It's Dark in the City of Lights
#26

Royal Offices, Aurian Royal Palace, Lumiere

"Metdi! Kašiet casei konadei Xiomeran!"

King Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier shouted obscenities in Aurian accented Eirian, cursing his mercenary allies. Those bastards think they can operate in Auria, against our people, without our permission? Who do they think they are? He picked up the intelligence dossier he had been reading, which was now lightly coated in spit from his outburst. He wiped it off and read it again, grinding his teeth together. Someone's gonna pay for this.

He picked up the older phone on his desk and brought it to his year. "Elena? Get me a line to the Xiomeran government, preferably the Empress, if possible. We have some urgent matters to discuss."

Empress Calhualyana was at the Palace of Flowers when the phone call from the Aurian monarch came in. She sighed slightly, before seating herself at her massive desk and ordering the call to be patched through. “Good morning, King Andrew. This is Empress Calhualyana. I was told that you were asking to speak with me,” she said in a deliberately calm and unconcerned tone to annoy him. If the puppet believes he’s capable of cutting his strings, let’s make it clear who is actually in charge here, she thought. Calhualyana was no longer in the mood for diplomatic niceties or illusions.

"Good Morning, Your Majesty. And yes, I was wishing to discuss the growing situation in Côte-Verte. I take it your intelligence has informed you of the events of the past few days?" Andrew spoke with canned politeness, hiding his wrath behind a plastic wall of formality.

”Of course. Imperial Intelligence is quite alert about current events and keeps me fully informed,” Calhualyana replied. She said nothing further, waiting for Andrew to respond in a further deliberately baiting manner.

"I was just curious why CSSC acted without the approval or even consultation of me, General Michelin, or the leadership of the Garda Nacōnals. Their actions, while commendable, endangered Aurian lives and have critically undermined respect for royal authority in Auria. I was wondering if you could exercise your authority with the CSSC leadership and ask that they regroup and consult us immediately, as well as for any situation in the future." Cordonnier's curt tone made his current opinions on the CSSC leadership abundantly clear.

”I can certainly speak with General Teoctlehue and his commanders, but tying the hands of CSSC in the field seriously inhibits their ability to assist your government and maintain the peace. I would also point out that the situation was critical. There is only one reason the opposition would need a naval base - if they were expecting foreign help soon, and needed a way to get it into Auria. Securing control of the base is essential and we had not heard anything from your government in relation to the takeover. CSSC therefore acted as necessary to fulfill their mission, which is part of their contract with your government.” The tone of the Empress remained notably unbothered by King Andrew’s curtness.

The Aurian monarch sat back in his chair, growing more exasperated. "I understand that, but CSSC's promptness to bombard the base could've endangered any Garda personnel who could've retaken it. After all, we were planning a recovery operation to retake Queen Marija's before those Mercenaries jumped the starting gun. I'm glad my soldiers weren't caught in the crossfire. This lack of communication will only enable the resistance to gain strength at our expense." He blinked and smiled spitefully, a particular phrasing passing through his mind. "In addition, I fail to see how communicating with their allies would inhibit CSSC from performing their contractual duties."

”I quite agree that communication is essential, and CSSC will endeavor to keep you informed appropriately in the future. Since communication is so essential, I assume that in the future when a critical situation such as this occurs, your government will not wait for several hours, or even longer, to keep us informed. This is the first communication we have received from you about the incident in question, after all. We only discovered it via reports from Imperial Intelligence.” Calhualyana allowed a small smile to cross her face. Her opinion of the King, his government, and their competence was as low as, or perhaps lower, than Andrew’s opinion of CSSC. The Empress didn’t feel particularly compelled to hide it at that point.

"We will be more transparent in the future. However, we were not the one's who acted without communication. But that's in the past now, whether we like it or not. In the future, I will expect that an adequate amount of respect is shown to me and the rest of my administration. After all, as you said, their contract is with my government. They draw their jurisdiction from my authority. If you could, do pass that along to General Teoctlehue. Or I could always speak to him myself, if I must." Cordonnier's tone had shifted from tense anger to cooler frustration, as he began to realized the position he was is in and how Calhualyana regarded him.

”We shall be sure in the future to show you and your administration the appropriate amount of respect.” Calhualyana made that statement blandly, letting it speak for itself. “There is also no need to trouble yourself, I will speak to the General on your behalf. Of course, if the performance of CSSC is inadequate, we can always ensure they withdraw from Auria and terminate their contract with you without penalty. That could, however, lead to undesirable outcomes.” Like your head on a spike outside your palace once we withdraw and let Sophie and her followers have you, the Empress allowed to go without saying.

"Of course. Their performance has been more than adequate thus far, so that will not be necessary." Andrew made note of the ambiguous threat, growing more concerned with each passing moment. "I will consult with Generals Michelin and Teoctlehue on a plan of attack for Côte-Verte. Thank you for your time."

”Not at all, I am always happy to have these conversations. I do hope the rest of your day goes well. Goodbye for now,” the Empress said, ending the call. Once the call was disconnected, she contacted her Security Minister. “Tochuitli, have Imperial Intelligence begin making those contacts in Auria we discussed previously. I fear that King Andrew is….having second thoughts about our arrangement.”

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#27

Lauchenoirian Federal Parliament
Afternoon, present day

This could go one of two ways.

If her calculations were correct, then her own actions in the scenario would be overshadowed by the revelation, not of knowledge but of evidence. If they were wrong, then it would potentially end her own political career.

The cost of inaction, however, would be her morals, and that was not a price she was willing to pay any longer. The demonstrations against her, coupled with the beliefs of her fellow world leaders had chafed at her mind for the past month, rubbing up against her internal feelings of guilt and inadequacy even as she kept her true intentions hidden.

Josephine Alvarez had been one of those teenagers for whom politics called like a siren whispering sweet temptations in a sailor’s ears. It was not out of a desire for power, but rather reasons of ideology and hope for change that pulled her to her chosen career path. Like most ideologues, however, entering politics had infused her with what would at best be called pragmatism, and at worst corruption and lust for power.

She had known how her recent actions would be interpreted, not that it had made weathering the glares and distrust much better. Yet she also knew that her past actions, those she had done under the influence of said power-lust and corruption, made her recent story all-too believable. When she had made the decision that risk was worth the reward, and that it was time to stop compromising on her morals and ideology, she had decided to use that perception to her own advantage.

Empress Calhualyana was a formidable opponent on both an intellectual and military level, but she was also in many ways predictable. The Empress liked to be in control; she liked to have others under her thumb and dependent upon her mercy. The way to manipulate Calhualyana, therefore, was to have her believe she was manipulating you.

And as the Empress gloated, she gave Alvarez what the Prime Minister of Lauchenoiria needed.

Evidence.

Prime Minister Alvarez made her way into the parliament chamber, sitting down at her assigned seat and waiting for the previous debate to end before she could make her speech. They were discussing - yet again - the intricacies of private education, religion, and whether the two should legally be allowed to be linked. It was a tiresome debate, and every time a decision was made someone would try to challenge some other minute aspect of it, bringing it back to the parliamentary floor.

Eventually it ended, and the motion to permit international schools aimed at attracting foreign students to have a religious element was voted down. Alvarez was quite sure the same motion, reworded and with a few clauses moved around, would return to the debating floor within the next several months. It was not a subject which interested her, but it appeared to be one of the most hotly debated ones among parents and her fellow parliamentarians.

When she was called upon, the Prime Minister rose and cleared her throat, preparing to address parliament on the subject of Paul Ramirez, the election observer who had been held hostage by the Golden Blade following the Huenyan elections. Most people expected the speech to be about his recovery from the situation, his return home, or some other basic feel-good story to distract from the ever-growing anti-government protests. It was not.

“Good afternoon,” she began. “I stand before you today with information that will be of the utmost importance to a number of peoples, primarily those in Huenya. This information and its accompanying evidence is the result of months of cumulative work by Lauchenoirian Intelligence aimed at the discovery of proof of the source of funding behind the Golden Blade and other terrorist organisations in the Huenyan subcontinent.”

The silence was broken by a few mumblings of surprise and interest. The Prime Minister ignored them and continued on.

“On the second of February, 2022, following advice and planning given to me by our intelligence community, I initiated a phone call with Empress Calhualyana of Xiomera about Paul Ramirez, an impartial election observer of Lauchenoirian nationality who was kidnapped by pro-Xiomera terrorist group the Golden Blade. There, I negotiated a deal with the Empress for the release of our citizen in exchange for our withdrawal from the Aurian blockade and a reduction of sanctions against the Xiomeran regime.”

Angry shouts, the sounds of people standing. The Presiding Officer tells people to be quiet. The Prime Minister continued.

“This deal, however, was not the true intention of the call. Following this discussion with the Empress we used the situation to gather further intelligence which unequivocally reveals the Xiomeran Empire as the funder and controller of the Golden Blade terrorist organisation. Our withdrawal from the blockade, and supposed fulfillment of the deal, allowed us to gather the final piece of evidence to prove Calhualyana’s complicity in the terrorist attacks.”

This time the yelling was a roar. The emotions of the gathered members of parliament were all overlapping, some still angry, others surprised while more still were jubilant at the thought of Lauchenoiria double-crossing the Empress. This time Alvarez let the yelling die down in its own time before continuing.

“Needless to say, I wish to address this next comment to Empress Calhualyana: we are not your puppets to boss around and control. If you think you can get away with ordering your pet terrorists to kidnap our citizen for leverage, you are wrong. We will not bow down to you, and we will stand up for what is right. To that end,” Alvarez shifted her tone to indicate the end of her message to the Xiomeran ruler, “I am announcing today that we are taking formal military action against the illegitimate, Xiomeran-backed regime of Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier in Auria, in support of the rightful government of Queen Sophie.”

This, surprisingly, elicited far less yelling. Perhaps because it was less surprising, and perhaps because it had broad support from most political parties represented. Still, Lauchenoiria had not waged a non-defensive war in a long time.

“We are taking this action because it is long past time that we stood up for those who seek to protect the rule of law and the international order. The age of colonialism and empire is over, and it is time we send a clear message to Empress Calhualyana that her sly attempts to conquer other nations will not be unopposed. To King Andrew and his supporters, I say this: it is not too late to step down and reject the control of Xiomera. Stand up for your nation’s independence and stand with us in our attempt to rid your nation of these would-be conquerors and their mercenaries.”

As she sat back down, awaiting questions, she exhaled slowly. It was done. Only time would tell if it had been the right decision. And what the consequences would be.
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#28

West Chamber of the Federal Legislature Building
Chuaztlapoc, Huenya
March 25th, 2022

Vice-Speaker Tiacihitli walked briskly to the podium of the Chamber of Executives, his expression unusually stern. The Chamber was already in an uproar over the recent announcement by Prime Minister Alvarez, and as the Vice-Speaker reached the podium, the assembled legislators had to be ordered to silence by the Sergeant-At-Arms. Once order was finally restored, Tiacihitli was blunt and direct.

"With the announcement by Prime Minister Alvarez of Lauchenoiria demonstrating undeniable evidence of a connection between the Imperial regime and the Golden Blade terrorist group which has caused so much suffering and loss of life in Huenya, our worst suspicions are finally confirmed. The sudden rise of a heavily armed force capable of resisting our military and seize land, seemingly out of nowhere, is now clearly being supported by the Imperial regime. There is no other plausible explanation for this. The government of the Huenyan Federation hereby accuses the Xiomeran Empire of violating both Articles I and II of the Jinyu Agreement, and we demand an immediate return to full compliance. We further demand an immediate session of LIDUN to be called to discuss both Xiomera's actions in encouraging ethnic and separatist violence in Huenya, and their actions in Auria."

The Vice-Speaker then brought up a map of the Huenyan border with Xiomera with several notations. "We also reserve the right to begin immediately taking all necessary and required measures of our own to remove the Imperial-sponsored threat to our sovereignty, security and peace known as the Golden Blade and their so-called State of Apozanolotl. This shall include an immediate ban on all air, land and sea travel into eastern Huenya and the territory currently controlled by the Golden Blade for the duration of the state of emergency. We shall be enforcing this with an immediate no-fly zone over eastern Huenya and the territory in question, along with a naval blockade in the Gulf of Epeloc. Our ports of entry over land through the Canal Zone will also be closed to all traffic in either direction. These enhanced security measures will last for the duration of the national emergency in eastern Huenya. Any attempts to break the blockade or no-fly zone shall result in the arrest of anyone responsible. We also reserve the right to confiscate any vessels attempting to break the blockade, or down them if necessary."

The legislators cheered at the announcement of the new restrictions. Tiacihitli nodded in appreciation until the noise died down, then continued. "We would like to thank Prime Minister Alvarez for helping to reveal the deception of the Empress and her regime, and hope that Lauchenoiria will soon be able to present its evidence to LIDUN for the entire world to see. We also hope that LIDUN will agree to a comprehensive sanctions program against the Xiomeran Empire until such time as it ceases its hostile actions towards its neighbors. Even if it does not, we will approach the nations of the world ourselves directly to call for the same actions. The time has come to demonstrate to Calhualyana once and for all that there is no place for her dreams of a return to empire."

Huitzitaca, Huenya

CSSC Corporate Headquarters had its own response to the announcement from Lauchenoiria, delivered via social media.

[Image: kfCdGt8.png]

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#29

Tlālacuetztla, Xiomera
March 26th, 2022

"I did tell you that I wouldn't be surprised if Alvarez broke our agreement. I do admire how she is trying to spin things, though." Empress Calhualyana calmly reviewed her planned speech to the Imperial Parliament. Her state limousine, with its police and military escorts, rolled down the Avenue Huatlcoapahua from the Palace of Flowers to the Imperial Parliament building. She took a brief moment to enjoy the beauty of the early spring in Montelin outside her windows.

Prime Minister Toquihu nodded in agreement. "I guess you do have to learn such remarkably deceptive tactics in order to survive in a democracy as a politician. She isn't as far off from the machinations of the XCP, in her own way, as she likes to consider herself," the PM said as he browsed the latest news stories.

"Indeed. I am almost impressed with how cleverly she has turned this to her advantage. Not so impressed that I won't punish her for it, of course. That is an inevitability now. That is why we will be going to IIA HQ after this speech. But for now, we will respond only with words." Calhualyana made a few more notes as they traveled into downtown Tlālacuetztla. A slight smile crossed her lips as she said "for now".

The convoy soon arrived at Avenue of the Citizens, the main avenue leading to the Parliament. Even in the pleasant, sunny early springlike weather of northern Xiomera, the stark stone walls of the Imperial Parliament seemed to absorb all sunlight and warmth, remaining cold and gray. The only sign of warmth or color were the golden XCP and Imperial seals on the walls, and the golden flagpoles upon which the Imperial Sun banner waved. The Empress admired the sight as her party exited their vehicles and walked inside.

Once they had arrived at the podium of the Imperial Parliament Chamber, the Empress stood behind the lectern. She took another moment to admire the inside of the chamber. It was a cavernous room, of the same stone and obsidian as the outside, with golden flags and symbols of the Empire and the XCP. The members of the Parliament sat at dark wooden desks; the audience sat arranged around them in black leather chairs with golden trim. It was a darkly glorious chamber, and the perfect setting for the Empress to speak.

Arranged next to her were every single minister of her cabinet, the Prime Minister, the Empress' husband Xiyāōtl, the commanders of the General Staff. Even Atlhuitzcoatl, the High Priest of the Imperial-recognized branch of the Teotzin, the Huenyan indigenous faith, was on the podium. It was meant to show the world that no matter what, Xiomera was united behind the Empress. It made for exactly the show of strength that the Empress wanted, as she began to speech.

"Good afternoon. This session of the Imperial Parliament was called to discuss recent remarks by Prime Minister Alvarez of Lauchenoiria concerning our supposed involvement in the civil unrest in Huenya. I am here to answer any questions that the Parliament may have on this matter. But first, I would like to give my response to the accusations that the Lauchenoirian leader has made against me." As the assembled XCP members murmured, Calhualyana continued. "It is indeed true that a deal was made concerning our intervention to free the Lauchenoirian citizen, Paul Ramirez, from his detention by officials of the State of Apozanolotl. While Alvarez is honest about that fact, she chose to leave out some matters which were inconvenient to her anti-Xiomeran narrative. It was Prime Minister Alvarez who initiated the discussion in question, not myself or any other official in Xiomera. Due to the incompetence of both her leadership and that of the Huenyan government, it was Alvarez who contacted us in desperation after all other attempts to free their citizen had failed. Rather than being grateful for our intervention, which accomplished something neither her administration or the Huenyans could, she is now using our intervention against us. To promote her own agenda for Caxcana, a region Lauchenoiria isn't even part of, and to save her own political career, this opportunistic and deceitful liar is now claiming that this is 'evidence' that we supported the uprising by aggrieved ethnic Xiomerans in Huenya."

As the murmuring from the Chamber grew angrier, the Empress continued. "We do have contacts within the separatists in Huenya. I will not deny that. I also will not apologize for it. They are our kin, and our blood. We have a right to maintain ties with them, especially given the way the Huenyan government has treated them. The Huenyan government, from its beginnings, has mistreated these people. The people in Apozanolotl have resorted to arms only because they were forced into a new country they did not want to be part of. They have then had their concerns systematically ignored and suppressed by the Huenyan government, and been told either to comply or be dealt with by force. The evidence of the real wrongdoing is plain for all to see - is Huenya not at this moment engaging in all out war against these people it supposedly regards as citizens with the same rights as other Huenyans? Isn't the Huenyan government the one now imposing travel restrictions against our borders, themselves in violation of the provisions of the Jinyu Agreement regarding freedom of movement? Yet Alvarez wants to complain about our actions - actions which saved one of her own people?"

