His low mutter drew the attention of his companion and she turned to look at him. Letting out a deep breath, the man turned to the sky with sharp, light blue eyes. The faint cries of dragons flying past overhead was just barely audible over the howling wind and snow that was natural to the region and the rustling of his short blond hair and the crimson mantle on his shoulders.
“Were you expecting them earlier, Ace?” inquired his partner, raising a hand to push a few strands of her long, tied back brunette hair behind her ear. She then adjusted her mantle, one almost identical to his, except set around her neck and shoulders like a scarf instead of a cape. “Their dragons must have had a difficult time in this weather.”
“They’ll need to set up camp before night comes,” he replied, his attention back on their own military camp. He turned to her with a knowing look, a slight smirk on his lips. “Milites is coldest this time of year, despite how you feel every time we come here, Deuce.”
“I-It is always so cold!” she whined softly, her arms crossed tightly across her chest. “And I can’t hug you for warmth right now…”
He chuckled. “You could, but people would take note of the commander of the army and the head ambassador being...intimate with each other.”
“Mmm...they would,” she murmured, her cheeks growing slightly pinker from his words.
Just then, a scout, clad in the hooded dull red cloaks of the dominion legionaries, jogged up the small hill they stood on overlooking the camp, approaching the couple. “Commander! Report for you!”
“What is it?” asked Ace, turning to look at the scout.
“We’ve confirmed that the Concordians have landed east of Cetme and have begun setting up their camp. It seems the Queen’s ambassador is accompanied by the Five Star Guard’s Hoshizaki Warden for the negotiations tomorrow,” said the scout, a report in his hands. “We’ve also noted that the Lorican army has finished setting up their camp to the north of Cetme. The Lorican King’s advisor and his ambassador have been sighted in the camp, but not the Lorican King himself.”
“That’s expected. Neither the Concordians or the Loricans trust us or the Militesi. The Militesi may have started this war, but we haven’t exactly advocated peace either,” Ace answered, his face set in an impeccably trained neutral expression. “Any updates on the Militesi?”
The scout nodded. “Yes, sir. Their army has camped out west of Cetme and have sent soldiers into Cetme to gather supplies. Also, the Militesi Emperor has been spotted in Cetme, along with his ambassador. It is likely they will stay in the military barracks in Cetme for the night.”
Brow furrowing slightly, Ace watched as a man with dark red hair and a mantle like his began to approach from the main camp. “Who’s in charge of the army?”
“It seems that General Raymond is the commanding officer present in the camp at the moment. We’re not sure if he is the only one sent to the peace summit or whether there will be more incoming. That is all for my report, sir.”
“Okay. Finish scouting the area around Cetme and keep an eye on all of the camps,” instructed Ace. “We might be here for peace negotiations, but they are still technically our enemies until the documents are drawn up.”
With that, the scout jogged off again, just as the red-haired man reached the couple. “Ace, Deuce, everything looking good?”
“Seems fine,” responded Ace, glancing over the camp once more before turning to look at the man again. “Did you need something, Eight?”
“Nothing right now. The Chancellor wants to see us once Cater, Sice, and Nine get back,” Eight said with a shrug. “I can come up here and get you when it’s time if you want?”
Eyes softening as he looked over at a shivering Deuce, Ace shook his head. “No, I think we’re done up here. Someone needs to be warmed up before we meet up with the others.”
At his teasing words, Deuce blushed just a shade more. It was always a little jarring, how quickly Ace could transition from the stone-faced, serious commander of the dominion army to her caring, playful, and sometimes mischievous lover. But they had been together for as long as she could remember, their childhood comfort and support the foundation for their deep-seated trust and affection in their adulthood. She wouldn’t change anything about him.
“Right, I’ll have Cater grab you two from your tent then,” Eight snickered. “Don’t, uhhh…start anything that will take more than half an hour?”
Standing at the right hand side of the table head, Ace glanced over the group gathered in the war council tent. The twelve of them had been through much together, from their troubled childhood on the streets to their military training to where they stood now, primed to take over leadership in the Dominion of Rubrum. Their crimson capes marked them as the dominion’s most elite, Akademeia cadets of the strongest caliber, the legendary Class Zero.
