This story has been edited and is being re-posted on Royal Road as of 4/13/2022 under the username Rynjin.

I sit, legs crossed, on stone just outside of the courtyard. Sixty of my brothers and sisters of various ages do the same, forming a loose perimeter around the hard-packed earthen circle in the center. Two of the younger students -a boy and a girl, around the ages of eight or nine- stand and face each other in the center. They slowly bow with hands clasped before them, faces expressionless, and then stand straight again, arms falling loosely at their sides. Silence reigns for a moment, before a shout rings out, echoing in the deafening stillness.


The two children instantly blur into motion. The boy takes a more aggressive approach, sending a fist flying at the girl’s stomach; she easily intercepts and forces his arm to the side, pivoting around him. Undeterred, he half-spins, sweeping a kick to her leg, forcing her to back off. They both stand for a moment, warier of each other, before the girl slides in, snapping a loose fist at the boy’s face. He is forced to dodge back, her reach slightly longer than his, and is left off-balance enough for her to push the offensive, throwing out a flurry of punches and short snap kicks. Finally, a fist catches the boy in the jaw. He staggers, grunting and throwing a wild, off-balance hook that comes nowhere near the girl as she darts in for the kill. In the instant before her knuckles take him in the throat, the master calls “Enough!”, and all movement ceases.

They slowly pull back, bowing to one another again, and retreat to around the perimeter, taking up the two vacant spots. The boy looks resentful to my eyes but makes no great show of it. He knows the loss was his fault. Hopefully the shame of losing his cool in front of the whole group would teach him restraint.

Silence reigns again as Sifu An calmly makes his way to the center, calmly smoothing divots caused by the brief bout as he does so. He points to one of us at random and waits patiently. We all know the routine by now.

One of the more senior students, 13 at least, stands. “Their movements are rough but that is expected for their level of training. Li had the right idea of taking the initiative against an opponent with greater reach and more experience but failed to properly execute his attacks. His fatal mistake was the leg sweep; forcing a better opponent away and giving them time to launch a counterattack seals your fate. Allowing her to take his balance and falling back on wild blows were just compounding failure. Without a brilliant come back, the battle was decided after the first exchange.”

He stops as the master waits expectantly. Once it is clear he has no more to say, the master nods his head. “Incomplete, but accurate.” he says, and points to another student.

The child stands, barely older than the two who had just fought. “Hilde should have countered after she dodged his first hit?” he half-states, half-asks. Sifu nods, seemingly not expecting more. “Yes. Jin was not wrong that the match was decided in the first exchange. But it should have ended there, not dragged on further.” He pauses for a moment and addresses Runa directly. “You are skilled for your age but fight too defensively. Caution is important, but hesitation is a fatal flaw that has killed many practitioners.”

He clasps his hands, waiting for any questions. As usual, there are none. Most of the Sifu do not discourage us from speaking up if there is something important to ask, but this early in the morning and with so many bouts left to go, we are all either too busy stifling yawns or focusing on our upcoming matches to speak up. Expecting this, Sifu An does not wait long before calling on the next pair, and so on down the line. As the morning creeps by, the younger children start to become more restless and excitable, particularly before their own matches. The older students, like myself, are more used to the waiting. Not just in the monthly trials, but in all aspects of life here in Gao Shansi. The first lesson we are taught is that patience is one of the prime virtues, but it can take a while for that to truly sink in, especially among children so young.

As one of the few senior students, I am one of the last to be called. I stare impassively at my opponent, Ran, from twenty feet away. I try my hardest not to crack a smile, but a twitch of my lips betrays the urge. Ran and I fight nearly every month; there are only four students at our level in the temple, so even randomly chosen matches end up with us across the same student much of the time. My rivalry with her is one of the highlights of my time here, and the feeling was mutual. We had pushed each other to greater heights than I believe we would have achieved simply training for ourselves. I had a suspicion the Sifu knew this as well. We fought too consistently even for such a small group for it to be just chance.

The call to begin rings out, and we stare at each other across the way. Ran is the first to make a move, a short leap that carries her the whole distance between is, followed by a lightning fast jab with her left and near-simultaneous strike of the knee toward my midsection. I scramble to block, catching the fist in my right and twisting, using her own momentum to carry her into a hold…and the moment passes. We are still standing across from each other, Ran having barely twitched one of her legs.

Our minds’ eyes flash again, through several dozen scenarios. Some are taken from past bouts, and others new tactics we think of on the fly. A flurry of powerful, precise blows is deflected by Ran and summarily countered. She attempts a grapple, forcing an elbow into my back, but I flip and reverse the hold. An exchange of kicks from Ran sweep out with deceptive speed and reach, shattering one of my ankles, but leaving her open for one of the classic forms of the Snake: a swift jab to the throat that ends with her choking on the ground. On and on it goes, the offense becoming deadlier and the defenses requiring more creative counters until, finally, it ceases.