The voices in the Chamber began to rise in fury, as Calhualyana continued. "This is 'evidence' of only one thing - that Alvarez hates Xiomera, with the same irrational hatred she has shown for years. And that she will stop at nothing to pursue that agenda, as well as to save her own political skin. Let us be clear - the only reason she chose to come forth with the deal that was made now is that she saw how her people reacted when rumors about it began to spread, and she decided to turn the spotlight against Xiomera in order to distract Lauchenoirians from her own scheming and wrongdoing."

The MPs began shouting in fury, and the Empress continued to stoke the flames. "The only 'evidence' Alvarez has of our supposed connection to the rebellion in eastern Huenya is the fact that we were able to intervene to save her own citizen. I am sure Alvarez and her pawns will fabricate more 'evidence' to try to continue to turn people against Xiomera. I also, to be frank, do not care what she does anymore. She has shown that she is unworthy of our attention. We will defend ourselves against her lies at LIDUN, and indeed, to the world. But that is all the time we will bother to spend on such a snake. The fact that we do have contacts within the State of Apozanolotl does not mean that we are responsible for their rebellion. Huenya, and Huenya alone, is responsible for it. And until Huenya does the right thing and enters talks with the State of Apozanolotl, the unrest will not end, regardless of what we do or don't do. Our government is not supporting their rebellion. But even if it was, to be clear, we would have every right to help defend those who are our kin. That right, I also will not apologize for. Ever."

There were loud cheers from the assembled MPs at this point, for which Calhualyana waited patiently to subside before continuing. "If people want the rebellion in Huenya to end, there is only one path forward for that outcome which we all desire - get Tiacihitli to the negotiating table with the rebels rather than dropping bombs on them. If peace is supposedly what you want, that would make sense, wouldn't it?"

As more applause echoed, the Empress went on. "As for the situation in Auria, we see yet more vitriol aimed at us from Alvarez. We are accused of trying to control Auria, or occupying them. The last time I checked, there was not a single Imperial soldier in Auria. Again, for the sake of her political career and her own agenda, the Prime Minister of Lauchenoiria has chosen to blatantly lie and distort the facts on the ground. Here is the truth. The new Aurian government, under King Andrew, chose to hire CSSC to help maintain the peace in Auria after the change of power there due to threats from the former Queen Sophie and her supporters, most notably Eiria and Lauchenoiria. The Eirian and Lauchenoirian governments have chosen to use the involvement of a private Xiomeran corporation as their justification for blaming us for the events in Auria. They are using their favorite scare tactic, Xiomera, as the veil covering their goal of forcing Queen Sophie back on the throne despite the fact that it was Aurians, not CSSC, who overthrew her in the first place." Calhualyana shook her head in disgust. "So much for the ideas of sovereignty and self-determination that the democracies spout, if the people in other countries make choices they don't like. It isn't Xiomera, after all, that is threatening military action to invade a sovereign nation thousands of miles away to force a change in government. The events in Auria are absolutely no threat to Lauchenoiria, or frankly, any of their concern. They're not even happening on the same continent. Yet Alvarez, in her self-righteous and self-serving speeches, thinks she has the right to lecture Xiomerans about what we do?"

As the Chamber erupted into a fresh surge of angry shouting, the Empress looked at the representatives with eyes as cold and stone-like as the walls themselves. "Alvarez went out of her way, in her speech, to say that Lauchenoiria does not answer to Xiomera. Well and good. But I have a very simple response - Xiomera does not answer to you, either. Nor to anyone else. We are a sovereign nation. We have been a united, strong and prosperous state for centuries, dating back to a time when most of the countries opposed to us were merely squabbling principalities or rabble living in straw huts and stone castles. We have a culture, faith, heritage and nation that have over six hundred years of our hard work, pride and effort behind them. Xiomerans have built a nation and a legacy that need not apologize to anyone else - and will not take orders from, or bend knee to, anyone else either."

Calhualyana looked up defiantly. "CSSC will continue its peacekeeping mission in Auria for as long as the corporation sees fit to, and as long as the Aurian government wants it to. We will not tell Xiomerans where they can do business, or how, just to please political hacks on other shores with misbegotten agendas and misplaced self-righteousness. If Lauchenoiria, or anyone else, choose to bring war to shores where there is currently peace and order, I am confident that CSSC will be able to fulfill its mission. As for Huenya and the State of Apozanolotl, we have only this to say: if the Huenyan government and its supporters do not do the right thing by the ethnic Xiomerans there, someday, the Empire will. If you want to prevent that, for once, resort to talking to Xiomerans rather than telling them how horrible they are and expecting obedience from them. As you have seen, we do not take to such conduct very well."

The Empress rose to her full height, her face raised to the sky. "Whenever, and wherever we must, Xiomera and Xiomerans will continue to endure and triumph. And we will do whatever we must for our people, and for our Empire!"

As everyone in the Chamber began shouting "for the Empire" in response, Calhualyana raised both of her hands, as if imploring the gods herself. Or, perhaps, becoming one.

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#30

Eirian Senate Building, Geminus
Sunday, March 27th

The Press Box overlooking the Eirian Senate chamber was…crowded, to say the least. Every seat was packed with various journalists and camera operators, intently watching the official proceedings below. Every large, unwieldy TV camera was live, streaming the important Senate proceedings straight to thousands of Eirian citizens."

Surprisingly, the Minister of Justice, Deniss Krievinš, had control of the Senate floor, taking over his ceremonial duty as Speaker of the Senate, instead of appointing a proxy. He clearly and concisely called out surnames from the list of Senators, pausing to hear and mark down their response before advancing to the next name.

"Senator Yacine?"

"Ja."

"Senator Zarina?"

"Ja."

"Senator Zhang?"

"Ja"

"Senator Zvaigzne?"

"Nen."

"Senator Zvirbulis?"

"Ja."

Krievinš looked down at the console embedded in the Speaker's lectern, and over to one of his aides, who nodded her approval. Good. The tally is correct. Thank God. He cleared his throat. "The motion is passed. The vote totals are…" He took another glance down to confirm the numbers in his head. "Four hundred and six votes Yes, thirty-two votes No, and twelve Abstentions. Are there any objections on the floor to a recorded vote?" The room was silent as the senators all checked their own embedded consoles to confirm their vote. After twenty seconds of solid silence, Krievinš spoke up. "The motion is passed. The Speaker now cedes the floor to Chancellor Leah Stendē for a Chancellorial Address."

Mild whispers and discussion broke out as Chancellor Stendē walked from the Chancellor's box on the side of the Chamber to the Speaker's platform, the noise dying down as she adjusted the microphone. "My esteemed colleagues, I am incredibly grateful for your strong tide of support for this motion. We have stood by and watched the Aurian conflict for far too long, and now that we have the opportunity to fight with democratic resistance forces in Auria, I'm glad we have not lost this opportunity to political conflict."

"I would like to emphasize how remarkable of a vote this has been. Despite our political division, a majority of Senators from every party voted in support for this motion. Around ninety percent of you, regardless of party affiliation, decided to support this motion, in solidarity with the Aurian people. I cannot express how thankful I am that this critical motion was passed, and that our troops will be able to fight alongside our Aurian allies to reclaim their country"

"However, some of you have had objections to this motion, claiming that I'm sending troops into an active war zone too quickly, wantonly risking their lives. And to that, I have one thing to say: This motion has been a long time coming." Stendē looked around the room, almost as if to look at the dissenting Senators. "Numerous intelligence reports have been sent to my desk every day, detailing events and the status of Aurian troops. I've consulted with specialists and military leaders from all branches of the Eirian Armed Forces, Generals, Admirals, and Special Operatives. So many factors have aligned so our troops and our allies can be as safe and effective as possible, given the circumstances. To say that this deployment is rash or rushed is to neglect the months of work done to ensure our brave soldiers are secure in their dangerous work."

"Now, I am more than aware that yesterday, Empress Calhualyana made a fiery speech to the Xiomeran Parliament, decrying Lauchenoiria's involvement in Auria and Prime Minister Alvarez's part in exposing Xiomeran-sponsored terrorist activity." The chamber broke out into angry discussion as Stendē paused until the outburst had died down. "This speech was filled with what we've come to expect from Calhualyana: Bold, deceptive claims of Xiomeran superiority, direct threats on democratic nations, and desperate attempts to justify her actions to the international community."

"However, despite Calhualyana's plentiful spread of ironic and deceitful claims, there is one bit that I personally find the most hilarious. In reference to the Golden Blade terrorist revolt that has been plaguing Huenya, 'Our government is not supporting their rebellion. But even if it was, to be clear, we would have every right to help defend those who are our kin.'" The Chancellor paused, to let the message sink in. "It's almost as if she couldn't decide whether to accept responsibility as a prideful gesture, or to deny it for self-preservation, so she just threw both in her speech, as if her actions and intentions aren't clear as day to anyone who even tries to examine the situation."

"But the sad truth is, many major Xiomerans are content not to look deeper at the situation. They are content to let Calhualyana control the narrative, bending to her will as she bends the truth likewise. And even though some Xiomerans bravely have stood up against the Empress, what difference could they make, if those in power stifle their voices and abilities to preserve their rule? For a regime that promotes Xiomeran bravery and strength, prominent Xiomerans are content to blindly submit to Calhualyana's machinations."

Stendē's tone took on a more intense edge as she spoke, making her rhetoric stronger and more impactful. "Major Xiomeran leaders have become willing members of Calhualyana's puppet choir. The Xiomeran Parliament is full of sycophants, complicit in Calhualyana's crimes against Auria, Huenya, and the Xiomeran people. And while we have not committed these crimes ourselves, we also become complicit if we refuse to stand against totalitarian attacks on democracy, freedom, and truth."

Stendē began gesturing even more while she spoke, emphasizing her words with swift hand motions. "So, I stand before you today, to send an open message to those who threaten us and our allies. We will not be intimidated. We will not be broken. We stand, undeterred, as an example of the liberty, freedom, and democracy that autocrats cannot take away from us. We stand with Auria. We stand with Huenya. We stand for a free future, and that free future begins today!"

The Senate Chamber erupted in raucous applause, echoing throughout the domed ceiling. A number of Senators began to yell over and over "Mous Stavam!". We stand. And as many miles away, Eirian soldiers began to prepare for deployment, their national leaders stood in unison to make one thing abundantly clear.

Eiria shall never be counted out.

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#31

(Joint post with Eiria)

Security Minister Tochuitli had promptly begun working as the Empress had requested, reaching out to various contacts within Auria. The subject of one of those contacts would soon find himself conversing with the Empress herself. Jonathan Gerand had been identified as a possible willing replacement for the recalcitrant King Andrew. Calhualyana calmly waited at the appointed time for the call to be patched through.

Jonathan Gerand sat at his desk, examining the news reports for the day. Although he no longer officially owned his news network, his status as Minister of Information gave him authority over Aurian news networks. He took a pen out from a metal drawer and made a little note next to one of the stories for tomorrow. This is what my job has been reduced to. Glorified storyboard editor.

The phone on his desk vibrated, making an awful clanging noise against the metal desk. He snatched it up quickly, wincing at the noise it made. A long foreign number was displayed, with no caller identification name. Huh. That's.... Odd. How'd it get through our filters? He pressed the answer button and brought it to his ear. "Minister Gerand's office. Who is this?"

"Good morning, Minister Gerand. This is Empress Calhualyana of Xiomera. I do hope that I am not reaching you at a bad time.” Calhualyana checked to make sure that her line was both secured and recording as she waited for a response.

Gerand shot up in his chair. "No, it's not a bad time at all, Your Majesty." He cleared his throat, attempting to appear composed and refined. "I must admit, I am surprised to hear from you directly. To what do I owe this tremendous pleasure?"

"It is actually my pleasure to contact you,” Calhualyana replied. “I have not had the opportunity to speak to the other leaders of Auria’s new government very often, and I also admire your efforts to put a good public face on the situation.”

"Why, thank you Your Majesty. I rarely get complements from someone so influential as yourself, so I truly appreciate it." Gerand turned his charismatic tone up to the maximum, careful to not sound like a used car salesman. "Is there anything in particular I can help you with today? Xiomera has been a steadfast, loyal ally to our government, and I would love to return the favor, if I could."

"That is, in fact, exactly why I have called you today," Calhualyana replied warmly. "Are we able to have a....truly private conversation on this line?" It was her way of asking Gerand if his line was also secure.

Gerand paused, considering the security of the phone line and why it would be relevant. "Well, at the moment, I'm not sure any connection in Auria is truly safe. However, I'm alone in my office right now, and this call is on the more advanced government line, so it is likely more private than any other call with one party in Auria. Is that satisfactory?"

”I believe it should be. The connection is also secured on our end.” Calhualyana paused. “The reason for my call, other than to introduce myself, is to discuss the current direction things in Auria are heading. I recently had a rather disturbing conversation with King Andrew.”

"Oh?" Jonathan's eyebrows raised, and he tilted his head in curiosity. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, I was not informed of this call. It seems, even as the Minister of Information, I was kept out of the loop." Despite his joking tone, little was done to mask the subtle venom in Gerand's voice. "May I ask what occured, and what exactly of it you'd like to discuss?"

”I am surprised that you were not informed, as the person responsible for promoting the government’s mission.” The Empress paused before continuing. “The King was displeased with the recent actions of CSSC in Côte-Verte. I will admit that they should have consulted ahead of time before acting, but the situation was critical. The conversation gave me reason to be concerned that the King may no longer want our assistance.”

The Minister pursed his lips. "Well, Your Majesty, I can assure you that Auria still needs your gracious support. We would quickly collapse without Xiomera as a faithful ally. Besides, if my colleague Minister Berenstein knew that His Majesty implied such a thing, she would probably tear down the Palace herself." He smiled, the mental image of Sophie taking a sledgehammer to an ornate stone column amusing him. "But forgive my curiosity, why come to me with this issue? This seems like an issue better suited for Minister Berenstein, or His Majesty himself. I'd be glad to help, I was just wondering how I could assist you in this situation."

”After my conversation with him, I am gravely concerned that the King may decide to do something that is harmful to Auria or to your cause, such as severing ties with us. The recent speech by the Lauchenoirian leader, Alvarez, seemed directly aimed at him at the end. Encouraging him to surrender. Given his current state of mind, I am afraid that he could well take her up on such a suggestion and hand you all over to Lauchenoiria. Especially since Alvarez has just essentially declared war on you.” The Empress placed her most convincing tones of empathy and concern into her voice, doing her best to create a mental picture for Gerand. “Therefore, for your sake and that of our partnership, I am looking for….alternatives. Options, should King Andrew waver in his commitment.” Calhualyana paused there, waiting for Gerand to grasp her point and fill in the sentence.

Gerand was silent for a few seconds, Calhualyana's statement catching him off guard. "...Ah. Well, I can't say I expected this. I'm very appreciative of your offer." He paused again, deep in thought. "I would love to assist you in this regard. However, I have a few concerns. Mainly, how exactly this...transition would occur."

”The details are important,” Calhualyana agreed. “I envision a scenario where the other important leaders of your government - namely Berenstein and Lautrec - agree to support a transition due to the concerns that the King’s leadership is causing a crisis. This could perhaps be positioned as a move away from monarchy altogether, to a theoretically more democratic system. We would also need to gain the support of high-ranking military officers if possible, in order to bypass General Michelin. My intelligence indicates he is highly unlikely to cooperate. But do tell me, what are your thoughts about this?”

Gerand's mind was racing, his heart beating quickly in his chest. "I agree, General Michelin won't cooperate with us, if we go through with this. He's too loyal, and he has too much at stake with Andrew. However, Michelin's inner circle is extremely loyal to him, having been carefully selected for just that purpose. We will have to tread carefully on the military front." His rushing heart and adrenaline rush caused him to rapidly drum his fingers on his desk, tapping in a syncopated, yet random pattern. "I definitely need Sophie- I mean, Minister Berenstein, on my side. Lautrec is a bit less valuable, but he could definitely help us, if we make the right offer. Moving away from the monarchy could gain us some support and legitimacy, and give us more opportunities in the future. Plus, it removes us from the sociopathic grasp of Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier." His tone was more than spiteful at this point, and the bile in his voice was plain to hear.
`
”We will need to tread carefully then. First we should approach Berenstein and Lautrec, and gauge their support for a new direction. From there, we can begin determining who within the military can be counted on and who can not.” The Empress smiled at the hate in Gerand’s voice. “Imperial Intelligence is at your disposal, of course.”

"I'm glad to hear that. I will approach Berenstein myself, likely right after I finish this call. She is my closest confidant within the administration, and a close friend. It won't take much to get her onboard. Lautrec will go wherever the money or opportunity is, so we should focus on convincing him that those perks are with us. I will review the reputations and résumés of many prominent Garda leaders, to see if there are weaknesses that we can exploit. There are bound to be some openings, it's more a matter of finding them. I will be happy to receive any intelligence assistance you can provide. After all, we are facing a growing coalition against us, and we need all the help we can get." Gerand's tone evened out as he calmed down from his adrenaline rush.

