Saga of the Cosmic Heroes

by

JK-sama

Chapter 87: Toscana Requiem | Elegy, with Love

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I lean forward in my seat, hands clasped together. For one reason or another, I don’t pass the time looking out the shuttle. Perhaps the confrontation with Carla makes me uneasy—and indeed, the aching in my stomach makes me unsettled. Or it’s anxiety from coming out here to inspect the aftermath at Baltit. Whichever the case, I sit here and twiddle my thumbs on the soft red texture of the bandanna. The sobbing stemming from the pilot compartment stopped some time ago. There is only the gradual hum of the craft’s engines.

The shuttle comes to a subtle stop. Without glancing outside, I can surmise the shuttle is hovering, judging from the engine humming becoming more of a mechanical whine tells me the craft is beginning its vertical landing. It’s not long after that there is a faint thud as I am lurch in my seat. Olga and Brutus unbuckle themselves once both take glances out of the shuttle. Olga gets up, stretches her prosthetic arm—a brief wincing as she presses her arm against her chest—and then promptly walks over to the rear shuttle door.

Olga doesn’t get the chance to reach the door, however, once it hisses. From its cracks comes a cloud of near-transparent smoke indicating decompression. After this brief process, the ramp door swings downward as it emits a low-pitch whine. “From the cockpit?” Brutus asks, folding his arms while looking past me at the door. “She didn’t have to do that…”

“I imagine Miss Carla wants us gone sooner rather than later,” Olga says, meeting eyes with me, “I think… she wants some additional privacy.”

“That seems… like something she would do,” Brutus says, scratching his head, “you two can head out. I’ll stay back and try to get through to her. It wouldn’t be the first time I have to do it, anyway,” Brutus says, beginning to walk towards the door. He holds a fist up, intending to knock on the metallic door.

“Your heart is in the right place,” Olga remarks, “but I think it wouldn’t be appropriate…”

“Brutus… is free to do what he wants,” I say softly, slipping the bandanna into my poncho sleeve. I heave myself from the seat and proceed towards the ramp. “If Brutus wishes to try and calm her down, provide her some comfort, then I see no problem with it,” I say, gazing at the somewhat misty ramp leading outside, “it is not as though we would be upsetting her that much. Isn’t that right, Brutey?”

Brutus winces at the jab. He rests an arm on the cockpit door, then his head. “It’s my fault for not informing Carla of his passing,” Brutus says, rather laconically, “the two of us had a history with the guy, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I didn’t want to hurt her…” Brutus lifts his head from the surface “but I ended up hurting Carla more by not letting her know. Julius meant a lot to her… even if everything Carla said about him was spot-on.

“I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think I owe Carla a bit of an apology—I think the least I can do is shoulder a bit of her suffering,” Brutus says, lightly tapping on the cockpit door, “I just… hope you have it in you to let me do that, Carla,” Brutus says, clearing his throat. The oaf glances at us with pained, half-squinting eyes. For a moment, I can’t bring myself to move, but Olga reaches out for me and tugs on my poncho sleeve. And eventually, I give Brutus a nod of acknowledgment, then proceed onto the ramp with Olga. The lingering mist is thick and heavy, and I pull my mantle to my face to avoid the steam from causing my facial scar from getting agitated.

“If you want to stay behind as well, Olga, I won’t stop you. Nor would I mind in the slightest,” I say to the lanky blonde “it’s not something I would take personally,” I finish. Olga only shakes her head.

“No, I don’t want to get between the two,” the blonde responds, “and I’ll only be acting as a third wheel in a situation where I’d contribute nothing. I can be more at ease and useful following you around, Madame, I frown. But it’s not because of the usual annoyance of Olga addressing me by the Madame moniker.

“Third wheel?” I ask, prompting an unwarranted grin from Olga. Just as Olga begins to speak, however, our ears ring from the mechanical groaning of the shuttle cargo door as it swings upward, closing behind us. The swift motion results in a gust of wind dissipating the cloudy mist, clearing our field of vision. And what I see before me in the harbor leaves me breathless.

I’ve visited Baltit once before, a few years ago. At that time, the capital Side was home to a steadily prosperous harbor—possibly the fastest-growing under the Mafia’s rule. Its facilities were second-to-none to that of Brunsbüttel. Grand barges and mighty merchant vessels reminiscent of their Frankish counterparts were always leaving the harbor at some point or another, overflowing with goods heading off for faraway destinations such as the L übeck capital Clusters. Merchants and civilians would go about with their business, living comfortable lives.