Ran bows to me from across the square. Barely a handful of seconds have passed.

“You have bested me this time, Xu. I should have expected you’d study up on your pressure point techniques after the way you lost our last match.”

I suppress a smile at the lingering sight of her body stiffening up and becoming locked in place. The Sifu aren’t against levity, exactly, but it was good to set an example for the younger children. Control over yourself was another of the prime virtues, and by far the hardest to master. Even those of us in the most advanced class did not truly hold complete control over our emotions.

“We’ll talk more later, and I’ll show you how to do it, if you haven’t figured it out already.” I offer. She nods politely and retreats to her corner, as do I.

Sifu walks back to the center and is ready to call on the final pair of the day but is interrupted. “I don’t get it!” exclaims one of the newest batch of students. She couldn’t be more than six; any older student would have witnessed at least one trial by now.

 If he is annoyed, he doesn’t show it, but gazes calmly at her. “What don’t you understand?” he asks, knowing full well the answer.

“They didn’t do anything! They just stood there!” she cries out indignantly. I suppress another smile as I remember the first trial I had witnessed. I had much the same response, feeling almost like I’d been mocked to my face.

He nods. “Yes, that is what it looks like.” He says, closing his eyes and nodding sagely.  He pauses long enough for the child to fume more and begin to open her mouth again before his eyes twinkle slightly and he gives her wide grin to let her know she isn’t being left in the dark, merely teased. The younger ones needed a softer touch, and Sifu An understood this well. The calm most of the Sifu and advanced students radiated could be off-putting to those not used to it, and a deliberate showing of humanity went a long way with them.

”Xu, why don’t you explain to her?”

I nearly blink in surprise as he addresses me. The Sifu almost never ask for a student, even one of the upper class, to teach. But I rally quickly, and step forward, feeling self-conscious at the sudden attention.

“Most of the more advanced techniques can be deadly when performed on someone,” I explain “It takes a true master to use many of them in combat with the precision to harm, but not kill the opponent. As a result, it becomes dangerous for students to practice them and many other techniques; joint locks and throat holds for example can lead to injury or death in the worst cases.”

“At our level sparring used to claim many lives at the school, before Sifu Jacque created the visualization techniques we now use in our last three years of training. We just visualize what our action will be, and send it to our opponent, where they respond in kind. It’s slow going at first, but once you get better at it you can have matches in real time, or even faster if you’ve got a real rapport with your opponent.”

Sifu An steps in and waves me back to my seat. “A good explanation, Xu. I trust that answers all of your questions?” he says. The girl opens her mouth again, but he simply lifts an eyebrow and stares at her. Children of that age always have more questions. These ones, however, are apparently not important enough to risk a Sifu’s ire, as she returns to her seat with a small pout.

After a short pause, Sifu commences the final match, between Thom and Chou, and it is over almost as soon as it begins. Thom clutches his head and glares at Chou. I’m surprised; he has to be truly annoyed if it’s worth breaking composure over. I’ll have to ask him what happened later.

Shortly after, Sifu An dismisses us. Individual reviews will come later, but as-is it’s after lunch and the children are getting antsy. I am too, truth be told. Counter-intuitively, visualization training took as much -if not more- stamina than physical sparring. I’d always wondered why that was, but the Sifu had never deigned to explain it, and most were not as receptive to questions as Sifu An. Maybe it’s because-

I jerk from my thoughts as Ran taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, are you going to eat lunch with us?” she asks, amused. I’d been standing in the doorway long enough for everyone to get their meals. Not that that took long; the eldest students tended to get served close to first, right after the youngest group. “Oh, yes. Of course. I wanted to ask Thom and Chou what happened in their match anyway. Let me get a plate and I’ll join you.”

Thom and Chou had already gotten a spot in the corner, in relative privacy. Another privilege of being the senior students, we tended to get the best seating, and out of the way tables allowed more freedom of expression. Within reason. Ran skipped over to join them as I picked up a plate of today’s meal. It was a simple, but filling meat and vegetable stew of some kind. It looked good and soaked into the rice I added well. Thoughts of conversation flew out of my head for a few minutes as I scarfed down the first few bites. I nodded my head in approval; goat wasn’t my favorite meat, but I was hungrier than I thought, and this really hit the spot. It felt like the trials were running longer every month. I cocked my head and put a fist to my chin. No, they definitely were running longer. We had more students than usual this year, I just hadn’t stopped to think about it since they’d been added so steadily. Many more and we might have to start splitting up the trial groups. That would be unheard of in my-

“-ou listening? Xu?” Ran said, poking me with her fork. I blinked and shook my head slightly to clear it.

“No, I was not.” I said honestly. Honesty was one of the lesser virtues, but one to follow most of the time. Besides, they were used to it.