”Very good. Once you have a chance to speak with Minister Berenstein, we can all approach Lautrec together to convince him that his best bet is with us. And I will also instruct our intelligence liaison in Auria to begin providing you with any information that we can. The enemy coalition is growing, true. But Imperial Intelligence and our surveillance assets can see them coming from a mile away, and we have had ample time to prepare. As long as we remain united under competent leadership, we can prevail.”

"And with Your Majesty, Myself, and Madame Berenstein, competency of leadership shall no longer be a problem." Gerand attempted to turn his charming tone back on, cautious not to overdue it and insult the Empress. "This is a most unexpected, yet welcome, development. Thank you for your perpetual wisdom and generosity, with your help, Auria is guaranteed to shine again."

”I believe that it will,” Calhualyana agreed pleasantly. “Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you and the other ministers.”

"Thank you so much, Your Majesty. I look forward to working with you more in the future." Gerand waited for the call to disconnect before letting out a large sigh, sitting back in his chair. Oh my God, the Angels above have shown their faces. He grinned at the work he had been previously doing, thinking of a potential future when he would no longer be stuck with such menial tasks.

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#32

In the waters east of Caxcana, the Lauchenoirian ships which had meandered so slowly away from Auria turned on their heels and sped back the way they came. It was a waste of fuel and time, of course, but it had been necessary for the ruse designed to fool Calhualyana. They had, of course, headed away at a much slower speed than they were capable of, as the world did so like to underestimate the Lauchenoirian military.

It was not yet certain that Lauchenoiria would join the war, as the Federal Parliament still had to vote on the matter, however the probability was that they would land ground forces within the next week or so. At the very least, Lauchenoiria was contributing to the war effort in some ways that were yet to be revealed; but they hoped to do more. That would, however, depend on what the Empress decided to do to Lauchenoiria as punishment for the ruse.

Alvarez had anticipated some form of reprisal, but she did not know what form it would take. While the ships maneuvered in the South Xiomeran and Nereus Seas, back home the security services of Lauchenoiria were taking every step they could to protect their country against whichever form of attack Xiomera would choose. New firewalls were installed on government servers, border checkpoint security was almost doubled, parliaments both federal and provincial had their security increased.

The military was on high alert; the seas were scanned for enemy ships and the skies watched intently for enemy aircraft. Decades-old bunkers were cleaned out just in case, and the government had begun to stockpile food stores in case of sabotage to crops. Those who had fought in the resistance during the civil war, and who still kept their guns in spite of laws against it, kept them close and their families closer in case of invasion. People downloaded their cloud files to harddrives, and wrote down landline numbers on paper in case the internet went down.

Lauchenoiria was not at war with Xiomera, though one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The population, however, had all seen war before and recently at that. They prepared for the worst even without the government forcing the matter; and they were all determined to defend their country if it came to that. Nobody quite knew what to expect from Calhualyana, if it would be something small or something devastating. But Lauchenoiria was united in their opposition to her; after Alvarez’s speech her approval ratings had doubled.

In cabinet meetings and in their nightmares, the government of Lauchenoiria speculated about the meaning of the words uttered by the Empress and by the Xiomeran mercenaries fighting in Auria. What did CSSC mean by “ordinary Lauchenoirians… will suffer” given the war was so far from home? Was this a threat of invasion? And to what extent did CSSC’s communications reflect the will of the Xiomeran government? Or was this all misdirection to keep them afraid?

Nobody knew what would come next. The Federal Parliament continued to delay the vote on formally declaring war on King Andrew’s Aurian government in anticipation of Xiomera’s reprisal, wanting to know what they were up against before committing to fight a war so far from home at the same time. Lauchenoiria was holding its breath, staring intently inwards at itself as it waited to see what happened. Only one thing was certain: something would.
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#33

Temporary Aurian Governmental Complex, Central Geminus
March 14th, 2022

The Royal Office in the "Temporary Aurian Governmental Complex" was little bigger than that of a standard middle manager. An old desk, some cabinets, off-white walls, and a thin layer of gray carpet that did little to cushion the feet. Sophie sat behind the desk, which was slightly too tall for her comfort, and silently pondered her current situation, trying to work up the courage to do what she had to.

Shuellian Mercenaries. God damn Shuellian Mercenaries. If someone told me a year ago I'd be inviting Shuellian Mercenaries into Auria, I'd have sent them to a psychiatrist. She took a couple steady breaths, before picking up the older phone and dialing the number that the Lauchenoirian Government had provided. Please, Angels, don't fail me now.

In a call center nestled somewhere in Shuell, a phone rings. A man with a dry, monotone voice answers - some unimportant bureaucrat in the grand scheme of things. "You're speaking with a representative of the Kruger-Meszaros Corporation, established in 1549. For over 400 years, we've provided the best money can buy." An advert, clearly.

The man pauses, fumbling with what sounds like paperwork. "Ah, my apologies. I see hear that you were referred to us by another client. We were informed that someone with this number would be calling with a larger contract for us. How can we help?"

"I am Queen Sophie Laurent of Auria, calling as a representative of the Aurian Government. We are interested in hiring the services of Kruger-Meszaros, for evident geopolitical reasons." Sophie spoke with her neutral business tone, not wanting to make any impression of snobbery or unprofessionalism. "Would you be able to assist me in this regard? To my knowledge, the Aurian government has never contracted... Help of this kind before, and so I am currently unaware of the hiring process."

"The Aurian Government in Exile, I presume? You'll be pleased to know that Kruger-Meszaros is no stranger to government contracts in both the security and defense fields. Are you interested in purchasing small arms, security forces, armored vehicles, or aircraft today?"

"We'd be interested in several kinds of arms and vehicles, as well as potentially contracting your security forces. Our citizens back home are rising up against their oppressors, and while they have fought nobly thus far, without weapons, they will be quickly overrun. If it would be possible, we would also be interested in contracting KM's reputable security forces, in order to train our resistance members how to use their new arms... And potentially fight alongside them, depending on the circumstances. Would that be something Kruger-Meszaros could agree to?" The Aurian Queen briefly held her breath, awaiting a response.

The man pulls away from the phone, with muffled shouting heard in the background. "An extensive contract. You clearly know how to pick the best of the best. Kruger-Meszaros will be more than able to provide both the equipment required and the advisors - the combat package is complementary in this situation. Do note that anything other than small arms will cost extra, of course, as everything provided will be produced in-house. Is this acceptable?"

Sophie internally sighed, pursing her lips. "Of course. Would there be any possibility of a negotiation to reduce cost? Say, an agreement to contract KM as a supplier of arms in the future? Once the true Aurian Government is restored, we will need to rebuild our military, mostly from the ground up. That poses an opportunity for both of our organizations, does it not?

“I’m afraid I’m not in a position to say if that will work - but I’ll certainly pass it on to my superiors. Would the Aurian government be willing to accept an exclusive deal with the Kruger-Meszaros Corporation? Let’s say… over half of any military equipment purchased would have to be produced by our company. We’d be willing to throw in a loyalty discount for a 10-year contract.”

Sophie thought for a moment. "Well, I would have to negotiate the specifics and present it to Prime Minister Arquette and Parliament. I'm not sure what percentage we'd be willing to agree to, but this contract would likely be subject to further negotiation anyway, so I will work quickly and find an acceptable amount. But rest assured, as we rebuild, Kruger-Meszaros will make a large profit from our patronage." She leaned back in her small chair. "How quickly would Kruger-Meszaros like, or be able to, deploy? We have a very tenuous situation here, and if we move too slowly, we may lose any chance of success. And as that would be quite detrimental to both of our interests, anything we can do as soon as possible would be ideal."

"We'll need two weeks to prepare the initial deployment. Further reinforcements will arrive once we have the means to do so. We'll need to establish contact with rebel forces beforehand, of course - would you be able to provide them? Best to prevent any friendly fire incidents."

"Of course. We have contact with them through old military channels at a rebel held base outside Côte-Verte, and we would be more than happy to act as a liaison." The Queen blinked a few times, overcome with an odd mixture of hope, anxiety, and relief. "Thank you very much for your time. I will make a few calls to negotiate with the rest of the Aurian Government, and then call back with some additional details on payment. Would you like me to call this number when I do?"

"Yes, that would be advised. After payment details are finalized, you'll be connected with the relevant security coordinators to prepare for our arrival. Will that be all for now?"

"Yes, I believe so. Thank you again." Sophie stood up immediately after the call was disconnected, stretching out to get rid of her excess energy. "Thank you, Angelei!" The Aurian Queen whispered to herself, hands folded in an appreciative prayer, before sitting back down and grabbing her phone. The work's not done yet.

April 6th, 2022

A small troopship slips through the blockade surrounding Auria, carrying about a hundred men and at least twice as many guns. They had studied the landscape for weeks, using tourist maps and old guidebooks to figure out a landing zone. There was no real risk of being caught, with the Lauchenoirians turning a blind eye to their arrival- but it was paramount to maintain pretenses for the time being.

The soldiers inside buckle their seatbelts as the transport comes to a rough stop, beaching itself on a stretch of abandoned coastline. Officers bark out orders to their men as they haul crates full of arms and ammunition onto the shore. Over the radio, a woman reads off a series of numbers - one of many broadcasted in the last week. To the untrained ear, the numbers meant nothing. To the rebels fighting in Auria, however, it was a sign: their salvation had arrived.

A line of uniformed Aurians stood on the coarse, desolate beach, hearing the occasional explosion of an artillery shell in the far-off distance. The struggle to maintain defensive fortifications had been intensified by constant bombardment, the Xiomeran mercenaries attempting to crush any defense the resistance may have. Who would have guessed that mercenaries would also help save the Aurian resistance?

Former Major Julian Dauchez stood at the front of the line, quickly advancing to the landing transports as they began unloading. "Welcome. I'm Major... Eh, Commander Dauchez". His English was decently accented, but understandable. At least, so he hoped. He gestured for his soldiers to join the crate-hauling Shuellians, before turning to the nearest mercenary. "Where is your commanding officer, and could I speak with them, soldier?"

The soldier jerks his head in the direction of a vaguely important-looking man wearing a grey slouch hat. "Captain Hopfer. There."

The captain, noticing their arrival on the beach, leisurely walks over and salutes. "I assume you're the one in charge of these men?" He asks, noticing the chevrons on Dauchez's uniform. "Good to see someone here has some experience. Captain Siegfried Hopfer, Kruger-Meszaros. What's the situation like here?"

"Not good. Those damn bastards have reduced a number of our defensive fortifications to rubble, and we are running short on supplies. Your arrival is... What is the phrase?" It's Ēzdavēga in Eirian." He thought for a moment. "Opportune. Your arrival is opportune." He examined the passing crates and munitions with approval. "What all were you able to bring on this first round?"`

Hopfer shakes his head. "Could be better. Could be much worse." He gestures at the crates behind him being set up on the beach. "We couldn't get as much as we wanted - any larger and we risked getting detected early. No ground vehicles, no heavy explosives. Those'll be later waves. Right now we're bringing you KM's best - guns, and lots of them. We've got a couple crates worth of lighter explosives, too. Portable things - grenades. Anti-tank, air. So on." The captain spoke laconically - simple words, things that could be learned in phrasebooks.

Dauchez nodded. "Thank you, Captain. My soldiers will get these distributed right away." He pursed his lips. "We have around five hundred loyal soldiers, and a couple hundred more loyal partisans holding down the base. Côte-Verte is currently held by additional partisans, but their hold is tenuous at best, and the only reason that they remain controlling the town is because the Mercenaries and Garda leaders are more interested in retaking the base. We must move immediately, or we risk being forced back to the city in a street-by-street battle."

"We have two platoons worth of men - about a hundred strong. Do you have contact with the base? How many are attacking? Any armored? We can send a platoon to reinforce the city, and the other to relieve them alongside your soldiers."

"None are attempting to push us out of the base outright, however we are under intense shelling campaigns, and some of our forces met resistance attempting to secure a nearby field outside of the base. They seem to be softening us up for the kill." Dauchez's tone turned stoic and firm, almost vicious. "Thank you. My soldiers have rarely had time to rest, and could use some relief."

A soldier rushed up to Dauchez, quickly standing at attention to show her respect for Dauchez and the Shuellian Captain. "Sir, we received a transmission on an older frequency. It repeats a single phrase over and over, likely pre-recorded. It says 'Tap breilsei ut soilsei, stavem unicaj.'"

Dauchez's eyebrows raised, and he glanced back at the Shuellian officer to translate. "It means 'Like brothers and sisters, we stand united." He paused, the meaning of the phrase hitting him. "I believe the Eirians are on their way. We may have some additional help soon."

The captain nodded, before frowning. He gazed at the assortment of weapons held by the rebels, shaking his head. “Pa’s hunting rifle might kill in the right hands, but I think our KR-10s might do you a little better in the field. Tell your soldiers to swap their arms when they have the chance - they’ll be in the green crates.”

He speaks into the radio at his side, before looking at Dauchez. “We weren’t informed about this. Can you establish contact without revealing yourselves? See if we can coordinate a relief attack, quickly.”

"I can certainly try. It has certainly been a struggle finding secure channels, but once the Eirians are here, we can use safer methods of communication than cycling older codes." Dauchez gave a quick command to a nearby lower officer in fast-paced Aurian. "Pandiet leis autsei izat leis ērosei danz leis kastei velts." He gave a quick nod to the Captain before picking up a rifle himself, examining it briefly. "Well, shall we get to work?"

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#34

Huitzitaca, Xiomera
April 7th, 2022

Every major city in Xiomera had industry in large supply. However, every city also had a major industry that it prided itself on and was the center of for the Empire. In Tlilotl'pac, it was the tech sector. In Xochiatipan, the Xiomeran automotive industry drove the city's destiny. Huajicori was the proud purveyor of natural resources, both above and under the ground.

Huitzitaca was a different sort of company town. It was the home of the Imperial Admiralty and the Imperial Naval Academy, and the pride of the Empire's rapidly growing naval prowess. It was also a second home for a related private industry - Xiomera's massive defense contractor complex. Almost all of Xiomera's defense contractors had major offices and manufacturing facilities in the Gateway City. They were there to supply the Navy, but also to supply Huitzitaca's second largest enterprise other than the fleet. Huitzitaca was known as the Gateway City for its historic role in ages past, when the city was the only port where foreigners were allowed to enter the Empire. But Huitzitaca had an even older moniker - the City of the Tlaquehualli.

Back in ages when the Empire had been just a dream in the minds of Xiomeran rulers fighting their Huenyan neighbors, Huitzitaca had always supplied the muscle-for-hire that Xiomera relied on to boost its armies. From hundreds, then dozens, of mercenary outfits known as tlaquehualli, one had risen to overtake and gobble up their rivals nationwide and become the single biggest security enterprise in Xiomera. One of the biggest in the world.

Just north of the sprawling Port of Huitzitaca, largest in Xiomera, a massive corporate campus dominated the area. It wasn't anything like the trendy tech firm campuses in Tlilotl'pac, or the luxurious and buttoned-up corporate towers in Tlālacuetztla. Part war academy, part proving grounds, part garrison, part research center and part corporate center, the CSSC Headquarters Complex was home to the single strongest military force in the Empire outside of the Imperial Armed Forces themselves.

On the streets around CSSC Headquarters, signs and banners extolled the virtues of the corporation. CSSC mercenaries were shown in huge depictions as noble men and women thwarting criminals, protecting the peace, and helping people. Each banner bore the CSSC motto: Making the world safe for a better tomorrow.

CSSC did, in fact, provide all sorts of relatively benign security and public service functions. The security guard at the local mall, the workers building infrastructure or helping with disasters in faraway places, the friendly old woman working as a crossing guard outside a school could all be on the CSSC payroll. But there were others on that payroll as well, and their purpose was far less benign than helping your average student cross the street to get to class.

At the top of the soaring tower at the center of the complex that was home to the executive offices, CSSC's leaders found themselves in a dilemma. They were now facing a potential onslaught from two actual nations' standing armies, Eiria and Lauchenoiria. Milintica would be there too, but they hardly mattered. It was the other two that would pose a problem. CSSC had no hard intelligence to show that Queen Sophie had recruited additional help, but they also could not discount the possibility that she had. King Andrew had availed himself of mercenaries, after all; it would be foolish to assume that Sophie might not try a similar gambit.

CSSC could no longer get anything other than trivial numbers of forces or supplies into Auria, with the vise from outside the country closing in. But they had poured thousands of troops into Auria in the year prior, along with enough weapons to arm every Aurian twice over and some of Xiomera's finest heavy hardware to boot. They were as ready as they could possibly be for what was coming. And they still had a few tricks up their sleeve for Eiria and Lauchenoiria, if push came to shove.

While CSSC was essentially the defacto private army and plausible deniability force of the Xiomeran Empire, it could have refused to stick to the Aurian contract in the face of what was coming. Even Empress Calhualyana, for all her power, had no desire to make an enemy of CSSC and potentially have to deal with CSSC deciding to try for a regime change closer to home than Auria. CSSC, however, was not in the habit of running from a fight. They hadn't earned their reputation, and their billions, by being cowards. They also preferred to fight Eiria and Lauchenoiria, and take their chances, rather than risk a fight with the Empress. So the finest men and women that the City of the Tlaquehualli could produce dug in, reinforced their already impressive defenses with renewed fervor, and prepared to fight.

They were, after all, still Xiomerans. And Xiomerans loved a good fight.

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Recent naval movements around Auria had not escaped the notice of Imperial Intelligence. The IIA prided themselves on having eyes everywhere that mattered. A step would therefore be taken to address that situation. 