And now, it is an unprecedented carnage. Enormous craters scar the harbor. Broken concrete and steel debris lie discarded for as far as I can see. Battlements, now partially in the process of dismantlement, still tell a tale of undeniable resistance. The harbor surface, once glistening with obsidian, is now decaying red—vivid still, but caked in nature.

And yet, still, the horrors continue, long after the fighting has ended: there is still work to be done. A return to normalcy—a time to heal—one that will take time. Walking through the charred landscape is the occasional bagged corpse—occasionally, some are merely covered with tanned ponchos. Survivors here and there pay their respects to their brethren and spare what little energy they have to mourn. Others are more solemn: salutes, and more often than not placing flowers on the blanketing cloaks. Most of the bagged remains are still in the process of being carted off into either Baltit itself for proper burial or lay loaded in shuttles likely intended for a final resting place at Side Brunsbüttel or L übeck. But given the lack of shuttles capable of doing so, it does seem to be a slow process.

I kneel by one of the deceased covered in two ponchos: one tanned and the other charcoal. With some reluctance, I pull the charcoal one covering the top.

A heavily bandaged head, by now dyed a deep scarlet. Dashes of blood, since dried, give slight color to his otherwise drained features. Their eyes and lips—just as pale blue—are just as immobile as their limbs. The man’s soul since long departed to greater planes of existence. And yet, there is nothing romantic about his corpse, nor his struggle. Death is death. His soul has been claimed by death, and what remains is a tragedy. This victim—as well his brothers and sisters—were compelled to fight a battle they were never meant to win, only a sacrifice to buy time. This what it meant to be a pirate, to be a crooked criminal fighting an enemy who they believe is giving no excuses, no mercy. Every man and woman they killed in self-defense meant securing their attained liberties—not just for themselves, but for their found family.

And yet, this unfortunate soul—like all the others—met with an untimely fate. Their bid to save themselves failed—but it is not all fruitless. Their staunch defense held out in time for a Federation withdrawal. They risked their lives, braving assaults after another not to fight and kill, but to save one another.

But what use is bravery… what use is there risking your life if you do not live long enough to bear witness to what you have truly fought for?

I get up from the corpse—Olga carefully kneels to whisper something before pulling the poncho up—towards the Baltit’s entrances. Being on one of the harbor’s lower levels, I observe past the sloped railing a graveyard of assault ships. Occasionally, corvette-class Metropolitan ships extend as far as I can see into the enormous tunnel networks. Hover shuttles with searchlights probe over the metallic husks in some of the tunnel ways.

But it’s what’s located in the vast space just below that causes my heart to sink: a vast empty area painted red, with rivers of blood oozing from a recklessly stacked pile of corpses. There are even still bodies being carted—and in some disheartening cases, outright dragged—from the tunnel areas. There are even those, still, that remain where they fell.

I’m gritting my teeth before I know it. Olga slips her hand over mine—and it occurs to me that I’ve been straining my grip on the metallic railing. Without another word, Olga plants her other hand on my shoulder.

This bloodshed is as barbaric as it is stupid: it is beyond being evil and cruel. There are reasons that come with reasons to kill, yet regardless of who we belong to, we are driven by insatiable bloodlust. Humans were born to love: not devolve into monsters born of our creation. Even in grief, we wish for peace… and reconciliation with those we perceived as ‘enemies’. All we—we as in the Federation, we as in the mafia: we as in those fighting in the false belief we are fighting for each other… but rather to fight for those who don’t share the sorrow themselves. All we have accomplished here, at Velksland, and Rouen is continue a cycle of warfare nearly as old as time itself. What would it take for love to conquer all?

“Seems we have some company, Madame,” Olga says, pulling away. I follow her pointing out a dullish-green utility vehicle pulling to a stop by us. Driving it is Darcy, with my half-brother Che in the passenger seat. The man pays no attention to us, remaining deep lost in thought while sucking on his typical oak-rolled cigar.