Deuce stood beside him quietly, hand entwined with his now that they were away from the eyes of the rank and file. Next to her stood Queen, a bespectacled woman with long, black hair and a knowing look on her face as she spoke with Eight beside her. At the end of the table stood Cater, Cinque, and Trey, the first twirling a lock of her short, flared, auburn hair around her finger in boredom and the second joggling her long, braided, ginger hair as she hopped up and down excitedly in her conversation with the far calmer Trey, who was putting a hand through his long blond bangs. Spiky coiffed dark blond hair just visible above the table, Jack sat relaxedly on the ground in his spot next to Trey, whistling a soft tune.
“Oi, how much longer?” Nine asked impatiently, scratching at his unkempt, dark blond hair as he looked back and forth from Queen and Eight across the table to Jack and Sice beside him.
“The old man is getting slow,” grumbled Sice, her arms crossed as she turned her head to Nine and then to King on her other side, the end of her tied up silvery hair rustling slightly with the movement.
“The Chancellor was resting from our travel this morning,” said King, his long, slicked-back blond hair and furrowed brow giving him the appearance of the oldest in the group. “Just be patient.”
Seven shrugged in her spot next to King and to the left of the head of the table. “He asked for the council once Cater returned from scouting. Eight, you did inform him that we were all ready, right?”
“Of course. He said he needed to finish speaking with the Consortium and then he’d be over,” responded Eight. “Seems like they were arguing over terms of the negotiation...again.”
“Don’t worry, kupo!” squeaked Moglin, their class’s moogle, from beside Ace. Like the rest of them, ze wore a black uniform and a red mantle, and hir dark red pom wobbled as ze spoke and put a light tan paw in the air confidently. “I’m sure the Chancellor will be able to smooth things over as he always does, kupo!”
“Bah, that stupid baldy and that old know-it-all can shove it,” huffed Sice, the irritation clear in her voice. “They’re just pissed that we’re here and soon we’ll be replacing them.”
“I do sometimes enjoy watching the Commandant interact with you, Ace,” King admitted, a small smirk on his lips. “In all my years, I’ve never seen a man turn red so quickly when talking to someone less than half his age.”
Letting out a snicker, Ace shook his head. “Commandant Higato is well-decorated from his years of military service, but hardly a strategist. It doesn’t take much effort to fluster him.”
Just then, the flap of the tent opened and Chancellor Khalia Chival VI strode in. The older man’s wrinkles, tired eyes, and gray hair and beard was a clear indication of his 62 years of age, though his strong stance and stride was reminiscent of a man far younger. “My apologies, young ones,” said the Chancellor as he took his spot at the head of the table. “The peace summit tomorrow understandably worries everyone in Rubrum, not just those of us here.”
“Indeed,” agreed Queen. “What did you want to discuss, Chancellor?”
“I felt that we should review the plan for tomorrow, given its...unusual circumstances for a negotiation,” the Chancellor said, the weariness clear in his voice. “And speak of our...future plans should things go awry.”
“As you wish, Chancellor,” Ace answered. “At your will.”
At that, the Chancellor gave a short laugh. “Very well. Sometimes it is hard for me to consolidate my memories of twelve feisty, incredibly resourceful, and rambunctious orphans on the street with the young adults that stand before me, trained and poised to be our nation’s next leaders.”
He paused, a sense of pride rising in his chest as the expressions on each of the twelve softened at his words. Though they all had vastly different personalities and skills, Class Zero had proven themselves over the years he had taken them into his care, natural talents and trained discipline honing them into paragons of their respective jobs. The rest of the Consortium, the governing body of Rubrum, may not have agreed with him at the time, but he had no regrets when it came to the twelve of them.