CSSC had avoided mining the waters around Auria prior to now, mainly to prevent any possible accidental destruction of their own supply ships. That was no longer a concern, since supply ships couldn't get to them anymore. It was now time for the rapid deployment of yet another fine product of the Coatōn Corporation. The C67 Michpatlāni (flying fish) naval influence mine combined acoustic, magnetic and pressure sensors, a sophisticated targeting computer and a high explosive warhead to be a major nightmare to any approaching ships. The Michpatlāni was capable of being deployed by aircraft, helicopters or surface vessels, with a gratifyingly high speed and low relative cost. It was an extremely effective area denial weapon, and CSSC would soon make it as common in the waters around Auria as actual fish.

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#35

Lauchenoirian Federal Parliament
April 7th

As the votes were counted, everyone already knew what the result would say. The only parties against were the Pacifists (signalling tension in both the Green-Pacifist Alliance and the governing coalition, but that was tomorrow’s problem in everyone’s eyes), and Lauchenoiria First. Even the Communists had only abstained, calling the forthcoming conflict a war between capitalists and more capitalists, and thus not worthy of their time. The Feminist Party voted in favour, which came as a surprise, but their four measly representatives would not have had an effect either way in face of the overwhelming majority.

This was how Lauchenoiria formally declared war on King Andrew’s Aurian government.

They had waited, after Alvarez’s speech. First to give the Shuellian mercenaries time to get ready; they had, after all, been the ones to suggest them to Queen Sophie. Officially, they were giving people time to express their opinions on a possible conflict. Above both of those reasons, however, above that which they told their allies and that which they told their people, the Lauchenoirian government had been waiting to see what Xiomera would do.

The last time Lauchenoiria had pissed off a Xiomeran Empress, only grovelling had saved them from a terrible fate. Even with that, there had been consequences and Alvarez’s fear of Yauhmi continued to this day even as the Prime Minister tried to get over it. This time, she had entered into her deception in the full knowledge that there would be retaliation. She braced for it, and the rest of Lauchenoiria braced for it too… and it had not yet come.

Perhaps this was part of it, Alvarez mused as the votes were counted. Perhaps Calhualyana was toying with them, leaving them to imagine the worst, to anticipate disaster for so long that the anxiety was its own punishment. Still, they hadn’t been able to delay the vote any longer. Whatever the Empress had in mind, it was not going to prevent Lauchenoiria from going to war in Auria. Alvarez only hoped that they wouldn’t regret this; that Xiomera wouldn’t do something which destroyed them.

“May I have your attention please,” the speaker called, clearing his throat. “With 281 votes in favour, 45 against and 34 abstentions, the motion calling for a declaration of war on the government of King Andrew of Auria passes.”

It was done. For better or for worse, it was done.

Alvarez hoped she wouldn’t live to regret this.
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#36

Lauchenoiria had already been prepared for the outcome of the vote. During the seemingly chaotic manoeuvrings of the naval vessels, they had managed to get their troop carriers into the waters surrounding Auria, and it was only two days after the Eirian forces landed that the Lauchenoirians followed. The Shuellian mercenaries had not been the only ships that Lauchenoiria had considered necessary to cover for.

The blockade had not, of course, fallen as of yet. They’d planned to sweep around and capture one of the vessels Xiomera had sent with supplies, while pretending to withdraw, but unfortunately the enemy was slippery. Never mind. They would stay in place, allowing their own ships and their allies to pass, while vehemently denying access to King Andrew’s cronies or his Imperial partners.

At the same time, they continued to attempt to get messages through to Andrew and the others in Auria who had been behind the coup, warning them of Calhualyana’s schemes and imploring them to do the right thing and refuse to allow their country to become the latest outpost of the Xiomeran Empire. Lauchenoiria did not think it likely that Andrew would accept, but they did so on the off chance. If he did so, they would still have to arrest the plotters to make their point about coups, but there were ways to turn such a situation to their ideological advantage.

The main problems as Lauchenoiria saw it were two things: one, the threats coming from CSSC and Xiomera against their own land, and the likelihood that CSSC and their Aurian helpers would be willing to go all-out on the war crimes, especially if they thought they were losing. The Milinticans were also a thorn in the plan, but not a very big one. Command had made it very clear to all members of the Lauchenoirian military that they would not tolerate any friendly fire incidents no matter how much communist propaganda was thrown at them.

This was a chance for redemption. Many of the soldiers approaching Auria had been those who chose the wrong side in their own civil war; who had fought for Chaher before the Haven talks and the TRC and the revelations about Charissa Clarke’s Aurora status. It had been the revelation about Auroras that truly ended the war in a conclusive way, of course. If they had not been manipulated by Kerlians, many Chaherites wouldn’t have accepted this government of Alvarez’s. Yet Kerlile was a far greater threat to both sides of Lauchenoirian society, and they needed to redeem themselves in the eyes of their people and wash the Kerlian taint away.

As the first Lauchenoirian troops landed on Aurian soil, there was an air of anticipation throughout all of Lauchenoiria, and further afield, that whatever came next, it would mark a turning point; a beginning or an end; or perhaps both.
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#37

(Joint Post with Xiomera)

First Minister's Office, Lumière
April 16th, 2022, 3:27 PM

First Minister Sarah Berenstein was never one who enjoyed the static safety of complacency. So when her good friend Jonathan Gerand had approached her with an ambitious plan to remove the erroneous King Andrew and take Auria's helm for their own, she had been quick to agree. However, her desire for independence had also made her more suspect of the potential backers to their plot.

And as she sat alone in her office, tapping the foot of her boot on the carpeted floor, she grew ever more suspicious of their foreign benefactors. Calhualyana wouldn't have put so much at stake without reason. We were fools to let her in unrestricted. But that begs the question: what all does she want?

She glanced over at the laptop sitting on the side of the desk, opened to tabs of intelligence briefings and Gerand's news articles. Well, why not go straight to the source? As she attempted to open her secure video call program, she grabbed a blue pen from an upper drawer, clicking a hidden button on the side until the handle glowed. Perfect. Let's see how much Her Majesty wants to chat.

When the call came into her office, the Empress was somewhat expecting it. She had asked Gerand to have the other coup plotters reach out to her. Calhualyana thus took the call with a measure of confidence - but not trust. That was something she kept in limited supply. “Good afternoon, Minister Berenstein. This is Calhualyana. To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?”

Berenstein pulled her suit downwards subconsciously, adjusting her blood red tie to appear presentable. "Good afternoon, Your Majesty. I admit, I am rarely one for social calls. I wish to discuss our plans for the future of Aurian governance. But before we do, if it'd be okay with you, I'd like to ask you a question."

”Of course. What would you like to ask?” Calhualyana was curious as to what the question would be.

"Well, first I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude for your assistance thus far. Your selfless assistance of our cause has been an incomparable help to our efforts." Berenstein delicately chose her words, monitoring her own tone and guarding her intentions likewise. "But, as gracious as you have been in helping, I can't imagine that it was out of kindness alone. And as it would be inconsiderate to only think of the interest of one's own country, I must ask: What do you need from Auria? What do you want from Auria?" She curled her lips into a neutral smile, awaiting an answer.

Calhualyana sighed mentally to herself at the thought that yet another of the Aurian ‘leaders’ might be wavering. She allowed no trace of that irritation to cross her face, however, retaining her professional demeanor. “Xiomera wants and needs to form strategic partnerships with friendly nations. That has always been our goal in Auria, which has not changed. Is there a particular concern that you may be having?”

"Not a particular concern. Just professional curiosity. Perhaps my days as a political analyst have made me too analytical." The First Minister raised her eyebrows. "However, I don't believe I'm wrong in this regard. You've risked too much on Auria to only want our friendship. It's not my intention to sound ungrateful, but you have also supported Gerand and I to overthrow the government you previously supported. You wouldn't have done this if it didn't suit your interests. So, this begs the question: What do you want? I humbly ask that you do speak in full honestly, so we can assist your government to the best of our ability. After all, there is little need for a diplomatic façade between allies." Berenstein attempted to make herself appear as cunning as Calhualyana, while toeing the line of diplomatic respect.

The Empress would never allow herself to show someone they had caught her attention by raising her eyebrows, as Berenstein did. But while her gaze did not sharpen, her thoughts certainly did. No fool like Gerand or Andrew, you are. If you really want us to place all our cards on the table, let’s play. “I see you prefer to be direct, as I do. Very well, let us be direct. Xiomera has taken it upon itself to take a more direct hand in managing your situation because of the incompetence of Andrew’s leadership. This may well make it seem as if we wish to reduce Auria to a vassal state. We do not. Xiomera needs strong and capable allies by its side, just as I have said. This is why I am now seeking new leadership in Auria who can help us right the ship before it is too late. You do have foreign troops supporting Sophie on your soil now, after all. That being said, if things continue as they are under Andrew, Xiomera will have to protect its investment and interest in Auria in a more direct fashion than we have up to now. You and Gerand, to be blunt, are the best chance to prevent that and ensure that the relationship between Xiomera and Auria does become one of equals.”

"I am glad to hear that. And I can reassure you, Your Majesty, that we will prove ourselves to be much better leaders than Andrew has. I would also like to apologize for supporting him thus far. I had imagined he would be more... Malleable. But, it seems that his mind has buckled under the weight of power." Berenstein's face took on an appearance of very real disdain. "In order to advance, we will likely have to dispose of General Michelin. Andrew's no threat himself, but Michelin doesn't want the strings on his puppet cut. I've been investigating a few major players in the Garda Nacōnals whom we could promote in his stead. I'm trying to look for people Michelin has wronged in the past. So far, I haven't found anything of note, but with a man like Michelin, there are always people who want him gone. It's only a matter of finding out who and why."``

”I would suggest moving on that with haste,” the Empress replied. “The enemy invasion has already begun, and a change of leadership is hard even under the best of circumstances. Imperial Intelligence can assist you, if you wish.” Calhualyana paused for a moment, then actually smiled. “I believe it will be a pleasure working with you, Minister. Out of all the individuals I have dealt with in Auria, you seem to be….the sharpest.”

Berenstein briefly nodded her head in appreciation. "Thank you. However, don't underestimate Minister Gerand. He's very perceptive, and uses that and his silver tongue to get what he wants from people. He just doesn't question things if he doesn't think it suits his interests to. I've always been a bit too curious myself. It's both a blessing and a curse, I'm afraid." The Minister gave Calhualyana a slight smile. "I look forward to working more with you, Your Majesty. May our nations grow strong with our mutual relationship."

Calhualyana’s own expression grew a tiny bit more impressed with Berenstein’s emphasis on the word mutual. “That is my hope as well. Have a good afternoon, Minister. I look forward to speaking with you again.”

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#38

(Joint Post with Xiomera)

Throne Room, Royal Palace, Lumiere
April 24th, 6:37 PM

General Teoctlehue stood ramrod straight, in a position of parade rest with his hands clasped behind him. He stared impassively at the antique throne in front of him. It didn’t impress him. He had stood before the Obsidian Throne before; the Aurian throne was a polite piece of furniture in comparison.

The CSSC general had once served a similar role in the Imperial Army, before retiring with forty years of service under his belt. He had used that experience to land another lucrative role with CSSC, but he was anything but a kindly old man enjoying a cushy post-retirement role. Teoctlehue had maintained the wiry strength of his youth, through a combination of grueling exercise and rigid self-discipline. He was just as sharp, and as deadly, as he had been when he had first left boot camp decades before.

The discipline that had served him so well in life did have its limits, however. The indecisive and distracted Aurian leadership was sorely testing that discipline. They had brought him up short with their complaints when he had wanted to move on the Côte-Verte base. That had allowed the base to become a bridgehead for a full-on invasion. Troops were pouring into southern Auria. And, still, Michelin and Andrew did nothing. It was as if they wanted to lose.

Teoctlehue had no patience left for such sloth-like incompetence. He had asked for a meeting with the two Aurian leaders because it was time to move. One way or another. Either they would agree to make a play, or CSSC would have to decide if the game was worth playing after all.

The General waited, seemingly staring through the throne, for his hosts to arrive.

The polished mahogany doors swung open, revealing King Andrew Laurent-Cordonnier and General Michelin, the (supposedly) most powerful men in all of Auria. The King was quick to take the gilded throne, crossing his legs and meeting the Xiomeran General's gaze. "Good evening, General. How may we assist you today? I take it you're not here for tea and pleasantries." Michelin had taken a resolute pose behind the throne, silently observing.

”Good evening, your Majesty.” Teoctlehue gave a short bow, as much deference as a Xiomeran soldier would ever show a monarch who was not the Empress. “Thank you for taking the time to see me. And as time is of the essence, I will indeed be direct. The situation in Côte-Verte has grown extremely serious. The base there is now serving as a bridgehead for foreign troops loyal to Sophie. We must move on the base and seek to eliminate that bridgehead at once. If we do not, your foreign and domestic enemies will only grow stronger with each passing day. I am asking for CSSC to be allowed to move immediately against the base with our full capacity, and for the assistance of your armies as well.”

The King was quiet for a moment, considering his words. "I must thank you for consulting me this time. This alliance runs much smoother when its leadership is consulted before actions are taken." His tone, while innocuous, did little to mask the passive agression of his words. "And, while I have slight reservations on your opinion of how drastic this situation is, I do agree that something must be done. That rabble of rebels must be in dire need of supplies by now, and I take it that CSSC's minefield has prevented foreign resupply efforts?"

”Not entirely. The minefield has certainly made it harder and slower for them to resupply, but no passive defense is perfect. Lauchenoiria, Eiria and Milintica are assisting in the efforts to bolster that bridgehead. This is why we have to move quickly,” Teoctlehue replied. He managed to hide his amazement that Auria’s own intelligence services hadn’t made their King aware of the gravity of the situation.

"Ah. It's a shame that those mining efforts were unsuccessful." Michelin gave Andrew an unreadable look, which the king pointedly ignored. "In that case, I wholeheartedly agree. We cannot let foreign nations exploit our own internal... Issues for their own benefit. General Michelin will correspond with you further. He is the best military officer in this country by far, and I trust his judgement immensely. I hope that this will give CSSC an opportunity to prove their reputation. Best of luck, gentlemen. I have a dinner to attend with Minister Lautrec and a number of influential supporters, and I have faith that both of you-" He glanced between the two Generals while standing and buttoning his coat. "-will not disappoint me." He left out the same ornate doors he had entered through, and they shut behind him with an echoingclick.

After Andrew had departed, Teoctlehue entertained himself with brief thoughts of using the distant and arrogant Aurian monarch for target practice. He did not let any sign of those mental musings cross his face as he looked at General Michelin. “It appears we have much to discuss as far as plans. Would you like to speak here, or is there a more appropriate place for this discussion?”

General Michelin watched the closed door for a few moments, a well-masked expression on his face, before turning to face Teoctlehue. "If you don't mind, there is a lounge further down the west side of the palace, we could talk there, in comfortable privacy." His voice, while deep, wasn't gruff or coarse, but somewhat muted, with little trace of an detectable accent. He gestured to the set of doors opposite the one Andrew left through, waiting for a reply from the Xiomeran.

”Very well, please lead the way,” Teoctlehue replied pleasantly. He wasn’t as familiar with the Palace as Michelin was, having only visited it a few times since arriving in Auria. But he also had the instincts of an old soldier, and didn’t often let someone walk behind him in unfamiliar territory. Not even an ally. You never knew when there might be a knife waiting for your back.

Michelin obliged, leading the fellow General down a halfways of polished granite, into a carpeted room with maroon walls and elegant wooden trim. A large bar filled the far wall of the room, and the rest was filled with comfortable-looking couches and large tables embedded with glass. "Please, make yourself comfortable. There are glasses in the upper right cabinet, if you'd like. We should have this area to ourselves, so our plans will be secure." Michelin sat down on one of the chairs, watching the Xiomeran general's actions closely, but not aggressively.

Teoctlehue thanked Michelin and sat down without taking any alcohol. He could drink many people under the table, when the time called for it. A strategy session was not the time.

“I must apologize again for acting prematurely when the naval base in Côte-Verte was taken over. It was not my intention to usurp you. But the situation has grown more serious.”

"No need to apologize. You didn't usurp me. In fact, you were doing precisely what I wanted to do." Michelin nodded at Teoctlehue, pursing his lips. "I'm not entirely incompetent, General. I had plans drawn up to retake Queen Marija's that morning after it was taken. We could've fixed this mess before it even became a mess." He trailed off, his voice taking on a shade of contempt. "But Andrew refused. He wants to save the base, and try to capture as many insurgents as laborers. He's not a military man, never has been. Even the other Ministers were skeptical of his opinions. But Andrew's wrath, at the moment at least, is infamous. No one wants to risk setting him off more."

Teoctlehue nodded. “I had gathered as much. I suppose, given the nature of most Xiomeran rulers, I am somewhat immune to that effect,” he said with a small chuckle. “I believe you to be quite capable, when you are not being unduly restrained. But what general can fight with his arms tied behind his back?”

"A general who knows how to kick, I suppose." He glanced subconsciously at the door. "But such limitations shall no longer be an issue. His Majesty has, for the time, deferred to my judgement. And if he changes his mind... I've known him for a long time. I know how to deal with him." He turned back to General Teoctlehue. "Now that the rebels in Côte-Verte are reinforced, we must act fast. I know CSSC bombarding forces are in position, but are you prepared for an actual assault of the area with infantry?"

