It's Dark in the City of Lights
#1

Outskirts of Downtown Lumiere, Cape Auria
April 9th, 2021, 8:27 PM

The Rouge Rose Bar was rather small, and decently outside the main area of Lumiere's prestigious Downtown Shopping District. Yet it still maintained a small group of regulars, who used Rose's location and discretion to hide what they don't want seen. And to Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier, Baron of Cordonnier, it was especially useful. He was a decently short man, in his sixties, with gray-white hair and a judging expression. His suit was custom-tailored at one of the boutiques in Lumiere, paired with a rather expensive tie and shoes. He did regret dressing up, because the weather seemed to be working to ruin his costly getup.

It was pouring rain in Lumiere, and although it was a bit of an inconvenience, the Baron had to admit: It certainly did camouflage his black car in the night. He got out and opened his umbrella, not wanting to get his expensive clothes or car wet. He had parked down the side alley next to the bar, adjacent to graffiti-filled brick and a set of garbage cans. He despised having to leave his car in such a horrid and undignified place, but it was a necessary evil. 

He quickly moved to the front of the bar, trying his best to avoid patches of mud in his custom shoes. The bartender, Pierre, waved to him as he entered, while casually wiping a glass. "You can go on in. Scott's already in there." The Baron nodded his thanks, smiling a little. Of course Scott's already here. That bastard is always jumping the gun. He made his way to the back of the main room, and ducked into the bar's private meeting room through an old squeaky door.

Scott Lautrec, the heir to one of the biggest technology companies in Cape Auria, sat in one of the chairs around a circular table, idly shuffling a deck of cards. He wore his trademark cocky smile as he looked up at the Baron. "Andrew. Nice of you to turn up!" He extended his hand, which the noble shook, after some slight hesitation. Both men sat, and a waiter silently brought Andrew a glass of Scotch. He sipped part of it eagerly, disliking having to be alone with Lautrec. Arrogant Corporate Prick[i], He thought silently, looking down at his drink.[/i]

The door squeaked open again, revealing a man and woman, who both quickly took their seats. Thank God, thought the Baron, feeling relief at the arrival of friendly faces. Sarah Berenstein, a Member of the Representariat, sat to his right, glancing between Cordonnier and Lautrec with a slightly nervous expression. She'd seen some of the arguments between the two, and she was extremely hesitant to sit between them.

Jonathan Gerand, Owner and lead anchor of an up and coming Media Company, looked similarly cautious. He was a rising star in Auria, decently young for the amount of money and reach he had. The Aurian Clarity News Network, or ACNN, had a great outreach from all sides of the aisle for its concentration on being unbiased.

The waiter came by to pour the two newcomers some drinks. Jonathan checked his smartwatch, glancing at the one vacant seat left at the table. "He's always late the exact same amount of time. Gotta love his consistency. Does he do it for style, or to maintain control? He's a General, for God's sale. He already has power over us."

The Baron chuckled silently. General Jean-Claude Michellen was the Chief Commander of Cape Auria's army(or what passes for it). He was the essential de facto head of the Aurian Military, and everyone in Auria treated him as such. He was the member that the Baron was closest to, having been friends since they started their careers. And even though everyone respects him for his service and status, he still likes to make people wait on him.

The door opened once again, revealing the tall General, who clutched a glass of whiskey in his right hand. "My friends, I apologise. Pressing matters had to be attended to."

The Baron grinned and gestured to his glass. "I didn't know the bar was a matter of importance to the Aurian Military. I feel much safer at night knowing that we're free from the clutches of whiskey and Besae. Although it appears that you aren't so lucky."

Michellen chuckled and sat, raising his glass towards his old friend. "It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Would you deal, Scott? I'm sure those cards are shuffled by now. Wearing out the cards is not a good thing." His Franco-Aurian accent shone through when he spoke English, his "th" sounds sounding much more like "s". The others' accents were much more subdued, especially Jonathan's, who's TV career required an excessive amount of dialect training.

Lautrec placed cards in front of each player, then three in the middle, leaving the remaining cards in a stack. "Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets." Everyone through a few chips in the center after carefully observing their cards.

The routine poker games had started about a year ago, with the General inviting all of them to the Rose for a drink, before they all got bored and played cards. They each put a few hundred dollars on the game each time, not too much, but enough to add some sense of danger and accomplishment.

The Baron sighed as he watched Sophie claim the pot, which she had one with two pairs, beating his pair of kings. "Damn. Sweeping the board early this time, are we?" Sophie just grinned and nodded. Both her and the General were wicked poker players, and most of their betting money always made it to one of them by the end of the night.

As Scott shuffled the cards, the General, looking cautions, spoke up. "To be frank, I called you all here for a meeting, because there is an opportunity that has come up, one I think we should take." Everyone looked up from their cards, waiting for him to continue. He hesitated, then spoke again. "You know the rumor that Lapointe is an Eirian spy, and that his wife's an Aurora?"

The rest of the table looked confused. "Yeah, but I don't think any of us believe it. This may be the "Lapointe Haters Anonymous", but we're not exactly conspiracy theorists." Sophie said, fiddling with the edge of one of her cards. "It's a stupid theory, and I'm kind of shocked that it has the amount of support it does."

"The latest polls show fifteen percent of Aurians believe it to some extent. People really don't like him, and they can't believe they re-elected him last year. But most people are indifferent to the theory, and that's a good thing. People who are indifferent can be persuaded.”

Andrew narrowed his eyebrows, seeing the direction the General was heading. "You want to reduce Lapointe's power, using the rumor he's an Eirian spy? How do you plan to convince the Masterial, or even worse, the Representariat. Lapointe's got the Baroness of Mur-Du-Nord, Velasè, running interference in the Masterial. And I believe Sophie will tell you the same applies to her house as well."

"Ah, but you're forgetting the kind of people that are convinced of it are willing to fight for it. I don't want to reduce his power, but remove it entirely. The system is overly modernized and stagnant, and we need to strike while the iron is hot." He took a drink after finishing his speech, waiting to see the reactions.

Jonathan was surprised, his wide eyes fixed on the General. "You're talking about overthrowing the Government. The Parliament. And why do I have the sneaking suspicion you want to overthrow the Monarchy as well. Don't get me wrong, I hate the Monarchy. But we don't have the ability-"

"That's where you all come in. We've got me for military matters, but the rest of you have your own importance." He nodded at each member in order as he began listing off their importance. "From the Business sector, to the Media, to Elected Politics, to Old Aurian Noble Politics, and I’ve got the military. We have what we need at this table. We just need to use what we have wisely. And get some help."

Sophie nodded slowly, a plan rapidly forming. “I’m on the Foreign Affairs Committee. You and me to contact Xiomera. Clever, and I can see it working. But what if the Xiomerans refuse us help? I doubt they will, because they need another friendly government in the region, but what if they do? What if they’re too afraid of restarting their war that they just refuse us, or worse, turn us over to the authorities? We would be putting our fates in their hands.”

“And that’s a risk we have to take. For Auria.”
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#2

(A collaboration with [nation]Xiomera[/nation])

Outside the Xiomeran Embassy, Lumiere, Cape Auria

Representative Sarah Berenstein, elected member of the Aurian Government, stood outside the Xiomeran Embassy, carefully considering her options. She detested that she had the one who take the risk to get the Xiomerans on board with a plan she wasn't even confident in. Still, she stood before the embassy, fidgeting with a small file. After taking one last breath, she entered, showing her ID to a security guard that stopped her.

Inside the embassy, the guard calmly checked Berenstein's ID before making a phone call. Berenstein was then shown down a long hall into an office wing of the embassy. After passing through two security checkpoints, Berenstein was finally brouught to an office with a small black and gold sign next to the door labeled *Imperial Cultural Outreach Liaison, Cape Auria*.

Inside the office, a surprisingly athletic man for a bureaucrat sat at a desk. He rose, offering his hand to Berenstein. Nyaotli's official title was indeed Cultural Outreach Liaison, his official job to educate and inform Aurians about Xiomera. Like many thing about Xiomera, however, the title was not as it seemed. The real title of the person shaking Berenstein's hand, known only in highly classified files, was Special Service Agent. He was assigned to Department G of ASI, the Special Operations Service.

"Representative Berenstein, welcome," Nyaotli said in a pleasant tone, shaking her hand and offering her a seat. After refreshments were brought in and small talk exchanged, Nyaotli decided to get down to business. "How can I, and the Empire, be of assistance to you?" he asked.

"Well, I've come to offer the Xiomeran empire a significant opportunity to gain Auria as an ally, as well as to request a trade, of sorts." She sipped her drink, making sure her voice stays level. "Now, this conversation regards certain changes to Aurian Government, and as such, must remain confidential. At least, for now. Who would I contact in the Empire to negotiate such an opportunity?"

Nyaotli smiled broadly at the thought. "We are experts at discretion, I can assure you. And I believe I know just who we should discuss this with." The ASI agent pressed a button on his computer keyboard, activating a secure video line to the Cauhloc.

After a few brief conversations in Xiomeran Huenyan between Nyaotli and other similarly athletic men and women wearing similarly forgettable black suits, the screen shifted to reveal an expansive office. A blonde woman with perfectly arranged hair and an impeccably tailored dress was sitting at a very large desk. She smiled as the call came through. "Good morning. I am Quihichua, Minister of Security for the Xiomeran Empire. I have been informed that I am speaking to our liaison in Lumiere, and to Representative Sarah Berenstein," she said in a voice as perfectly tailored as her dress. "I was told that there was a request you wished to make, Representative Berenstein. How may we be of assistance?"

Berenstein sat up, much more confident speaking to a Minister than an embassy official. "Madam Minister, I must be frank. I'm not representing the Aurian Government, but a group of very influential, and concerned, citizens. Aurian politics right now are being heated up by a rumor that our Prime Minister and his wife are spies. Now, I highly doubt it's true, and the same goes for the people I represent. However, it's created an interesting opportunity."

She got into a stride, talking slightly faster in plain, almost unaccented English. "About one-fifth of Auria believes these rumors are true, according to the latest poll. And though that's a minority, those who buy into it are angry. Protests in Dieugrand got out of hand, turning into a full on riot and almost resulting in the city hall being stormed."

"Now, the group I represent has access to the Military, Press, and Business sectors. If we support and promulgate this rumor, the results could be.... Revolutionary. But we would have trouble with the police and Intelligence forces. Plus, the masses aren't exactly tthe most supplied."

"And so, I propose a trade. The empire helps us with a... Government transfer, and the Empire gains an ally in the region. Now, the Aurian military is practically an oxymoron, so that wouldn't be much help. But I think we can both appreciate the strategic benefit that Auria provides."

"Indeed we can. And we are always eager to form new friendships and to help those seeking to bring about beneficial change." Quihichua paused. "It's important to know where this will all lead, though, to make sure we share a similar vision for the future. Why does your group wish to change the government? And how will you lead Cape Auria once you are in power?"

Berenstein thought for a moment, phrasing her words carefully. "The incompetency of the Lapointe administration has caused outrage ever since he took office in 2016, mainly due to the inconsistency. He was elected on a compromise between most of our major parties after a political deadlock. Problem is, his administration lead to a new deadlock, where no one wants to do anything for their party in fear of disturbing the deadlock. It became a battle of optics. He was barely elected in 2020, mainly because people tired of the stagnation."

"Meanwhile, everything is stagnated, and nothing can get done in either Chamber of the Parliament. This is not what I signed up for when I took my oath. We need change, and unfortunately, this is the only way that I can see political change happening.

As for how we would lead, I can't exactly say. Without your help, those dreams are just treasonous aspirations. I will say this: Cape Auria would no longer be bogged down by partisan politics. We would have a group of strong leaders at the helm, a group that'll take Auria from a joke to a nation no longer mocked by the world."

"Ah....." Quihichua said softly. "We can relate to such an aspiration. Xiomera is routinely disrespected by nations that seek to hold it back. Our recent war was, in large part, due to such machinations. We recognized from that experience that we need to have strong leaders who can restore Xiomera's power and its place in the world. We understand very well the desire for strong leadership and to be given the respect one deserves on the world stage. Providing you with Imperial assistance is something I will need to discuss with the Empress and the Prime Minister, of course. However.....I do believe we have much the same aspirations, and thus can work together to achieve them most amicably."

"I'm glad to head that. And I must ask that this conversation remains private, especially to any of my Aurian compatriots. It could end very badly for my allies and I if this gets out. I'll send a secure way of contact to the embassy so we may get in contact in the future. Thank you for your time, Madam Minister."

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#3

Palace of Flowers, Chamber of the Mazātl
Saturday, April 9th

A day after the conversation between Quihichua and Berenstein, the Minister of Security was sitting on the patio of the private living quarters of the Empress, casually swirling her drink. It was warmer than usual for this time of year, and Quihichua was enjoying the sun and clear skies. She took a sip of her iced pomegranate tea, idly tossing the deer that wandered through the gardens some fruit.

While the Security Minister enjoyed herself, Empress Calhualyana read through the notes of the meeting between Quihichua, Berenstein and Nyaotli. "I am glad we assigned Nyaotli to Cape Auria, he was always a sharp agent," the Empress finally said as she put the tablet down. "He was smart enough to see the opportunity here and bring it to our attention. Make sure he is suitably rewarded."

"Of course, Empress," Quihichua said, putting her drink down and adding to her own set of notes. "I am gratified that you agree with our assessment that we have an excellent opportunity to gain a foothold on the Caxcana mainland."

"Indeed," Calhualyana said, looking at a map. "If we can flip the government in Cape Auria to one that is beholden to us, or at least friendly, we would be in a position to flank both Eiria and Huenya, and to pursue possible expansion into the Caxcana mainland. We would also benefit immensely from trade and from having a new ally. I agree that this is worth pursuing."

The Empress laid her tablet onto the table, and removed a golden ring from her finger. The ring was not just a beautiful and expensive piece of jewelry - although it was certainly that. The ring was the modern equivalent of the wax or ink seals that Emperors of old had used to give their "seal of approval" to a plan or a document. With calm deliberation, the Empress placed the face of the ring onto a special reader built into her custom tablet. After a click, the LED light around the reader turned from red to golden yellow. The Empress then placed her finger onto the fingerprint reader. And with that, Xiomera had committed itself to what, on the Imperial side, was being termed Operation Striking Eagle - the bid to bring about regime change in Cape Auria.

An hour later, Quihichua contacted the secure line Berenstein had given the Xiomerans during the first call. "We're on board. Let us know what you need, and when you need it."

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#4

Tour-Real, Northwestern Auria
Monday, May 17th, 5:37 PM

The town of Tour-Real wasn't exactly a chaotic town by any means. With an estimated population of fifty thousand plus another fifty thousand in nearby towns, it served as the center of activity for the region. The Modern-esque buildings of the central town area clashed with the old city cathedral and the City Hall, ten-story office buildings locked in a strong competition with the nineteenth-century Cathedral of Saint Helene. Although the City’s skyline was small compared to other cities, and the streets were generally passive and calm, the echo of shoes and boots stomping on the ground echoed through the streets.

Tour-Real was built with a small lake park near the center of the city, the lake being guarded over by a tall, circular watchtower, which had served as the town’s namesake and inspiration. On a typical Mid May day, the birds would flock to the lake in groups, filling the warm air with the pleasant tones of birdsong. But today, unbeknownst to a majority of Tour-Real’s citizens, was far from a normal day.

“The Marchers”, as they called themselves, had started gathering in small groups, congregating in small clumps of friends and families. Their signs and weapons were piled on the ground in a poor attempt to hide them from curious eyes. Some wore pins, shirts, or hats with the words “Lapointe Lies!” in bold orange script. That mantra had spread like wildfire through the past few months, causing an air of mistrust in Aurian politics. That air only fed the wildfire more, and protests in various parts of Lumiere were commonplace.

But Tour-Real was far from Lumiere, and outside from some signs and political clothing, nothing major had really happened. No one expected anything to happen, either. Would anyone really protest here and expect to have any significant impact?

---

Franklin Hugot sat on the park bench, feeling the sun and cool air relax his muscles. His eight-to-five office job at one of the banks in town was soul-draining, but it paid the bills, and he had become a stereotypical thirty year old salary worker losing the joy in their life. His suitcase sat at his feet, a striped tie haphazardly draped across it. That tie is gonna be the death of me. He had spilled things on his tie thrice that week, having gained stern looks from his superiors. ”What if corporate sent an inspector? It’s not a good look” his stuck-up manager had told him, with her classic disapproving tongue click.

"'Not a good look' my ass. Like corporate would care about our tiny branch. Lumiere and Southporte are all they care about, cause that's where all the money is." He sighed and looked at his shoes, absentmindedly counting the cracks in the cement pathway. Why do people always look for distractions from their normal lives? Why do we even need distractions? Why have we made our lives into such a hell that we'll do anything to escape it?

His thinking was disturbed by loud shouts from behind him, bringing him out of his state. Jesus, people. Can't you be a little more respectful? He raised his eyebrows and looked over his shoulders, expecting to see some group of rambunctious teenagers. Instead, his eyebrows shot up further at the sight of hundreds of people in bright orange storming down the street. Some were marching past storefronts, breaking windows and throwing tables haphazardly. Franklin shot to his feet, gripping his suitcase. Holy Shit. His eyes darted to his car, parked in the small parking lot up ahead of the orange flood.