“As you know, our war with Milites has been going on for almost a year now. Concordia and Lorica have called a stop to it before the fighting envelops all of Orience, so we are here in Cetme for a peace summit. The emperor of Milites, Emperor Paradis, and I will be meeting with the Lorican and Concordian representatives to work out a peace treaty. The meeting will take place in Cetme’s town hall, starting from 0900 hours tomorrow,” the Chancellor stated, the group nodding in response. “Part of our agreement for the negotiations is that none of the military for any of the countries may be present, as to ensure no violence or assassination attempts. Only those involved in the negotiations are allowed to be present nearby during the summit. As such, Deuce and I will head to the town hall at 0800 hours.”
“The agreement for peace negotiations states that we may escort you with military personnel, but that we must leave after you have been safely taken to the town hall,” Ace asserted, looking at the Chancellor and then Deuce. “Nine, Jack, Sice, and several of our best legionaries and cadets will escort you from the camp to the town hall in Cetme. Queen, Eight, and I have charted out patrol routes around Cetme and its town hall, all outside of the agreed-upon boundaries for the summit. We’ll have multiple rotating patrols until the negotiations are complete.”
“My spies in Section 4 and Class Ninth will be positioned around Cetme,” continued King. “If anything untoward occurs, we will know and respond immediately. Be assured of that, Chancellor.”
Nodding, the Chancellor gave a hum of approval. “I do not doubt any of you, King. There is no group to whom I would rather entrust the future of our country.”
“Chancellor, scouts have reported that the Lorican King’s advisor Enkidu Uruk arrived with their ambassador, and the Hoshizaki Warden of Concordia’s Five Star Guard with their ambassador,” Ace added, eyes on Deuce as he spoke. “If that helps with preparing for the negotiations.”
“It does,” said Deuce softly, squeezing his hand. “Lord Enkidu is a reasonable man, and the Hoshizaki Warden was a great advocate for peaceful compromise during the last border dispute. I’ll think on how to best appeal to them for the negotiations tomorrow.”
The Chancellor smiled gently at the soft-spoken Deuce before his gaze steeled up and he frowned slightly at his next thoughts. “Very good. Now...let us speak of the possibility that something goes wrong at this peace summit…”
“You mean, in case those Militesi end up attacking!” exclaimed Cater, crossing her arms in annoyance. “They’re the ones who started this war anyway. I still don’t get why they would agree to a peace treaty.”
“They’ve been losing this war. We’ve outmaneuvered them at almost every battle and had minimal losses compared to them,” Eight answered, putting a hand to his chin thoughtfully. “That said, I wouldn’t put it past them to use this summit as a potential way to turn the tide of the war. The conditions in Milites are not sustainable as they are. That’s why they started the war.”
“Eight’s right. Regardless of whether they come with pretenses of peace or not, we should be prepared for either case,” Queen proclaimed, her voice ever serious. “Perhaps we should even expect deception from them.”
“Perhaps. But we can’t let our forces know that,” rumbled King. “The last thing we need is people possibly making preemptive strikes against them.”
Heaving a sigh at the unpleasant scenario spoken of, the Chancellor closed his eyes briefly. “I trust you all to be prepared for that possibility. Now, we’ve talked about this before...If the negotiations should fail, I will have limited options for brokering peace. You must take up that responsibility...as the Societas Unitorum Pacis.”
A tense silence fell over the group. As many times as they had this conversation with the Chancellor, none of them were completely comfortable with the idea. In a way, they had been preparing for forming the Societas all their lives, but the sacrifices they would have to make for it would be many.
“Umm…Cinquey can’t remember what that is…” mumbled Cinque suddenly with a confused tilt of her head, breaking the silence. “What is that, Tre-Tre?”