“Madame!” Darcy says, eyes wide, “I wasn’t aware you would be coming out here so soon. We were still in the process of mopping up Feddie stragglers,” Darcy says. The auburn-haired subordinate braces against the railing next to me, opposite of Olga. She follows my gaze at the distasteful sight of Metropolitan corpses, and the three of us notice an approaching column of Metropol prisoners marching up the pathway leading up to our harbor level. “If I had known you were coming, er,” Darcy glances at Che, who has yet to join us still, “I would’ve tried and had the boys speed up the process. That way we wouldn’t have to risk you getting shot down, and—“

“What are you going to do with the prisoners?” I ask, and even the tenseness in my voice catches me off guard. I inhale deeply, lessening my grip on the rustic barrier. Most of the prisoners are halfway on our level by now, and it’s when glimpsing past Che do I realize there were dozens of additional Metropolitan prisoners near a shuttle. Squinting, I can make out this group, like the first, is held under armed supervision. Darcy has yet to say anything and averts her gaze.

“They’re being sent to the capital, aren’t they?” Olga asks in place of Darcy answering. Darcy taps the iron bar, resting her head on her cupped hands.

“The men wanted to kill them outright,” Darcy remarks, pressing into her knuckles, “but Richter objected… and then Sergi and Che agreed as well. They viewed it as inhumane,” she pulls herself up, taking a heavy exhale, “in the end, the others decided it would be better to wait until you eventually came…” a pause, “they… or at least Richter, decided that you will have the final say handling them,” Darcy says. Without another word, I step away from the railing. My gaze falls on the marching column joining together their allies at the shuttle. Some fall by the wayside and are beaten with rifle butts.

Repulsive. Both Darcy’s comment and the treatment of prisoners are heinous. I turn away, caressing my scar tingling at the nose. Inhumane. They view sending them off to the capital as inhumane. I would figure Richter of all peopleand Che, to be aware of what sending Metropol prisoners to the capital entails. Metropolitans and colonial sailors are as good as dead the moment their commanding officer even dares to contemplate the idea of surrendering.

In the past, I would’ve permitted any captors to be executed if it meant avoiding meeting an excruciating fate at the hands of the Don. Before the battle at Velksland, and perhaps even my meeting with Victoria, I always believed I was doing them a favor to avoid a coward’s demise. I believed that no quarters was a preferable method, even if it meant I would be labeled as a devil. But now, for the first time, after opening my eyes thanks to Victoria, I have no idea what it means to be humane.

I rub my shoulders as iciness sweeps over me. There’s time later to reflect on this dilemma. I glimpse at Che before reeling to face Darcy and Olga. “Richter is here?” I ask, clearing my throat and rubbing my chin, “I lost sight of him after we left Velksland… Sergi’s presence is a given, but what business does Richter have here?”

“Well,” Darcy begins, “I was equally just as surprised when Richty came, but—“ Darcy is drowned out by engine crackle—then tire screeching. I turn to watch the gray eminence and the gruff Sergi step off the back of their cart, exchange some words with Che, and approach us.

“Speak of the devil, and he shall come,” Olga says, warmly. Both men briefly slap their chests with balled fists.

“You came down here sooner than expected, Madame, Sergi remarks, rubbing his clawed face, “I know everyone’s a little on edge, but… I was expecting you to, well… relax a bit. You need a well-deserved rest more than any of us, Sergi scoffs, “you just couldn’t trust me monitoring the situation by my lonesome? Well…” Sergi trails off with a glance at Richter.

“You could say I am a little restless, Sergi,” I say, wincing a grin, “I wanted to visit and pay my respects to the brave defenders of the Baltit. Though I will say part of my purpose coming here is to see for myself the Metropolitan movements in Bordeaux. Only then can I find myself sleeping contently,” I remark with a stinging smirk. I then shift attention to Richter, “I was about to ask Darcy why you’re here, Richter. Not that it particularly troubles me… but I fail to see why you would come to the Baltit. As far as I’m concerned, you reside at Ides, do you not?” Richter’s eyes narrow, then he nods.

“The reason is no different from yours,” Richter says “Sergi here is good in his own right… though, when I arrived, both Serg and Che had very little manpower to properly keep an eye on the Feds.”

“I wish you would give me just a little credit,” Sergi says. He lets out a scowl, provoking Olga to nudge him in the ribs.

Richter chuckles. He then begins to speak, “I brought along some of my ships that volunteered for the opportunity. Originally, it was one of my subordinate’s suggestions to supplement Sergi’s observation teams sent out… by that Kafraiya fellow, Dontae. He’s currently leading the elements at Malabo right now, providing more accuracy in Fed activity,” Richter says, before smiling warmly, “I doubt it will alarm the Feds too much—seeing as their presence on our border has become rather minimal over the past few days.”