He paused, watching the crowd for a moment, before sprinting towards his small sedan as fast as his suit would allow him to. His sweaty hands fumbled with the keys as he tried to pry open the door, panting. He dove into his car, shoving the gear stick back and almost crashing into a faded red van behind him. He quickly turned onto the street, trying to cross the intersection as fast as he could.

He was quickly blocked by a pair of orange-vested men, another group of marchers fanning out behind them. His car was quickly surrounded, forcing him to slow to a halt. People were banging on the windows, their muffled shouts barely audible. Oh my god. Please, get me out of here. Please.

The driver's side window shattered, hands pulling open his door and dragging him out. He flailed and kicked, desperately grabbing the steering wheel to try to stay in the car. Something unseen came down on his leg, causing him to shout in pain and let go, tumbling out of the car. A kick to the ribs caused him to curl up, wheezing. Please, God. Get me out of here, get me back to Madison. Please. Please…

Everything went black.

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#5

(Made with contributions from Xiomera)
Outside Central Lumiere, Auria
June 28th, 2021, 12:06 AM

The mass of dark-clothed Aurians walked as quietly as they could down the streets of Lumiere, passing darkened businesses and apartment buildings. Barely anyone was out this early in the morning, and anyone who was out turned around and ran at the sight of the large army of people marching down the sidewalks.

Under their dark clothes, much of the group was armed to the teeth, rifles strapped to their backs and sidearms fixed at their hips. Only a few of these weapons were Aurian in design, most of the others having been imported from Xiomera. A few wore buttons with political slogans of the infamous "NewNation" movement, a prevalent conspiracy theory association, one known for causing massive unrest.

Even though they weren't exactly inconspicuous, they marched as quietly as they could, the rhythm of their boots making soft thuds as they approached the hub of Lumiere’s central government buildings. The three men in front waved to the rest of the squad to set up, the mob wasting no time getting weapons out and ready.

The commander peeked around the corner, trying to get a good line of sight. Through a host of townhouses and small apartments sat a large white brick building, surrounded by guards armed with large rifles strapped over their shoulders. The Treasury Building was armed with more security than usual, due to recent disturbances and unrest in the nation. Hah, they think a few more mindless drones in uniforms will stop us?

He motioned over his shoulder, and the group started advancing, taking cover behind any solid object they could find. The leader sheltered behind a set of stairs leading into a townhouse, adjusting his rifle. He put his elbows on the stairs, aiming down his sights at one particular target. One of the guards was getting curious about the faint noises coming down the street, and had left their post to investigate. The leader took one last deep breath, fiddling with the trigger and preparing for the battle to come.

CRACK

Chancellor’s Manor, Geminus, Eiria
12:49 AM

Crack

Chancellor William Lancaster shot up in his bed, heart beating wildly out of his chest. His breathing was quick, yet quiet, a skill he’d picked up in the Civil War. Calm down. It was just a dream. Just a dream. He looked to his right, praying to see his husband in one piece. Thankfully, Jake was sleeping soundly, one arm hanging off the bed in a seemingly uncomfortable position. Will smiled, almost laughing at the normalcy of it all. I still don’t know how you sleep like that. He resisted the urge to lift his arm back onto the bed and instead laid back down, closing his eyes.

The phone positioned on the nightstand rang, and he snatched it on the first ring, not wanting to wake the Proviri. “If this is about a comment on the asylum ‘kidnappng’, or my sister’s reaction to it, can’t it just wait until morning?” He said groggily, looking at Jake to make sure he didn’t disturb him. “I’m sorry sir, but it’s an emergency. A series of governmental buildings were attacked about half an hour ago in Lumiere. We believe that Prime Minister Lapointe and his wife were captured.” His chief of staff, Ava, said with a voice barely masking concern.

Will shot out of bed as quietly as he could. “I’ll be right down.”

---
12:55 AM

A slightly disheveled Lancaster quickly walked down the steps into the staff wing of the manor, occasionally seeing a disgruntled worker walk in, having been paged. Ava Christiansen, Lancaster’s chief of staff, was standing at her desk, accompanied by Sarah Weiss, the recently-promoted National Security Advisor. Lancaster gestured both of them into the study, adjusting his coat as he walked. "Talk to me. What's the situation?"

Weiss wasted no time, taking out a sheet of notes. "Over an hour ago, we received reports of increasing unrest in the Lumiere suburbs of Albany and Langwich. Those reports detailed rumored gunshots and invasions of the local government offices. About forty minutes ago, we received information on a series of ongoing attacks by armed citizens on several major government offices, including the Treasury, Parliament Building, and Prime Minister's home. And twenty minutes ago, we received word that those three attacks in particular were successful."

Lancaster sat, reading the EICA report Sarah had given him. "Holy shit. You said Jacques and Eve Lapointe were captured in the attack?" He asked, scanning the report for any mentions of the Prime Minister and First Lady, looking up at both women after he didn't find any.

Weiss looked down and put a phone on the desk, speaking slowly and calmly. "This is a video that was published on Cicero, an Aurian social media network, about ten minutes after the rumored attack. It's the last video of Lapointe and his wife, and it's disturbing, sir."

Lancaster watched in muted horror as Lapointe and his wife were dragged onto a marble floor, likely in the entryway to their home. Both were dressed in torn nightclothes, and both looked beaten and bloody.

"Jacques and Evelyn Lapointe, you are accused of committing Treason to the Aurian people, committing espionage, and oppressing the Aurian nation for a foreign master. Your regime of lies ends here, and we shall cleanse the nation of your filthy handprints." A man spoke in the accented Aurian dialect Eirian, gesturing to the black-clad soldiers surrounding the couple. "The only acceptable punishment for these crimes is death. You will pay in blood, for the oath you have forsaken." He gestured his hands, and the soldiers formed a line, raising their weapons. "Fire."

Lancaster nearly dropped the phone and lost it right there, having to close his eyes and place the phone back on his desk. "Oh my God." He whispered, his voice hoarse. "Were the Ministers of Defence and Diplomacy contacted as well? They need to be briefed just as much as I do."

"They both were paged a few minutes ago. They will still be a few minutes." Ava spoke up, looking at the phone with disgust and fear. "They may need some time to work up a briefing."

Lancaster nodded, almost frozen by the video he just watched. He blinked, once, twice, trying to get the image of blood splattered on marble out of his head. "Have the Generals ready to brief once the Ministers arrive. Rally the Lunar Guard for an ongoing Omega-5 Situation. Also, if Lacewick's here yet, get him writing a press release of the situation." He paused, a thought crossing his mind. "And we have time until the Ministers arrive. Great Speaker Texoccoatl is staying in New Riga currently. Get his hotel room on the line, please."

In his hotel room, Texōccoatl was sleeping when there was a knock on his bedroom door, followed by the door opening. Both Texōccoatl and Tlalmaxxi snapped awake quickly, their years of army and security training making them light sleepers. “Sir, we have an urgent call from Chancellor Lancaster for you,” one of his guards told him.

“Understood,” Texōccoatl replied, quickly getting up and throwing on some clothes as his wife did the same. “Is it about something back home, do you think?” Tlalmaxxi asked.

“Unlikely, our own people would have contacted us if that were the case. But whatever it is, it can’t be good,” Texōccoatl replied as the two of them walked to the study and sat down at the desk. “Chancellor, this is Texōccoatl. How can I help you?”

"I'm sorry for waking you at this hour, but it's quite urgent." Lancaster talked fast and steady, seemingly not stopping for breath. "Almost two hours ago, huge groups of armed mobs stormed into Lumiere, in Auria, and started attacking government buildings. The guards were caught off guard, losing the Parliament building, the Treasury, and the Prime Minister's home." He finally paused, sighing. "A video of Lapointe and his wife getting executed by firing squad was published ten minutes later."

Texōccoatl sighed to himself, wincing and closing his eyes. Not another coup. Damn. He quickly shook himself out of his dismay. “This is extremely disturbing. Does this appear to be an organized coup or just violent mobs? Is there any idea of who is behind it?”

As he was speaking, he wrote on a hotel notepad before passing it to Tlalmaxxi. Possible coup in Auria. Lapointe and spouse executed. Contact Cuetlancaona and Tlanexchel. Tlalmaxxi nodded, her expression grave, and began making phone calls.

"It initially appeared as violent mobs, but they overwhelmed some of the most secure places in the country incredibly quickly. I believe they're more organized than they appear." Sarah slid him a piece of paper, a number of scribbled sentences on it. "My Security Advisor has just let me know that Fort Charles, the biggest fort in Auria and the primary military base near Lumiere, has been taken over by an unknown number of assailants." He stopped, thinking at a mile per minute. "There has to be someone behind this. No violent mob could pull off this large of coup this quickly. Trust me, we tried." Lancaster made a light humor quip, trying to lighten the situation to avoid breaking down in stress and anger. It didn't work very well. "Unfortunately, I have no clue who could be behind this at this time."

Texōccoatl had come to the same conclusion as Lancaster, as soon as he described the speed and size of the actions taking place. This can’t be spontaneous. “Has anyone emerged as a spokesperson for this group at all? Have they made any demands or issued any statements? And does it appear that they obtained their weapons locally? Someone had to arm all these people.”

"No spokesperson yet, however I'd imagine that some sort of hierarchy will reveal itself soon. Some members of the mob have released videos denouncing Lapointe and some videos of street fighting, but since no hierarchy or leadership has made themselves known, no official demands or statements can be interpreted." The Chancellor sighed again, closing his eyes. "And I hate to say it, but they hold Lumiere. They don't need to make demands, and I don't think they will." The clock on the wall of the study clicked, marking every second like it was an eternity. "I think they want the whole damn country."

”So the question then becomes: how do we respond?” Texōccoatl’s voice took on a more determined tone. “I’ll have to consult with the Vice-Speaker, but I imagine we’ll be on the same page given our own experience with coups recently. Huenya will denounce these actions and stand with your government in whatever action you may decide to take.”

"I'm, regrettably, not entirely sure. If our Intelligence is up to date, a large number of politicians and powerful figures, including the members of the Laurent royal family, have evacuated from Lumiere. I have a feeling they'll be either heading for Huenya or Eiria soon, if things get any worse. I have a feeling it's our turn to host the exile government for a change. I've temporarily ordered our embassy staff out of Lumiere, for their own safety." Lancaster said, a slight tone of unease creeping into his voice. I just hope they make it out in time.

”If there is anything we can do to assist in those efforts, let me know. We just set up our own embassy there, and now we’ll have to evacuate it as well. We’ll also have to consider how to evacuate our nationals if necessary. We do have ships and planes available, but if someone tries to prevent us from evacuating our people….that might be an issue.” Texōccoatl hoped that would not be the case; Huenya was hardly in a position to pick a fight with anyone. But he firmly believes that you didn’t leave your people behind, and would try to get them out.

"We've got out own ships in position as well, so if you need assistance with your evacuation, we'd be more than happy to provide." A thought crossed the Chancellor's mind, and he sat up. "Damn it. We're likely going to have some Aurian athletes defecting if things get too bad. That'll be interesting." His tone faded into a mix of stress and fear. "Hopefully this doesn't become a full coup though. One can only hope…"

”I agree, but I wish I could be optimistic. These people, whoever they are, went straight for the main source of power and legitimacy in Auria and eliminated him. Cutting the head off the snake, as it were. This is likely only the beginning.” Texōccoatl shook his head. “It would probably be wise for us to try to present a united front in our response to these events, and encourage other nations to do the same. If we seem unable or unwilling to respond, whoever is behind this will be emboldened to do more.” Texōccoatl scribbled more notes to Tlalmaxxi, who was on the phone. Need to investigate source of weapons, funding, etc. Also need to speak to Tiacihitli. Tlalmaxxi nodded to her husband with the expression of someone who already knew all that.

"Yes, that's a good idea. We can't exactly afford to be divided right now, even without the coup." Lancaster watched his National Security Advisor enter the study again and place a note on his desk. He picked it up, cursing once he read it. "Metdi." He readjusted his phone. "It would seem that the weapons in the Execution video, as well as at least two other videos of the storming of the Treasury, have one thing in common: They were all Xiomeran made." He paused again before repeating himself, in an angered disbelief. "The weapons were Xiomeran made...."

Texōccoatl found himself sharing that sense of angered disbelief. But in his mind, a big piece of the puzzle was falling into place.

“If that is the case…..either the people behind this uprising are being aided by Xiomeran mercenaries supplying them weapons….or Calhualyana’s government itself is behind it. Those are the only ways they could have gotten Xiomeran weapons. Xiomera does have an active arms trade, but any international arms trade is handled either by mercenaries working with weapons manufacturers, or by the government itself doing the same thing. This has always been the case, to make sure Xiomeran weapons designs don’t fall into the wrong hands.”

"And I highly doubt arranging a coup would hire mercenaries when they can just ask the Xiomeran government for assistance." Lancaster said, working out the same puzzle Texōccoatl was putting into place. "So, whoever this person or people are, they have to be powerful and/or credible. I doubt Xiomera would give out weapons unless they thought that the coup would have a chance of succeeding, it would be too risky."

”Either that, or they think that it’s someone who can successfully pull off a revolt and become powerful and credible - and then be beholden to Calhualyana’s government for that achievement.” Texōccoatl sighed. “This smells like ASI - or its new successor, anyway,” he said with an apologetic look to Tlalmaxxi, who was giving him quite a side-eye look at the mention of her former workplace.

"Unfortunately, I don't exactly have as much Intel as I would like, so It's hard to say if Calhualyana sent agents directly." Lancaster checked his watch, feeling simultaneously fast and sluggish. "We'll keep you and your government in the loop as we get more information. I'm sorry to disturb your New Riga vacation."

”You’re not the one disturbing it - these mobs in Auria are. I should like to return the favor to them at some point. But thank you for keeping us in the loop. Please let me know if we can help in any way.”

"Ditto. We're always here to help. Hopefully you and your wife can enjoy the Olympics without much interference. Have a good time in New Riga."

Texōccoatl thanked the Chancellor and ended the call. He then looked over at Tlalmaxxi. “Tiacihitli has called an emergency meeting of the Chamber of Executives. He intends to push for an official statement condemning the violence in Auria and demanding the immediate end of violence and the restoration of the legitimate government,” she said.

“As he should,” the Great Speaker replied. “That is exactly the outcome I intend for us to seek - especially if Calhualyana may be involved. This poses a threat to us as much as it does to Auria.”

Lancaster placed the phone down, standing as Weiss and Christiansen reentered the room. "The Ministers and Generals are assembled in the Hearth."

Lancaster nodded, mentally preparing himself for the hours to come. "Well, let's not waste anymore time. I don't think we have any to waste anymore."

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#6

Southern Nereus Sea, Aboard the A.N.S Refuge
Tuesday, July 6th, 7:26 AM

Queen Sophie Laurent sat at her husband's bedside, holding his hand as the gentle rocking of the boat caused her to sink further into her chair. The Aurian Navy's biggest medical ship had evacuated the remains of the Lapointe Government from the small port town they were hiding in and took them into the sea, accompanied by all of Auria's Navy and a good portion of Auria's Coast Guard.

In the end, they were able to evacuate ninety-six Members of the Representariat and eighty-seven Members of the Masterial, along with each representative's family. Several Hundred Representatives, Ministers, and other government workers and their families were on the cluster of Aurian Naval ships sailing just off the Eirian coast, waiting for hours for some kind of response from the Eirian port authority.

They're going to let us in. They have to. Sophie closed her eyes and prayed. Please, God, let us into Eiria. For Catherine, Thomas, Matthew, and Ellie. For Nick. For the sake of Auria. Please. She began tearing up, wiping her eyes and nose quickly. She regulated her breathing, so no one would hear her crying.

A knock on the door made her glance up, wiping her face one last time and composing herself. "Come in." Catherine, Sophie's eldest daughter and Crown Princess of Auria, quietly crept in, closing the door behind them. "They're letting us in. Their Senate will be deliberating today on… How long we can stay. But at least they're letting us in."

Sophie nodded. "We'll take what we can get. Thank you." She cracked her knuckles and blinked a few times. "Christ, Cat. We won't be heading home anytime soon. I still can't believe the Army didn't help us, or do… anything. Did the oath they took mean nothing to them? What bullshit reason did they have to commit treason, forsake the Crown and Country, and essentially destroy Auria in their inaction?!"

Catherine took her mother's hand, giving it a light squeeze. "It's alright. There's nothing we can do about it now. As much as I would like to scream and shout about those bastards, it's not going to help Auria. There's nothing we can do, but wait for the Eirians to make their decision."

Aurian Parliament Complex, Central Lumiere
8:22 AM

Sarah Berentstein walked down the aisle of the Representariat Chamber, wiping her hand across the desks of her former colleagues. The room had been partially ransacked in the attack, but General Michelin's soldiers had been working overtime to restore it to its previous state. She glanced around the room, her boots making small clacks everytime she took a step.

She walked forward, onto the Speaker's pedestal, placing her briefcase onto the lectern. I've never seen the chamber from up here. I could get used to this. The front row of desks were filled with eleven nervous Members of the Representariat, the only ones she could convince to not evacuate and stay in Lumiere after the coup. "Thank you all for coming. We are going to be going through a lot of changes in the next few months, and you all will be key in the rebirth of Auria."

