Hero of the Republic
Weary, I walk upon flowers at the head of an army. Petals carpet the last of the stone road before me. Thrown by children from windows, they twirl lazily down from the steel towers that grow to either side of the Luna boulevard. In the sky, the sun dies its slow, weeklong death, staining the tattered clouds and gathered crowd in bloody hues. Waves of humanity lap against security barricades, pressing inward on our parade as Hyperion City Watchmen in gray uniforms and cyan berets guard the route, shoving drunken revelers back into the crowd. Behind them, antiterrorism units prowl up and down the pavement, their fly-eyed goggles scanning irises, hands resting on energy weapons.
My own eyes rove the crowd.
After ten years of war, I no longer believe in moments of peace.
It’s a sea of Colors that line the twelve-kilometer Via Triumphia. Built by my people, the Red slaves of the Golds, hundreds of years ago, the Triumphia is the avenue by which the Conquerors who tamed Earth held their own processions as they claimed continent after continent. Iron-spined murderers with eyes of gold and haughty menace once consecrated these same stones. Now, nearly a millennium later, we sully the Triumphia’s sacred white marble by honoring Liberators with eyes of jet and ash and rust and soil.
Once, this would have filled me with pride. Jubilant crowds celebrating the Free Legions returned from vanquishing yet another threat to our fledgling Republic. But today I see holosigns of my head with a bloody crown atop it, hear the jeers from the Vox Populi as they wave banners emblazoned with their upside-down pyramid, and feel nothing but the weight of an endless war and a desperate longing to be once again in the embrace of my family. It has been a year since I’ve seen my wife and son. After the long voyage back from Mercury, all I want is to be with them, to fall into a bed, and to sleep for a dreamless month.
The last of my journey home lies before me. As the Triumphia widens and abuts the stairs that lead up to the New Forum, I face one final summit.
Faces drunk on jubilation and new commercial spirits gape up at me as I reach the stairs. Hands sticky with sweets wave in the air. And tongues, loose from those same commercial spirits and delights, cry out, shouting my name, or cursing it. Not the name my mother gave me, but the name my deeds have built. The name the fallen Peerless Scarred now whisper as a curse.
“Reaper, Reaper, Reaper,” they cry, not in unison, but in frenzy. The clamor suffocates, squeezing with a billion-fingered hand: all the hopes, all the dreams, all the pain constricting around me. But so close to the end, I can put one foot after the other. I begin to climb the stairs.
My metal boots grind on stone with the weight of loss: Eo, Ragnar, Fitchner, and all the others who’ve fought and fallen at my side while somehow I have remained alive.
I am tall and broad. Thicker at my age of thirty-three than I was in my youth. Stronger and more brutal in my build and movement. Born Red, made Gold, I have kept what Mickey the Carver gave me. These Gold eyes and hair feel more my own than those of that boy who lived in the mines of Lykos. That boy grew, loved, and dug the earth, but he lost so much it often feels like it happened to another soul.
Clunk. Another step.
Sometimes I fear that this war is killing that boy inside. I ache to remember him, his raw, pure heart. To forget this city moon, this Solar War, and return to the bosom of the planet that gave birth to me before the boy inside is dead forever. Before my son loses the chance to ever know him. But the worlds, it seems, have plans of their own.
I feel the weight of the chaos I’ve unleashed: famines and genocide on Mars, Obsidian piracy in the Belt, terrorism, radiation sickness and disease spreading through the lower reaches of Luna, and the two hundred million lives lost in my war.
I force a smile. Today is our fourth Liberation Day. After two years of siege, Mercury has joined the free worlds of Luna, Earth, and Mars. Bars stand open. War-weary citizens rove the streets, looking for reason to celebrate. Fireworks crackle and blaze across the sky, shot from the roofs of skyscraper and tenement complex alike.
With our victory on the first planet from the sun, the Ash Lord has been pushed back to his last bastion, the fortress planet Venus, where his battered fleet guards precious docks and the remaining loyalists. I have come home to convince the Senate to requisition ships and men of the war-impoverished Republic for one final campaign. One last push on Venus to put this bloodydamn war to rest. So I can set down the sword and go home to my family for good.
I take a moment to glance behind me. Waiting at the foot of the stairs is my Seventh Legion, or the remnants of it. Twenty-eight thousand men and women where once there were fifty. They stand in casual order around a fourteen-pointed ivory star with a pegasus galloping at its center—held aloft by the famous Thraxa au Telemanus. The Hammer. After losing her left arm to Atalantia au Grimmus’s razor, she had it replaced by a metal prototype appendage from Sun Industries. Wild gold hair flutters behind her head, garlanded with white feathers given to her by Obsidian admirers.
In her mid-thirties, a stout woman with thighs thick as water drums and a freckled, bluff face. She grins past the shoulders of the Obsidians and Golds around her. Blue and Red and Orange pilots wave to the crowd. Red, Gray, and Brown infantry smile and laugh as pretty young Pinks and Reds duck under barriers and rush to drape necklaces of flowers around their necks, push bottles of liquor into their hands and kisses onto their mouths. They are the only full legion in today’s parade. The rest remain on Mercury with Orion and Harnassus, battling with the Ash Lord’s legions stranded there when his fleet retreated.