“Well, Cinque, the Great Orience War in 357 RG between the four sovereign nations of Rubrum, Concordia, Lorica, and Milites left the world in shambles. Every country drew resources from both the world and their people at increasingly larger and faster rates in order to fuel the war and compete with the other countries. With none of the nations willing to back down, Orience fell into a state of unprecedented deterioration and seemed doomed to be destroyed from war. In fact, based on historical accounts, the common people of that time believed Tempus Finis would be upon them as the war raged on,” explained Trey, a grim tone in his voice. “Seeking to prevent Tempus Finis, several key figures from each nation, all of them possessing a will to end the fighting and restore Orience to peace, formed the Societas Unitorum Pacis. The Societas forced a ceasefire and brought the leaders of the four nations together, creating the Pax Codex and the Fabula Pact. As you know, the Pax Codex—”
“Anyway, Orience has seen multiple wars in the past twenty years,” sighed Queen, cutting Trey off before he could start rambling about treaties of old. “The non-aggression pledge from the Fabula Pact has been violated by all four governments over the years, while the Pax Codex’s regulations for declaring war and the treatment of civilians and POWs have all been flouted by Milites. Queen Andoria of Concordia has attempted to invoke these old treaties for the sake of peace during her reign, but unfortunately to no success.”
Cinque gave a thoughtful hum. “So...we have to make everyone play nice?”
“Easier said than done, I’m afraid,” Seven responded, shaking her head. “Hence the need for the Societas Unitorum Pacis.”
“Yes.” The Chancellor frowned, his features furrowing with age and concern. “And I am sorry for forcing this upon you, but I believe no others could succeed where you could. All of you have performed great deeds for Rubrum, achieved titles and accolades that others your age can only admire...truly, it must be you. Reviving an ancient order like the Societas will not go over well with currently conflicted governments, including our own Consortium…but you will be able to weather the struggles and hardships. I believe that.”
“We’d be breaking away from the dominion…” muttered Eight solemnly. “Cut off from any resources or personnel that we would have had under the flag of Rubrum…”
“It can’t be any other way,” King reminded them, putting a hand on the table. “The Societas can’t be bound to any nation...or perceived so—yet another obstacle to overcome.”
“We’ll have our work cut out for us, that’s for sure,” Cater huffed, arms crossed. “No one is just going to up and accept us, even if we are Class Zero. Even though they should!”
“Well, we don’t know that we’ll have to do any of this,” Jack interjected, the lightheartedness in his voice and gestures a stark contrast to the serious atmosphere in the tent. “I mean, if the peace summit succeeds, then the fighting stops and we won’t have to be...the sosi-ehh...that thing, right?”
“Heh, always the optimist, huh, Jack?” Sice huffed, waving her hand dismissively.
Seven let out a sigh. “Let’s hope you’re right…”
“I will provide what help I can should this come to pass,” the Chancellor reassured them. “However, you would bear most of the burden…”
“Don’t worry, Chancellor. If we have to, we’ll do it,” replied Ace, the others nodding in agreement. “We’re prepared for it, after all.”
“Oh, d-did you need something, Ace?”
Propping his head up on an arm, Ace moved to lay on his side in their cot, a mildly annoyed expression on his face as he looked at her. She had been pacing their tent ever since they returned from dinner, only pausing to change into her sleeping attire at his order. While he could appreciate her attempts at preparing—or perhaps over-preparing—for the negotiations in the morning, she would be pacing for most of the night if he didn’t intervene. That was the kind of dedication she had to her work. But it was getting late, and he needed her to rest, both for her sake and his.
“For you to stop pacing and come to bed?”
“But I...I’m not sure how to sway the Lorican ambassador to support our side of the negotiations!” she exclaimed, turquoise eyes wide with worry. “He’ll surely protest to our proposal for border enforcement at Big Bridge because it will affect trade with Milites!”
“Then you’ll assure him that as long as the traders have the appropriate documentation and authorization, they will be able to cross the border without issue,” said Ace dryly. “Now come sleep.”
Shaking her head, she let out an unsteady breath. “I’m not...I’m not ready. Everything… everything depends on the success of the peace summit tomorrow and I…”
His eyes softened as she spoke of her concerns and he sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the cot. “Deuce...you’ll be fine. The Chancellor will be there with you. And even if he wasn’t, you would still succeed. You’ve done so many of these before.”
“You’ve worked hard to become head ambassador. You and Seven are Rubrum’s best at it. I’ve seen you talk our Consortium into agreement. And the other countries’ ambassadors can’t possibly be more disagreeable than them.”