The Representatives all shifted in their seats, uncomfortable with the circumstances of the past few days. Berentstein continued, taking their reactions in a silent note. "In the next few days, you shall witness the coronation of Andrew the First of Auria, the formation of the new Governmental Council to replace the cabinet, and the formation of the First and Second Citizens Councils to replace the Masterial and Representariat respectively, and the rest of the government offices will be going through some major changes."

"Rest assured, you all will be given high positions in government, particularly in the Second Citizens Council. Some of you may be promoted further, into a Ministry or Judicial position, but I guarantee, as long as none of you screw up, you'll all be given powerful positions on the new councils."

She paused and opened her briefcase, revealing eleven folders stacked on top of a few other files. She continued speaking as she passed one to each member, almost like a teacher handing out homework. "These are a few problems our new country will be having, and all of the government systems that need to be organized. As you can see, they are all very thick and heavy."

"So, here's your challenge: As soon as possible, come to me with plans for solutions to these problems. Organizing new ministries will take time, and I don't expect you each to answer all of the problems. But come up with the solutions that you can, so I know where to place you. If you do extra well, you'll be rewarded handsomely for doing a tremendous service to your country." She wrapped her knuckles on the lectern, startling a couple of the group members. "But if your work is sub-par… Don't expect to have a place in Auria's future."

She clapped her hands twice, causing her new aides to stand up quickly, as if they were soldiers being called to attention. "Alright, you've got your jobs, let's get started. Don't let me down."

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#7

Jointly written with Eiria

Moore Residence, Lauchenoiria
Early morning, 7th July Lauchenoirian Time

Laura Moore woke up at 5:30am, sweat streaming down her body as she tried to catch her breath and calm her beating heart. She reached to her side and found comfort in the presence of her husband as she took deep breaths. For his part, Felipe hadn’t woken; he’d become accustomed to his wife’s nightmares, and she disliked having witnesses. She preferred to calm herself and move on without feeling like she was embarrassing herself or appearing weak.

This time, though, she wasn’t going to just forget it happened again. This had been the same recurring nightmare as the previous days, the one about Chaher’s coup. Yet this time she knew it would keep happening until she did something. Inaction never solved any problems. Laura had tried to quit politics, but it simply wasn’t in her nature to give up and retire quietly. On the other side of the world, in Auria, people were going through the same thing Lauchenoiria went through in 2018. And she would be remiss if she just ignored it.

Sliding out of the covers after she’d regained her composure, Laura took a quick shower and then dressed, calling a taxi to take her to the Prime Minister’s offices, texting Alvarez as she did so that she needed to see her as soon as possible. Laura Moore intended to help Auria if she could; but she wouldn’t go behind Alvarez’s back. This wasn’t about undermining Josephine, even if Josephine had tossed her aside back then. Pointless grudges helped nobody.

Josephine Alvarez was already awake by the time Moore texted, preparing for a day full of meetings and staring at the piece of paper where she’d written down names of cabinet ministers in pencil, rubbing them out and rewriting as she decided how she was going to do this. She’d decided already: she needed Pavía out of Foreign Affairs. Yet how to do it was far harder, and she didn’t want a digital copy until she was ready to make an announcement. She’d learned from Laura’s mistakes: don’t let them know you’re gonna get rid of them until they’re gone.

Her first meeting wasn’t until 8am, so she was happy enough to meet Moore in half an hour before her day started properly. Since their heart-to-heart about Jennifer and her decision to go to Kerlile and see her – the real motivation behind her attendance at the IWC – she felt far more comfortable around Moore again. Laura seemed to hold no grudge about the unfortunate affairs of 2018 and often offered good advice to the overwhelmed current Prime Minister.

Moore was shown into Alvarez’s office upon arrival; she had further to travel than Josephine who’d been there in mere minutes. They greeted each other, exchanging pleasantries as they waited for their morning coffee, a stimulant they both would rather consume before beginning the morning’s business. Once sufficient caffeine had been drunk, Alvarez leaned back and asked Laura what brought her at such an early hour.

“You know about the nightmares, of course,” Moore began, sighing. “The matter in Auria is making them worse. And I can’t help but feel strongly that we should do something to aid them. We know how bad these things can get; if we can spare the Aurian people what our own suffered in 2018 we have a duty to do so.”

Upon hearing what Moore’s problem was, Alvarez was greatly relieved. Truthfully, she’d been concerned about the Aurian issue herself, but with Pavía counselling restraint and non-intervention, she had begun to doubt whether she was right to want to take some kind of action. Hearing Laura Moore who, for all her faults, had been a good leader able to see where the tide was turning (except inside the mind of her own Home Secretary) call for action gave her more confidence in her own instincts.

“You’re right,” nodded Alvarez in response. “This is the fourth coup in a short span of years: our own, Xiomera, Mallacaland and now Auria. There’s a veritable plague of the things spreading, and every time one is partly successful it lends strength to others who would plot the same thing. This will quickly grow out of control, we can’t remain complacent or ignore these things any longer.”

“So, what can we do?” Moore asked.

Noting the ‘we’ in her statement, Alvarez formed a determined expression. “Firstly, I’m going to call Queen Sophie right now. Please stay,” she gestured for Moore to stay seated. “I think that the Queen would like to speak with you. You do, after all, have much experience in this matter. We can talk once we hear from her what she is looking to do.”

Alvarez called through to her aide, asking her to place a call to Queen Sophie of Auria, presently in exile in Eiria, before putting her own phone on speakerphone so that Laura Moore, seated opposite, could join in on the call. The pair waited for the call to be connected, a far more comfortable silence than others between them since their country's own coup.

Queen Sophie sat at the desk in the small hotel room she had been given in Atlantis, taking some notes on a small pad of hotel stationary. She was set to speak in front of Eiria's Senate the next day, and she wanted to get a jump on her speech.

Her hotel phone rang, causing her to jump a bit. She quickly grabbed it and answered, donning her kindest protocol voice. "Yes?"

A stammering hotel receptionist answered, seemingly surprised at his situation. "Ma'am- Your Majesty, we have a call from... Prime Minister Alvarez, of Lauchenoiria."

Sophie's heart soared with elation and a small amount of hope. Thank God, someone outside Eiria. International supporters will be perfect! She thought for a second more, becoming reserved and resolute. Hopefully it's not just a condolence call. She spoke up, clearing her throat. "Would you put her through, please?"

When the call was connected, Alvarez spoke first, greeting the Aurian Queen. "Your Majesty, thank you for taking my call. All of us in Lauchenoiria's thoughts are with you and the Aurian people at this time. In the room with me just now is one of my predecessors, Laura Moore, whom I thought you'd like to speak to, given your similar experiences."

"Good afternoon, Your Majesty," Moore spoke up, though she was actually uncertain of the time of day in Eiria. "Watching the situation in Auria play out grieved me, and I wanted to offer my support and offer you someone to talk to who may understand part of your experience."

Sophie sat back in her chair, reservedly interested. "Thank you, Prime Minister and Former Prime Minister. I'm glad to hear of your support. And I need every bit of advice I can get right now. This situation wasn't exactly something I've prepared for." She sighed. "What would you advise me to do now? I'm speaking to the Senate tomorrow, trying to get Eiria's support. What else can I do?"

"Learn the lessons of - recent - history," Moore replied darkly. "Mine and Yauhmi's. You've made the correct decision in leaving the country; if you had remained and been captured they could have used you as leverage. Now, my first piece of advice would be don't do as Leanna Walker did - don't return unless you have an army at your back."

"Laura is correct, Your Majesty," Alvarez added. "You are safer remaining in Eiria, while the situation can be analysed and tackled. My own personal recommendation at this point would be to make some kind of public statement to your people, denouncing those behind this coup. It needs to be clear they have no legitimacy; and there are plenty of people who can sneak such a broadcast into Auria even if it is blocked by official channels."

Sophie listened intently, continuing to write her speech as she did. "A good plan. And I hate to be pessimistic, but they do currently hold the whole country of Auria. With Nations like Xiomera as neighbors, they have a pretty secure line of support and legitimacy. Is there a way we can undermine that? I'm sorry if that's a bad question, my degree is in Computer Technology, after all. I'm not a General." She laughed a bit, trying to make herself seem human.

Moore stared pointedly at Alvarez, who broke eye contact on the mention of Xiomera. She was fully aware that she'd been too lenient towards that particular nation recently, and that she ought to do something about Pavía's affinity for it. On the matter at hand, however, Alvarez had one important question: "Do you believe Xiomera is backing the coup?"

"I have no reason to yet, but I also have absolutely no information to go on. I'd assume the Eirians would have more information than I do right now, so I'll likely know much more tomorrow. They are currently keeping us in Atlantis, one of their western port cities, so I don't have much access to their intelligence yet." She spoke very solidly, as if Eirian help was guaranteed. "But, even if they aren't backing the coup, they'll jump on the opportunity. It doesn't take an intelligence specialist to see that."

"Of course," Alvarez replied. "Plenty of opportunists jumped in during our own coup and civil war in 2018, on both sides. I would like to offer Lauchenoirian assistance, but I can't yet guarantee that we'll be able to. I need to consult with my cabinet; though it's likely there will be a few changes there soon."

Moore quirked an eyebrow at this; it was the first she was hearing of a potential reshuffle. "The important thing now is trying to de-ligitimise those behind the coup. They need to be seen as traitors, power-hungry anti-democratic opportunists who do not deserve to be listened to."

"Ah, okay. I can fight a battle of public opinion - It's practically a cornerstone of Royal life. And I'm sure the whole violent mob coup image isn't going to work in their favor. They'll likely be entrenching their own legitimacy soon. Introducing their new leaders, revealing the new power hierarchy. That's pretty much the only way they could gain legitimacy and favor at this point. I also doubt that it will gain them much public opinion, though I don't think they care much. They're in the honeymoon period. As long as they can keep the violent mob group happy, they can stay in power temporarily."

"That's not a long-term solution, though," Alvarez warned. "They will be attempting something else if they want to keep power. It's important to be wary and keep an eye on what they're doing. And at some point, you will need to consider whether or not a military option is warranted."

Sophie was silent for a few seconds. "That's what I was afraid of." She grew quieter, her voice slightly fainter. "I just don't see how that can be a possibility. The Aurian Army, no matter how small, isn't loyal to our government anymore. We have the Navy, and the Coast Guard, but that's all we really have. We don't have any ground soldiers left."

"Respectfully," Moore interrupted, "I disagree with the Prime Minister here. Given our own experiences, I'd recommend avoiding military conflict where possible; especially if you have to get foreign help. There is still a chance that this new regime of theirs will fall through incompetence and public outcry. I'd recommend trying to drain away their support, make them look bad, and galvanise the people of Auria against them. Only when all else fails would I seek military action. This is what I have learned since 2018."

"Moore makes a point," Alvarez conceded. "It should be a last resort. Your army has betrayed you, so you will need to look elsewhere if it comes to that. In 2018, many of our own army sided with Chaher, but there were always outliers and we just needed to find and make contact with them. Alongside resistance groups and - trusted - foreign allies, it may well be possible, but it will take work, perseverance, and risk."

"Work and Perseverance we can provide. Unfortunately, some of the other members of our exile government will be hesitant to take more risks, even now. But we will use whatever we can to discredit this regime, however it takes form. And I'm glad that we have support from international sources. Your help and advice is worth more to me than gold." The Queen said, attempting to convey her thanks.

"Please do feel free to call me any time," Moore added. "I know how scary it can be right after this sort of thing and if you need emotional support I can give it. I'm sure Alvarez here will speak with her cabinet about more concrete support soon."

"Yes, indeed I will," Josephine agreed. "I will make the case for aiding you, Your Majesty - we cannot allow people and groups like this to go around carrying out coups throughout the IDU without facing consequences, or it will only embolden others who would do the same. A firm response is needed to halt this epidemic of coups we have been having in recent years."

"I agree. I'm glad to have your support in this, Prime Minister, Former Prime Minister. We need all the support we can get. I do hope your cabinet, and the Eirian Senate, agree to aid us. With your help, we may actually have a chance to go home." The Queen chose every word carefully, trying to earn every shred of sympathy she could. "Thank you both so much."

"Thank you for taking our call, Your Majesty," Alvarez replied. "We will expedite our discussions and hopefully have a concrete plan of action to run by you within the week. Naturally this is an unfolding situation, but we want you to know that the Lauchenoirian government backs you, and we will not recognise this false regime."

"Thank you. That's very reassuring. And I'll hopefully have some more Intel for you by then as well, if the Eirians decide to support us. Thank you so much for your call, Prime Minister, Madame Moore. If you need anything from me, feel free to call."

"You're very welcome, we'll be in touch," Alvarez replied, ending the call.

She turned back to Moore, waiting for her feedback on what had occurred on the phone.

“She’s wary of a military option, of course,” Moore mused. “She seems sensible; cautious but willing to do the work needed to thwart this coup. I think we can work with her easily on this; though I’d still be wary of committing any military resources unless victory is assured, given the state of our own armed forces.”

“I’m noting your use of the first-person plural there, Laura,” Alvarez said, bemused. “Does this mean you intend to return to politics full-time?”

“Well, I…” Laura hesitated.

“If so, there’s a by-election in Yervia after the death of that 90-year-old Conservative and it’s common knowledge that your popularity remained high in that province even through the incident.”

“He was eighty-seven,” Moore corrected. “And I haven’t decided yet.”

“Decide soon,” Alvarez replied. “We need you; Pavía has to go. I haven’t been able to find anything that ties her to Xiomeran intelligence but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I’ll shuffle her into a position where she can’t do damage, but I need more people with experience that I can trust.”

Moore remained silent, contemplating the offer. Alvarez continued while she mused. “We’re not going to take any military action unless Eiria is also on board, and not until other possible solutions have been tackled. I’m going to get in touch with Marwick; he was a terrible President, but he was excellent at getting broadcasts past Chaher’s censors, so he’ll be a valuable resource if our aim is to spread anti-coup propaganda in Auria.”

“I agree, his talents in clandestine broadcasting were unmatched; they just weren’t transferable to the presidency. I’d also recommend getting in touch with Jessica Cassidy, she’ll also be helpful in that sphere. If enough of the Aurian people rise up before the plotters have a chance to consolidate power the problem may resolve itself. Also, and this is a very out-of-the-box suggestion, but… I’d actually try speaking to Kerlile. The coup-plotters were spreading lies about them too in order to gain legitimacy; if the Kerlians come out publicly against the coup then it could put some of the other autocracies off taking sides, since there’s no chance of a united front.”

“I’ll consider that,” Alvarez said after a beat. “I dislike involving the Matriarchy in anything, but if even Kerlile recognises the coup as illegitimate it would be damning for any semi-legitimate nation thinking of supporting them. But it also might backfire, being on the same side… I’ll write up the pros and cons. Anyway, my next meeting should be starting soon but think on what I’ve said about the by-election. I could use you, especially with this Auria affair.”

Laura Moore stood up, the pair shook hands and she exited, already creating a to-do list in her mind if she planned to run in the by-election and how best she could help Auria from her current position. Retirement just didn’t suit some people.
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#8

Liberty Square, Geminus, Eiria
Thursday, July 8th, 8:32 AM

Queen Sophie of Auria silently climbed the stairs of the Senate Building, her entourage of security guards and aides surrounding her. Solar Guards in neat uniforms stood along the steps of the Capitol, looking sharp and dedicated to their posts. Why couldn't they be the ones guarding the Parliament? Sophie asked herself, mentally slapping herself a moment later. Jesus, Sophie. Talk about disrespect. They're dead, for God's sake. They gave their lives for Auria, and you disgrace their sacrifice.

The guards at the top of the stairway opened the large oak doors, revealing Chancellor William Lancaster standing just inside the entryway. Sophie noted his untucked sleeves. Fidgeting. He's nervous.

"Your Majesty, welcome to Geminus. If you'll follow me, we'll get you briefed and prepared for the Senate. I'm sorry for all of the anticipation and mystery, the Eirian bureaucracy can be an absolute nightmare sometimes. I didn't want to keep this information from you, but until now, my hands were tied. I'm still pissed that I couldn't have told you this information sooner." Lancaster spoke as fast as he moved, quickly leading Sophie and her entourage into a meeting room, where Alice Lancaster, Leah Stendē, and other members of Lancaster's staff sat around a long table.

"Well, we're grateful for any information you'll give us. We have no other sources of information, at least, none that can reach us. A number of intelligence agents remained in Auria, however they can't exactly contact us right now." The Queen said, sitting in one of the chairs closest to the door.

Lancaster thought for a few seconds, blinking a few times. "There's no easy way to say this, Your Majesty. When the first attacks in Lumiere occured, the Prime Minister's residence was one of the first places attacked. He, and his wife, were executed that same evening." Lancaster paused, then went on. "We also have unconfirmed rumors that the Deputy Prime Minister and her husband were captured and executed, although again, those are unconfirmed."

Sophie looked down at the table. Oh God. No. Wait a minute, Eve…. A tear rolled down her cheek, as she choked up, trying to maintain composure. "Eve….. she……. Eve was pregnant. They were going to announce it next week…."