”We have been prepared for some time,” Teoctlehue replied. “There are currently two brigade combat teams in position to move now. Our constant bombardment should have softened up the enemy enough for a ground assault now. Any additional forces you can supply, of course, will be beneficial. But I have 8,000 troops ready to move now. We can call on additional reserves if needed, but we have the armor and people in place for an initial strike in depth to gauge the enemy’s strength.”

"Perfect. You will be reinforced by thousands of Garda troops from surrounding regions, and we should work on coordinating a secure perimeter, in order to prevent the enemy from discerning any weakness in our defenses. Now that they have a semi-stable supply route, we cannot afford a break in the line. We also do not know how many more forces they may bring, so we must move quickly, but carefully." The Aurian General's voice had gotten significantly more substantial, taking on the tone of a determined commander.

”Agreed. We must also work to disable, or at least disrupt, that supply line. I will order our anti-ship and anti-air defense systems to begin targeting enemy ships and planes seeking to arrive within the perimeter of the enemy beachhead. Between your forces and ours, we should present a formidable defense. Your troops are now quite familiar with Xiomeran weapons systems, and that should prove to be a significant advantage. I know our technology is a match for anything the enemy might bring to bear.” Teoctlehue smiled more broadly. “We also, thanks to our connections with Imperial Intelligence, have excellent real-time intelligence data of the combat zone. They won’t be able to hide or sneak past us.”

"I am quite grateful for that news. Those advantages will prove more than useful in the battles ahead." Michelin's tone turned from optimistic to resolute. "I must be frank. The Garda Nacōnals is suffering. Morale is at a record low, we have attempted defections across the board, and conscription efforts are stalling due to unrest. If we sustain heavy losses at Côte-Verte, I'm not sure the Garda will recover in the near future. We are spread much too thin, and we risk more unrest and revolts if we fail to retake Queen Marija's."

”Then we had best make sure not to fail.” Teoctlehue tapped the arm of his chair. “I will task additional assets as needed to the assault. Also, with your permission, CSSC can begin taking more proactive steps to rein in unrest, re-establish authority and aid in the conscription efforts."

"Thank you. I'll let you know when and where that assistance is necessary." Michelin's demeanor had shifted, becoming almost... regretful. "I must ask for your discretion. The King does not like these facts discussed outside the Council of Ministers. But, seeing as you are an ally, and you will likely be affected by these problems directly, I see no need to hide this from you." His eyes narrowed. "The King does not understand what it takes to serve in the military. His misconceptions could cost us greatly if we abide by them blindly."

Teoctlehue nodded. “There is nothing worse than a military campaign led by non-military men. As the two men whose job it is to ensure this government and nation are protected, we must keep counsel with each other, and act in the best interest of our shared mission. I will keep any conversations we have between us and make sure that our plans serve the common interest.”

Michelin's expression hardened once again, concealing any emotion it had just shown. "Very well. I will go to the Garda headquarters immediately, and make the necessary arrangements for a full assault on Côte-Verte. As soon as we have a full plan compiled, I will send it to you and your officers. Thank you very much, General. You've been a steadfast ally, and I appreciate your support. With your help, Auria may be truly free from foreign manipulation and internal struggle."

Teoctlehue nodded, standing up. “I look forward to seeing your plan and working together to eliminate this resistance once and for all. Good evening, General.” The CSSC commander nodded politely and left the room, already mentally planning out how CSSC would participate in the upcoming attack.

Michelin nodded back, watching the mercenary general leave the room. Hopefully he's placated enough to be cooperative in the future. He stood, grabbing the phone in his pocket and dialing the number of the Garda Headquarters. It's time to clean up this mess, once and for all.

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#39

Five Miles (Eight Kilometers) Southwest of Côte-Verte, Auria
May 11th, 2022, 4:26 AM

Corporal Kalninš was getting tired of the explosions. And the rain. And… everything, really.

The muted sounds of artillery fire in the distance was a slow cadence in the background of their preparations, reflecting the tempo of war in Auria. The coalition army, while substantial, was surrounded by CSSC and Garda Nacōnals forces that outnumbered them greatly, keeping them limited to a (not insignificant) strip of shoreline around Côte-Verte. The constant shelling of their fortifications was an issue, but dwarfed in comparison to the supply issues the coalition now faced. With mines making naval approaches incredibly risky and anti-aircraft batteries effectively preventing air missions, any supply runs they could get wobe uld be few and far between.

“Why is Auria so wet this time of year? I know we’re close to the coast, but Mei Kašiet, I’d prefer not to be swimming in my uniform.” An Eirian Private joked, wringing the sleeve of his uniform out. The past two days had been nothing but rain, forcing the rebels and their allies to shelter in Côte-Verte or temporary camps, like the one the six soldiers were sitting in. Kalninš only gave a slight nod in reply, his mind drifting to the older Aurian couple who gave him shelter two nights ago, before they left the city and headed southwest. For angel’s sake, we have to protect civilians now too. As if we didn’t have enough problems to deal with.

Another Eirian Private in the group piped up, crossing her arms. “As if fighting a land war in Eiria would be any better. During winter, you’d be frozen solid or up to your shoulders in snow. I’d take the rain any day of the week.” The Aurian Corporal gave a slight smile, amused at how the Eirian soldiers spoke. How can the same language have such different tonalities with the exact same vocabulary? It’s a wonder we can understand each other.

A young soldier flung open the makeshift door to their tent, seemingly out of breath. “Soh… Soldiers pushing the limits of the boundary. They look to be Garda. We need… we need everyone there to maintain the current boundary.”

The soldiers wasted no time, almost flying out of the tent and making a beeline for the camp’s ammunition storage. Officers and resistance members alike quickly distributed weapons to the large crowd of Coalition soldiers, who quickly began a hurried dash down a long, abandoned road, attempting to reach the front lines of the skirmish that had just begun.

The distant booms of artillery shells were blocked by the sound of hundreds of boots hitting the asphalt, the sound of their desperate running echoing across nearby fields. As the diverse group of soldiers marched headfirst towards danger and potential death, one thing became abundantly clear:

The Battle of Côte-Verte had begun.

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#40

Outside the town of Jōlceda, Northern Auria, driving southwest on Regional Highway 24
May 11th, 5:02 AM

The long convoy of large military transport trucks took up much of Private Sofija Eglite’s rear view mirror as she drove down the thin county road, vainly fighting off the growing symptoms of exhaustion. The dark sky of the early morning was only slightly starting to lighten, a comforting sign an hour into their long journey to Côte-Verte. Luckily, they were told they wouldn’t be fighting, so Eglite didn’t have to worry about accidentally falling asleep in a trench.

Eglite’s partner, Robert Petersons, was fast asleep in the passenger’s seat, snoring louder than a lawnmower running over broken glass. Eglite was half-tempted to push him out the window before she got a migraine, but wisely decided against it. She pondered their current assignment, holding a miniature conversation with herself to keep herself awake. The higher ups think we need “every distant soldier we can get” for these supply runs. You’d think they’d assign us to Côte-Verte, where we’re actually needed. I guess they need supplies more than anything. But still, do we really need this many soldiers for a supply convoy? They’re not going to attack us out here.

I mean, what are the odds?


She noted the rusted town sign on the side of the road that read “Lienav a Jōlceda. Popūlācōn: 5,286”. Wow, small town. Nice view though. I wonder if the people in “Nice town” are really as nice as the town name claims. She looked through the windows of the small businesses, furrowing her eyebrows when she didn’t see many people. Where is everyone? The few people walking on the street ducked inside storefronts and houses awhen the convoy passed them, covering their faces with whatever they had on hand. Are we really that frightening? We’re carrying supplies, for God’s sake.

Two loud bangs rang out in quick succession, causing Eglite to look around frantically. “Is someone shooting? Where a-”

The driver’s side window suddenly shattered, a quick moving projectile narrowly brushing past the Private’s head. It was so close, she could feel the bullet flying through her hair. She ducked down in the driver's seat, reaching for her sidearm…

And seeing Robert next to her, a bullet in his temple and blood streaming down his cheek.

Oh, metdi, no. She frantically unbuckled her seatbelt, stumbling out of her car with her sidearm in hand, heart racing. More gunshots rang out along the town's main street, echoing from either side of Eglite. Dieuv, I’m trapped. She contemplated hiding in the back of her truck, but decided against it after spotting a small alleyway between two businesses. Okay, that seems the safest. She took a deep breath. Three, two, one.

She bolted across the street, ducking behind a tree and a thin bench temporarily for cover, before making the last sprint into the alleyway. Oh, thank the angels. I might be free. She thought about heading back to help her company try to resist whomever was attacking them, but for some indescribable reason, she kept running away from the battlefield. Okay, I can either make it back to the nearest base and report this, or I could hide away somewhere, and be just another soldier deemed missing in action. What should I-”

She felt a heavy object hit the side of her head like a freight train. She tripped and fell forward, all of the wind knocked out of her in her unceremonious fall. She reached up for her head, realizing that she hadn’t been shot. [i]The hell?!
Slowly, a hooded figure came into her blurred vision, a long bat or baton in their hand. “N- No… Please...” She weakly coughed, vainly trying to get up as the figure raised the bat.

She felt another hit on the other side of her head, and the world faded to black.


First Minister’s House, Lumiere
May 11th, 2022, 6:13 AM

“A week?! What do you mean, you can’t get supplies to them for a whole week?!”

Minister Sarah Berenstein’s angry shouts reverberated off of the tall ceiling of her living room, no doubt scaring the neighbors on either side of her luxurious townhome. She glared daggers at the shiny granite flooring, waiting for a reply from General Michelin on the other side of the phone.

“With the destruction of our Desmarais depot, our supply in western Auria is crippled. Fort Taska was the closest base with enough supplies to feed and equip the large force surrounding Auria for however long it’ll take to besiege Côte-Verte. They sent most of what they had on that convoy that was attacked an hour ago. Closer bases have some resources, but if we try to send supplies from there, we risk the trucks getting attacked again. A secure convoy from Fort Kalēna is our best bet, but will take a few days at least. It may be cutting it close, but the Garda and CSSC forces should be able to survive until then, if the circumstances remain as they are.”

Berenstein, while slightly less angry, was still incredulous. “And if they don’t? This is a fight we cannot afford to lose. I’ve trusted your judgment thus far. You insisted supply wouldn’t be an issue. And now you may have just locked us in a war of attrition when we already have plummeting morale and increased desertions. Get this situation under control, General, otherwise Andrew will offer his opinions. And he will be much less rational than I am.”

“...Of course.” The line disconnected abruptly, and Berenstein resisted the strong urge to chuck her mobile phone at the granite floor. "That man…" She forced herself to turn her anger into motivation, taking a mental step back to examine the situation. Andrew's gonna be pissed, and then we'll all have to deal with it. A thought crossed her mind. Wait. Andrew's gonna be pissed, and Michelin's in the crossfire. We can use this.

She unlocked her phone and dialed the number for the Royal Palace secure line, giving a slight sigh when a secretary picked up the phone. "This is First Minister Berenstein, I need to talk with the King."

The poor secretary seemed to be caught off guard, likely not expecting this kind of pressing call while working the night shift. "Uh… ma'am, I'm sorry, but I can't put you through. His highness is sleeping at the moment, and-"

"Well that's not my problem, is it? This is an emergency, and I will not let a secretary endanger Aurian lives because she thinks His Highness needs his beauty sleep! Now, please wake him and put him on now, or I'll have to drive over there myself. And believe me, given the circumstances and my current mood, that would prove most unfortunate for you, me, and the poor drivers who are unlucky enough to be on the road this early in the morning. So, shall I get my keys?"

"No! No ma'am. I'll… I'll get him right away." The phone switched to a dial tone, and Berenstein gave herself a slight smile. No contest. Nothing can stop me from getting things done.

The dial tone faded, revealing the voice of a very drowsy and irritated King Andrew. "What… What in God's name do you want? This better be good. Do enlighten me, Miss Berenstein, as to why the hell you've called me at this obscene hour?"

"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news sir, but this could not wait." Her tone was carefully crafted to sound genuine and concerned, hiding the cunning anger that was truly behind her statements. "I was just informed by General Michelin that the supposedly secure supply convoy heading for Côte-Verte was attacked as it passed through a town called Jōlceda. We don't have an exact casualty count yet, but we lost contact with all but two soldiers, a Corporal Gauthier and a Private Richards, who escaped the town and established contact. It's believed that the entire convoy of supplies was lost to insurgents of some kind."

The several seconds of silence that followed set Berenstein on edge. "Those damn 'freedom fighters'. They're all pathetic barbarians, who will never know true loyalty." The King spoke through gritted teeth. "Michelin assured us that there was no issue, that the convoy would be safe and "seal the fate of those rebels." That bastard is making us all pay for his mistakes."

"I just don't understand why he didn't play it safer. I mean, we have… had the resources to be a little more cautious. But he just… didn't." Berenstein included a short, deliberate pause. "But I don't know. Anyways, sorry, sir, for disturbing you. Michelin had just called me, and I wanted to inform you of the situation."

More silence emanated from the King's side of the call, and Berenstein's heart soared as she realized Cordonnier had picked up on the small fact she had weaved into her words. "He… he called you before me. That bastard called you, and didn't even bother to inform me." He cleared his throat, regaining some semblance of composure. "Don't get me wrong, madam Minister, you are a crucial member of this government. But I am his commanding officer, as it were. And he tried to hide this from me. It'd astounding." His tone grew cold. "Thank you for informing me of this. I'll keep you posted on the happenings of the near future."

The line went dead abruptly, and Berenstein's angry mood had turned to great elation. It's time to cut out the remains of the past, and start Auria anew. She scrolled through here contacts list before finding the page "Jonathan Gerand" and clicking the "call" button. Come on Jon, wake up. We've got a lot of work to do.

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#41

Lumière, Auria
Camp Namacuix - CSSC Aurian Peacekeeping Forces command center

The command center of the CSSC operation in Auria was structured much like the bridge of a warship; various stations were arranged around the man in the middle, funneling real-time battle information to him. General Teoctlehue, the man in the middle in this particular fight, was in his element. During his time in the Imperial Army, the General had made it his personal mission to use lead and fire to cause the enemies of the Xiomeran Empire to regret their life choices - for the brief time those lives lasted once his soldiers took the field. The uniform and insignia he wore may have been different with CSSC, but the mission was the same. Teoctlehue was genuinely pleased with the vengeance he was about to deliver upon Côte-Verte, the Aurian rebels there, and those who had chosen to support them.

But first, there were two other pieces of business to take care of. The General had multiple Cala Computer military-grade tablets in front of him, multitasking his orders. "Take this set of orders to Captain Temayeuatzin, commanding Bravo Company near Jōlceda. I want his company to reconnoiter in force to determine the strength and positions of the insurgents there. That convoy attack cannot be allowed to encourage the enemy. Instead, once we discover how much force needs to be applied in Jōlceda, we will introduce the enemy to a different form of encouragement." Teoctlehue handed the tablet to one of his subordinates, who saluted sharply and ran off. "This tablet is to be delivered only to Major Auecuhtlin, commanding 3rd Battalion in Lumière. Silver Company of the Advanced Operations Division is to be attached to his battalion to assist when called upon," the General said, naming one of the elite special force units of CSSC. "The Empress has advised us that we need to be ready to act upon a moment's notice in Lumière, to aid in the special operation outlined in the orders. If there is any risk at all of these orders being intercepted, the courier team is to destroy the tablet and then take their cyanide pills," Teoctlehue said as calmly as if he was ordering lunch. The second subordinate saluted and ran off.

With those distractions taken care of, it was time for him to get down to the real business of the day. "Now. Côte-Verte," he said to the other staff officers.

---

Several hours later, CSSC's "peacekeeping" forces, "acting under the authority of the Aurian government in Lumière," finally began what Teoctlehue had wanted to do weeks before. For several weeks now, CSSC had been subjecting the enemy perimeter, the naval base, and the town of Côte-Verte itself to a non-stop, pitiless bombardment. Artillery and missiles had been pounding the enemy fortifications into powder. Coalition warships, transport ships and warplanes had been faring no better. Any of them coming close to Côte-Verte became instant targets for the splendid array of cruise missiles, anti-air missiles, and mobile ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles) that CSSC had been given almost a full year to put into place.

The tremendous largesse of Xiomera's best military hardware (which Auria had only partly paid for, even with their CSSC contract and the diversion of trade and resources to Xiomera) was not out of generosity. It was the biggest real-world test of a military machine that had ever been conceived.

Xiomera's leaders fully expected that someday, sooner or later, the Empire would have to go to all-out war with the nations who opposed it. That day was not today, however. Auria, and the CSSC forces there, were the best way to see how Xiomeran soldiers, military doctrine, training, technology and hardware would fare in such a war before it actually began. Eiria, Lauchenoiria and Milintica were among the most belligerent opponents of the Empire. Auria would be the testing ground to see how well Xiomera could stand up to them - exactly as Calhualyana had planned. A safe battleground away from Xiomera itself, a real test far more accurate than the simulations run by the Imperial Military Academy's war college. And if Xiomera managed to fend off its opponents and keep its stranglehold on Auria, even better.

And so, the ultimate test began. CSSC forces began advancing, under the cover of their precision bombardment support, towards the enemy perimeter. APCs and tanks rumbled forward; special units of sappers deployed ahead of them to break down enemy barriers, secure vital crossing points, and clear mines. From the northwest, CSSC backed Garda forces advancing southeast. From the northeast and east of the naval base, more CSSC forces had already secured vital road intersections and were advancing in a multi-pronged attack.