“There’s so much to consider for the peace treaty though…”
The restless nervousness in her body would have been clear even if he hadn’t been intimately familiar with her demeanor and habits. He sighed, standing up and stepping across the floor to her before wrapping his arms around her waist from behind. Pulling her back against his chest, he watched as she placed her hands over his and then turned her head to look up at him, her body automatically and steadily calming in the presence of his own.
“You will succeed,” he assured her sincerely, their eyes meeting. “Everything will be okay.”
After a moment, Deuce looked away, gaze drifting over his shoulder and to their bed. “Ace, I…”
“Don’t apologize. I’m here for you.”
That guilty expression on her features told him exactly what she would have said, and she nestled into his embrace gratefully while he nuzzled the crown of her head. She felt his arms tighten around her and she let her body relax against his. There was nowhere she felt more safe and comfortable than in his arms, especially when it was so cold outside and in the tent.
“Okay, bed,” she agreed softly, prompting him to give her a small grin.
Carefully, he picked her up, her toes just a couple centimeters off the ground as he brought her over to their cot and placed her down on it. She settled in, pulling the covers over her legs while he sat down, his back to her as he reached over to turn off the main lamp. Once he brought his arm back, she placed a hand on his shoulder, catching his attention.
Her hand slid along his neck to his cheek, his figure barely visible in the dim light of the safety lamp near the entrance of the tent. Leaning in toward him, she gently pressed her lips to his, smiling as he shuffled to move onto the bed fully and pull her closer. When they drew apart for air, she gave a happy murmur and let her hand drift to the back of his neck, keeping him close even as they laid down.
“You’re an amazing diplomat, Deuce. Don’t ever doubt that,” he said in a low voice, stroking the small of her back reassuringly. “The Chancellor wouldn’t have asked you to go if he didn’t believe in you like the rest of us do...like I do.”
“You’re the sweetest, Ace,” she whispered back, huddling closer to him with her cheek against his shoulder. “I’m just a little nervous. There’s so much that could go wrong tomorrow and…”
“Nine, Jack, and Sice will make sure you and the Chancellor get to the town hall safely. You can just work your magic on the negotiation. Let me worry about the rest, hmm? ”
“Still…I wish you could be with me tomorrow for the summit.”
“Me too, Deuce. But you know I’m not allowed to be.”
“I would feel better if you were though…”
He sighed, understanding exactly how she felt, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You know if anything goes wrong, you can call for me and I’ll come for you. I promise.”
“I know you will…”
Wrapping his other arm around her, he pulled her on top of him, letting her comfortably place her cheek against his collarbone and her hand against his chest. “Relax for tonight. If you worry any more, I will have to distract you, Deuce,” he warned playfully, one of his hands wandering down her side to the curve of her hip. “Don’t blame me if the others come running in when they hear you.”
“A-Ace!” Deuce blushed and gave him a scandalized look, even though she knew well that he was too busy snickering to pay attention to her embarrassed exclamation. That is, if he could even see her expression in the darkness of the tent. With a muffled whine against the crook of his neck, she gave him a light smack on the chest, earning more chuckles from her partner.
Once his laughs began to taper down, he pulled her closer by the waist and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “You’re right. I’ll save it for tomorrow when you come back and I can have you all night. And we can be in our bed instead of this squeaky one.”
Despite her protests, she was used to this kind of teasing from him; sometimes, she even enjoyed it. They had been an official couple for almost 8 years now, and far longer unofficially. There were very seldom disagreements between the two of them nowadays and they were much too familiar with each other’s mannerisms to truly be surprised by the other. As heated as her cheeks felt, she didn’t actually feel uncomfortable with his teasing, and he had successfully taken her mind off the negotiations and relaxed her, even for just a few moments.
“Mmm...that sounds nice. I’m looking forward to it,” she mumbled shyly, fingers lightly drumming against his chest.
“...We should make a date of it,” he suggested after a brief pause, his tone no longer teasing but thoughtful. “I bet a break would be good for you after spending a day talking to those government officials. We could go to that restaurant you like in Aqvi, go back to Akademeia and take a walk along the sea...whatever you want...”