Chancellor Lancaster covered his mouth, seeming to want to hurl. "....Ah." The other Eirians at the table seemed similarly horrified, and for almost a minute, no one made a sound. Sophie wiped her face and steeled her nerves, trying to do what's best for her country.

"Well, there's nothing we can do about that now. Grief isn't going to help Auria forward." She turned to the Eirians, her face hardened into a steely mask. "What can we do to convince your Senate to help us? Is there anything we can do?"

"Well, regarding the Senate, all you have to do is show up as a leader. Many Senators are already inclined to support and help you, and will vote as such. And you can humanize the issue by representing Auria, showing what impact this coup could have."

Lancaster sighed. "As for other support, the best thing you can do is stay in the spotlight. I feel awful for suggesting that, but keeping the attention on you and the rest of the Aurian Government in exile can increase your chances of international support, and can also keep the coup government on the defensive. It's very hard to appear legitimate when someone's constantly reminding the world how you came to power."

The Queen and her aides nodded. "I do plan to keep the attention of the press. Yesterday, I got a relieving call from Lauchenoiria. Prime Minister Alvarez and Laura Moore offered their support and advice. It seems that our situation is already gaining sympathy from other democratic leaders."

Lancaster raised his eyebrows. "Alvarez and Moore? Wow. That's a very good sign. Especially since they've been through a recent coup. And our coup, though slightly more distant, also provides us with the knowledge and experience to help you. Although I can't speak for the Huenyans, if they extend their support, they'll have even more advice for you. My point is, democracies everywhere are sympathetic to your cause, and support will come, no matter how unlikely it seems." He readjusted in his chair, seeming anxious. "Are you prepared to brief the Senate? Do you know what you're going to say?"

The Queen bowed her head in assent. "I believe I do."

---

The loud voices of deliberation were amplified by the large ceiling of the Senate Chamber, announcing every whisper like an architectural microphone. Discussion was mostly informal, with every Senator awaiting the briefing and speeches on the Aurian situation. Lira Nerala, the Minister of Justice and Speaker of the Senate, took her position on the podium, causing all discussion to fade to whispers. "The Senate Chair cedes the floor over to Queen Sophie Laurent, of Cape Auria." She backed up from the front of the podium, allowing Sophie a grand entrance.

The Queen wore a simple dress of Laurent Purple, her hair pulled back in a neat bun. "Thank you, Minister. First, I must thank all of you for your time and consideration. You have no idea how much your support means to me, and to the rest of our delegation. So, thank you."

She looked down at the lectern, considering her next words. "Just over a week ago, a number of key government buildings in Lumiere were placed under siege. These buildings include the Parliament Complex, the Prime Minister's residence, and the Treasury Building. Violent mobs stormed these buildings, killing any guard and police officer who got in their way. Our Prime Minister was killed, and our government was forced to flee the city. We were forced down the coast, eventually fleeing with the help of our loyal navy."

"But where can we go? We've been forced out of our home, our nation, by traitors and mobs. Some of our own Olympians are still here, in Eiria, afraid to go home. And who can blame them? They saw former government members being rounded up in Lumiere, captured or executed, and they made the choice to stay somewhere safe."

"The Auria we once knew is under attack by violent opportunists, using revolutionary groups as a smokescreen as they seize power. Although these individuals have yet to show their faces, one way or another, they will eventually. They have to, in order to keep their stolen power. And when they do, they'll claim that they are the rightful rulers of Auria. Despite not being elected, or appointed, or having any checks and balances. They have no claim to Auria, and they have no obligation to the Aurian people."

"These violent groups serve as an incredible danger to Auria and the region. I refuse to stand by and leave millions of Aurians to uncertain fates when countries around the world have the power to step in and set things right. The fates of millions of Aurians, both here and back home, are in your hands. I pray you can find it in your minds and hearts to grant us aid. Thank you."

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#9

(Joint post with Eiria)

Xomaxtli Hill
July 18th

Yauhmi was sitting in the newly restored courtyard of her estate. The sun was a pleasant, warming presence. It gave her comfort. She was hoping to provide a different form of comfort to the person she was about to call.

She picked up her phone, hitting the speed dial for the Eirian Chancellor’s office. After a brief conversation, her call was transferred. “This is Yauhmi, nantzintli of Huenya. Could I speak with Queen Sophie, please?”

Ava Christiansen, Chief of Staff to the Chancellor and de facto manager of the Eirian Executive Wing, picked up the phone, her eyebrows shooting up as she listened. "Of course, Your Majesty. One moment, please." She put in the number for a redirect to the Aurian Queen's new residence, quickly scribbling a note for her secretary to give to the Chancellor. Yauhmi called Queen Sophie. Patched her through.

---

Sophie Laurent sat on the couch of the apartment she had been granted, idly staring at the TV screen. She was partially spaced out, exhausted from the stress and shock of the past weeks.

The phone on the kitchen peninsula rang, snapping her out of her stupor. Can't anyone be alone for a little while? She stood, stretching, before walking over and picking the phone from its receiver. "Hello? Sophie speaking."

"Good afternoon. This is Yauhmi, nantzintli of the Huenyan Federation. I suppose I should explain my new title - it’s the equivalent to being a dowager queen or a queen mother in some other countries. I hope I am not bothering you at this difficult time.”

The Queen immediately donned her court tone and mask, swiftly regaining her professionalism. "No, not at all. It's a pleasure to meet you, even if it is over the phone. How may I help you?"

"I was hoping to help you, actually. First, the business side of things,” Yauhmi said in her characteristic brisk tone. “The Huenyan Federation wants to offer you whatever support we can in regaining your rightful throne. Our Vice-Speaker, Tiacihitli, will be making a statement shortly to that effect. We can provide some tangible support in terms of resources, and people. Also, we would like to offer our assistance in terms of making your cause known to the greater world, and rallying free nations behind you to reverse this coup. We can also provide assistance in investigating who is behind it, and why, should you wish it. As you might imagine, we have a particular dislike for coups, so we want to do whatever we can to assist you.”

Yauhmi paused a moment, adopting a more personal tone. “That’s the official stuff. Unofficially, if you’re willing to listen to my rambling, I have advice that might be helpful to you. From experience, both in terms of time and of tragedy.”

Sophie blinked back a few grateful tears, steadying herself. Oh my God, everyone's helping us. We have a chance! "Well, I'm always one for rambling, and I'll take any advice you can give me. I'm immensely grateful that Huenya would aid our cause. And I'm personally glad so many leaders with experience in this kind of situation have reached out. Honestly, I had started to lose hope as we left Auria, and now... I'm starting to get my faith back." She thought for a second. "Apologies if this is blunt or rude, It's not my intention to be either. But does Huenya expect anything in exchange? I'm a bit worried that I've been taking out debts I can never pay back."

"We do not expect anything. It will be enough for us to restore balance to things in our neighborhood. Also…to counter a possible threat. It is our belief that this is not an isolated incident, and that other powers in Caxcana are behind this coup, or at least supporting it. Powers that are not friendly to Huenya. So helping you is the perfect combination of enlightened self-interest, and just being the right thing to do, period. It’s always nice when things work out that way. Feel free to be blunt, incidentally. I don’t tend to sugarcoat things, so it doesn’t bother me when others don’t either. Directness is so much more helpful.”

"Agreed. An opportunity to speak candidly in public rarely comes to royalty, as I'm sure you know all too well." Sophie got herself a glass of water, trying to drink as quietly as possible. "Would your support put Huenya in the awkward position of angering said other Caxcanan powers? I wouldn't want to endanger you or your people."

"If I am going to praise the virtues of being direct, I suppose I should do so myself. It’s the Xiomeran Empire that we suspect is behind this. And we can’t become any more of an enemy to Calhualyana than we already are.” Yauhmi laughed in a tone devoid of humor. “So, you don’t have to worry about that. She can’t despise Huenyans any more than she already does.”

"Ah. And you are correct in your suspicions. According to Eirian intelligence, many of the armed mobs used Xiomeran weapons." Her voiced hardened. "They saw a chance they couldn't refuse. A chance to flank both you and the Eirians, an opportunity to use Auria as a springboard to dominate Caxcana." Sophie's tone grew more hateful with each sentence,  leaving her thoughts on Xiomera unspoken. "How can we beat them? Xiomera, I mean. They are a superpower."

"Ah, now we get to the good questions. The Empire is, admittedly, very powerful. I should know, I helped build them into a power. I regret that now, but hindsight has seemed to hate me as of late. Well. They can be beaten. That, we accomplished with Huenya, so I know it is possible. But I would definitely not recommend you take the route we took. It damaged Huenya pretty badly, and Auria doesn’t need to suffer that fate. You could defeat the coup plotters with armies and bombs and weapons, if you rallied other countries behind you. But here is what I recommend, from painful experience.” Yauhmi paused for a moment, before jumping in.

"Instead of using force right away, or trying to, gain the support of other countries to put pressure on both the coup plotters and on the Empire. Sanctions, blockades and the like. Put the screws to whatever fake government rises up in Auria, and on the Empire. Once this whole venture becomes unprofitable, Calhualyana will either withdraw support voluntarily or be forced to, without a shot being fired.”

“Once that happens, and once the people of Auria are angry enough to rise up against the coup regime - and I can’t imagine everyone loves this coup in Auria, so many will be disgruntled already - the coup will implode and you can return home. Do not mistake my recommendations as a soft approach. Your people will suffer from it. But they will suffer far more if a full-scale war happens on your soil. Ask any Huenyan how well a civil war works out. Or any Lauchenoirian, for that matter.”

Yauhmi continued. “You’ll be tempted to go roaring back into Auria with whatever soldiers and supporters you can muster up, because your people will be suffering. The coup plotters may even try to force your hand prematurely, so they can capture or eliminate you. Don’t take the bait, no matter how hard it is to resist. When you do finally go back into Auria, make sure it’s the right time, and that you have a nice big army behind you. And a bunch of fighter planes, bombers and warships, ideally. Then you can just roll up the remnants of the coup without quite so much damage.” Yauhmi paused for breath, and to let Sophie ask questions.

The Aurian monarch thought for a bit, writing on a pad of paper next to her. "I'll have to talk to the Eirians about a potential blockade. You're right: Eiria was one of our biggest trade partners. With a blockade in place, by the Eirians no less, it will cripple any kind of economy Auria will have left. I'm sorry to ask this, and I don't want to seem ungrateful, but what kind of assistance is Huenya able to provide? I'm need to know what all we have, and what we still need."

"We can provide similar assistance as that I outlined: a trade embargo and assistance with any naval blockade. Our navy is relatively small, but we can assist the Eirians. We can also impose trade sanctions to increase pressure on the coup plotters. While our own economy is still, erm, rebuilding, we can still work with other nations on an embargo. We have some things in the pipeline that should make it easier for us to accelerate the rebuilding process.” Yauhmi made a slight noise of satisfaction. “We will also allow Huenyan territory to be used as a base to assist in any operations. Lastly, we have been working with Eiria on joint research. If worst comes to worst, we can help you find ways to counter Imperial technology.”

"Okay. I'm especially glad to hear that last point, since I was very worried about that. Aurian military technology leaves a lot to be desired, and against an enemy like Xiomera, that would be a significant disadvantage. I'm also quite worried about Xiomeran intelligence disrupting any attempts to mount resistance, but the Eirians have offered to help with that." Sophie stopped, the reality of the situation hitting her again like another crashing wave. "I never thought Auria was going to be hosting a proxy war..."

"I don’t think any of us expected this,” Yauhmi replied gently. “But now that we know what we’re facing, we can defeat it together. We will do whatever we can to help, and I am sure the Eirians will also. The situation may seem hopeless. And your enemies will do whatever they can to make it seem hopeless, to try to discourage you. But I’m pretty good at overcoming seemingly hopeless situations. You will be too. And once the world realizes the threat that Calhualyana’s ambitions pose, I am confident that you will have plenty of help.”

"I'm glad to hear that you think so. And you're not wrong either. I was contacted by the Lauchenoirians also, they extended their support, sympathy, and advice as well. It would seem that Xiomera's finally losing any influence they had on Lauchenoiria, which is a relief. It's nice to have so many allies in this." She traced the rim of her empty water glass, eyes on her notepad. "This is one of the only times I'm thankful for the media being so persistent. All of the free air time is amazing for our cause."

"The media can be problematic at times. But in a situation like this, they will be your best ally. The media loves a cause to rally behind, so take advantage of that. Keep yourself and your cause front and center, and use the media to keep the pressure up on other nations to act against the coup. The media, especially DTNS, have no fondness for the Imperial regime or Calhualyana after they threw Antoine Broussard in jail. They’ll need little encouragement to go after both the coup plotters and the Imperial regime hard,” Yauhmi said. “I recommend you have a press conference ASAP and reveal that the coup plotters are using Xiomeran weapons. With the antipathy the media already has for Calhualyana’s regime, that should be all you need to do.”

"That's a very good idea. I'll draw up plans for that immediately. Inviting some international press will bring a lot more rewards and pressure on the coup plotters and Xiomera." Sophie thought for a moment. "They're taking an awfully long time to set up a new government. They're cutting into their legitimacy, and for what? Why are they taking so long?" She mused to herself, almost forgetting she was on the phone. "I don't really see a reason for them to wait like this."

"That could mean two things. Either they’re delaying to keep their enemies off guard and off balance, shrouding their plans in mystery…..or they don’t know  what to do next now that they’ve actually pulled it off,” Yauhmi said with a slight snort of amusement. “There could also, I suppose, be power struggles behind the scenes keeping them from getting organized. The cause of their delay is the first thing that Eirian intelligence should begin trying to find out.”

"I'll pass that along. When more solid info is available and as things progress, we should hold a joint meeting with our supporters, to get a joint plan in place. So I don't have to serve as a messenger service." The Queen said, using a joking tone. "Well, I must thank you again for your support. I wish I could be there in person to thank you and your government, and I promise to do so if... When Auria is restored. We won't ever forget the assistance and aid you'll provide us."

"Think nothing of it. We are pleased to support a neighbor. We’ll participate in any meeting you have to plan things. If you need anything before then, feel free to contact either myself or Vice-Speaker Tiacihitli at any time. I look forward to meeting you in person in Auria once this coup is reversed.”

"As do I. Thank you again for your call, Your Majesty." She placed the older phone back on the receiver, making a few notes on the pad before placing her pen down with a content sigh. Yet another supporter. We may just be able to do this.

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#10

Aurus Palace, Lumiere
July 19th, 9:27 AM

The clicking sounds of Sarah Berenstein's boots on the polished marble floors bounced off of the high ceiling of the Aurus Palace, filling the silence with a fast-paced tempo. Numerous army guards lined the hallway, standing at attention as she passed them. They were unnerved by her angry, cold expression, not wanting to draw her attention. Her frustration radiated through the halls as she walked, dissuading any guard or servant who would potentially get in her way.

She shoved open the heavy wooden doors at the end of the hall, entering the ornate throne room with a huff. On the amethyst throne sat Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier, future king of Auria. And, in Sarah's professional opinion, a narcissistic jackass. A number of guards stepped forward as she entered, looking to intercept Sarah and her fury. "It's alright, let her through." The former Baron said, a smug smile on his face. He wants me to confront him. Overconfident bastard.

"What the hell, Andrew?!" She said, coming to a stop right before the throne. "You dismissed my staff again? Political specialists don't grow on trees. And for what? Supposed disloyalty to a King who's not even King yet? This is bullshit! This is the fourth damn time you've either imprisoned or fired the analysts I've carefully selected. And it's not like I have many to choose from." She glared at him, causing his smug smile to diminish. "You're causing us so many delays in constructing our government. You're killing our legitimacy. You are deliberately sabotaging us. Why? What could you possibly have to gain from this?!"

Andrew stood and adjusted his suit, maintaining eye contact with Berenstein. "I don't know who you think you are. And your staff were obviously democratic loyalists attempting to restore the traitors in Eiria. The only sabotage in this government has been your horrible hiring skills. And, regardless of the official position, I am King of Auria. Show some respect." His tone grew venomous, bordering on malicious.

She was undeterred. "You talk about respect, you-" She was cut off by a chair scooting back and a loud voice echoing behind her. "Enough, both of you." General Jean-Claude Michelin walked up the long hall, his military boots making loud thuds as he walked as fast as he could get away with. "You both need to swallow your pride and get to work. Sarah, head back to the ministry, and find a new set of staff. Andrew, stop firing her staff. She's right, you know. Most political specialists are across the Strait in Eiria right now. Stop detaining them and giving more work to my men."

The pair looked at the floor, backing away from each other. Michelin looked satisfied, lowering his voice to a normal level. "Good. Now, we have a major problem other than lack of political specialists. Thousands of people are fleeing in boats from our coast towns. Mostly to Eiria, but some to Huenya as well. We've tried to crack down on them, but without a navy or coast guard, it's quite difficult. Plus, we're spread way too thin trying to keep the peace. We need more manpower. And we can't get more manpower until we have a government."

He gestured between the two of them. "Both of you need to get working if we want to actually have a country to lead. We leave ourselves open to attack if we wait too much longer." He turned around and started walking out of the chamber, signalling that they should do the same. "Lautrec's busy working on getting businesses to support us. I suggest you both get a move on, and do your jobs."