---

Inside his Tepaxca main battle tank, tank driver Oquitl whooped eagerly and plugged a CSSC-approved music player into a port on the dash. CSSC soldiers were not allowed to carry phones into battle for operational security reasons, but music to get into the mood to fight was highly encouraged. The sounds of Tachimal, a popular pro-government rock singer in Xiomera, began blasting inside the tank. Her song Rising Victory, a hit salute to the Xiomera Rising ideology of the XCP, was Oquitl's favorite of the moment. As the driving chords and vocals surrounded them, the CSSC mercs manning the tank grinned as their tank moved forward. As they ascended a hill, they saw an enemy troop carrier slowly lumbering down a nearby road. With a few quick swipes on her targeting system, the tank gunner Tecihe swiftly gained target lock and fired. A slight lurch as the APFSDS round was fired was soon greeted by a gratifying explosion engulfing the troop carrier. Tecihe and Oquitl exchanged a high-five before rolling towards their next targets.

The battle for Côte-Verte had indeed begun - and CSSC was there to win.

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#42

(Joint Post with Shuell)

Dense Forested Area, Northwest of Côte-Verte
May 11th, 2022, 8:36 AM

The cold, cloudy Aurian morning was made even darker by the thick canopy of trees above the forest. Morning dew dripped from every leaf, branch, and acorn, making the ground muddy and each root ledge slippery. "Private" Ethan Finch carefully clutched his rifle close, peering between trees while ducking his head. His shorter, slender frame allowed him to carefully duck between trees at low risk of being seen. This, combined with his childhood knowledge of the area (being a Côte-Verte native), made the teen an ideal guide for their ambush force.

"The road checkpoint is just up here. Please be quiet. It looks like some paths in the distance have footprints, so they may be patrolling here before they advance in this area." He looked back at the Shuellian Mercenaries and Aurian Rebels following his footsteps closely, pointing between a few trees before them. "That brighter patch there is the road. We must be careful."

The mercenaries, dressed in heavy armor, trudge behind Finch. They communicate silently, using hand signals to point out branches and other hazards on the trail. One of the Kruger-Meszaros soldiers, carrying a bulky radio on his back, marches up to the private. “We’ve got the explosives ready. How many should we expect to see?” He says in a a hoarse whisper. Having been forced to put out his cigarette before the trek, the soldier is clearly in a poor mood.

"I'm not sure. I think I can see at least several dozen. Wait, there's upwards of a hundred at least, and likely several times that number that I can't see. This is a bad angle, I'll have to move up a bit for a better estimate." Finch's accent was a little less dense that a standard Western Aurian accent, so his English was a lot more legible as he kept amending his estimates.

The mercenary grunts in acknowledgement. "We have a few mortars set up on the beach, but we're too close for them to fire. If we can get a little further out, I can call a battery right on top of their heads. Go and get a better look, but don't take too long - the longer we're here, the higher chance they catch a glimpse of us."

Finch gave a slight nod and started off, quicky stepping on protruding roots to avoid twigs snapping and giving away his position. He positioned himself just behind a tree around ten meters from the road, getting a good look at the camp.

It was much larger than he had expected. Hundreds of soldiers filled the clear areas on each side of the road, with trucks and tents crowding the area. He saw weapons and ammunition being distributed among the faded orange-wearing Garda members, trying to commit the camp's layout to memory.

With a quiet sigh, he started back, holding his breath as he proceeded back into the forest. He dove behind old oak trees and scraggly bushes, making it back to his allies in less than a minute. "There's hundreds of them. Equipment trucks, tents, barricades. They're preparing to march soon, they're handing out guns and ammo. We have to move fast." Finch said, out of breath.

The mercenary curses under his breath, stowing his pair of binoculars. "Alright, an attack here would be suicide. We don't have the numbers to take their base, even with the mortars softening them up. Here's what we're going to do, alright?" Pulling out what appears to have been a tourist's map of the area, he points to a bend in the road.

"Assuming this is accurate, we'll plant our explosives at both ends of this curve. Set them off simultaneously and they'll be easy game. We'll be able to get there before the Garda, but we'll have to work quick for this plan to work. Is there a ridgeline in the area?"

Finch and a couple nearby Aurians nodded. "the side of the road dips down into a deep ditch right around the curve, then escalates into a steep hill. There's a dense line of oak trees on the northern side beyond the ditch that could provide good cover. The southern side is also densely forested, but has a lot of thin birch trees, so we may be a little exposed and obvious." The agile Aurian pointed along the map while he spoke, detailing both forests and the ditches between them and the roads.

"Right, right. Let's..." He pauses, thinking. "We'll post up on either side of the road after we get the explosives placed. The bulk of our group will be in the north, with a smaller team in the south to prevent any of them fleeing. If this goes well, we'll blunt their attack and send them reeling - if nothing else, we'll buy Cote-Verte some time. Let's move."

-

Wind blew through the damp Aurian forests, the yellow/orange light of the morning sun peering through every branch. The small group of Aurian rebels and Shuellian Mercenaries we're carefully hidden among the dense trees, watching the dense convoy of Garda soldiers march down the road. Ethan Finch carefully hid behind a tall oak tree, grasping his gun and waiting for the explosives to go off. Time seemed to slow as hundreds of dull orange uniforms moved slowly through the bend in the road, unknowingly marching step by step into an ambush.

Five steps away...

Three...
Two....
One...

BOOM

The earshattering explosions echoed throughout the nearby area, causing many of the Aurians to flinch instinctively and cover their ears. Ethan cocked his rifle, aiming between a few trees at the road, waiting for the smoke to clear and his ears to stop ringing. He glanced over at the Shuellian officer, waiting for his command.

"Open fire! Don't let any escape!" The soldier bellows into the radio, barely audible over the chaos. With the sheer force of the explosion enough to stun any Garda still alive, they'd prove to be easy prey for rebels and mercenaries alike. Just as the Garda soldiers began to recover from the sudden attack, one of the mercenaries tossed a grenade onto the ruined asphalt that was once a road. "Take cover!"

Finch and the line of Aurian rebels were quick to acquiesce to their ally's orders, firing their rifles into the dusty remains of the convoy. Another explosion sounded as the mercenary's grenade detonated, further debilitating what Garda soldiers were left.

Seeing no escape, one of the remaining Garda officers pointed to the other side of the road, firing his sidearm wildly into the trees. "Skuriet, tut dei vus!" Run, all of you! "No arjiet kenet, no sana dab-"

A bullet flew into the officers temple, knocking him to the ground before he could finish his orders. Out of hundreds of Garda soldiers initially in the convoy, only two dozen remained upright, trying vainly to shelter in the ditches on either side of the road.

Finch felt a bullet almost graze his head, parting a few of his hairs as it narrowly avoided him and was embedded in the tree behind him. Holy shit. He took a moment to hide behind the tree and get his bearings, before peeking out again, getting a clean shot on the soldier who had almost shot him.

Then, silence. All that was left was the ringing in the soldiers' ears. A few of the Orange-suited soldiers had their arms held up weakly, their weapons on the ground in front of them. One of them coughed and begged in a hoarse voice, "Arjiet, luds. Arjiet nag..." Stop, please. Stop now...

With the fighting subsided, the mercenaries approach the surrendering soldiers with their rifles trained. Acting quickly to secure their weapons, the mercenaries begin to restrain able-bodied Garda with zipties and patch up the more severely wounded prisoners.

Speaking into his radio, the officer approaches Finch. “Right. Any wounded or dead on our side? It’ll be a long trek back, especially with all we’ve captured.”

Finch, still shellshocked from the adrenaline of his first battle, made little reply, blinking rapidly and scanning the woods. An older soldier, a Corporal by his insignia, spoke up, his thick Aurian accent shifting vowel sounds in off ways. "Two dead, six injuries. We also have..." He took a moment to glance over to a fellow soldier, who flashed him a few numbers. "Sixteen captures." The Corporals accent caused "Sixteen" to be pronounced "Zeex-deen", making even some of the Aurian soldiers raise their eyebrows at the English pronunciations.

The mercenary nods. "We'll get those injuries patched up and gather the dead before we march. For now -" He turns to face the assorted rebels, barking out an order. "Scavenge anything of importance: weapons, ammo, explosives, medical equipment, and cash! Time is of the essence, people - those detonations are going to attract attention, and I don't want to be here when backup arrives."

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#43

Eastern Garda Forward Camp, Northeast of Côte-Verte
May 11th, 2022, 9:42 AM

The mood around the Eastern Forward Camp was, needless to say, bleak. The massive losses sustained in the ambush on the western front and the stagnation of any attempted advances had morale sinking by the minute. The only consolations for the weary soldiers were the thin tent to protect them from rain and the battery powered radio providing them music while the occasional shell explosion echoed in the background. A group of soldiers sat on the ground around the small radio box, listening to the soft rock of a decades old Aurian pop song that the new Royal government had approved for use on the radio.

The song suddenly shifted, briefly fading to static before going silent. A nearby Lieutenant sat up, inspecting the radio before giving it a light hit. "Damn piece of shit. They can't even bother to send anything but this relic." The static returned for a moment, before a voice resounded in Eirian. "Attention. Please stand by, some technical difficulties are impeding broadcasting at this time. Moving to secondary broadcast protocol."

The light, relaxed opening to Velitē's fourth symphony played after the message had ended, the sound of multiple flutes flowing through the tent. This rapid change caused the soldiers to sit up quickly, a couple soldiers quickly realizing what the song meant. "Don't they usually play this piece if something major happens?" One of the younger Privates asked, examining the faces of the more experienced officers. The Lieutenant who had hit the radio earlier nodded. "Only if a major disaster happens. Like…"

"Like what?"

"The death of a monarch."


Downtown Lumiere, Auria
Thirteen minutes earlier

The series of black limousines slowly turned down the narrow streets of Lumiere, following a back route towards the palace in order to avoid crowds and traffic. People looked down cautiously from their apartments and offices, many pulling the shades quickly. The tension in Lumiere was palpable, with protests and riots breaking out on some of Lumiere's most crowded street corners. As such, it was smarter for important officials to avoid crowded roads and areas, especially in high-profile limousines.

The caravan of cars slowed to a stop in a tight side street, the front car blocked by a large red truck parked across the road. A guard got out of his large black SUV, trying to figure out why there was a car parked in their pre-approved route. "What the hell?! No one's in the vehicle, it's just parked here." He looked over to his partner. "Call a tow truck, and get this piece of shit out of-"

A large explosion resounded from the side of the road, creating a large column of flame that shot straight up. The guard fell forward to the ground, narrowly avoiding being hit by his own SUV that had been flipped on its side. His partner was lying on the ground, motionless and burned. He struggled to his feet, lifting another surviving guard as he ran for the limousines. "Protegiet lei Karalēs! Sei atniet de ič!" He shouted, ordering any guards to get King Andrew out of the street. The burnt wreckage of both limousines filled the street, partially obscuring the bodies of their inhabitants.

The guard ran for the second limousine, looking in the shattered windows for any sign of survivors. An unconscious Andrew Cordonnier was lying on his back, a line of blood trailing down one of his arms. Unable to tell whether his monarch was asleep or dead, the guard pulled the body from the wreck, running for the shelter of a nearby apartment lobby. A few injured guards joined him, their weapons drawn. He counted the survivors, adopting the tone of a commanding officer. "We need to get out of here, now."



First Minister Sarah Berenstein stood in the atrium of her townhouse, pacing the shiny granite floors. Any minute now. If these morons mess up our best opportunity in months, they'll live to regret it. Her phone sat in her hand, annoyingly silent to its owner. Did they avoid that route, or leave too early? I gave them all of the right information. Hopefully Andrew didn't stop for one of his arrogant speeches or publicity stunts…

Much to her relieve, the cell phone started vibrating, displaying a long, unknown number. She brought it up to her ear. "Finally. Were you successful, or do I have to begin damage control?"

A deep, monotonous voice answered from the other side of the call. "Package delivery was successful. No need for any corrections. Payment was also received, as agreed. It'll be a pleasure working with you in the future, madame." The line disconnected, leaving a very pleased Berenstein. Farewell, King Andrew. Your fiery spirit was truly your downfall.

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#44

Entry Hall of the Aurian Parliament Building, Lumiere, Eastern Auria
May 11th, 2022, 11:02 AM

Acting Prime Minister Jonathan Gerand examined himself in the tall mirror on the hallway wall. His suit was well-selected and well-tailored, a dark maroon red and white. These colors reflected old Unitist symbols of military leadership and bravery, an attempt to make up for Gerand's lack of military experience. He adjusted his tie and cleared his throat over and over again, preparing for his first ever speech as Auria' leader.

Orange-suited royal guards stood on either side of the grand doors to the Parliament building, signifying Gerand's new status as Auria's new autocrat. He glanced over to them occasionally, slightly unnerved at their steady, unblinking expressions. Do they train them to be so creepy, or do we just hire the most stoic people in the county to guard royalty? With a final satisfied nod to the mirror, he turned and started for the door, giving a polite nod as the guards opened the door for him.

The late morning sun caused him to squint as he approached the podium, waving out to a large crowd of people who had gathered in the Square of Discourse. Many of these people were confused and frightened by the events of the early day, having heard rumors and half-baked stories about an explosion near the royal motorcade in downtown Lumiere. The tension and fear in the air was palpable, reflecting the feelings of the average Aurian citizen.

Gerand lightly tapped on the microphone twice to get a feel on how loud he needed to be. And with a glance at the live broadcasting cameras, he began to speak. "Good morning, everyone. I recognize that recent events have been chaotic, and that many of you simply want explanations on what's going on. And since I see no reason to bore you with stale slogans, I'll cut to the chase."

"Over an hour ago, around nine forty-three AM, His Majesty King Andrew was being transported to the palace via a secure motorcade alongside streets in downtown Lumiere. The motorcade was unexpectedly obstructed by a car in the road, causing a number of guards to attempt to clear the car. The motorcade was then ambushed by members of the Royal Guard regiment accompanying His Majesty, who detonated small-scale explosives along the two main armored limousines and Guard transports. Unfortunately, King Andrew was killed instantly in the blast."

The crowd started buzzing with astonishment and shock, quieting back down when Gerand cleared his throat. "I know that this is shocking and unthinkable to you all, so you may not be able to handle any more unexpected events. However, we have discovered some critical information that I must now share." He artfully paused, building up suspense for an extended moment. "Our recent intelligence suggests that the perpetrators of this traitorous and brutal killing of the King acted on orders of General Jean-Claude Michelin, Auria's highest ranking military officer, and a close friend of the late king. From what we can tell, Michelin expected to immediately take over control of Auria's government decisions in the interim stage after King Andrew's death, and planned to eliminate any major government official who would not pledge loyalty."

"But this coup d'etat will not be tolerated. We will not roll over for a traitor who callously kills a close friend. We will not obey someone who's actions have been so contrary to Auria's best interests!" He bowed his head, appearing concerned and respectful. "My friends, we must stand against this aggression together. If you despise these actions as much as I do, I hope you'll stand with me as we bravely push against traitors and foreign aggressors. Any attacks on Auria's brave populace or leadership will not be tolerated, not now, not ever!"

The crowd was dead silent, entranced by Gerand's persuasive words. "I, out of necessity, have taken the role of Acting Prime Minister. With brave, loyal Ministers at my side, we will bring Auria into a new age. We will build upon what King Andrew gave us, and better ourselves in his honor. His Majesty gave his life fighting foreign influence and internal corruption, and in his honor, no one shall bear the title of King or Queen, for no one could ever bear it more nobly than he did. His memory shall guide us forward, and together, we will be stronger than Auria has ever been!"

The square erupted in cheers and chants, and Gerand gave himself a small smile, satisfied with the reaction his words had provoked. Now that is how you rouse a crowd. It's time to leave relics of the past behind, and make a future for ourselves. A slight discordance in the crowd brought him out of his stupor, and he looked further back in the crowd, noticing a uniformed group moving through the rabble. They were loudly repeating the phrase "Andrew dviva!" Andrew lives! Gerand's eyes widened. What the hell?! Are they insane, deluded, or misinformed? How the hell-

Gunshots resounded in the square, followed quickly by screams and the sound of hundreds of people desperately scrambling. Prime Minister Gerand fell back a bit, before falling forward, sliding off of one side of the podium onto the steps below. Blood seeped onto the stone white steps around his neck, neatly matching the Prime Minister's suit. The area was quickly swarmed by Royal Guards, who vainly attempted to control the desperate crowd as another team picked Gerand off of the steps. A thin river of blood ran all down the Parliament steps as Gerand's lifeless body was hauled inside, the doors slamming shut with another loud Bang


No.

Minister Sarah Berenstein sat in the office chair in her study, a hand over her mouth in shock. Jonathan… No… There's no way he could survive that. No one could survive a shot in the neck like that. Her heart was beating wildly, and she subconsciously ran her other hand through her hair as she processed what she had just witnessed. Oh my god…

Her mind quickly shifted to damage control, as she realized the absolute chaos that was awaiting her. Oh, it'll take an Angel's strength and a miracle to get through what comes next. Holy shit. She picked up her phone and dialed the number of her liaison in Auria's police force, who answered on the second ring. "Chief Dubois, it's Minister Berenstein. I want a full lockdown of the entire area surrounding the Parliament complex, with at least a ten block radius. I don't care how much manpower it takes, we may need to secure the whole damn city if we don't act now. Active immediately, Lumiere is under martial law. Make it happen."