“Minimal…?” I mutter, stroking my bandanna from within the poncho. The heavy weight on my shoulders nearly diminishes with a heavy sigh of relief, “Sergi, Richter…” I begin, “does this mean,” the words linger in my thoughts, unable to be processed, “am I to take this that the Metropol fleet is retreating… even from the Preuben system?” I pause to stroke the edge of my jaw scar, my tongue dry, “am I right in this assumption?” Richter and Sergi exchange glances before Sergi steps forward.

“It’s likely…” the gruff subordinate sighs, “information is still shaky since if we probe their positions too much, it might spark an incident. But from what the newest report indicates,” Sergi glances at Richter, “the majority of the Fedsmightbe evacuating for Iswanda,” Sergi says.

Iswanda regardless of which system they leave for, the only thing I take away from this is they are heading to prepare for action against the Brenaco mercenary haven. Is it a stretch? Yes, perhaps. Logically, they have little reasoning as-is to, so to speak, abandon Preuben. wouldn't stay in the system otherwise. Admiral DeRyck’s decision is one thing: Victoria’s Commodore is another.

That man acted on what Victoria regarded as ‘fame and glory’. What’s to say he isn’t recouping to take advantage of us at a later point in time? As it stands, there is a good likelihood he has received intelligence from his Admiral. But it could also mean he still has no idea whatsoever. And so… once that time comes, I pray that DeRyck will continue to keep his word.

I only realize now my balance is off: my legs are wobbly. Olga must’ve taken notice and rushes to wrap her prosthetic arm around mine to keep me steady. “Madame?” Richter asks, nervously.

“Don’t worry about me,” I mutter “if you have anything more to say, then please, continue,” I finish rather dryly. I’m still attempting to keep my balance stable off Olga. Richter, after a moment, continues speaking.

“I will remain here for the next few days until there is total certainty that the Metropolitans aren’t formulating a ruse of some sort. And then… only then, will I leave Sergi and Che here to their devices.”

“Will you be heading home for Ides?” I ask. Richter takes a deep breath and cuts past us towards the railing: hands clasped behind his back.

“No,” comes the answer, Richter breathes in heavily, “Simon informed me he was heading to Lübeck’s surface to arrange for the burial of our fallen… and I will likewise do the same for Emmanuel. Dontae offered to go, too, so I’ll have him relieved of duties and come with me. And after that,” Richter turns to face us, smiling handsomely, “only then will I retire to Ides. I’ve always been fond of music, you see. When I was younger, I loved and trained for the piano… so I will spend what free time I may afford to play music for the people of Ides,” Richter says. I smile warmly, ignoring the burning aches.

“Will you be taking Dontae under your wing? When you return to Ides, I mean,” I ask.

“No,” is Richter’s response, “I will let the boy do as he pleases. In any event, I reckon he will simply assume the duties of the Kafraiya —or even a ship of his own, with your blessing.

“I’ll be more than happy to afford him the right of captaincy,” I reply, caressing my long bangs, “I do hope that you will pay a visit to Lübeck every once in a while… I would love to hear your melodies,” I say warmly. Richter turns and gives a heartfelt grin. “Now, then…” I clear my throat with a cough, “and while we’re on the subject of burials… please do what you can to properly lay the deceased to proper rest,” gazes of bafflement in response, “they may have killed our own—but we are all humans, in the end, bounded by needless oaths to men no less greater than them.

“I also would like that any prisoners—current or those yet to be found—to be treated accordingly, as well. That is to be expressed as a direct order from me—and if I ever hear reports of further brutality, I will make sure that no punishment goes unheeded,” I say. The subordinates murmur in acknowledgment, and I glance at Che who continues to brood in his vehicle.

“I’ll discipline the men as best as I can, rest assured,” Sergi remarks, crossing his arms, “now that we have that out of the way—hopefully—are you going to stay long, Madame? Since my intention here is to pay my respects to the survivors and the fallen—which it seems they are scattered about, and hard at work clearing the harbor. There would be no point in lingering around here any longer. I worry the longer I stay here, Kamon’s suspicion may get the best of us. Though I dare not say it out loud: Richter would be one thing, Che is another, not to mention any informants acting on Kamon’s orders may be about.

“My, you want me out of your presence that badly, Sergi?” I say, rubbing my marred cheek. Sergi scoffs. Olga, sensing the chance again, nudges him on the side. Though, I do understand why he would ask in the first place: it’s more of a cue to return without inconveniencing the rest of them. “I believe my visit here is more or less concluded. Though, I wish to look around for a while before Olga and I make our leave back to Brunsbüttel,” with a small wave, I excuse myself from Richter, Darcy, and Sergi. Olga gives some remarks to the trio before joining me.