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#11

Huaxtepan Center for Technological and Social Harmony
Tlilotl'pac, Xiomera

The Xiomeran Empire, as of late, had been the subject of technological trickery. In the view of the Empress, it was time to begin returning the favor.

The latest Xiomeran technological offensive, however, wouldn't involve open disruption of any country.

In her studies of democracies, Empress Calhualyana had, in the typical analytical manner of a Xiomeran agent, assessed their strengths and their weaknesses. She had come to a conclusion. While the media could be used as a weapon by the democracies against Xiomera, it could also be used by Xiomera as a weapon against them as well.

Under her reign, Xiomera had quietly built its capacity to influence the world via communications. They had first begun in Mallacaland, using the media to promote the NVP and also the royalist side. But that had just been a practice run. In Xiomera's Auria operation, the program was going to be fully activated.

Teams of Xiomeran "internet brigades", based in multiple locations, would begin posting misinformation and commentary concerning the Aurian coup, in a bid to influence the populaces of nations friendly to the former government to pressure their governments to stay out of the matter. Playing on peoples' reluctance to risk another war, or to sacrifice for a country hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The voices of domestic leaders who favored neutrality would be magnified, often without them even being aware of it. Paid commentators in foreign countries would also be encouraged to post online, early and often, to support the Cordonnier claim to the throne and to encourage their fellow citizens to take a neutral stance. Voices like Eirian Senator Steven Davis, angry at the pressure being applied by Queen Sophie's supporters, would also be magnified, to encourage resentment among those who might otherwise come to the Queen's rescue.

Where existing voices couldn't be magnified, new voices would be added to the wave of disinformation. Xiomerans who had studied and lived in countries like Eiria, Laeral and Lauchenoiria were also hitting social media hard, posing as everyday people opposed to intervention. They had the local and cultural knowledge, and the linguistic grasp, to make it convincing. They also had the power of the Xiomeran technocracy, which was adept at hiding and disguising the true origins of the media posts, behind them.

The IDU was about to see the single largest worldwide disinformation campaign in its history launched. Xiomera didn't want a war to accomplish its goals in Auria. But if the Xiomerans could convince people in other countries to force their governments to back down, they wouldn't need to fight one.

Hundreds of posts against intervention in Auria, some legitimately local and others manufactured in Xiomera with the usual Xiomeran precision, would begin appearing in countries around the IDU. Then, thousands.

It was a chorus of disinformation, a symphony of lies and fear. And Calhualyana was more than happy to be the conductor.

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#12

Inside the Aurian Parliament Complex, Lumiere
July 31st, 4:12 PM

Sarah Berenstein tapped her foot over and over again on the hardwood floors of the meeting room, glancing at her watch every few seconds. Where the hell are they? Do those idiots think that they can just leisurely make the government wait for them without consequences? She looked down at the folder full of paperwork on the meeting table. They're getting an amazing deal out of this. Why are they taking so long?

She looked around the meeting room, previously deemed the "Charles Room'' after King Charles I. It was painted Laurent Purple, much to Berenstein's disgust. We'll have to redo some of these rooms eventually. We can't have these relics of the past in the Parliament Building any longer.

A small number of guards entered the room, followed by a number of nervous men and women in suits, some carrying boxes. These were the finest jewelers Auria had to offer, and the ones that Berenstein had contracted to give the crown jewels an update. "Ah, finally. I take it you've completed the project? Or do I have to deliver some bad news to the future King?" She said, putting on an intimidating facade.

The jewelers looked amongst themselves, and one placed a large fabric box on the table. "I'm sorry it took so long, Madame." The man said with a strong Franco-Aurian accent. "Most of the crown jewels weren't in the vaults, and we can't import any jewels from Eiria like we normally would, so we had to make do with what we had. I hope it is to your satisfaction."

She wasted no time, delicately opening the box. Inside rested an old circular crown that had been polished to its original golden glint. Red and orange gems glinted in the light, with a rather large dark red gem in the front. She examined it carefully, almost scared to touch it. "Amazing. You've done well." She turned the crown a bit, examining each gem. "Out of curiosity, what gems are these?"

One of the women spoke up, clearing her throat. "The large core gem is a red spinel, the biggest red gem we had access to. The more vivid orange gems are orange sapphires, and the more faded ones are spessartite. Finally, the smallest red ones are from the Lisieux deposit, the only known source of rubies in Auria. We replaced the old gems as you asked, and we did manage to retrieve the diamonds, amethysts, and purple sapphires that were previously embedded."

"Very nice." Berenstein felt a rare bit of enthusiasm. These weeks had been stressful and mind-numbing, between dealing with the future King and trying to organize Auria's new government. It's nice to have some investment pay off for a change. "Now you've got me excited. Can I see the rest?" The jewelers looked amongst themselves again, sharing the same nervous expression.

Damn it. Just as quickly as it had come, Berenstein's joyous mood faded. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, with the expression of a tired parent having to scold a child. "You realize I'm the one who's going to have to break the news to him, right?" She sighed. "At least it wasn't the crown. I'm glad you got that in on time, although you did cut it close. The coronation's tomorrow, for the sake of the Angels." She gestured for the relieved jewelers to leave. "Get them done as soon as possible. No more excuses. If you have any problem getting them done, you'll explain that to the king, and he's much less patient than I am."

They wasted no time, quickly leaving the meeting room as fast as courtesy would allow. One of them placed a small box on the table. "We were able to make the spessartite cufflinks." Looking at Berenstein's unchanged expression, he quickly retreated with the rest of them, closing the door as he went.

Now alone in the meeting room, Berenstein turned her gaze back to the golden crown before her. My God. This has to be worth a fortune. She slowly closed the box and examined the cufflinks. Not bad. Maybe they aren't entirely incompetent. She sat down in one of the chairs, a small smile on her face. Everything's ready for tomorrow.

---

Aboard the EIS Triton, docked at Klavina Naval Base, Western Eiria
Four Hours Later

Chief Admiral Maria Circe stood at the bridge of the large Flagship EIS Triton, examining every detail carefully. Enlisted and lower officers buzzed by her, working hard to get the ship in top shape again. She had insisted on being present to inspect the ship as it was being repaired, not wanting to leave anything to chance. This is my final deployment before retirement, after all. Nothing can go wrong here.

She watched each blank monitor blink to life as the ship started coming to life again, ready for the morning's mission. [/i]Never thought I'd be in charge of blockading a whole damn country, with several other nations assisting. This will be fun.[/i] She took a step back, giving the bridge one last once-over before starting down the flight of stairs, leaving the ship in a hurry.

And as she gave the ship one final glance from the shore, she had only one thought in mind.

Everything's ready for tomorrow.

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#13

While the nations backing the deposed Queen and her government prepared to deploy their navies to blockade Auria, the Xiomeran Empire had not been sleeping. Within a day of the coup, Xiomeran cargo ships had been flowing steadily to Auria. The Xiomerans were dusting off an old ploy and renewing it for the current day.

During the Bjeorg conflict, Xiomeran mercenaries working for the Coytōchte Firm had helped Bjeorg. Since then, and much due to their successful performance in that fight, Coytōchte had morphed into the single biggest private security and defense outsourcing firm in the Empire. Now known as Coytōchte Security Services Corporation, or CSSC, the company had gobbled up dozens of smaller competitors in Xiomera's highly competitive marketplace. CSSC's executives, in their sales pitches to prospective clients, liked to say often that CSSC could bring more firepower to bear to a situation than the standing armies of some entire countries.

That was not an idle boast or marketing hyperbole. CSSC had actually pitched a scenario to the Xiomeran government, at one time, to stage an overthrow of the Milintican socialist regime. Their wargame scenarios had shown that CSSC could, in fact, have overwhelmed Milintica's defenses within a few weeks.

CSSC may have been a private army, but it was in lockstep with the Imperial government. CSSC mercenaries had fought alongside Imperial soldiers in the Xiomeran civil war. They were often trained by Imperial soldiers, and used the same weapons and munitions that the Imperial military used. If you couldn't send the real Imperial military somewhere, sending CSSC was the next best thing.

And while the democracies of the world had debated, discussed, dithered and voted to intervene in Auria, CSSC had been steadily deploying in Auria. And bringing presents for the Aurian regime, in the form of mass amounts of the finest Xiomeran weapons and munitions. And building up the defenses of the Aurians, just in case push came to shove. Those efforts had been steadily taken place as soon as the coup launched, but had been accelerated after the order of the Empress a week earlier to step things up. Calhualyana's annoyance at the trade deal between Laeral and Huenya was one reason for the big push. But simple intelligence was another. Xiomeran satellites and intelligence gathering had noted the increasing readiness of the Eirian Navy, along with the unexpected mobilization of naval forces in Lauchenoiria. They had also noted the thing that the Huenyans were calling a navy being brought online as well, but that was a minor consideration compared to the Eirian and Lauchenoirian actions. It was clear that the window to build up the new Aurian regime to resist any counter-revolution was rapidly closing. Xiomera would do everything it could to strengthen their new allies up until the very last second, when the naval blockade would slam the doors shut. The instructions given to the Imperial Navy, and CSSC, were to not attempt to break any blockade - for now. So, instead, in a reprise of the "Bjeorg Express", CSSC would run its "Aurian Express" until they couldn't any more.

CSSC was the iron fist of the Xiomeran Empire, clad in a lovely velvet glove of plausible deniability. Just like they had been in Bjeorg. And, if the goals of the Empire succeeded, CSSC would ensure that Xiomera's play in Auria would remain strong as iron.

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#14

Aurus Palace Front Steps, Lumiere
August 1st, 9:57 AM

The crowds of silent masses gathered in the gardens near the front entrance of the Aurus Palace, under the watchful eye of soldiers in crisp uniforms of black and red. The front lawn, usually vacant, was filled with spectators, most nervously looking at the large numbers of soldiers. Those uniforms had become common throughout Lumiere in the past weeks, giving the formerly disorganized mobs a more organized look. They even were given an official name: Peacekeepers. They patrolled every street and alley in the city, not hesitating to act if someone was deemed suspicious or disrespectful.

Their reputation is the only thing that kept the masses of people in the gardens, silently waiting for something, anything, to let them out back to their homes. A few were more interested than nervous, curious to see what, or who, would be unveiled. The city hadn't had official leadership for weeks, and all the news would say is that an announcement would be made in the coming days. No one knew who was in charge, or what was happening outside of the metropolis.

A loud, booming voice came from a speaker by the doors to the Palace. "Presenting, Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier, Baron of Cordonnier!" The doors swung open, revealing the baron in a dark maroon suit. Spots of nervous applause filled the awkward silence as he entered. More shouts and loud cheering came from a few soldiers and a group of people in neon orange, some still bearing the "Lapointe Lies" slogan.

"Thank you, all." Lapointe gestured his hands, and the applause died down. "These past few weeks have been strenuous, for all of us. The ruins of our oppressors have served as significant obstacles for us, and certain ghosts of dead leaders have haunted our cause. We have not been deterred. Their age of ineffective governance is over. They shall not affect us further."

"We have an opportunity for a new Auria. A strong Auria. One that will bring back relevance and pride to our beloved country. We will not be another backwater country in Caxcana any longer! Our dignity, our pride, has been beaten down by the world. Foreign powers have exploited our political weakness for far too long. The weak purple flame of the old Aurian crown has been extinguished. Our brilliant Red and Orange flame shall burn for ages to come!"

With that, he gestured back to the doors. A Unitist Priest, in a red cassock instead of the usual blue, carried a glinting golden crown into the morning sunlight. He, somewhat reluctantly, placed the glinting crown on Cordonnier's head, retreating afterwards. The new King raised his hands in the air, looking straight at the press cameras broadcasting to millions of televisions. "My friends, today, our red dawn has shone its light all over Auria! Our new future begins today![/i]

---

Somewhere in the southern Nereus Sea, Aboard the EIS Triton

Admiral Maria Circe stood on the top deck of her grand flagship, feeling wave after wave of dense sea air hit her face. A few lines of clouds had set in, blocking the normally sweltering temperatures from becoming unbearable. She breathed in the humid, salty air, concentrating on the horizon. [/i]Somewhere over there, people are being oppressed, and killed. And all we can do is deny them resources.[/i]

A Lieutenant walked the tight walkway to approach the Admiral, coming to a salute. "Admiral, the captains are asking for confirmation of their orders. Would you like to respond?"

The Admiral gave a small head shake. "Tell them to form patrol lines as soon as they can. Make sure they hold off on cementing patrol routes, as we have reinforcements coming. Tell them to alert me if they see anything, and I mean anything." The Lieutenant gave a small nod and hurried back inside, leaving the Admiral to her thoughts. Normally she would give the order herself, but something had been bothering her.

The sun was… wrong. The haze and cloud layer had given the sun an interesting orange and red tint, as if someone had spilt red and yellow paint across a blue canvas. The sun itself was a vivid red, sending waves of unease through the otherwise stoic Admiral. I don't care where you come from or what you believe.

A blood red sun is never a good sign.

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#15

Tenebric Ocean
Southeast of the Netlcoātl Islands

Xoxay, the captain of the Imperial Far Trader II, was cautiously optimistic.

He was leading a small convoy of Xiomeran merchant marine ships on their scheduled run to Auria, and they had just left the port at Citlamina. For all of their ranting about Xiomeran oppressors, Xoxay mused, the islanders had still been quick enough to take their quetzals in exchange for docking, ship maintenance and refueling. The port at Citlamina had been an excellent waystation on their runs to Auria. Up to now, those runs had been unhindered, despite the babbling about a blockade by some self-righteous countries. Xoxay was hoping for the same on this run, but there had been reports that Huenyan ships had been sighted to the south. He would proceed on his route, and keep his fingers crossed.

---

About an hour south, in the Nereus Sea, a small number of Huenyan ships was indeed waiting. They had been termed a task force, to hide the fact that they represented the majority of the ships the Huenyan navy could actually put to sea at the moment.

Admiral Techilō, formerly of the Xiomeran Imperial Navy prior to her joining the other side during the war, was not accustomed to lacking anything at all. Huenya's new navy, compared to her former service, was perpetually short of just about everything - ships, fuel, weapons, ammo, supplies. The supply crunch was beginning to lift slowly, thanks to the kick in the pants that Huenyan rebuilding had received from Laeral. But it was still painful.

The Admiral, however, could take comfort and pride in the ships under her command. Aboard her battleship, the Temakixtiani (Liberator), she was able to see her task force arrayed around her in a standing position. The blue, white and gold Huenyan flag flying on each of the ships snapped proudly in the wind. The ships looked to be in top condition, thanks to a recent refitting at an Eirian port prior to their taking up position. Looking at the task force, one wouldn't have known that they represented a newly emerging democracy taking its first precarious steps into the world. They were as ready as they could be for what might be coming.

They wouldn't have long to wait. The Admiral's musing was interrupted by an urgent shout from the rear of the bridge. "Admiral, there is a set of vessels approaching. Thirty minutes out from our position and moving south. Their AIS data identifies them as Imperial merchant marine vessels. They are on course for Auria."

Techilō quickly reset her thoughts to potential combat mode. "Any sign of Imperial Navy ships?"

"No, Admiral. They appear to be unescorted at this time. No sign of Imperial subs either."

"Sound general quarters. Prepare to intercept incoming vessels," the Admiral ordered. With her command, the crews aboard her ships sprang into action. Klaxons began to sound aboard each ship, and crewmembers began rushing to battle stations. Techilō drummed the arm of her command chair with her right fingers impatiently.

Soon enough, they could see the incoming vessels on the horizon. Imperial cargo and transport ships. Techilō knew that the ships were likely armed. While they had nothing aboard that could stand up to a military vessel, things could still get ugly fast if the merchant ships decided to try to force their way through. Techilō decided that warning them off would be smarter than trying to board or intercept them. "Raise the lead ship," she ordered. She was handed a transmitter. "Approaching vessels, this is Admiral Techilō, commanding Task Force One of the Huenyan Federation Navy. We are enforcing the blockade on ships traveling to Auria, as part of the Lapointe Agreement. Stop your approach and turn around."

Upon receiving the transmission, Xoxay snorted and ordered someone to hand him a transmitter of his own. "Admiral Techilō, this is Xoxay, captain of the Imperial Far Trader II, leading Convoy 1165 on behalf of the Xiomeran Overseas Shipping Consortium. We are a designated trade convoy of civilian vessels traveling in international waters and practicing international commerce. We do not recognize your authority to interfere with our right to do so. Move your vessels aside."

Techilō looked at her transmitter, a stunned look on her face. "Let's try this again, Captain. We are enforcing an internationally agreed upon blockade on behalf of the legitimate government of Auria. You may not pass through. Turn your ships around or you will be boarded."

On his own ship, Xoxay's face turned red. "Admiral, let me try this again. I do not recognize your title, your navy, or even your fake country. Therefore, I certainly do not recognize your authority to order us not to proceed to our destination. And we will do so."

"I see," Techilō replied calmly. She turned to her XO. "Fire a warning shot across their bow."

"Admiral?" the XO said, surprised. Techilō repeated her order, one eyebrow raised. Her order was quickly relayed to the gunners manning the front turrets of the big battleship.