His thoughtfulness warmed her heart and she snuggled closer to him. In truth, his kind and caring nature was one of the things that had made her fall in love with him. Despite his guarded appearance and stern demeanor toward everyone else—as befitting his status as the future commander of Rubrum’s army, she had always felt that he was a sweet, passionate, and sensitive soul. And their relationship over the years had only reinforced that. He never failed to give her that euphoric feeling that came with knowing how much he loved her and how much he wanted to make her happy.
“...You’re too good to me, Ace,” she giggled, just loud enough for him to hear. “I’d love a date.”
“Okay then, it’s a date,” he said with a half-grin, letting out a low grunt as she shifted slightly on top of him to curl her leg with his for warmth. “...You just tell me everything you want after the negotiations. I’ll make it happen, Deuce.”
“I’ll be happy with anything you think would be good,” she responded, curling her fingers and letting them rest on his chest. “I always enjoy our dates.”
A content silence fell over the couple, Ace lazily closing his eyes and nuzzling the top of her head. While it was common for them to end up talking into the late hours of the night, the importance of tomorrow’s summit weighed heavily on them both and neither wanted to continue talking about it. Eventually, the comforting thumps of his heart next to her ear slowly drew Deuce into a sleepy lull. In the haze of dozing, her worries about the next day started to creep up on her again, only to dissipate as she felt his arms tighten around her as if he could sense her fears returning and wanted to protect her from them. With a soft coo, she leaned up to kiss him, her lips pressing against the edge of his mouth in the darkness and causing his eyes to flutter open.
“Mmm. As much as I enjoy your attention, Deuce, you should sleep. We have a long day tomorrow,” he muttered in an amused tone. “Come here. Goodnight kiss.”
Holding back a giggle, she leaned a little further up, letting their noses brush before meeting his lips with her own. The hand he had on her back came up, lightly touching the back of her hair to encourage her to stay there just a little longer. Their kisses were always familiar, comforting, and he could feel the residual tension in her body start to melt away in response to that.
“...I love you,” she murmured as they parted, wishing that she could see him more clearly in the darkness. “I love you so much, Ace.”
“I love you too.”
“So...you and Deuce are going on a date tonight after we get back, huh?”
Eight shifted his gaze from the city visible in the distance from the hill he and Ace were standing on and grinned, his chestnut-colored eyes catching Ace’s lips briefly curling into a fond smile at the question. Even through the falling snow and the cloudy shade of the region, Eight could see the cross-armed Ace shuffle around every now and then, boots nudging the snow around and fingers failing at staying still as he tapped them against his bicep. Whether it was nervousness or excitement that fueled Ace’s almost uncharacteristic fidgeting, Eight couldn’t quite tell.
“Yeah, so?” questioned Ace, the apathy of his words belying the anticipation in his body.
“So? Is tonight the night?”
Letting out a huff, Ace rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Eight.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about!” Eight declared in a hushed voice, taking a step closer to his pseudo-brother. “You’ve had that ring for...how many years now? Three?”
“Three and a half. Ever since the Chancellor put us in these positions for training,” answered Ace with a sigh. “What’s your point?”
“That you’re long overdue to propose to her, smart guy,” Eight retorted, giving Ace a light punch on the shoulder. “I mean, you two have been a couple since we were sixteen. How long are you planning to make her wait?”
“We haven’t exactly had a lot of free time lately. There hasn’t been a good time,” muttered Ace after a pause, furrowing his brow. “But…”
Slowly, Eight’s eyes widened in realization as he watched a smirk make its way onto Ace’s lips. “...I suppose peacetime would make as good a time as any,” Ace commented, the mildly cheeky tone in his voice making Eight laugh. “Only hope she doesn’t figure it out beforehand.”
“About time! Just keep your cool like you normally do.” Eight placed a brotherly hand on Ace’s shoulder, giving it a light shake before drawing his hand back and pumping his fist excitedly. “And any way it goes down, she’ll be beyond happy, right? It’ll be the best part of her day. Even above brokering peace for the whole world.”