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#45

(Joint Post with Xiomera)

First Minister's Office, Administrative Office Complex, Lumiere
May 11th, 2022, 1:42 PM

Given the circumstances unfolding in Lumiere, one would have forgiven General Teoctlehue and his staff if they had panicked at least a bit. After all, the justification for CSSC’s presence in Auria was now hanging by the thinnest of threads.

General Teoctlehue, however, was not a man prone to panic. He assessed situations, came up with new plans, and above all adapted to any crisis that came his way. Crises, after all, were also opportunities.

It was with that spirit in mind that he arrived at the office of Minister Berenstein, an honor guard of CSSC’s best accompanying him. He had spoken with Empress Calhualyana an hour earlier, with approval given for his already-forming plan at hand. That was, of course, if Berenstein proved up to the challenge of the moment.

Berenstein's office was surrounded by security forces and soldiers from several branches of Auria's military, police forces, and special ops divisions. Obviously, with two Aurian leaders being assassinated on the same day, any security forces in Lumiere were working overtime. Police officers, Garda soldiers, and Royal guards milled around outside a large mahogany door, covering every angle of approach. A number of royal guards stood in front of General Teoctlehue as he moved towards the door, barking commands in Aurian.

The guarded door swung open, and Minister Berenstein walked out, scolding the guard who obstructed the Xiomeran Mercenary. "Kuois avis?! Kāois ne mei jaulisva ka vil arēvasva?!" She turned to the mercenary General. "My apologies, General. Please, come in." She shut the door behind him, leaving them alone to discuss strategy.

When the royal guards intercepted him, the General calmly raised his hand to halt his group. He kept a bland expression on his face, all the while mentally considering the multiple ways he could disassemble the guard in front of him if it came to that. Luckily, Berenstein’s prompt arrival prevented any such unpleasantness.

“I apologize for my sudden arrival, madam Minister. I assumed that time would be of the essence for us to talk, given the evolving situation in the country.”

"No need to apologize. I was wanting to discuss our future strategy as well, so your arrival is opportune." Berenstein sat down in her office chair, gesturing for the General to do the same. "I've spent the last hour shouting at thick-skulled officers who can't coordinate for shit, trying to lock down Lumiere's metropolitan area. It'll be nice to talk to a rational person for a change." She leaned back in her chair. "I've had to do damage control before, but holy shit, this is on a totally different scale."

”I totally understand,” Teoctlehue replied. “CSSC has extensive experience dealing with both urban warfare and counter-insurgency scenarios. We can help you get the capital firmly under control by tonight, given appropriate authority to do so. After that, we can move to secure the rest of the country for your government, pursuant to the understanding of mutual cooperation and respect for sovereignty reached between yourself and our Empress.” Teoctlehue paused for a moment. “Of course, this will require the termination of the contract between CSSC and Andrew’s former regime, and a new contract between CSSC and your government. We will need a…..plausible reason to terminate the old contract.”

Berenstein furrowed her eyebrows. "I see. Do you have any ideas on what could justify a termination? Unfortunately, we are unable to confirm Cordonnier's death at this time, due to some mistaken intelligence. An operative didn't want to admit a mistake, so unfortunately, we were fed potentially false information." The Minister's voice was filled with cold venom. So, are there any terms in the contract that we could claim Andrew has violated? Any rules or regulations he disobeyed? Knowing him, I wouldn't be surprised if there were."

”There are none. But such can be arranged. CSSC has a plan of action ready for just such a scenario. Andrew’s loyalists have already attacked the government and killed Minister Gerand. It should not be hard for us to make it appear as if they have turned their ire upon CSSC next. This proposal I am about to make must remain absolutely between us.” Teoctlehue paused for a moment. “We have a team of special operatives of foreign ancestry, who can easily pose as Aurians, along with the needed supplies and equipment to pose as Andrew loyalists. Our plan is to have them stage an attack on CSSC’s headquarters camp here in the capital, making it appear that Andrew has ordered them to attack us. This gives us more than enough reason to terminate the contract. We will suffer some minor losses, but this is acceptable to achieve our mission.” Teoctlehue made the last statement with no more emotion than someone saying they had to buy a new shirt because they had torn their old one.

The Aurian Minister thought for a moment, before nodding. "As long as said losses don't prevent you from achieving future missions, this plan is perfect. It would also give me the opportunity to publicly spin what these 'Loyalists' have done, and provide faces to the actions. This could be an opportunity to gain a lot of public favor, and prevent Andrew's supporters from resurfacing."

”Then we are in agreement,” Teoctlehue said. “The attack will take place in precisely five hours. Again, please do not inform anyone else about this plan, even your own security personnel. Making it look like an authentic attack is critical.”

"Of course. And if there is any way we could assist with this plan, please do let me know. This is a critical mission, after all." A knock at the door caused Berenstein to stand and walk to the door, opening it just a crack. "Kuois? Ne poivis entret. Navjit tār." She spoked in annoyed Aurian, almost closing the door before an aid stuck her hand in the door. "So sorry Prime Minister, it's urgent." She slipped a folder full of papers through the door, handing them to Berenstein before taking her hand from the door and closing it again.

Berenstein returned to her chair, skimming through the documents quickly. "Sorry for the intrusion. I told them not to disturb if the door was closed, someone apparently didn't understand basic orders." As she read further in the papers, she appeared much more concerned. "That fucker. Michelin's been commanding Garda soldiers away from the front. He's taken hundreds away from the fight at Côte-Verte. He's shoring up his defenses, and leaving us to fight the Coalition." She put the file on the desk so Teoctlehue could read it. "That's a problem. We're already spread thin as it is."

Teoctlehue skimmed through the file quickly for main points, then read through it more slowly a second time for detail. When he was done, he laid the file back upon the desk. “Both Andrew and Michelin are problems to overcome. One thing you can do to assist us is to help us locate both of them. If we can get a precise location for them, CSSC special operations does have personnel who specialize in eliminating troublesome individuals.”

Berenstein sighed. "I'll find them. Michelin's in the west somewhere, and Andrew, if he's alive, likely fled west as well. I have no idea if the two of them will team up, but I'm not sure Andrew is valuable to Michelin anymore. He's certainly not a meat shield that Michelin can use, and he's too deranged to be a good puppet. Regardless, I'll have operatives look into finding the exact locations of all three of them." She looked over to the General, realizing that she hadn't told him a key bit of information yet. "Minister Lautrec fled Lumiere around an hour ago, with a few bags full of Mēra notes from the treasury and a handful of treasury guards. I don't think he wants to fight us, fortunately. He's just a coward who leaves when things get rough."

Teoctlehue’s expression turned sour briefly at mention of Lautrec. His face told Berenstein all she needed to know about how the General viewed people who ran away from a fight. “If you need our help to find the coward, we can also look for him. Either that, or if he is in fact a threat, neutralize the threat.”

"Thank you, but that'd be a waste of resources. Lautrec's had everything handed to him his entire life. He definitely won't enjoy life without wealth or power. Either he'll live out the rest of his life in hiding, or he'll come crawling back to beg. Either way, he's not a threat. And besides, the only thing he was good at was sucking up to people with money. I think we'll manage without him." She paused, lost in thought. "Has Empress Calhualyana been informed of the current situation? I assume so. She doesn't seem like a woman who would be left out of the loop." Berenstein's tone took on a slight joking edge.

Teoctlehue chuckled briefly. “She is not, indeed. The Empress is fully aware of the current situation. It is she, in fact, that instructed CSSC to provide whatever assistance we can to you. She seems to believe that you are the best option for salvaging this situation.”

Berenstein felt a slight surge of pride. "I'm flattered. And I will assure you, she will not regret making that instruction. Thank you so much for your assistance, General. I look forward to working with you directly from now on, without Michelin or Cordonnier as middlemen. And I must admit, I am not a soldier. Your help will be invaluable in the hours and days to come."

” I am glad to be of service, madam Minister. We shall speak again soon,” the General replied, giving her a sharp salute before leaving the room. Once he and his men were back in their vehicles and on the move, he picked up a radio set to a secured CSSC-only frequency. “Operation Tōtolin is a go.”

---

Zelasē Medical Clinic, Karašceda, Twenty-two Miles from Central Lumiere

"Those traitorous bastards!"

Andrew Cordonnier, very much not dead, shouted at the small television on the clinic room wall. He hadn't stopped throwing insults at the wall for several minutes, ever since he regained consciousness. "They claim I died, claimed that Michelin was behind it, and then try to take the throne from me?! The audacity. Those morons will pay for this, mark my words."

The guards that had saved his life and brought him to the clinic stood on each side of the small room, silently watching every entrance point. Out of the dozens of guards who were part of the motorcade, only four had survived the bombing. One of them had her arm in a full sling, having dislocated her shoulder as she was ejected from her vehicle. Still, she fought to stay conscious, the pain medication making every minute an uphill battle. The guard who had carried Cordonnier out of his vehicle stood closest to the bed, contemplating their current situation.

"Your Majesty… I don't think we can stay here. From their news broadcasts, it sounds like they're locking down Lumiere, and while we're far enough away to not be found immediately, someone will find out that we're here eventually. We can get you out of here, and lay low for a bit, until all of this chaos boils over."

Andrew went silent. "I can't just let those bastards steal my crown. I won't let them take everything that I've done." He paused, realizing what the guards were about to tell him. "But if I go back, I'll be killed, or captured. They've already tried to kill me once, they won't be scared to do it again." He glanced over to the IV in his forearm, noting the various bandages covering the length from his wrist to his forearm. "Get a nurse to take these damn things out, and we'll get on the road. We can't waste any more time. It's time to get back on our feet, and show those bastards who they're dealing with."

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#46

Lumière, Auria
Camp Namacuix - CSSC Aurian Peacekeeping Forces command center
May 11th, 2022, 7:00 PM

At the north gate of the perimeter line, a group of CSSC mercenaries stood guard. They were on a higher alert level than normal, given the recent events in Lumière. This would not help them.

The perimeter was being secured by a mix of CSSC mercs and Aurian soldiers. It was not an unusual event, therefore, when a group of Aurians in uniform approached the north gate from within the perimeter line. "Adding some reinforcements, eh? Good," the CSSC watch commander at the north gate said, taking some paperwork from his Aurian counterpart. As he took the paperwork, however, the Aurian commander slid a knife out from inside his sleeve and stabbed the CSSC commander in the neck. Despite his severe wound, the watch commander was able to stagger into the guard station at the gate and hit an alarm button.

As the alarm sounded, the other Aurian soldiers opened fire on the CSSC mercenaries, catching them unprepared. Several of the mercs fell from the first volley of fire. It was then that the other guards at the gate noticed a much larger Aurian contingent charging up the road leading to the perimeter gate. As more alarms began to ring out around the CSSC base, the Aurians opened fire. As they charged, they yelled the same thing that had been shouted by the soldiers who had gunned down Acting Prime Minister Jonathan Gerand: "Andrew dviva!" Andrew lives!

While the CSSC mercs at the gate had been caught off-guard by the sudden betrayal from supposedly allied forces, CSSC mercs were well-trained to respond quickly to any changing situation. The remaining gate guards fell back around the guard station. As the Aurian troops approached, a CSSC officer shouted to the other mercs. "Fucking backstabbers! Kill them all!"

The CSSC mercenaries, now in protective cover, began raining fire upon the approaching Aurians, taking several of them down with their first bursts of fire. A heavy machine gun mounted to the top of the guard station opened up as well on the approaching enemy, ripping into the Aurians' ranks. Already, more CSSC reinforcements were beginning to roll in from the middle and inner perimeters of the camp, roused by the alarms.

---

May 11th, 2022, 9:00 PM

General Teoctlehue, in a spotless and perfectly pressed CSSC service uniform, stood at the podium in the briefing room at Camp Namacuix. The General was a familiar sight on the news, given that he was the face of the CSSC "peacekeeping" mission in Auria. His expression was as impassive as usual, but the reporters and guards in the room noticed something unusual. The General was not typically a man given to shows of emotion, but even with his stoic facial expression, everyone in the room could feel anger, like a heat wave, radiating from the Xiomeran mercenary as he rigidly gripped the podium. His eyes were as cold as ice as he prepared to speak.

"Good evening. I will be brief with my remarks. Approximately two hours ago, this facility was attacked by forces loyal to Andrew Cordonnier, the King of Auria. Despite our contract with him and his government, in which we pledged to work together as allies and trusted partners, this so-called King and so-called man ordered a cowardly sneak attack on us, with no provocation or sane reason. Several of our peacekeeping soldiers lost their lives as a result." Teoctlehue stood even straighter, raking everyone in the room with his eyes. "This insane attack upon us may have been launched because he blamed us for the attack on his motorcade, or because he believed we were siding with his enemies, or simply because the man is a lunatic. I do not know why. Nor do I care. This blatant act of cowardice has shattered the comradeship and cooperation between us and his so-called Majesty, and as such, our mission in Auria and who we report to must and will change."

Teoctlehue paused. "I will now read a short statement from the Board of Directors of the Coytochte Security Services Corporation in regards to this incident: 'The attack upon our peacekeepers, and their base, by forces under orders from Andrew Cordonnier is not only a blatant breach of the contract signed between the Corporation and his government. It is a blatantly shameful strike, ordered by a vengeful and unwell monarch who sees enemies around every corner. CSSC came to Auria to assist his government. We were not his enemies. But he has made us such. To that end, the Board of Directors of the Corporation hereby declares the contract with Andrew Cordonnier and his former government null and void due to his breach of the contract, as allowed by the provisions of the contract. We are thus free to sign a new contract, and have done so, with the interim government of Auria that is in effect as of this time. Our mission remains one of ensuring an end to foreign interference in Auria on behalf of the deposed Queen Sophie, who is attempting to force her way back onto a throne she was removed from by her own people. But we also now have a new mission, one of counter-terrorism. With the authorization of the interim government of Auria, the forces of the Corporation shall eliminate any future security threats in Auria. We call upon Andrew Cordonnier and his loyalists, who are domestic terrorists as of this moment, to surrender. But if they do not, CSSC will remove them as a threat. That is a promise, on the lives of those lost at Camp Namacuix.' "

The General put the small tablet he had read the statement from back into his pocket. "That is also a promise on my own life. I do not take the slaughter of my men lightly. We will come for those who came for us. And they will learn what it means when CSSC goes to war."

Teoctlehue stalked out of the room, ignoring the reporters shouting questions at him. He mentally sighed to himself. Good thing I'm a damn good actor.

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#47

Côte-Verte
May 12th, 2022

In the interest of maintaining a vague illusion that the Corporation cared about the opinion of the international community, the mercenaries had strictly avoided bombarding the city itself as much as possible. The mercenaries had focused most of their impressive firepower on the naval base, save for some vital transport and resupply facilities the enemy controlled in the rear of the combat zone.

On the morning of May 12th, that would change. 

The residents and defenders of Côte-Verte would wake to the sound of sirens, their desperate keening warning of a fate already decided. Missiles and artillery began to rain down not just on the naval base, but upon the city as well. At first, the fire seemed somewhat targeted: the local city hall and police stations, traffic control centers and the like. But far too soon, the target base expanded. Industrial centers, water and power facilities, any government building within reach of the powerful Xiomeran weapons CSSC wielded. As the people of Côte-Verte watched in horror, the pounding fire from the mercenary lines systematically began to dismantle their city, building by building. And if other buildings happened to get hit by unintended fire, these would be acceptable losses, from the CSSC perspective.

No surrender would be asked for. No surrender would be accepted. Côte-Verte was about to become an object lesson about the fate of those who opposed CSSC. The gloves were off. Côte-Verte would be treated as an obstacle to be ground into submission. If necessary, it would be wiped off the map. The rest of Auria was expected to take note. Xiomerans were big fans of lessons taught well.

And under the unprecedented wave and volume of shrieking steel and fire from the skies, the mercenaries launched yet another advance on the city and base. They would push the coalition back into the sea, or at least halt its advance, if the man leading the charge from Lumière had anything to say about it.

---

As his no-holds-barred attack unfolded, General Teoctlehue watched in real-time from his command center in the capital. He smiled grimly to himself. It's about damn time we had a free hand. Now we can finally show these fools what they've gotten themselves into.

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#48

(A Joint Post with Xiomera)

The Coalition was counting on its air power to defeat the Aurian coup forces.

Xiomera was counting on its missiles.

The first Xiomeran surface to air missile systems had been deployed in 1954. During the Great War, Xiomeran SAMs came of age. The increasingly mobile and portable missiles accounted for almost as many downed enemy planes as Xiomeran warplanes did. In the later Bjeorg conflict, Xiomeran missiles also took a heavy toll on enemy fighters.

Today, in Auria, the missiles were facing a serious challenge in the form of Shuellian-supplied mortars. The mortars were being used to disrupt the ability of the vehicle-mounted SAMs that CSSC deployed. The mounted SAMs kept having to move to avoid counter-fire.

But CSSC also possessed deadly portable missiles. Capable of a flight ceiling of 7 km and a maximum speed of Mach 4, the Xiomeran MANPADS were among the toughest in the IDU. And since a single person carrying a missile is a lot tougher to pin down than a vehicle, these missiles were destined to cause havoc with the Coalition’s air power.

Off of the coast of southern Auria
May 15th, 2022, 9:06 AM

And said air power was quickly incoming. Four elite Zēben-1 and Zēben-2 fighters, the prime of Eiria's naval air force, quickly approached Auria's southern coast, flying in tight formation. Behind them flew two Brazim-class transport planes, carrying rations and munitions for the struggling Coalition soldiers and rebels below them. Although securing a landing zone was a pain (there's not exactly a proper runway in the middle of the countryside), preparations had been made to ensure a stable landing area.