Xoxay leaned back in his chair, his confidence nowhere near as high as his bluffing remarks to Techilō had been. He was hoping the Huenyans would back down.

A sudden echoing boom caused Xoxay to almost fall out of his chair. The big guns of the Temakixtiani had fired, sending a giant plume of water cascading into the air in front of Xoxay's ship. As the merchant captain watched the water rain down on his bridge windows, the Admiral's voice came across the radio again. "You may not recognize me, or my command, or my authority, but I am confident that you recognize that the guns on my ship are very much real," Techilō said coldly. "Turn around or your ships will be boarded and seized. This is your last warning."

Xoxay shakily grabbed for the transmitter. "You fired at civilian vessels! Are you insane?"

"It was clearly a warning shot, don't be such a baby," Techilō said calmly. "If I had wanted to hit you, you'd be gone. Now, are you going to turn around, or are you going to make this unnecessarily messy?"

"This is not over," Xoxay grated. "When we get back to Huitzitaca, we will inform the Imperial authorities of your outrageous actions. You will regret this."

After several long and nerve-wracking moments, the convoy began to turn around. Techilō sighed, unclenching her hand from the railing. That's one convoy. How many more will they be? And how long before the Imperial Navy decides to escort them?

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#16

Outside the Aurian Parliament Complex, Lumiere
August 10th, 7:02 PM

First Minister Sarah Berenstein walked down the short steps of the Aurian Parliament Complex, a crowd of aides and Councillors behind her. It had only been the second official meeting of the Citizen's Council, and many seats on the Council were vacant, but she felt relieved. The positions she had created and filled were working as planned. One step closer to Auria's salvation.She glanced upwards to a streetlight, a banner with King Andrew's glaring face on it quickly ruining her mood. Well, maybe not salvation… Rebirth maybe?

She tapped her foot, looking up and down the street. Where are all of the drivers? Or buses? Did they just decide not to pick us up today? Similar questions were being shared in whispers between the other government staff, occasionally glancing over to her for guidance. "They should be here any moment. My guess is traffic." She reassured her staff, glancing at her phone. Come on, don't make me look like a fool.

A regular silver sedan started up the street, making her sigh. Just another commuter. Damn it. She considered calling her driver, or the manager of the chauffeur service that Lautrec had hired to service government officials. I hope there's a halfway decent explanation for this. Or, at least, an entertaining excuse. She watched the sedan begin to slow down. Huh, maybe this is a driver after all. She noticed the passenger window was down, and someone's arm hung outside the window.

The unmistakable booms of gunshots rang out, and she felt something whiz over her shoulder. Holy Shit! She was promptly tackled by a security guard as more shots echoed off of the building. She quickly covered her head with her arms, not daring to open her eyes to see what was happening. Please, God, Angels, Anyone. Let me get out of here alive.

Slowly, the shots settled down, and the guard stood in front of her, letting her stand and look around. The silver sedan was riddled with bullet holes, and had spun out in the middle of the road. The driver was undoubtedly dead, and the passenger was being chased down by a hoard of security guards. Berenstein started to walk inside, only to be stopped by a security guard. "Atteniet." He said, grabbing her arm firmly.

Wait?! Wait for what?! "Kāois attenamansa? Kuois attenamansa pōr?" She asked angrily, looking around wildly for any other threats. A group of guards had caught the injured passenger, and the driver was still motionless. A few of her aides and guards were lying on the steps, injured or worse. She waited a few moments, each one feeling like an eternity. She repeated herself. "Kuois attenamansa pōr?"

A heavily armored car peeled around the corner, coming to a stop right before them. Two guards, armed to their teeth, sat in the front seat. "First Minister, quickly." Berenstein hesitated for a moment, before climbing in the back, closing the door as fast as she could.

The car sped away, causing her to brace on the seat in front of her. She felt her pulse in her neck, trying to get it to slow down. Breathe, Breathe. You're not in danger anymore. You're safe. This did little to slow her pulse or calm her mood, and she leaned away from the windows, afraid that they too would explode from gunshots. Her mind raced, asking the question her guards were: What the hell just happened?!

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#17

After the incident with the Huenyan task force, the Xiomerans decided on a new strategy. This was the result of a rather intense debate between the Xiomeran General Staff and IIA. The General Staff, outraged at the insult to Xiomeran honor, wanted to have the Imperial Navy begin escorting Xiomeran merchant shipping and simply blow any ship that tried to block them from Auria out of the water. Imperial Intelligence, realizing how incredibly stupid an idea that was, argued very vociferously with the generals against that idea. This debate went on for hours until the Empress finally grew tired of it, told them all to shut up, and then told them what to do.

This was the genesis of IIA's new bright idea on how to counter the blockade - Operation Cuauhmayoh. Taking its name from the Huenyan word for "branches", the operation was simple enough in theory. It would prove to be nowhere as simple to defeat or block in practice.

Xiomera had one of the largest merchant marine fleets in the world. This was due to its legacy as a major industrial and trading power, and also due to its location extremely far away from most trading partners. You needed ships to get products to ports, and Xiomera had them in abundance. The operation to supply Auria would thus sprout branches. Xiomeran merchant ships, in large numbers, would continue to challenge the blockade, but not breach it. This was the first branch - a feint to distract the Eirian, Lauchenoirian and Huenyan navies and catch them off guard. Many of these ships wouldn't even be carrying cargo, to avoid the risk of losing it.

The second branch involved Xiomeran merchant shipping as well, but these ships were actually carrying cargo. Xiomeran merchant ships would travel existing trade routes southeast, skirting well away from Manauia Island and Eiria. Once far enough southeast to avoid easy detection, they would then abruptly shift course southwest, around Ponoxian.

Other Xiomeran merchant shipping would travel well-known trade routes around the north and west of Caxcana. Both routes would end with the same destination - the Gulf of Yukoni, and the wastelands between Ponoxian and Sunemia. A third branch, this one an airlift from the Xiomeran colony on Antepec Island, would have the wastelands to the north of Auria as its destination.

The goal of the many branches was to distract, diminish and defeat the blockade by making it necessary to police every square inch of ocean around Caxcana. Calhualyana was betting that Eiria, Huenya and Lauchenoiria wouldn't want to shift so many ships into blockade duty, at the risk of weakening their own defenses. And even if they did, given the amount of territory that had to be covered, some gaps were inevitable. As she had promised Alice Lancaster, Xiomera would get its precious cargo through one way or another.

While Xiomeran merchant shipping running the first branch would do their best to run the blockading navies ragged with false alarms and constant challenges, the other branches would be enacting the second phase of the operation - unloading cargo and trucking it overland to Auria. These convoys would be escorted by CSSC all the way to the Aurian border. And for any random bandits who thought the Xiomeran convoys would be easy pickings, there would be a sharp response waiting for them.

---

On this particular day, a group of CSSC mercenaries were escorting a convoy to Auria from a recent drop. It was a long run, through less-than-settled places. Much of this area bore scars from the Great War, as well as their own internal strife. Warlords controlled many of these places with teams of bandits, and it was considered unwise to travel here.

Tazina, a CSSC captain, was commanding a group of mercenaries known as Silver Company. Atop his command APC, he scanned the landscape around him diligently. His second in command, Coyolalpan, did the same. As the group neared a rise in the road, both men noticed a set of cliffs and rocky outcroppings at the top. "Thought I saw movement up there," Coyolalpan said quietly. Tazina nodded. "And isn't that a pretty place to spring an ambush from," he murmured. "These guys really need to come up with some new tricks. Not to mention some battlefield discipline."

Coyolalpan snorted. "They're brigands, no better than common thieves. It's a foreign concept to them."

"Well, I believe in educating those in need," Tazina said. "Have some of the men fall back when the enemy attack starts, as if they're running away. Then, have them circle back when the idiots come out of the rocks to chase them."

Coyolalpan nodded, quickly issuing orders into his radio.

---

As the Xiomeran convoy rolled into the pass, as Tazina had expected, a group of bandits began firing on them. His group played their act to the hilt - acting confused, disordered and frightened, firing randomly and hiding before a group of them bolted for the exit. As the bandits boiled out of their hiding places and came down into the pass to chase the "retreating" mercenaries, the Xiomerans' demeanor suddenly shifted. Fear was replaced by discipline, randomness by well-honed and practiced battle order. The bandits soon found themselves completely out of their cover, and caught in the middle between the previously "retreating" Xiomerans and their colleagues on the other side of the pass.

As the battle unfolded, Coyolalpan looked at Tazina. "Do you want to accept any surrenders?"

"I want to send a message," Tazina replied. "Accept one surrender. The rest of these thieves - wipe them out, and then leave them where they fall. Bring the one that is spared to me once this farce is over."

Within a few minutes, the CSSC mercenaries had efficiently and coldly eliminated the entire bandit party. One surviving bandit was dragged to Tazina and Coyolalpan, plastic handcuffs around his wrists. "Where is your base?" Tazina demanded.

"I will tell you nothing," the bandit replied in guttural but understandable English. Tazina sighed. "Let's be clear about something. I let you live for a reason. You have a use to me. If you choose to not be useful, I don't need you." The mercenary captain took out his sidearm, placing the barrel on the man's forehead. "Where is your base?" Tazina demanded again, each word uttered slowly and with intent. Coyolalpan slapped a GPS device in front of the bandit. Sighing, the bandit pointed to a location on the screen.

"Have a squad keep this prisoner here. The rest of you, we're eliminating that base."

"More message sending?" Coyolalpan said drily. Tazina nodded.

---

The battle at the bandits' base was not quite as quick as the farce at the pass, but it was close. The bandits were perfectly good enough at bullying unarmed passers-by and stealing their property. But facing a highly trained and heavily armed opponent was entirely outside their wheelhouse. Most of them chose to ran, rather than try to go toe-to-toe with the CSSC mercs. The bodies of those that didn't would be part of Tazina's message: let us pass unhindered, or else.

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#18

Côte-Verte, Southwestern Auria
September 2nd, 2021, 10:05 PM

The small bar near the Port in Côte-Verte was nothing special from the outside, a small storefront of old brick and stone blending in with the rest of the slow port town. A mild storm rapped on the windows of the almost-empty bar, drowning out the light Aurian pop music playing in the background. And near the back, in a dark corner, five soldiers sat in uniform, getting slowly drunk.

"This has got to be the worst assignment ever." Corporal Lauris Kalnins, infamous stater of the obvious, sipped a drink while looking towards the window with distaste. "What did we do to deserve getting put here? Did any of you piss off some upper officer or something?"

Private Quentin Bachelot, the widely known hothead of the group, gritted his teeth. "Those assholes sure deserve a good telling off. They talk all about the traitors of the last government, damn hypocrites. Don't get me wrong, the last government was horrendous. But at least it was a damn government. God, I wish I was stationed in Lumiere so I can punch whoever came up with those 'Military Mantras'. Those are so annoying."

Two more Corporals, Lucas Silvain and Anastasija Liepina, watched Bachelot with a mix of agreement and amusement. "Oh, really, Quentin? You wouldn't step a toe out of line, and you know it. Confronting the heads of the new 'United National Force' would be way out of character for you." As Bachelot started to protest, Liepina elbowed him.

"That wasn't a challenge, you know. Not everything directed at you is a challenge." She sipped a glass of Spēce before continuing. "But, even though your tough talk is BS, you're not wrong on the other points, loathe as I am to admit it. This situation is horrible, and it keeps getting worse. The executions of everyone who steps a toe out of line, the mobs of Orangecoats taking and destroying what they please… Auria isn't the same anymore."

After that statement, all four of them looked at the fifth soldier at the table, waiting for a reaction. Major Julien Dauchez, the only officer in their small drinking group. He was more of a somber leader, articulate and laconic. Every order and direction from him had always been short and succinct, every word thought over carefully.

After a seemingly long time, Dauchez finally spoke up. "Fifteen years in the Aurian Army, and I've never seen anything like this. We never expected anything remotely like this. They ordered us to stand by while they executed our government, and we just… obeyed. We obeyed as they destroyed everything we were supposed to be loyal to. And for what? They've taken Auria for themselves now. And we just let it happen. What kind of soldiers are we?"

That somber note brought the whole group into a depressive silence for several minutes. The sound of raindrops hitting the window provided a nice replacement for discussion as each soldier sipped their drinks.

Silvain looked over the table at the bored bartender, lowering his voice as he broke the long silence. "Not everything is lost. Our government still exists. They may be in Eiria, but they are at least alive. The navy is free with them. And they have allies." He paused, making sure no one heard them talking. "But they likely won't stage an invasion of Auria. Not on their own."

Kalnins looked at him with a slightly incredulous expression. "Are you suggesting that we help them? How?! We are five people. Five bloody people against thousands, plus the mobs and gangs."

Dauchez cleared his throat. "We are much more than five people. We are five people with the means and motive to cause those traitors a hell of a lot of trouble. We could recruit thousands of like-minded soldiers and rebels, because, let's face it, they're out there. We aren't alone in this."

He finished his drink and stood, placing a Mera note on the table. "Let's get to work."

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#19

Outside Desmarais Royal Logistical Base, Western Auria
November 17, 2021, 11:42 AM

Pierre Faucher watched carefully through the open car window as the orange-suited security guard read his new ID. Faucher's entry pass sat in the guard's other hand, identifying Faucher as "Special Operative Roger Boyer". Please don't call command. Please don't call command. Faucher silently prayed, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. The guard glanced up at him momentarily, before handing back his documents. “Poivers entret, Kuren. Lienav as Desmarais.” You may enter, sir. Welcome to Desmarais.

Faucher breathed a long sigh of relief as the guard waved him through, driving his car slowly through the tight winding roads inside the base complex. The base outside Desmarais was used for weapon and provisions storage, and was the nerve center for the military contingent in Western Auria. The number of local troops stationed at Desmarais had greatly increased over the past two months, as uprisings and protests enveloped the country. They think that conscripting more people to put down riots is going to do anything about the food shortages or public unrest. Sheer incompetence. Faucher glanced over to the forged ID documents on the passenger seat, biting his lip. Why the hell did I agree to this again? This is practically suicide.

He looked up through the windshield, seeing a group of Garda Nationals in orange policing uniforms march past his car, barely sparing a glance at him. Focus. You can do this. Quickly, in and out. He noted the largest building in the complex, a wide rectangular building made out of fading brick. The Arms Warehouse. Perfect. He pulled his car over right next to the building and unlatched his seatbelt, turning his car off, but leaving the key in the ignition. He glanced over to the passenger seat as he stepped out of the vehicle and grabbed the two ID documents. Just in case.

He shut his car door gingerly and immediately started at a fast walking pace away from the building, moving carefully to not attract unnecessary attention. He followed a winding maze of pathways throughout the complex, passing company after company of conscripted police soldiers. His heart raced as each one passed, feeling as if the forged documents were almost burning a hole through his coat.

He noticed the guard post up ahead, almost on the exact opposite side of the base that he had left his car on. Two guards kept watch over the barrier, looking out down the road for any potential threats. Well, it’s now or never. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed a long number, sighing for a moment before pressing the “call’ button.

The noise was immediate and deafening. A loud explosion echoed throughout the area, sending a dark cloud of debris into the air. The two guards were running in his direction, staring at the large cloud behind him. Faucher looked at his phone for a moment, before mentally smacking himself. Idiot. Look at the explosion. He turned on his heel, acting dumbfounded as the two guards quickly ran past him, rounding the nearest corner out of sight.
Faucher took one last look over his shoulder, before sprinting for the unguarded exit, quickly vaulting over the barrier and running for the nearby woods. He didn’t dare pause to look back. The sounds and smells of chaos and carnage caused him to run further into the woods, running alongside the winding road.

Towards salvation.

---
Aurian Royal Palace, Lumiere
1:17 PM

“This is absurd! You can’t even keep your own soldiers safe!” First Minister Sarah Berenstein shouted at the four assembled members of the Aurian High Cabinet, her tone leaving little room for debate. She was the only one standing, making her statement exponentially more intimidating. “Auria is in disarray, our rations are running dangerously thin, and we’ve still got several nations’ armadas parked on our doorstep! I can’t believe none of you are panicked by this. Our soldiers are dying, our people are rebelling, and you don’t care!”

She closed her eyes and sighed, her fiery temper fading to a passionate irritation. She turned to General Michelin, seeming almost apologetic. “I’m sorry for yelling. Out of everyone here, you are currently doing the most to help this crisis. My anger was not intended towards you, but to this… Situation.” She casually ran her hand through her hair, turning to Jonothan Gerand, the new Minister of Information. “You. You are doing fairly well with your broadcasts. That being said, every broadcast I’ve seen kept mentioning the resource situation over and over. I get that you want to address it, however that’s only going to irritate the people more. And you don’t need me to tell you that that’s not what we need right now.”

She turned her gaze to Scott Lautrec, who was absentmindedly staring at his nails. “Now, you. You threw a huge party for your ‘business partners’, and then let the public know about it! How is that smart, in any way?! We are in the middle of severe food rationing, and you threw an expensive, grandiose party after letting the public know!” Scott opened his mouth to try to protest, but Berenstein shook her head. “Save your breath for actually trying to fix the mess you’ve made.”