“Maybe,” snickered Ace, shaking his head slightly at Eight’s enthusiasm.
“I bet everyone else is going to be super excited too, when they hear—”
Keeping his eyes on the city in the distance, Ace cleared his throat before addressing the legionary trudging up the snow behind them. Though he wasn’t looking in the legionary’s direction, a trained, hardened, all-business expression immediately graced his features on reflex as soon as he heard the call. “...Lieutenant, report.”
“Lady Sice and Sirs Nine and Jack have returned to base camp,” said the legionary with a bow. “They report that the Chancellor and Lady Deuce were safely escorted to the peace summit and that the area around the town hall has been secured.”
“Have the patrols found anything suspicious?” Ace asked.
“No, sir. Everything seems calm at the moment,” the legionary answered, shaking his head. “The Militesi and Concordians arrived ahead of the Chancellor and Lady Deuce, while the Loricans arrived shortly after. By our estimations, the negotiations should have begun already.”
“All right.” Ace placed a hand to his chin, a contemplative expression on his face as he considered the situation and racked his brain for any additional instructions for his troops. After a moment, he lowered his hand, placing it back onto his arm. “Make sure the patrols are running consistently. We should have people in every sector at any given moment. Until those treaty documents are finalized and signed, we can’t let anyone disturb the summit.”
The legionary nodded in agreement. “Yes, sir. Any further orders?”
“Not at the moment.”
With that, the legionary bowed again and turned, trudging back down the snowy slope to the base camp and leaving the two men on the hill overlooking the area. Letting out a small laugh, Eight turned to continue looking at Cetme with Ace. “There’s never really a break as the commander of the army, is there?” remarked Eight, crossing his arms. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“You and Queen help with the logistics and paperwork.”
A wry smirk curled Eight’s lips. “That’s kind of my job as Head of Logistics. But you’re busier than either of us, even if you count the fact that Queen spends most of the day staring at phantoma for research. People are constantly asking things of you.”
“That’s what happens when you’re in charge of an army during wartime.”
All of the sudden, a beep in their left ears interrupted them and they tapped on their earpieces to hear King’s voice on their communication line. “Ace. Eight.”
“What is it, King?” Ace questioned.
“My spies are reporting something strange. The Militesi army appears to be packing up their camp and all their military units have started to move away from the city, including the border guard. Didn’t the negotiations just begin an hour ago?”
Brow furrowing, Ace frowned and took a step forward as if to stare more intently at Cetme in the distance. “...Yeah...they did...Do we know who gave the orders for the Militesi to move out?”
“Not for sure. General Raymond evidently left with a MA squadron this morning,” King rumbled. “Also...Marshal Cid Aulstyne was spotted moving toward Cetme from their camp.”
“Cid Aulstyne…?” A sense of foreboding crawled up Ace’s spine and he clenched his bicep with his hand, drawing Eight’s attention. “Why? When did he arrive?”
“We don’t know. No one saw him enter the camp. Strange, considering we had eyes on it all night and morning,” responded King. “...He’s at the outskirts of the city right now. It’s very likely he is headed toward the town hall.”
Exchanging an understanding look with Ace, Eight glanced at the city once more and then turned to jog down the snow-covered hill toward the war council tent where King was. Ace let out a soft sigh, re-straightening his stance. “Eight is headed your way, King. Determine which sector Cid Aulstyne is walking through and have Eight get the patrol group there to intercept him. Send backup in the case of resistance. The agreement for the summit was no military within 1,000 meters of the town hall. If he breaches, take him into custody. Make sure they keep it as peaceful as possible. We don’t want to spark anything here.”
“Okay. Our ambassadors may not be happy if it comes to that.”
“I know. But we can deal with the complaints afterward. We can’t allow this summit to fail.”
“Any report on the Concordians and Loricans?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Most of their troops are on standby, it seems. They’ve deployed a couple squadrons to guard the perimeter of the summit, but they’re not patrolling like we are.”