As I pass by Che’s vehicle, I stop once my brother loudly clears his throat. Focused as I am on the train of prisoners near the shuttle transports, I eventually break off my gaze. I lean against the side of the cart opposite Che.

“I couldn’t help but notice something…” Che says coolly, “the only ones who came with you were that Brutus boy, and Olga,” Che shifts in his seat. He flicks his cigar but does not take any whiffs from it. “I take it you must know by now… I sent a man—a boy, bearing news of… of…” Che exhales deeply, “my—our, misfortunes here at the Baltit. With the creaking of his seat, Che faces me with an uncertain brow, “it’s been eating away at me… I have not heard back from that boy in days. I would expect no less a triumphant return from the lad. He was so full of spirit—so eager to volunteer, and yet…” Che’s voice, slightly trembling, trails off into silence.

“Maximilian, Boyle,” I mutter. Burnt ash from Che’s cigar falls to the floor, “that’s what his name was,” there’s no response from Che. He looks away, squinting, trying to make sense of what that entails. What the meaning of was implies. And like a bolt of realization, Che’s eyes widen; his eyelids quiver. More of Che’s cigar burns away until it is a stub. The ashen pile grows louder as the three of us take in the silence, until even the trail of smoke vanishes, snuffed out, like a human life: like Maximilian’s final moments in this plane of existence.

Then, slowly, Che takes his hat off, setting it aside on his seat. His large shoulders sag. He slouches, if only slightly. Che rests his knuckles on his chin. His eyes full of sorrow: but in the next moment are shut tight. Che rests both of his pale knuckles on his forehead. I reach out, placing a hand on his broad shoulder.

“What have I done?” Che mutters, a futile attempt at keeping his voice from cracking. I rub his shoulder, graciously, without another word. “How could I have done something so horrible? Make all my men suffer for nothing?”

“You have done no wrong, Che,” I say, softly, “it is by no fault of mine that bloodshed was spilled,” I squeeze his shoulder, “it is a blunder that I shoulder alone—my miscalculations that brought about this mess. And thus, you were a victim,” my grip loosens until I let my arm drop freely, “we were all victims. What happened here was unavoidable… there was simply no helping it,” I say. I carefully push myself away from Che’s cart, and turn to face my brother. “Take care, Che,” I mutter, and with a glance at Olga, we begin walking towards the prisoner’s shuttle.

“Madame…” Olga starts, “about Che…”

“I will let him be, Olga,” I refute, “I do not hold any contempt for him, as you should know by now,” Olga doesn’t say any more for a while until we reach the prisoner column. Some of the guards posted nearby give us weary looks but hesitantly give us salutes.

“I do not think we should be so close,” Olga says leaning towards me, “I am unarmed… I fear that one of them may grab one of the guards by surprise and—“ I stop, resting a hand on her chest.

“Don’t plant such needless thoughts in your head, Olga,” I say wryly, patting her, “none would dare risk it, believe me,” Olga emits a sigh of disbelief, and merely gives a slight nod. Her narrow gaze never once leaves the Metropolitan soldiers we pass.

Being this close to the prisoners leaves me with grief. It has only been five or six days since the conflict ended here, and already most of them are grungy. Their uniforms already in tatters, their faces unclean and covered in muck, heavy eye bags, and sullen cheeks perhaps from torture. It is a rare sight just seeing any of them shiver in coldness—or perhaps the appearance of me has left them incredibly uneasy.

Many have resigned to their fates as prisoners of pirates. Supposedly they say across the galaxy that I am ruthless. That I butcher any prisoners who dare surrender without a second’s thought. They know that there’s no rescue coming: that they will leave behind empty homes and grieving loved ones. They know that their children, their wives, and husbands, will never truly know what became of their fates. At best, they will be informed they died defending their grand Federation. They will sleep every night hoping that one day they will return, wondering why they never stopped them from leaving, living a life of regret knowing they said their last goodbyes.

When they came here to confront the Mafia, they must’ve known they would confront the Madame Scarface one way or another. They knew from the moment I came into the fray that there would be nothing left to send home. They knew they had only two choices: they either die in combat, honorably, or face execution if it means avoiding an inexplicably inhumane fate far worse at the capital, at the Don’s lack of mercy. It was, in my eyes, the least inhumane gesture I could provide to captives. And it was my modus operandi for years.