She paused, glancing at the final person at the table. King Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier stared at her, waiting for a rebuke. Almost taunting her with a spiteful smile. She blinked, silently speaking to himself. Control your tongue, Sarah. Don’t give him the satisfaction. “Well?” He asked, adjusting one of his orange gem cufflinks. “Any advice for me?”

She sat down without a word, the intensity of her glare making her opinion clear. The king’s smile widened. Bastard. “Thank you for that enlightening speech, Madame Berenstein. I believe we can take your kind words and advice to heart.” He stood, gesturing at Michelin. “Dispatch every local Garda contingent out into major populated zones. Declare official martial law, with a curfew of eight o’clock. Anyone outside at those times is to be arrested and taken to questioning. Anyone who resists is to be shot. Is that clear?”

Michelin nodded, silently standing and leaving the meeting room. The King nodded at Lautrec, and the Minister of the Economy followed suit. Cordonnier turned his attention to Berenstein, who was still seated at the other side of the table. “Ensure that all government workers are loyal to the Kingdom. We wouldn’t want any disloyal ideas to sprout high up in our ranks.” She gave a short bow of her head, pushing in her chair as she left. He seemed to wait for her to leave, turning his body towards Gerand, the last seated Minister at the table. He wants to talk to Jonothan alone? As she closed the door, her mind was racing with curiosity.

What could he be planning?

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#20

(Joint post with Eiria)

Office of the Golden Chamber, Palace of Flowers

The Attendant to the Empress hastily looked up a link, then started a video call for her mistress. Calhualyana had read a full report on the explosion at the warehouse in Desmarais, and was icily sitting at her royal desk waiting. The Attendant knew better than to keep the Empress waiting in such a mood. When the line connected to the office of Sarah Berenstein, the Attendant stated that the Empress wished to speak with all three Aurian coup leaders. Urgently.

Berenstein wasted no time, quickly calling the King and General Michelin. She thought about inviting Lautrec and Gerand, but decided against it. Gerand is already busy with some task for Cordonnier, and Lautrec would only piss people off. We really don't need that. She put on a diplomatic smile as the two gentlemen joined the meeting, waiting for the empress to join as well.

When the other three joined the meeting, Calhualyana also adopted a diplomatic smile. There was nothing else jovial about her expression, however. One look at her eyes made that clear. “Good morning. Thank you all for taking the time to speak with me. I know you must all be very busy at the moment,” the Empress began.

The Aurians nodded, their nervousness palpable. Berenstein spoke first, earning a glare from the King. "Given the growing wall of papers on my desk, I would say we are quite busy. No matter. How may we be of assistance?" She attempted to seem relieved and joking, but the feeling didn't meet her eyes. I don't think this'll end well...

"I was contacting all of you to discuss the security situation in Auria at the moment, and how we might proceed from here to stabilize the situation. The recent incident in Desmarais has raised concerns among my council, as well as our General Staff and our intelligence community. It appears indicative of a deteriorating relationship between your government and the people. CSSC has begun moving its forces into the cities, as you are no doubt aware, to assist with maintaining order. But it seems prudent to discuss what your plans are for a more permanent solution,” Calhualyana said.

King Andrew took over, a sense of regality present in his speech. "Ah, of course. And as you are no doubt aware, our Garda Nacōnals recruiting programs have greatly increased our forces. Our imposed curfews should greatly reduce any potential domestic unrest, and with our expanded forces, such curfews should be easily enforceable. However..." He spoke quickly, seeming to segue from one topic to another in a single heartbeat. "My more immediate concern is the blockade of our shores, and our current resource scarcity. And without a navy at my disposal, I must request help from you, our faithful ally. We require your help, your majesty."

Calhualyana kept the smile on her face, all the while wondering just what kind of styrofoam or paper was occupying King Andrew’s cranium in place of a brain. “Xiomera will be happy to increase the amount of goods and resources we provide to Auria, through the supply runs we are currently performing to avoid the blockade. We can also assist with increasing domestic production. But challenging the blockade at this time will certainly lead to war - a war that Auria is not capable of winning. We are pleased to be your….ally,” the Empress said, letting the slight hesitation make it clear exactly what she considered the relationship to be. “But challenging the blockade at this time would be against both my own assessment of the situation, and that of my advisors.”

Cordonnier kept his salesman smile on, adjusting his suit for the camera. "Ah, of course. My apologies, I may have misphrased things. I did not mean to overexaggerate the strength of the Xiomeran navy, or imply that your advisors would have recommended such a brazen course of action. And we will happily receive any additional resources you can generously provide for Auria. The CSSC forces have already been invaluable to our security efforts. You are a gracious ally, that's for certain."

Calhualyana nodded politely in response. "I am glad you feel that way," she said, choosing to let the King's remark about the strength of the Imperial Navy slide. "We also believe that we need closer coordination between our governments as to how we respond to the spikes of unrest taking place. My advisors and I believe that an approach that relies solely on increased security and detention of your citizens will prove counter-productive. It is essential that you also consider ways to win your people over to your side. One way we believe you should consider is to turn their attention away from the internal issues of supply and demand in Auria right now, and turn their attention instead to who is causing those issues. Right now, they blame you. But you should instead work to shift their blame to Eiria, Lauchenoiria and Milintica - the meddling outsiders who have chosen to deprive your people. You cannot arrest your way out of this crisis alone. But giving people an enemy to focus on, and showing them they are engaged in a great struggle for independence from such foreign meddling - that is something that you should implement as soon as possible."

The Empress knew very well how effective such a strategy could be - she had used that exact strategy to very good effect to gain power in Xiomera, after all.

"Agreed. We employed a similar strategy to liberate Auria in the first place. Public perception is an awfully sharp weapon." The King had a strong glint in his eye, and he seemed to defer the floor to his fellow Aurians. Sarah picked up the conversation. "We have our Minister of Information, Jonothan Gerand, working very hard to control our public broadcasts. He's very popular, and a very popular media celebrity. He's an indisposable asset, especially during these stressful times."

"Excellent. You may want to consider offering loyal citizens incentives for their support, as we do. The carrot is often more productive than the stick," Cahualyana replied. "As for security.....the recent destruction of our donated equipment and supplies in Desmarais is unfortunate. Perhaps you, or General Michelin, could enlighten me as to what measures are being undertaken to ensure such an event does not occur again."

Michelin, who had been mostly silent until this point, cleared his throat. "Our security around our military bases has been doubled, with posts at gateways being manned by more senior, experienced soldiers. Officers have been distributed to each new Garda company, and each group's loyalty is carefully monitored. We are working on getting some better forms of secure identification, so any person attempting to disguise as a soldier could be found out quickly. Currently, the protection of our weapons is our first priority. We cannot afford to lose more of our resources."

"I would be inclined to agree," Calhualyana replied. "We have no problem with supplying those resources, but would prefer not to see them wasted. We believe it prudent that CSSC forces begin supplementing your security forces, both at military installations and checkpoints, and at key government facilities. As a precautionary measure, of course."

In truth, CSSC had already begun doing that in the wake of Desmarais, but Calhualyana wanted to make it official. Her tone of voice and phrasing also made it clear that, for her, this was not a request.

"Of course. We look forward to working further with them." The General said, appearing neutral on demeanor. Berenstein also attempted to maintain her expression, but that last "recommendation" had her slightly unnerved. "Anyways, I was slightly concerned about our enemies organizing their forces into a singular military. Now they pose a unified threat, or at least, more of a unified threat."

"Perhaps, but they are only unified to a point. Lauchenoiria is still a feeble state at best, and it is well-known that they have issues with Milintica," the Empress said. She thought back to the confrontation between Neina Arana and Sandra Pavia at the IWC, and allowed herself a soft chuckle. "The longer this drags out, the harder impoverished states such as Lauchenoiria and Milintica will find it to sustain a blockade. I am confident that the Empire's endurance is greater than theirs, we just have to stay the course and wait them out. I am also quite confident that we can find ways to exploit the tense relationship between the Lauchenoirians and the Milinticans to degrade the effectiveness of their blockade. As for the CU....it is a concern, but if we unify our own forces more closely, I believe we can meet that challenge. This is why....cooperation....will be essential between us."

Alarm bells were ringing in Berenstein's head. What have I done? Inviting Xiomera was partially my idea. Did I help sell Auria to foreign imperialists? She could tell that the General was similarly concerned, however his Military discipline kept his feelings concealed. "Exploiting tense relationships is also a good idea. I'd never thought I'd say this, but having Milintica in the coalition does make things a bit easier. At least, when starting arguments. Ideological arguments are practically gasoline." She gave a small smile at that, trying to joke at the hot mess that politics is.

"They certainly are. And I am sure Imperial Intelligence can use that gasoline to set a few fires for their little alliance to deal with,” the Empress said with another soft laugh. “In any event, CSSC will begin helping you secure your important facilities and will also assist with implementing an instant ID system using Xiomeran technology. It may also be prudent to let CSSC establish some permanent bases in western Auria, so that we can begin supply flights directly into Auria and bypass the silly naval blockade altogether.” Calhualyana said that last bit with a tone of finality, as if it was already agreed.

"Of course. We will make the appropriate preparations." The King nodded his thanks. "You are truly a gracious ally. I hope we can work together further without the 'CU' intervening, for the betterment of both of our great nations."

"I am confident that we can, and look forward to it,” Calhualyana replied. “That is all I had to discuss, is there anything that any of you would like to add?”

"I don't believe so. Thank you for your time. And congratulations on your marriage." King Andrew sounded sincere, ditching the cheerful PR tone he had used before. "Finding love is such a hard thing, and I'm glad that you have been able to find your match in life."

The Empress smiled in response. “Thank you very much for that. It is a hard thing to find sometimes, especially for people in our position. I am indeed fortunate.” Calhualyana smiled more broadly. “Thank you all again for taking time to speak with me. If you need anything urgently, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

When the call ended, the Empress thought a moment, then dialed up another call. Soon, her Defense Minister appeared on the screen. “Make sure CSSC gets those temporary airfields in western Auria set up as quickly as possible. We need to open up another supply route immediately.”

As the call wrapped up, Berenstein was halfway tempted to make another call with just the Aurian leaders, to discuss how risky this situation was getting. But seeing how obedient the King was had her hesitant. I don't like this, but he might not mind it. If I bring it up, I might become a threat to him, at least in his eyes.

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#21

December 14th

Despite the fears of Berenstein and Michelin, they need not have worried. Calhualyana wasn't planning to outright take over Auria. The current arrangement was too beneficial for Xiomera.

In the weeks after the conversation she had with the Aurian coup leaders, the Empress had ordered the next phase of the Xiomeran operation in Auria to begin. The first phase had been about getting as many mercenaries into the country as possible, along with as much supplies and weapons as possible, before any intervention took place. The next phase would continue to try to funnel mercenaries and supplies into Auria, evading the blockade. But the next phase would be more about entrenchment.

CSSC mercenaries were now taking up a major presence in Aurian cities, helping the Aurian soldiers and police guard key installations and setting up security checkpoints. Military, government and security installations were being hardened. CSSC techs were helping implement new identification protocols, linked to a central database. This was the practical side of the next phase.

The more intangible side of the next phase was aimed at convincing the Aurian people that the Xiomerans were there to help them, and that the difficult situation in the country was not the fault of the new government. Assisting Gerand in his efforts, propaganda messages soon began circulating throughout social media, television and radio aiming blame squarely at the coalition backing Queen Sophie and denouncing her as the queen who had "abandoned" Auria. Similar propaganda messages began appearing around Aurian cities and the countryside, on everything from pamphlets and wall posters to billboards. The goal was to convince Aurians that it was the nations behind the blockade, and the Queen, who were to blame for their current struggles. A secondary goal was to convince Aurians that Xiomera was their friend, and was trying to help them, through the same propaganda campaign.

The propaganda campaign wasn't only being waged with messages, however. As CSSC built temporary airfields in western Auria, relief flights began streaming in to bring urgently needed goods and basic supplies for the Aurian citizens. While the coalition supporting the Queen had implemented a naval blockade, they had never implemented a no-fly zone. This was an error the Xiomerans were more than happy to exploit, as it lessened the burden on their merchant marine trying to evade the blockade. Relief flights bringing food and goods "donated by the Xiomeran people" were now being distributed throughout the country. If those flights also happened to bring in more men with guns, well, that was just extra cargo.

The ultimate goal of the "words and food" campaign was simple: make the coalition the bad guys, and the Xiomerans the benevolent, friendly neighbors just trying to help Auria out in the face of foreign meddling that was hurting everyday Aurians. If the naval blockade was tightened up, and the relief flights forced to stop, that still served the Xiomerans' purpose. They were already ready to roll out new propaganda blaming the Eirians, Lauchenoirians and Milinticans for the suffering that would result if supplies could no longer get through from Xiomera.

And if everything else failed, and it came to force, CSSC had been given months to prepare defenses. Air and ground defenses of a scale never before seen in Auria were now in place, and more were being constructed every single day. If those backing the Queen did decide to force the issue, they would have quite the welcome waiting for them.

Of course, none of this was free. Xiomera was getting its repayment, in the form of raw materials. Xiomera had countered the opposition of the world's democracies by finding new sources for the resources its industries needed - Shuell and Iskiram. Auria was now an additional source of such resources. The blockade had cut Auria off from trading with the rest of the world, so it was either Xiomera or nothing. It wasn't theft; the Xiomerans were paying what they considered a very fair price for the resources. In addition, they were providing Auria with a lot of support; it was only fair to get something back for all of that, after all.

While the world watched, Xiomera calmly continued with its plans for Auria. Xiomerans loved a deal, and the deal they had written for themselves in Auria was just too good.

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#22

Aurian Detention Center, Outside Lumière
December 31st, 2021, 10:58 PM

The blinding light shone in the eyes of Henri Jacquet as he vainly struggled against his restraints. Dried blood and bruises adorned his face in a twisted pattern, highlighting the abuse that he had suffered the past few days. He had been accused of being a "Rebel Conspirator" by the Garda Nacōnals, and arrested in the middle of the night. But no matter how much they tortured him, he still maintained his innocence, and kept whispering the same phrase. “Ne zem. Ne zem.” I don’t know. I don’t know.

And he was telling the truth, at least from his perspective. He didn’t know anything about any rebellion against the Cordonnier Government, and he certainly wasn’t collaborating with it. All he had done was open his church to people in need, in accordance with his oaths as a Unitist priest. Helping those in need was part of his job description. I’ve done nothing wrong! It’s not my fault!

It all started on Angeli, Unitism’s most holy holiday. A small group of desperate citizens approached Jacquet and his co-priest, Emilie Simone. They begged for rations of food as well as shelter, and since the priests had access to both of these things, they obliged. Their small church in Western Lumiere became a shelter for the homeless and in need. For three weeks, they provided aid for hundreds of destitute Aurian citizens.

Until one fateful night.

December 9th, 2021, 7:24 PM

Henri Jacquet passed up and down the aisle of the small church, passing out pillows and blankets for those needing to stay the night. A couple dozen people were lying on the pews, glad to be safe from the cold evening. Some candles burned in the corners, providing a softer light than the bright church lights would have.

A pounding on the large wooden doors drew the priest’s attention. He moved hastily as to not wake the sleeping, his long blue robes flowing behind him. He peeled open the door, revealing a disheveled young man, panting. “Brother Jacquet? Could I… Could I stay here for the night? I’ll be out of your hair in the morning.”

Jacquet opened the door, gesturing for the man to come inside before shutting the door behind him. “Welcome to Saint Anne’s. Here is a pillow and a blanket, and Sister Emilie will get you some food or a shower if you require it. You’re safe and sound for the night. If there is anything else we can help you with, please do let one of us know.”




December 31st

Jacquet coughed and pulled at his bonds once again, his exhaustion making his efforts brief and weak. Emilie Simone sat beside him, her hands and legs similarly bound. “Kuois avamansa merelet cis?” She asked, her voice shot from crying. What did we do to deserve this? He shook his head with what little strength he had left. “Ne zem.”

A number of Garda soldiers entered the room, followed by a man in a dressier orange uniform. “Henri Pierre Jacquet and Emilie Annabeth Simone, you are charged with sheltering a rebel agent and being accessories to treason against the Crown and Auria. Your rebel accomplice has already confessed, and as such, we no longer require your confessions. The punishment for treason against the crown is death.”

Both priests’ eyes widened, and Jacquet attempted to protest. “No, please! We are innocent priests in the Aurian tradition of Uniti-” The officer slapped him, leaving a red spot on an already purple cheek. “Traitors don’t deserve to speak back to officers.” He nodded to his men. “You know what to do. On my mark.”

The guards approached the pair, and Jacquet felt the cold barrel of a pistol on the back of his skull. “Ready. Three, two, one…” Jacquet braced and closed his eyes, saying one last prayer. God, let our souls fly freely into your loving arms.

“...Fire.”

Aurian Royal Palace, Central Lumiere
December 31st, 2021, 11:02 PM

Clink

The clinking of crystal wine glasses echoed throughout the large ballroom of the Aurian Royal Palace, accenting the pockets of light conversation. Sarah Berenstein stood by one of the tables, chatting with a pair of businessmen from Lautrec’s “Council of National Economic Growth”. She found the business executives quite dull, due to their constant bragging and eternal competition. She much preferred the passive conversation of the politicians, who actually recognized the trouble their country was in.

