the Cataphracts of the Black Eagle, representing both the Empire’s will to attain greatness and of those chosen people assigned with guarding Her on this path to glory.
His hair was light brown, his iris blood red like any other Imperial. His overall texture fair, though his skin rugged and coarse. His cheeks rather round and full for a vampire noble, yet dotted with several scars large and small. His lips were full yet pale, his jaws square and broad. Looking straight at his righteously rugged face alone would frighten the dishonorable and empower the courageous, or at least that is my personal testimony.
This was the man half the Empire’s adolescent girls would kill to have, and the man I am ready to follow unto the end of this earth until my bloody end. This was Colonel Julian de Chevalier, the youngest vice-commander of the Kataphraktou, supreme commander of this operation, and the one I was charged with protecting with my life.
There was only one thing for me to do in his presence. I immediately straightened my pose, sheathed my blade and saluted him with all due respect and ceremoniousness. Once again my reflex proved slower than the Lieutenant, for he had been standing in a perfect pose with right hand raised before I could so much as straighten my act.
“Colonel de Chevalier, sir!” I reported loudly and hastily. “Five in the morning and no sign of any enemies, sir!”
At least I was a faster speaker than the Lieutenant. And for that the inner child in me grinned with all due triumph.
“At rest, soldiers,” the Colonel replied as he saluted us back. “I see you are speaking about the days to come, yes?”
“Aye, sir, drilling some proper knowledge into the thick skull of this recruit I am,” affirmed the Lieutenant with a joking voice as per just now. “For all we know a war is on the horizon and…”
And then both the Lieutenant and myself got scanned by the Colonel’s cold stare.
“I’ve said once, Lieutenant Euclides, and I shall repeat as many times as is needed,” he said slowly and clearly. “There is no guarantee this would be a war. That would be a worst-case scenario that we all should know better than jump into at the smallest provocation.”
He was not angry, from his tone of voice and expression. Or rather, if he was mad at all, he had hidden it so well normal people like us could not detect any signal of it. Either case, his quick glare was quite frightening to the uninitiated, and at least unnerving to his brothers. Still, that was a good thing, a virtue he had well embraced. After all, if a commander would not instill fear in his subordinates, how could they be kept in line when the hour of battle befell us?
I had always found it hard to believe this consummate politician and officer was no more than ten years of age my elder. Through his short yet eventful lives, he had undergone and conquered enough fire and flame to earn an Imperial Cross and a St. Nikator’s Badge First Order. Suffice to say he deserved every bit of respect we could muster in his name.
And yet for the split second my eyes met his as he walked past us and stopped next to the Lieutenant, I thought he had voluntarily dropped that façade, if only for a moment. He stood there, hands rested upon the railing as he glanced towards the horizon beyond, not saying another word for quite a while. It was as though he was lost in the ‘beauty’ of the sea, for one reason or another.
“Dawn is breaking,” he finally said, his voice airy and relaxed while his eyes narrowed. Whatever he found so attractive, he must be enjoying it a great deal.
“Brings back memory,” Lieutenant Euclides remarked, and from his tone of voice, I reckoned he was addressing not a superior so much as a son or nephew.
“It was as though only yesterday your father was standing here, next to me and my mates, as the first light of the Adriatic Sea rises above the horizon,” he continued, his voice having assumed a philosopher’s eloquence. “The lull before the storm is always the quaintest and most… poetic, to quote the Duke’s very words.”
“My father was no poet,” Colonel de Chevalier shook his head as he raised his eyebrow in a mild disbelief.
“But he was,” the Lieutenant answered, still carrying with it the echo of wisdom. “You would realize that the soldierly life has an uncanny tendency to turn even those with the romanticism of a rock into Homer’s peers. Most probably after several razor-sharp Consular pilums just missed you by the hair and showed you firsthand how easy it is to die out there.”
“Unfortunately there would be no Consular pilum throwers in Japan,” I blurted. That I have completely missed the point of the example did not occur to me until I have stopped speaking in the form of a mild, yet noticeable, headshake in disapproval from Lieutenant Euclides. Colonel de Chevalier heeded it no mind, though.
“Most likely not,” he commented, his voice turning grimmer as he spoke. “There shall, however, be other flavors of equally fatal weapons we have to face and shoulder.”
As he spoke, he turned towards me, so that when the last syllable was uttered he was standing directly opposite of me, his eyes peering into mine, like a detective interrogating a suspect. No lie could escape his inquisitorial eyes, was the impression I got.
“Corporal Wladislaw Mieczowitz,” he said. “Once we are on dry land the days after us is quite likely to be hell, or worse. Even if we are to succeed there shall be losses – heavy losses, even. Do you have any regret?”
I raise my eyebrow briefly, before realizing that such a gesture was not quite appropriate before a superior. Either case, I was duly surprised by the mundaneness of that question. I could always answer that regardless of whether I was prepared or not. Ever since I left my family, land and serfs behind for the glorious Black Eagle, that answer had been engraved in my heart and soul.
“None that I know of, sir,” I said loudly. “If not for the Empire my sire and his father before him would have been dead with a stake through their heart. If I am to repay this debt with my life, then I shall, without questions.”
“Good,” the Colonel said, nodding in approval.
And then his eyes parted me, returning to the horizon beyond.
“Let it be known,” he declared with all solemnity, not to me, not even to himself, but to some higher beings, “that from this day the battle begins in earnest. Let our mounts’ hooves trample the enemies of the Empire without relent. Let the world see that the Cataphracts of today are worthy successors of Nikator the Great!”
It was as though he could see dry land through layers of darkness and ocean fog, and in it, the future of the Cataphracts, of the Empire, and of everything dear and sacred to us. Be it for the better or worse, lives shall be loss trying. And so shall it be.