In some ways, I was the same. I had two choices of fighting a bloodied brawl that I had practically no chance of surviving, or deliver a coup and avoid fighting entirely: even if it meant I would still be held accountable and executed for my inhumane crimes. And even with that failure, I still face execution not by the Metropolitans but by the very foundation I vowed to protect—by Kamon. I cast the die, crossed the Rubicon, and failed in my gambit. Like these men and women I wonder by aimlessly, we share, collectively a fate worse than death.

And I stop in my tracks. Olga bumps into me but I pay no attention to it. Gazing through the legions of faces staring me down, soullessly, one individual stands out from the rest. A frail woman with flowing golden locks of hair. Brownish, dim eyes and quivering lips that dart to me and Olga. She, like the others, huddles with legs to her chest.

The longer I glare at her, I am hit with brief euphoria that leaves me wondering: but does it have to be that way? Do I have to give these unfortunate souls the false choice of death? The words of Victoria echo in the back of my mind: why not flee into exile into the Frankish Domains?

Exile. Fleeing Kamon’s retribution. Even now I still think it would be impossible to do. In my absence, I figured, Kamon would just punish or execute the others. I’d be leaving my comrades at her mercy, which there would be none. I could’ve escaped with my life, but I could not say the same for my family—the ones I’d be abandoning. And as I glance at this woman who bears a striking resemblance to Miss Happ, and her comrades, I cannot help but realize I would be, in a way, abandoning them as well.

The fear in the woman’s eyes. It’s the same with everyone. They worry that any wrong move will result in swift punishment. And yet, I still cannot shake the feeling that Victoria herself sits before me, scared and likewise forsaken by her superiors. If Victoria was here, would it make any difference in my decision to have them sent to the capital?

You’re not thinking of taking me prisoner, are you? Even though it was said in jest then, reflecting on Victoria’s remark makes me clutch my chest. I look past the Victoria doppelgänger at their soon-to-be impending death row. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. There’s no choice to be made: putting them out of their misery here and now, or shipping them off to the capital as human cattle for the Don’s sickening games.

I can go with another decision entirely: a genuine, humane, stroke of mercy. One that doesn’t involve further inkling to the sins I’ve committed.

I kneel in front of the blonde captive, which provokes a gasp from Olga upon the realization. Olga reaches for me—but she slowly rescinds her hand. The blonde captive, also taken by shock, tries to scurry back. Her comrades jolt back to give me room. “Please,” I say, scanning the group’s sullen faces, “I do not mean to cause you any harm, or worry. I…” a bite down on my lip, and shift to sitting on my knees. I tighten the grip on my leggings, bringing the courage to look her in the eyes. With a grunt, I scoot forward to the woman, bracing pain as I smile.

“What… is your name?” I ask, the blonde captive glances at the others, not realizing she is being addressed. She persists with averting her gaze, but the others give her no more room to back away. She clears her throat, our eyes never once meeting. One of her colleagues nudges her on the side.

“Olivia…” she mutters, eyes flicker. Slowly, Petra does seem to relax between each breath. I reach up to caress my blemished cheek. Olivia. Olivia. I repeat the name over in my head and whisper the pronunciation under my breath. What a lovely name.

“Olivia,” I say, warmly. A slight flinch from the soldier. With another long exhale, Olivia sits up straight, and the two of us lock eyes at last. “This will be brief, and will sound strange at first, but…” I trail off, again biting down on my lip. I briefly look upon Olga, who remains puzzled yet on guard staring down the other prisoners. “I… need you to deliver a message for me, and…” I reach inside my poncho—Olivia’s eyes widen and she seemingly goes pale—and slip Julius’s brightly red bandanna out.

I caress the bandanna several times in my hands, a gentle brush of its fine texture with my thumbs. A firm squeeze on the textile. Is it hesitance? Do I want to do this? My right-hand trembles: Olga reaches over and places her prosthetic arm over it. My lanky friend smiles weakly. Has Olga caught on to what I plan to do? Is this an indicator of acknowledgment on her part?

I turn my attention back to Olivia. Olga gracefully pulls away. I fold the bandanna a few times in my hands and reach out to Olivia with it. She stares at it for the longest time, unsure of what this entails. But before long, she brings herself closer to me and—with profound hesitance—extends a hand to cup her hand over mine and the bandanna. Without thinking, I rest my other hand on hers to a gasp of surprise from Olivia.