“And so this merger is one of the biggest that Auria has ever seen! It’s almost as big as…” She tuned their conversation out, desperately looking for an escape from their horrid discussion. A furious looking Jonathan Gerand had entered the ballroom, making a beeline for the King and his entourage. She quickly realized that whatever was happening, it would not end well. “Excuse Me, gentlemen.” She dodged and weaved between party guests, desperately trying to intercept Gerand before anything happened.

“You lying son of a bitch!”

Medti. She internally facepalmed, quickly trying to wave party guests away from the unfolding situation. Jonathan continued to storm towards the King, stopping just a few feet away from him. “You took away my company. You broke our deal to pieces, for your gain! I did what you asked, and for what?! To get stabbed in the back?!”

Berenstein quickly made her way over to the group, attempting to calm her friend down. “Jonathan, stop. We are at a public event. This is not the place for a fight.”

“A fight? I’d gladly show him a fight! We are already facing adversity from all directions! We are having major technological issues, we are running low on resources due to an apparent no-fly zone, and to top it all off, you decide to betray your allies as the enemy increases their reach.” At this point, Gerand’s voice had become a furious whisper, letting the rest of the party only wonder what he was saying.

King Andrew’s expression reflected a mood of cold anger. “You fool. Don’t be silly. You’re still the Minister of Information. Your company was subsumed for a good reason. Calling this a betrayal is a pathetic exaggeration. Now, go home, cool down, and maybe I can overlook this insolence.”

Jonathan fumed. “This isn’t over. You’ll pay for what you’ve done.” The Minister turned and left, Berenstein trailing behind him. “Jon. Jon! Wait!”

The Aurian King turned to the crowd. “I’m sorry about that, everyone! Let’s continue with our celebration! We can’t usher in a new year without merriment, after all! Let’s enjoy the final moments of the year while we still can!”

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#23

Across the South Xiomeran Sea and Tenebric Ocean
March 5th 2022 - the day after the withdrawal announcement

The Lauchenoirian ships withdrew out of Aurian waters and slowly meandered north towards Mallacaland, where a small fleet of ships had been continually patrolling since the embassy incident, with the purpose of dissuading any further underage monarchs from carrying out acts of war. At least, that was what it looked like to an outside observer.

Some of them moved faster than the others, the new ships outpacing the old and so the fleet ended up spread out in a semicircle, travelling through international waters to the east of Xiomera so as to avoid passing by the Netlcoātl Islands. The threats of genocide and ethnic cleansing by their leader prior to the signing of the Jinyu Treaty had made many nations wary of entering the territory of the islands. At least, that’s what the Lauchenoirians wanted people to think.

The speed difference in ships, the long route taken to avoid trouble, and the diverting of several of their ships to relieve some of the Lauchenoirian peacekeepers in the Canal Zone meant that, in a haphazard, seemingly undeliberate way, the Lauchenoirian ships were spread out around Xiomera on all sides. This would not necessarily transpire to anything; but it was better to be prepared for the next stage of the plan.

*

The next stage of the plan was still being negotiated. It was not Lauchenoiria’s place to move until the discussions had been concluded. So the ships would lie in wait, continuing to meander northwards at the slowest possible place, while back in Lauchenoiria the parliament would debate fuel shortages and budget cuts both for the reason on the tin and to pull the wool over the eyes of anyone wondering at the slow speed.

If negotiations failed, well. They would cross that bridge when they came to it. In the meantime it was important to begin preparations; to get the pieces in place so that when the order came to make the next move everyone was ready. To this end, as the ships withdrew they left gaps in the collapsing blockade, choosing to ignore the dark shapes making their way through the waters in the dead of night. And the ships at the end of the trail, closest to Auria, lay in wait to see what would come out of the night towards them.

*

Meanwhile in the dead of night in the south of Auria, some boats approached beaches with as few lights as possible. These boats, small but sturdy, were filled in every available space with guns, ammunition and other types of weapons. As the Lauchenoirians withdrew, leaving gaps in the blockade, the ships slipped through the newly-created gaps as if they had known exactly where they would be in advance. In fact, they had.

This delivery of weapons was not the doing of Calhualyana; but rather Lauchenoiria itself. And their destination was not the forces of the pretender and his phoney Aurian government, nor the ‘mercenaries’ sent by the Empire, but rather the rebels fighting against these very people. It was time to fight back; to stop lying in wait and allowing the pretender’s forces to gather and prepare for the inevitable. The blockade was meant to be a temporary measure, and had been allowed to continue for far too long. Something needed to change.

Lauchenoiria had withdrawn from the blockade, yes. But they had not withdrawn from the war.
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#24

Queen Marija Naval Base, outside Côte-Verte, Auria
Saturday March 19th, 2022, 11:08 PM

Corporal Lauris Kalnins glanced over his shoulder, slowly tracing his patrol route along the outside of Queen Marija Naval Base's main security control room. His heart was racing, knowing what was coming in the next few minutes. This is the make or break moment. Our entire movement could live or die within a single hour.

This moment had been a long time coming. Starting with five soldiers, they had gradually preyed on discontent within the conscripted ranks, gaining hundreds of followers within months. They had been carefully watching the patrol schedule, waiting for the perfect time to strike against those who were loyal to Cordonnier's government. But it wasn't the coup loyalists who posed the biggest threat to their resistance efforts. Around six hundred Xiomeran mercenaries were also stationed at Queen Marija’s base, which had been temporarily renamed "Lady Amelie's", after Cordonnier's late wife. Many government buildings had met a similar fate, falling victim to a propaganda campaign run by the current Aurian King.

Kalnins stared down at his watch, feeling each second tick by as he waited for his cue. The narrow window of opportunity the rebels had was quickly approaching, and Kalnins anxiety was barely hidden. What if they don't show up? What if they got stuck somewhere, and we miss our chance?

Much to Kalnins relief, three soldiers with bland uniforms and orange insignias marched down the hallway in front of him, their resolute expressions barely hiding the same anxiety the Corporal was facing. Okay, here we go. Each step they took, each second, felt like an hour. The collar of Kalnins’ uniform felt like a noose, strangling him as he waited for his allies to approach. When they finally had crossed the hall, Kalnins looked in both directions, before pressing the intercom button next to the door. “Corporal Kalnins, reporting.”

The door slid open, revealing a larger room full of computers. Most of the consoles were empty, with only four soldiers seated at the front row of consoles full of security camera feeds. The commanding officer stood to meet him, inspecting him head to toe with a slightly confused expression. "What are you reporting here for?"

Kalnins cleared his throat and spoke, looking straight ahead. "We were ordered to report here and relieve the shift of duty, sir." The commanding Aurian sighed and furrowed his eyebrows. "These dumbass transfer officers can't even read the shift schedule right." Kalnins took a glance at the soldier sitting at the right end of the console table, a Xiomeran mercenary with a vicious looking sidearm. Hopefully Emily takes him down quick… The commanding officer patted him on the shoulder. "At ease. Who's the CO that pulled this kind of stunt? I'd like to have a word with them…"

Kalnins saw his chance, relaxing himself. "Captain Anderson, sir." He pretended to look at the console, his eyes widening. "Sir, there's a fight onscreen. Looks like two or three privates, sir." The security team turned back to their consoles, and the commanding officer took his seat, all of them leaving their backs to Kalnins and his team.

They wasted no time, leveling their concealed taser weapons with the seated soldiers' necks, before firing in unison. They squirmed and cried out, spasming erratically before weakly falling off their chairs, attempting to fight back. The rebels drew their standard-issue batons, ensuring that their targets were unconscious with a few quick swings.

They quickly removed the sidearms and weapons of the soldiers without a word, moving the bodies away from the consoles. Corporal Kalnins sat down in the officer's chair, fingers moving swiftly across the console's keyboard. "Armory locks are disabled, security room locked. Come on Ana, let's get this over with."



Corporal Anastasija Liepina stood rigidly at her station at Queen Marija's western entrance, peering out the window for any sign of resistance members. She tapped her foot rapidly, the growing pressure of the impending situation making her unable to stay still. They had waited for this opportunity for months. And now, with the unexpected delivery of weapons from Lauchenoiria, their growing movement was more prepared than ever. Hundreds of soldiers and thousands of partisans had agreed to help the effort, and that was just around Côte-Verte, leaving her optimistic about their opportunity to expand. We aren't weak, and we aren't blind. It's time to show those bastards in Lumière the power of the Aurian spirit.

She saw a flash of movement to her right, and noticed a large crowd of men and women in bland uniforms, dressed as new recruits. Each looked nervous, but determined, hiding the same fire behind their eyes. Liepina released the gate controls, disabling the security controls one by one. Once she was satisfied, she joined the large uniformed group, who stopped as she approached. "Alright, everyone, we have, at maximum, a window of five minutes, so there's no time to waste. Follow me, keep your heads up, act like you should be here."

The Corporal lead the group of disguised partisans down the tight streets of the military base, passing enemy officers and Xiomeran mercenaries alike. They didn't do much except spare a glance at the group, assuming they were the newest batch of conscripted recruits. Almost there. Don't mess up, don't mess up. Her joints and muscles felt stiff, her body seeking an outlet for the adrenaline coursing through her body. Step in time, act confident, you can't back down now.

Even though it had only been a couple minutes, their march through the base felt like hours, and Liepina felt immense relief when she saw the large brick warehouse peek out behind buildings. Thank God. Hopefully Lauris got his job done. She examined her surroundings carefully, before glancing down at the armory door, excited to see the electronic door lock shine green. Here we go. She swung it open, ushering the large group inside quickly.

Inside, the large warehouse was mostly devoid of people, with large shelves and arms racks taking up most of the space. Only two people guarding the large door across the room from the group. One of them, a Corporal, stepped forward indignantly. "Hey! You all can't be here! What are you do-"

The other guard stepped in, deftly wrapping a wire around his neck and pulling hard while pushing his foot into his victims back. The guard struggled against the attack, desperately trying to get the wire off of his neck. A few moments later, the resistance ceased, and the guard collapsed limply to the floor. Liepina nodded at the Private holding the wire. "Thanks Quentin. Nice work."

She began passing out weapons and sidearms to her group of invigorated rebels, concealing extra ammunition under her uniform before grabbing a rifle for herself. She gave it a quick examination before loading it, careful to keep it pointed at the ground once she had done so. "Alright everyone, the easy part's over everyone. Let's show these bastards the same courtesy they gave Lapointe."


Chancellor's Manor, Geminus, Eiria
Three hours and twenty-eight minutes later

Chancellor Leah Stendē slept soundly in the large suite bed, her husband snoring loudly beside her. The late night meetings and restless sleep had finally caught up to her, and she had been looking forward to a calmer night to catch up on sleeping for once.

A loud ringing echoed from the phone on the nightstand, causing her to stir frustratedly. "Uh... What now…?" She reached out for the nightstand blindly, missing the phone two or three times before bringing it to her ear. "What's going on? Where's the fire?"

"Auria, in fact. I just got off the phone with an Eirian Navy Officer stationed outside Atlantis." Julius Riekstins, Stendē's chief of staff, spoke quickly into the phone, his voice groggy. "An Aurian ship docked there received a message on an older military channel. It apparently came from Queen Marija's Naval Base. The sender claims to be loyal to the formerly Lapointe, now Arquette, government. They claim to have taken over the base with a number of armed partisans. They also said… that if we wanted to help, it was now or never."

Stendē shot up in her bed, causing her husband to adjust on his side. "I'll be right down." She set the phone down, quickly standing from the bed with fresh energy. Holy shit. It's happening.

Auria could be free.

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#25

Ximac Fortress, Xiomeran General Staff Headquarters
Empress Camaxtica Imperial Armed Forces Central Command Complex, Tlālacuetztla
Sunday, March 20th, 2022, 2:00am Xiomeran time

"What the fuck is happening in Côte-Verte?" Calhualyana demanded bluntly. The Empress had arrived at the General Staff Headquarters on the sprawling Central Command in an extremely disgruntled mood. General Zinahue, Marshal of the Empire, did his best to remain calm. Chuanacoyo, the Minister of Defense, and Tochuitli, the Minister of Security, were trying to do the same. A pregnant Empress, in and of herself, was dangerous. A pregnant, surprised and thwarted Empress roused out of bed early was the stuff of nightmares. Marshal Zinahue silently gave a quick prayer before plunging into the briefing. "Last night, a group of rebellious Aurian soldiers and civilians took control of Lady Amelie's Naval Base outside the city. They appear to have taken both loyalist Aurian soldiers and CSSC mercenaries prisoner."

"I would be extremely displeased if these Aurian bumpkins dared to take Imperial soldiers prisoner. The fact that they have taken Xiomeran mercenaries prisoner is only slightly less of an insult. Either way, I expect a quick answer to this insolence. I trust King Andrew and General Michelin have a plan to do so?"

"That is the thing, your Majesty....we have not heard of any such plan. The events may be too fast moving for them, but so far, no one from our 'allies' has contacted us about this incident," Marshal Zinahue said. The Empress looked at, then through, Zinahue with eyes as sharp as the dagger at her waist. "No contact," she said flatly. Zinahue nodded. "We have heard from General Teoctlehue, the CSSC commander of the operation. He is as equally surprised that no one has moved to respond to this incident."

"Apparently, we have to do everything for these Aurian fools," Calhualyana responded with disdain. "Very well. Does Teoctlehue, at least, have a plan?" Zinahue nodded again, bringing up a series of battle plans, diagrams, orders of battle and schematics on the giant displays at the front of the room. CSSC considered it best practice for their firm to wargame and plan out responses to any plausible scenario that could arise during one of their operations, and be prepared to take quick action accordingly. The Aurian operation was no different. Calhualyana reviewed everything, then nodded in approval. "Tell Teoctlehue to get moving immediately, before these bastards have a chance to entrench themselves. If King Andrew or General Michelin object, tell them in as polite and diplomatic a way as possible to shut up and be thankful that Xiomerans know how to do what they apparently do not - retain control of a situation. They're welcome to send their own troops along with ours if they want - let them know that we, in fact, request and require they do so, as part of our mutual obligation to cooperate to maintain the peace in Auria. But whether the Aurians show up or not, CSSC is to move as soon as possible against the base. I will not allow these damned rebels to open a back door to let Queen Sophie's allies back into the country."

Marshal Zinahue and the other Xiomeran defense officials nodded, as Calhualyana glared at the screens in front of her.

---

Lumière, Auria
Camp Namacuix - CSSC Aurian Peacekeeping Forces command center
Sunday, March 20th, 2022, 4:30am Aurian time

General Teoctlehue received the message from CSSC Corporate Headquarters in Huitzitaca with pleasure. It was simple and direct. Implement Wargame Response Plan 74-Delta-Red with immediate effect against designated location.

CSSC may not have been the real Imperial military. But with their training and equipment, they were stronger than the actual militaries of many nations, and they knew it. More to the point, they were still Xiomeran warriors. Many of them, such as Teoctlehue, had served their time under the Imperial banner before taking up a second career among the mercenaries. CSSC and its fighters did not like to lose, considering it a direct affront to their pride and martial dignity. The incident in Côte-Verte was like a slap in the face to every single CSSC merc, from the youngest private to the top dogs like Teoctlehue. It would not go unanswered.

CSSC was receiving a direct satellite feed from Imperial Intelligence, showing Teoctlehue the base which had been captured. "You fools poked the jaguar. It's time to show you the claws," he murmured, before pressing a button on his desk. "Begin WRP 74-D-R at enemy location immediately."

"Will we be waiting for the Aurians?" his 2IC asked.

Teoctlehue snarled. "If we could count on them, this base wouldn't have fallen in the first place. They can catch up to us."

Côte-Verte, Auria
Sunday, March 20th, 2022, 5:30am Aurian time

It began from the air.

The occupiers of the naval base in Côte-Verte would not have long to enjoy their victory. Two Xiomeran weapons systems, courtesy of the fine people at the Coatōn Corporation, would see to that. The first was the C280 Illhicamina MLRS. The armored, self-propelled rocket/missile launcher was capable of throwing up to 18 rounds a minute at targets up to 50 miles away. It was highly mobile, making it hard to kill from the air. It was named after the Huenyan word for "he who shoots arrows in the sky". Its arrows were far more dangerous than those of ancient times, however.

The second was the C2100 Eztecpatl (Bloodstone) 155mm self-propelled howitzer. Capable of continuously firing 13 rounds of MRSI shells per minute up to 30 miles away, the artillery system was usually used as indirect artillery to support ground operations. But first, it would be used with the C280 to pound the occupied naval base with a rain of steel and fire. The goals were simple: to soften up the enemy defenses, break the enemy's will to fight, and prepare the ground for the inevitable assault from the CSSC ground forces that would be coming behind the wave of hellfire from the sky. Once the base and its defenders were broken, CSSC would offer them one chance to surrender. If they refused, the orders were simple: move in and regain control of the base, ending resistance by any means necessary.

The base at Côte-Verte may have been seen by the enemy side as a chance at salvation. For CSSC, and those behind them, it was seen as a chance to make an example. One no one in Auria would ever forget.

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