First Lieutenant Natalija Petrova sat alone in the cockpit of her Zēben-1, examining her control panels subconsciously as she hurdled toward the Côte-Verte area.

"Shield Wing, please report in." The crackly voice of the EIS Arion's radio operator echoed in Petrova's headset. She wasted no time, flipping on her receiver. "Shield One, standing by."

On her right, the two-seater Zēben-2 adjusted its wing angle. "Shield Two, standing by, even more dedicated than Shield One, over." Petrova rolled her eyes at her fellow pilot's remarks. "You sure about that, Beck? I wouldn't want to be strapped to Simmons for the entire mission..."

An indignant "Hey!" indicated that Lieutenant John Simmons was, in fact, on this channel. "Well, at least I don't have-"

"Pilots, please keep your minds on the mission. There will be plenty of time for witty commentary back on the Arion." The irritated tone of a Major brought the entire wing back to the task ahead of them, and the other two fighters called in without extra remark.

"Alright, Pilots, let's go over this again. The landing area is five miles southwest of Côte-Verte, demarcated by ground troops as much as possible. Patrol while the transports land and unload, and then escort our Brazimei home. Mobile SAM batteries are a large threat in the area, so be advised." The Major blandly recapped their mission briefing, not revealing any kind of emotion.

The golden beaches of Auria were quicky approaching in Petrova's view, increasing her adrenaline rush. Here we go. "Look alive, my friends." The large transport planes slowed down as they descended, beginning their landing approaches.

A blinking red dot lit up on Petrova's radar display, immediately alerting her. "Missile incoming! Fall back, protect the transports!" As if they could read each others' minds, the pilots pulled back, one of them deploying their deterrent flares in order to safely detonate the missile.

Almost immediately, another missile launched from the ground, this one targeting Petrova. "Deploying flares." She pressed a button on her console. A large grinding noise was heard, but no flares were deployed. The missile flew closer and closer to Petrova, who had increased her speed to break away from the pack.

"Metdi!"

In a split second decision, she pulled the ejector handle above her, flying out of the cockpit only a few moments before the missile struck. The burning remains of Petrova's Zēben-1 crashed into a field below, detonating with an ear-splitting BOOM.

Petrova clung to the straps on her ejector seat, slowly drifting towards the ground thanks to her parachute. Her adrenaline had kicked in her survival training, and she examined the terrain below her. With a start, she realized one key issue:

I'm on the wrong side of the river. I'm above enemy territory.

---
Chancellor's Manor, Geminus

Chancellor Leah Stendē sat at the head of the briefing room table, examining the reports in front of her. "So, the supply drop was successful, correct?" She flipped a page, biting her lip once she noticed a small note at the bottom of the last page.

Lutena Unaš Natalija Petrova. May 15th, 2022, Outside Côte-Verte, Auria. Missing In Action. The picture of a smiling brunette in Air Force fatigues stared back up at her. The Chancellor glanced away and closed the page, looking back up at her advisors. "Only missing in action, not killed?"

General Dufour, an Air Force high officer, nodded. "Lieutenant Petrova ejected before her fighter was struck, and was, as far as we can tell, alive until she hit the ground. We have no further information."

Stendē grimaced. "So, she's either dead, in hiding, or captured by the enemy. None of those are particularly ideal." She sighed. "But, the supply line to the front is now more secure. Now that we can fly resources to our troops, and that we're having better luck clearing ocean mines, we can take advantage of the current instability in Auria."

She stood, giving a nod to her gathered security advisors. "Thank you all. Now, if you'll excuse me..." Her face shifted into a stone façade, and she looked back down at the report's final page. "I've got a family to call."

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#49

The menacing of Lauchenoirian ships by a Xiomeran fleet was just one way that the Xiomerans intended to ratchet up pressure on Lauchenoiria. Empress Calhualyana fully intended to keep the promise she had made to herself to gain a measure of revenge on Josephine Alvarez. And she had plans within plans to do so.

She also had a very useful person at her disposal to help her with that goal: Gabriel Fleming.

The former Lauchenoirian agent had since become a very eager and willing employee of Imperial Intelligence. And he had his own reasons for wanting revenge against Alvarez and Lauchenoiria. The two of them had sat down, over a pleasant lunch at the Palace of Flowers, and come up with a plan to try to sow additional trouble for Alvarez.

The recent split between the Green-Pacifist Alliance and the Liberal Party had provided an opportunity. The whole debacle was threatening to bring down Alvarez's government. Calhualyana had mused to Fleming that it was a peculiar and particular weakness of democratic governments that they had ever so many parties and coalitions to please in order to function, unlike the streamlined totalitarian efficiency that was Xiomera and the XCP. Fleming had agreed and posed his own observation to the Empress: this was something Xiomera could exploit.

Imperial Intelligence's cyberwarfare division was thus engaged in a disinformation campaign. They began flooding Lauchenoirian social media and print media with carefully organized and planted output meant to exacerbate the tensions between the Green-Pacifist Alliance and the Liberal Party. Posts in which "party loyalists" criticized each others' positions, mocked and insulted each other, questioned Alvarez's morals and intentions, and criticized the risks of openly confronting Xiomera would quickly become the highest-trending content in Lauchenoiria. Accusations of being "communist agents" would also be thrown in here and there, to capitalize on the country's ongoing trauma following its civil war.

The content was beautifully orchestrated to appear totally organic, and fully intended to raise the temperature between the two political movements so high that a collapse of Alvarez's government would be inevitable. Fleming's inside knowledge of Lauchenoirian politics and society would prove invaluable to making the campaign highly convincing (and much easier to hide its origins).

Even if the disinformation campaign failed to bring down the government of Lauchenoiria, it would inevitably create massive political fires that Alvarez and her team would have to spend plenty of time putting out, and make the unwieldy coalition governing the country even more difficult to keep together. The time and frustration that this would cause Alvarez alone was well worth the effort to Calhualyana. This was, after all, simply the first phase.

The time Alvarez would have to waste keeping her coalition government together - if she even could - would also distract Lauchenoiria from its efforts in Auria. That served Xiomera quite well. And if the operation achieved its wildest dream - the collapse of Alvarez's government - Lauchenoiria could well withdraw from Auria altogether if a more pacifist government took over. If that happened, Calhualyana could, someday, possibly gift her new son with an Auria that was essentially a Xiomeran colony. Quite the birthday present.

The fact that this operation represented massive interference with Lauchenoirian society, and could lead to disastrous consequences for the country, was of no consequence to Calhualyana. After all, by her reasoning, Alvarez had chosen to interfere with Xiomeran affairs that were none of her concern. The Empress was more than happy to return the favor.

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#50

(Joint Post with Xiomera)

Undisclosed Location, Southern Auria
May 16th, 2022, 6:17 PM

"Nē voi san sarem."

Lieutenant Natalija Petrova leaned forward in her chair, gritting her teeth while she muttered the phrase "I won't tell you anything" in Eirian. Her hands and legs were tied to a metal chair, hindering any escape attempt she may have planned. Bruises lined her arms and face, indicating both her rough landing into an Aurian forest, and her terrible treatment at the hands of her captors.

She had evaded them as much as she could, in her wounded state. Her parachute had gotten caught in a tree branch, sending her feet-first into a tree trunk. The moment she had cut herself from the parachute, she knew that her ankle was at minimum sprained, if not broken. That, combined with the Xiomeran mercenaries sending out search parties after her fighter crashed, made her capture virtually inevitable. She was laser-focused at staring at the wall, attempting to ignore the uniformed man who accompanied her.

Apamatl chuckled softly. The CSSC Special Operations interrogator tapped the stylus of his tablet calmly as he looked at Petrova. "Sooner or later, you'll tell us whatever you know. It may not be much, but who knows? I won't know, until I exhaust all my resources." Apamatl leaned back in his chair. "I don't enjoy this, you know. But just like you, I have orders to obey, and a job to do. So, I suggest for your sake that you cooperate. It's far easier and less painful. It also would prevent any need for resorting to our pharmacological capacities to make you talk. The drugs are more effective than brute force, but they do sometimes have side effects."

The Eirian pilot looked at the floor, not even acknowledging what her interrogator had said. "Nē poivem runat Ankliš." Even someone who isn't fluent in Eirian could recognize the phrase. I don't speak English. Petrova's voice was coarse and muted as she stared at the ground, praying that her captor would understand and believe her lie. It's a long shot, but please, God, let him believe me.

Apamatl sighed. "Just like most Xiomerans, most Eirians speak at least a little English. But if you insist, I can get an Eirian speaker from our linguistic corps in here. At that point, I am sure you will understand what I have to say quite well." The interrogator deliberately pressed a finger against one of the bruises on Petrova's arm. "Some languages, such as that of pain, are universal."

The captive leaned her head back, curling her fingers and toes as pain shot through her entire arm. You sick bastard. She stared back up at Apamatl, her expression clearly illustrating how much she despised him. Even as tears streamed down her cheeks, she didn't say a word. I won't give you the satisfaction of a reply, you sadistic piece of shit.

"I see you got that message," Apamatl said, undeterred by the open hatred on Petrova's face. "I'm actually trying to make this easier on you, you know. But you're insistent on being stubborn. So, let's continue. What are the intended next air targets of Coalition forces?"

Like I'd tell you, you mercenary bastard. She kept his gaze for a few moments, just to keep him waiting, before slowly starting to hum a quiet melody, as if to drown her captor's questions out. She broke their stare and looked down at the floor while she recreated a soft melody, intending to annoy her captor as much as possible.

Apamatl sighed again. "You clearly think you can hold out against our worst. You haven't even seen the worst. Let me explain what is going to happen here. I am going to continue to ask you questions. If you are not forthcoming, the big guys with the truncheons will come back in to pay you another visit. Then I'll come back and try again, and that cycle will repeat itself. At some point I'll go off and have a nice dinner - CSSC rations are quite superb - and then I'll go to bed and have a good sleep while you sit here handcuffed to that chair all night. And then we'll start again - that is, if I don't get bored with this game and pump you full of enough interrogation drugs to have you telling me everything from your intended targets to your favorite color and things that happened to you in grade school." Apamatl shook his head. "Why go through all that to delay the inevitable?"

Petrova met the Xiomeran's gaze again, this time, her cold anger getting the better of her. "Because every minute you waste with me, that's one less person fighting us. All of the guards guarding me, all of the interrogators you work with here, those people are taken from the battlefield to waste time asking me questions. You're losing ground, it doesn't take a genius to see that. And if you want to spend precious time and manpower interrogating me..." She gave him a spiteful smile. "Be my guest."

"It's no waste of time or manpower. This is our job. We're assigned to do this. As for losing ground....I don't think you understand. Whether it's out there, or in here, this is a battle of endurance. And I am quite confident that our ability to endure this fight will outlast your little coalition's....just as our endurance in here will outlast yours. I've already gotten you to speak, after all, when you were so determined to give me the silent treatment." Apamatl chuckled again. "So. Let's try this again. What are the intended next targets of Coalition air forces?"

"Hmm. I could've sworn I heard the higher ups say that the next target was your mother's house. Apparently, it's a popular place among the officers, and it's caused a bit of a distraction. But hey, officer morale has never been higher!" Petrova's biting sarcasm was delivered with an angry grin. "Is that the answer you were looking for?"

In response, Apamatl stood up, took a black leather sap from his belt and whacked it against Petrova's other arm. "Childish insults will get you nowhere. Besides, my mother is back in Xiomera, well out of the reach of your little coalition. Seriously....your leaders couldn't find any better partners than Lauchenoiria and Milintica? It's like you want your planes to get shot down. Which we're more than happy to oblige." The interrogator gave Petrova a cool smile as he sat back down.

The Eirian grimaced as she was whipped, the stinging pain triggering her existing wounds. After biting her lip, she came up with a quick retort. "And yet, you're losing ground. We've got the air and naval advantages now. We've got steady supply lines. You're losing to Eiria, Lauchenoiria, and Milintica, and you can't even blame the weather this time. Oh, how the great Xiomeran armies have fallen."

Apamatl smirked. "You haven't seen all the cards we have to play yet. And when you do....let's just say you will be quite surprised. Your side, I mean. You, specifically, won't be seeing much." The interrogator stood back up. "I can see you need some more convincing to be cooperative." He made a gesture to the guard observing through a window in the door to the interrogation room. After a moment, two men walked in. One was a standard guard, complete with standard truncheon. The other was someone Petrova hadn't seen before. A person in a lab coat, with a small tray of various medical tools and vials. "After you've had some quality time with my friends here, we'll chat again. Something tells me that you'll be much more willing to cooperate then."

Petrova's spirited sarcasm faded, and she closed her eyes, picturing the faces of her fellow pilots and officers. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I did everything I could. She felt her hope waning as her captors made preparations, desperately hoping that her first interrogator was bluffing about the drugs. As she slumped down in her chair, only one thought kept crossing through her mind.

Please, let it be painless.


Hadkeca Township, Western Auria
May 22nd, 2022, 9:35 AM

The small village of Hadkeca was unassuming to any outside viewer. Quiet, tranquil, and hidden in the Karēce Hills, Hadkeca sat on the border of the Emilija Mountain Range that decorated Auria's western border. In this far out town, it would be easy to think that the chaos of the rest of Auria wouldn't apply here, that this slow, picturesque town would be protected from the terror and bloodshed of the eastern and southern regions.

But as it turns out, not even a town like Hadkeca could escape the war.

Nicolas Dupont nervously glanced down at the pistol holstered on his hip, leaning back on the cold brick wall. The seventeen year old was perpetually on edge, often scanning his surroundings in case one of his superiors could see him, despite him doing nothing wrong. His post was quite dull, watching over the rolling Karēce Hills for any sign of vehicles on the worn-down roads. He had held this post for a week, ever since General Michelin and his forces had rolled into town. They had made one thing clear to Hadkeca's able-bodied inhabitants: Enlist freely, or enlist while staring down a gun.

"Cadet" Dupont had wisely chosen the former, being ordered to dress in all-black and to stand at the very edge of town, making the youth the town's first line of defense and warnings. Perpetually nervous of this fact, and terrified to be considered disobedient by his superiors, he obeyed every command given to him, and constantly examined the distant roads, just in case of attackers. Is anyone really gonna attack us? We're as far from Lumiere as you can get!

The noise of moving feet and muffled voices echoed from behind him, causing him to stand up straight and peek out from the wall onto the street. A group of young conscripts, led by a few gruff officers, marched down the decaying road, weapons out and pointed downwards. The lead officer noticed Dupont first, slowing his pace and gesturing.

"Cadet! On me. You're the furthest scout, eh?"

Nicolas nodded, joints locked stiffly in place and eyes staring forward. "Yeah… Yes sir!"

The officer waved his hand, and Dupont relaxed, still standing with respectful posture. "Why don't you join the line, cadet? General Michelin has assigned us the privilege of extending our reach and scoping out nearby towns. There's not much need of a scout here anymore, so you'll be reporting to me. Now…" He pointed at the back of the group. "Form up! It's a long walk to the next town."

Lumiere, Eastern Auria
June 1st, 2022, 12:03 PM

Sarah Berenstein, in a neat suit, stood in front of several TV cameras, keeping her expression determined and refined. Her appearance was carefully constructed to match the regality that Auria's previous leaders have conveyed. After all, every television in eastern Auria was displaying her speech. Especially with discontent on the rise throughout the country, it was critical for Berenstein to give an impression of composure and stability.

A camera operator used his fingers to count down, pointing at Berenstein to signify that the cameras are now live. With a small nod, she began to speak. "Good afternoon, my fellow Aurians. I understand that the recent times have been very stressful, and that many of you are likely feeling very uneasy about the state of our great nation. And you'd be right to be concerned. We are under great pressure from both foreign aggressors and internal dissidents. Auria has never faced such stressors."

"But, Auria has also never been in this condition. Under the fragile, stagnant governments of the past, our nation would've never survived the pressures we face today." Berenstein's tone was firm, yet encouraging, meant to inspire pride in listeners. "Yet, here we stand, stronger than ever! We have been forged in the fire of adversity, and we will not bend to those who wish to impose their will on us. As we speak, our troops are holding the line against nations much larger than Auria ever has been. These nations seek to undermine our newfound strength, to knock us back down to the shell of a nation we once were."

"And these nations aren't working alone. It has come to my attention that a rogue group of individuals are claiming that our late King Andrew Cordonnier is still alive, and that they are following his wishes. Not only are these claims completely false, they are blatantly disrespectful to Andrew's memory. Our most recent intelligence also indicates that this violent group is also behind the brutal assassination of Prime Minister Jonathan Gerand, a very close friend of mine." Her voice softened a bit as she mentioned the former Minister of Intelligence. "I will use every single resource at my disposal to make sure that these criminals are brought to justice, for the safety of our citizens."

"While we mourn the deaths of two great leaders, we also must turn our attention to the future, or else we risk losing our great nation in our grief. We must act in unison, standing against both internal and external threats with the same unwavering strength. The days of crowns and broken bureaucracies are over. It's time for effective, direct governance that truly works for the Aurian people. Let us work together to make that dream government a reality. I, Sarah Berenstein, promise to exceed your expectations for a Prime Minister. Together, we will take our glorious nation into the future, against any foe."

She gave the cameras one last confident nod. "Thank you all for your time. Long live Auria!"

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