“When you meet the one…” I say, warmly, our gaze still locked, I clear my aching throat “…the one named, Victoria Happ… Schwarzenberger please,” I lean in closer, squeezing Olivia’s warm, yet sticky hand, “give this bandanna as a token of my gratitude, as a proof that I have lived… not as the Madame Scarface, not as the wretched daughter of the Don… but as Li Chou,” I say, heartedly, “and that not everything either of us has done was in vain. I want Victoria to know that…” I clear my throat again, smiling as brightly as I can: bearing the awful aching pain that zips across my face, “no goodbye lasts forever. There will be a day we shall meet again, I’m sure of it. So please, with this bandanna… until that fateful meeting occurs, keep our promise to live… to live a long and meaningful life.

“And as for you, Olivia,” I continue, letting go of the soldier’s hand, then getting to my feet, “I cannot say for certain what will become of you after this, but I want you—and everyone else—to live what life I’ve granted you all a life to the fullest,” I say, warmly, grimacing the intense pain that stems from a wide smile. I then take a few steps back, and after glaring at a puzzled guard, he approaches me. “Is this all of the prisoners?” I ask, in a stern tone. The guard shifts in place, his gaze looking at a friend of his.

“Yes, Madame! He says rather robotically, “this is all of them. The caps’ told us to round them up here and await your final decision on their fates,” the guard says, his rifle sways carelessly towards the swathes of prisoners next to us. The soldier’s lack of self-awareness aside, I feel relieved knowing that I won’t be, for lack of another word, leaving behind anyone else to a fate at the capital.

“Very well,” I remark, “proceed with getting them in the transports—carefully,” I add, coldly. Olga silently nods with a smile, to the confused dismay of the guards. As the prisoners get to their feet and silently shuffle into the large shuttle, some of the guards begin to walk up the shuttle’s ramp. As one passes by me, I reach out and grab him by the shoulder.

“Wait,” I say, “the guards will not be joining them: you will stay here,” in another bout of confusion, the guards step off the ramp and remain on the sidelines. “Where are the pilots?” I ask, demandingly. Three of them present themselves speedily. I shepherd them away from the guards—Olga stays behind to keep an eye on them.

After we are out of earshot, I lean into the circle of men and begin speaking in a low tone, “once you have gotten a certain distance from the Baltit I want you to plot a course for the Preuben star zone,” I pause at their appalling horror, “afterward, you will seal the cockpit compartment from the inside and leave through the escape pods. Contact the captain overseeing the early warning line—Dontae, and let him know he is prohibited from restraining or firing on the shuttle,” I say, coolly. Afterward, I step away from the trio and throw an arm in the air, “get going! I do not want to see this unsightliness any longer. The trio scramble off into the shuttle, and the ramp door whines as it swings upward and closes. I lock eyes one last time with Olivia, giving her one last aching smile just as it seals tight.

Olga joins up with me, and we proceed walking towards Carla’s shuttle. As we wait at the rear for the ramp door to open, dozens of lackeys line up around us. Rather than the typical Mafia salute—they instead deeply blow. I crack a wry smile, glancing at Olga. “You must be wondering why I parted ways with the bandanna,” I ask. Olga tilts her head.

“Something of a memorabilia for that Ve-tora? The lanky blonde asks, folding her arms.

“In a way, you are correct,” I say, warmly, “the memories of Toscana will always be unforgettable…” a rub of my sensitive scar “I could never forget about the ones I’d made suffer—individuals like Julius. In some form, giving up the bandanna is a means for me to no longer remain trapped in the darkness of despair.

“By handing the scarf off, it’s a way for me to push towards a new future, a new light. For Victoria, I think, it will be proof that I lived… even if I do not survive tomorrow, or the day after, or a few years from now. It will remain as proof that there was once a Li Chou, and the release of prisoners will be the final humane act by the Madame Scarface, I say. Afterward, Olga and I walk halfway up the ramp before I turn to face the crowd. Without another word, I reach out with an open hand just as Olivia’s shuttle begins takeoff. My outward hand curls into a ball: and I press it firmly against my chest. The men, after straightening up, pound their chests with fists.

“Are you fine with things being this way?” Olga asks, her gaze fixated on the shuttle leaving the harbor, “the captives… Kamon… everything?”

“Are you scared, Olga?” I ask, returning the smile, “of what possibly awaits our fate at the capital?” Olga glances at me, a bleak smile. She reaches out to curl her hand around mine.