“Remember, you are but mortal,” Sevro’s bored voice drawls in my ear as white-haired Wulfgar and the Republic Wardens descend to greet us midway up the Forum stairs. Sevro sniffs my neck and makes a noise of distaste. “By Jove. You wretch. Did you dip yourself in piss before the occasion?”
“It’s cologne,” I say. “Mustang bought it for me last Solstice.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “Is it made out of piss?”
I scowl back at him, wrinkling my nose at the heaviness of liquor on his breath, and eye the ragged wolfcloak he wears over his ceremonial armor. He claims he hasn’t washed it since the Institute. “You’re really lecturing me about stenches? Just shut up and behave like an Imperator,” I say with a grin.
Snorting, Sevro drops back to where the legendary Obsidian, Sefi Volarus, stands in her customary silence. He feigns an air of domesticity, but next to the giant woman, he looks a little like some sort of gutter dog an alcoholic father might ill-advisedly bring home to play with the children—washed and rid of fleas, but still possessing that weird mania behind the eyes. Pinched, thin lipped, with a nose crooked as an old knifefighter’s fingers. He eyes the crowd with resigned distaste.
Behind him lope the pack of mangy Howlers he brought with us to Mercury. My bodyguards, now drunk as gallants at a Lykos Laureltide. Stalwart Holiday walks at their center, the snub-nosed woman doing her best to keep them in line.
There used to be more of them. So many more.
I smile as Wulfgar descends the stairs to meet me. A favorite son of the Rising, the Obsidian is a tree root of a man, gnarled and narrow, armored all in pale blue. He’s in his early forties. His face angular as a raptor’s, his beard braided like that of his hero, Ragnar.
One of the Obsidians to fight alongside Ragnar at the walls of Agea, Wulfgar was with the Sons of Ares that freed me from the Jackal in Attica. Now ArchWarden of the Republic, he smiles down at me from the step above, his black eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Hail libertas,” I say with a smile.
“Hail libertas,” he echoes.
“Wulfgar. Fancy meeting you here. You missed the Rain,” I say.
“You did not wait for me to return, did you?” Wulfgar clucks his tongue. “My children will ask where I was when the Rain fell upon Mercury, and you know what I will have to tell them?” He leans forward with a conspiratorial smile. “I was making night soil, wiping my ass when I heard Barca had taken Mount Caloris.” He rumbles out a laugh.
“I told you not to leave,” Sevro says. “You’d miss out on all the fun, I said. You should have seen the Ashies route. Trails of piss all the way to Venus. You’d have loved it.” Sevro grins at the Obsidian. It was Sevro who put a razor in his hand in the river mud of Agea. Wulfgar has his own razor now. Its hilt made from the fang of an ice dragon from Earth’s South Pole.
“My blade would have sung that day were I not summoned by the Senate,” he says.
Sevro sneers. “That’s right. You ran home like a good little dog.”
“A dog? I am a servant of the People, my friend. As are we all.” His eyes find me with mild accusation and I understand the true meaning to his words. Wulfgar is a believer, like all Wardens. Not in me, but in the Republic, in the principles for which it stands, and the orders that the Senate gives. Two days before the Iron Rain over Mercury, the Senate, led by my old friend Dancer, voted against my proposal. They told me to maintain the siege. To not waste men, resources, on an assault.
I disobeyed and let the Rain fall.
Now a million of my men lie in the sands of Mercury and we have our Liberation Day.
Were Wulfgar with me on Mercury, he would not have joined our Rain against the Senate’s permission. In fact, he might have tried to stop me. He’s one of the few men alive who might manage. For a spell at least.
He spares a nod for Sefi. “Njar ga hae, svester.” A rough translation is “Respect to you, sister” in nagal.
“Njar ga hir, bruder,” she replies. No love lost between them. They have different priorities.
“Your weapons.” Wulfgar gestures to my razor.
Sefi and I hand his Wardens our weapons. Muttering under his breath, Sevro hands over his as well. “Did you forget your toothpick?” Wulfgar asks, looking at Sevro’s left boot.
“Treasonous yeti,” Sevro mutters, and pulls a wicked blade long as a baby’s body from his boot. The Warden who takes it looks terrified.
“Odin’s fortune with the togas, Darrow,” Wulfgar says to me as he motions for us to continue upward. “You will need it.”
Arrayed at the top of the steps of the New Forum are the 140 Senators of the Republic. Ten per Color, all draped in white togas that flutter in the breeze. They peer down at me like a row of haughty pigeons on a wire. Red and Gold, mortal enemies in the Senate, bookend the row to either side. Dancer is missing. But I have eyes only for the lonely bird of prey that stands at the center of all the silly, vain, power-hungry little pigeons.
Her golden hair is bound tight behind her head. Her tunic is pure white, without the ribbons of their Color the others wear. And in her hand, she carries the Dawn Scepter—now a multi-hued gold baton half a meter long, with the pyramid of the Society recast into the fourteen-pointed star of the Republic at its tip. Her face is elegant and distant. A small nose, piercing eyes behind thick eyelashes, and a mischievous cat’s smile growing on her face. The Sovereign of our Republic. Here at the summit of the stairs, her eyes shed the weight from my shoulders, the fear from my heart that I would never see her again. Through war and space and this damnable parade, I have traveled to find her again, my life, my love, my home.
I bend to my knee and look up into the eyes of the mother of my child.
“ ’Lo, wife,” I say with a smile.
“ ’Lo, husband. Welcome home.”