Just then, Ace could hear Eight’s voice in the background of King’s audio feed and his fingers tensed against his arm. The appearance of Marshal Cid Aulstyne was definitely something he hadn’t anticipated and he couldn’t help a certain unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach. Though Ace had never met the man in person, rumors and reconnaissance had given him a vivid impression of an engineering genius with an ambitious streak and a mind for war, and the charisma to gain enough support for such things. Rumor had it that Cid Aulstyne was even responsible for starting the war they were in.
If Cid Aulstyne had intentions of disrupting the peace summit to continue the war, he would have to be dealt with immediately, Ace decided after mulling over the potential outcomes of his orders again. Deuce and Seven would worry about how the act of forcibly arresting the Militesi Marshal would reflect on Rubrum in the wake of the peace talks. But surely the Concordians and Loricans would understand his perspective in this matter, especially since Rubrum was the only army that was actively patrolling the city during the negotiations.
“Sector 14, respond!” Ace heard Eight shout in the background of their communication line and he tensed, listening intently.
“What?” came King’s voice shortly after. “Did he…?”
Heart starting to pound with concern, Ace spoke again. “What’s going on?”
“The...the squad we sent to intercept Cid Aulstyne…” started Eight.
“...My spies say they’ve been killed,” King said tersely. “And Cid Aulstyne is still approaching the town hall.”
Resisting the urge to jump down from the hill and run to the city himself, Ace took a deep breath and let it out slowly. They needed to act in response to this. He couldn’t just let this egregious attack go. But he had to approach this carefully. They were still in the midst of a delicate situation between the nations and his actions would certainly be scrutinized afterward.
“King, have your spies deliver messages to the Concordian and Lorican main camps and warn them about Cid Aulstyne. They need to stop him or at least buy us the time to get forces in there to arrest him. Eight, get the others and mobilize the squads from Class First through Fifth. Have Queen mobilize squads from the other Classes as backup. We move out in five minutes.”
“Understood,” King answered before Eight spoke again.
“Did Deuce take her COMM this morning? You should warn her.”
“Yeah, but she’s silenced it for the meeting. I’ll send a signal to her and hopefully…”
His heart clenched. He didn’t want to think about her being blindsided by an attack. They had all been trained in combat, despite their respective jobs, so she wouldn’t be completely defenseless if Cid Aulstyne managed to reach the town hall and attack. But the Chancellor was there too. She would have to defend the Chancellor as well. And with how easy Cid Aulstyne took out the legionary patrol, it would be a fight, even with the Concordian and Lorican representatives there.
It was too dangerous. She needed to get the summit members out of the town hall and away before Cid Aulstyne found them. They were almost certainly the targets in this attack. For what reason, Ace could only speculate at the moment. But it didn’t matter. They had to get away.
“Ace! The Concordians and Loricans are reporting the perimeter has been breached!” Eight announced, his normally calm voice strained with alarm. “Their guards at the perimeter are dead.”
“We need to go. Now.” Ace reached into his satchel, pulling out a card from his deck. “Are the squads prepared, Eight?”
“No, we need another couple minutes!”
“I should be there…” Ace hissed to himself, head starting to throb with the thoughts that were racing through his mind. “Damn it, I should have gone with her…”
Deuce’s voice on the COMM stopped his thoughts altogether and he sighed in relief. “Deuce!”
“I-Is something the matter, Ace? I asked to take a brief recess from the negotiation for a couple moments, but I should return…”
“Cid Aulstyne. The Militesi Marshal. He’s breached our patrols and he’s headed your way,” Ace said in almost a ramble. “He’s already killed the legionaries in the patrol and the Concordians and Loricans on the perimeter. You need to explain the situation to everyone at the summit and get them away. We’re coming, but we won’t make it before him. You need to get away.”
Suddenly, in the background of her audio feed, Ace could hear a rumbling boom. “Deuce!” he exclaimed—hoping, praying that his mind was playing audio tricks on him in the stress.
“Ace…” Her voice trembled with fear and he opened his mouth to respond.
Then, her COMM line crackled into nothingness and in the distance, he could see an enormous explosion, one that almost seemed to envelope the entire city center. And his heart stopped.