“I am,” she responds, “but so long as I have you, Li… I’ll face whatever may approach us head-on. I’ve promised to follow you anywhere, everywhere… even if the whole galaxy is against you,” Olga’s lips tremble as she smiles. I squeeze her hand—her real hand—as tight as I could. From behind Olga comes Brutus, resting a hand on her shoulder.

“Carla’s calmed down,” the hulky brute remarks, “she’s warming up the engines now… so we can depart whenever you’re ready,” Brutus says. I give my nod, and Brutus presses a button on the console doors to have them close, just as the crowd gives hollers and proclaimed cries of long live the Madame and long live the Mafia. I scoff with a smirk just as the shuttle door seals tight with a final hiss.

Long live the Madame, huh? As I take a seat by a window, I caress my nasal scar. Deep down, I can only hope that their cries remain heard.

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A note from JK-sama

For titles, there were a few I had in mine. "Elegy, with Love" (title based off this song), "Dedicated with Love, an Elegy"(same as the Vivvy song), "Due Eulogy" or " Due Elegy" as part of the Due trilogy, "Li Chou", and "From Darkness, Comes Mercy"

During development of this chapter, there were a number of things I had in mind that ultimately found themselves on the cutting room floor.

· Originally, Li’s visit to Baltit did not feature the ‘Due Grievousness’ scene. Chapter 86/87 was envisioned as Li walking through the ship wreckages and the battlefield firsthand, so it played out differently considering ‘Due Grievousness’

· I think the reason I wounded up doing ‘Due Grievousness’ was because Carla did not actually see the bandanna in ‘The Bandanna’, and the scene ended up being more dramatic as a result.

· Li would have held a eulogy for the fallen, much like she did in the ‘A Oath, A Declaration’ chapter. However, I dropped it here since I didn’t want to do the same thing twice, and it wouldn’t flow properly here.

· So instead, this served to wrap up Richter’s, Dontae’s, and in some way Che’s and Max’s subplots a little.

· The Mafia lackeys bowing to Li as she awaited her shuttle was actually inspired by a Kiryu Coco pic I saw a few weeks ago. I was interested in getting it illustrated, but the idea fell through.

· Back in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ chapter, Victoria noted that Prince probably had her father’s wrist watch. By ‘The Words From That Day’ she still didn’t have it back, but I did toy with the idea of her getting it and then giving it to Li, but the idea was dropped because it didn’t flow or fit in properly, and Li would stroke the bandanna constantly anyway.

· Originally, Li was always going to hold on to the bandanna, but while I was toiling away on this chapter should flow, I think her giving it to Olivia/Victoria was far more symbolic, and more satisfying for me. There’s a chapter illustration of Victoria that was made before this chapter with Vicky having a red hair ribbon, so I felt it would be fitting to have some connection too.

· On that note, a little trivia: Originally vol 2 cover art was going to feature a red bandanna tying them together by the wrists, but it was a feature I wounded up having gar32(the artist) not do. From a thumbnail perspective, it probably wouldn’t look right.

· Li’s message to Olivia was not accounted for at first. There was this idea that Li would instead give Victoria a letter+bandanna, but I couldn’t outline how or where Li would write it, it didn’t flow the way I wanted it to, so I dropped it for a word of mouth message instead.

· Originally, and as a result of ‘A Oath, A Declaration’, there wasn’t going to be any prisoners present/Olivia. It would’ve been Li talking about her battle at Rouen and of Jung’s passing, plus some closure to Richter/Dontae and announcing to everyone the death of Maximilian (the then-unnamed pilot volunteer  from ‘Times of Sacrifice’ who crashed into Brunsbuttel) ultimately, the flow of events did not go as expected, and I wanted to avoid repetition from Li’s publicity on the Mathilda to the Jaguar crew.


I spent a lot of time listening to the anime 86 -Eighty Six- OP/EDs as I wrote the second half of this chapter. I think between the segment of Li talking to Olivia, to around Li noticing Olga's lips were trembling was around the point that even I was trembling a little. Poor Li needs a hug.

 


About the author

JK-sama

Bio: Writer of 'Saga of the Cosmic Heroes'.

I enjoy things like Mahjong and anime. I love world history.

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Ushi ago

Damn, Li give away Julius's bandanna she held on for so long and going off to fight an impossible fight feels even more heavy seeing that physical potrayal of her ties with Victoria.

And damn that parallel for Coco, a Yakuza chairman and soon graduating? Subtly I see. Having the comrades Li led bow and cheer like that pic really puts a bow on top