Ran’s eye twitches. “You were the one who wanted to know what happened in Thom and Chou’s match, right? Is the stew really that good?”

“Oh, right, sorry. So, what did happen?” I ask. Thom immediately looks annoyed.

“She cheated!” he exclaims, though not loud enough he could really be overheard.

“I did no such thing! I just used an advantage of the training method. It’s not my fault your imagination is lacking.”

“Wait, wait, slow down. How did she cheat exactly?” I ask. Chou immediately jumps in “I didn’t cheat, I just- “

“Imagined something impossible!” Thom interjects. “She just sent an image of me being held completely immobile. And it worked! I couldn’t break out of it, no matter how hard I tried. My muscles were all completely locked.”

“It’s not cheating though.” Chou disagrees. “The point of the training is to defeat your opponent. Which I did, by your own admission.”

“No, the point is to show what we’ve learned to the Sifu and help hone our abilities; tricks like that won’t get us anywhere.” Thom argues back.

“I have to agree with Thom here.” I say and Ran nods along. “If the objective were just to win, we could just spar normally. People might die, but there would be a clear winner, right? But the visualization training lets us train ourselves without the danger, which is the point. The training is why we visualize, not the competition.”

“It was a neat trick though.” Ran says “And who knows, maybe it is something you can do. We hear all kinds of stories about the Sifu and what they can accomplish. Maybe you should ask Sifu An, or one of the others?”

Chou looks dejected for a moment, then twists her face in distaste. “Maybe you’re right. But asking questions outside of specific classes is always a pain, even with Sifu An. They’re all so…stiff.” She sighs.

“Fine, I’ll go ask Sifu An. Better to get this over with before afternoon classes start anyway. We’ll talk more at dinner?” she asks Thom, who gives her a nod back. “Yeah, see you then.”

After that we ate quickly; we don’t get much time in our lunch periods. As we shuffled off to our next classes, I couldn’t help but slip into thought again. Why were we getting so many new students? It was troubling, and not just for the class sizes becoming unwieldy. The students here were entirely made up of orphans the Sifu had found. And not just that, ones with exceptional potential for talent in the martial arts.

What is going on out in the world that so many are being brought to Gao Shansi?

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Interlude 1

Lord Aldrich Moltke takes a sip from his wine and scans the room. Much of Rolgaran nobility is here, those both important enough to be invited and not important enough to have anything of value to do. He sniffs disapprovingly.

The wealth on display is significant, but ultimately tasteless. The construction itself was of finely made, but subtle melding of marble and wood, befitting the tastes of its previous owners. But the adornments. Tapestries done in gold threads, urns in expensive metals, so studded with gems it was difficult to tell precisely what kind, and the food. He sniffs again. All imports, with not a traditional Rolgaran dish to be seen.

What is it the Caulvins call it? Nouveau riche? We should never have allowed the merchants to amass such wealth, no matter their contributions to the war efforts.

He politely takes a nibble of some kind of meat, covered in indecipherable spices. Despite himself he lets out a soft grunt in appreciation.

Well, I can’t say it’s all bad I suppose.

He feels a slight touch at his elbow as a passing acquaintance tries to catch his attention. She was wearing a fetching, if simple violet dress. It seemed to him it was almost out of place in the present company, even if the craftsmanship was exquisite. What was her name? Therese? One of the lesser houses I believe.

She begins speaking before he can quite recall. “Lord Moltke! What a surprise to see you here. You’re almost never in the capital!”

“Yes, I had the great…fortune to be away from the front when Mr. Gossler’s invitations went out. He’s certainly gathered quite a collection of the young nobility here, hasn’t he? Looking around I sometimes feel I’m the only one here who can even grow whiskers!” he says, forcing out a booming laugh. To his sometime regret, he’d cultivated a reputation as a loud, boisterous reveler at a similar soiree some thirty years prior, and shaking it would likely entail burning some bridges he couldn’t afford to. And so, appearances must be kept, even if his taste for fine food and alcohol had quite faded with a chronic case of the gout he’d suffered with for years.

His new companion throws back her head and laughs in kind, blonde hair flinging backward and almost escaping from its loose braid. She catches some scandalized looks from the other women around her, but if she notices them, she doesn’t deign to acknowledge their presence.

Still chuckling, she agrees. “There’s barely any real men among this group, it’s true. I’ve known most of them since I could barely walk and some of them haven’t changed a bit since!”

In a flash it comes back to him. Ah, the Wattenburg girl. I’d heard she was eccentric, but it hadn’t come across the last time we met.

“You bear no fondness for your peers, I take it?” he says diplomatically, though inwardly agrees with her assessment. Most of the young lords and ladies here came for nothing more than to get drunk on others’ wine and trade idle gossip. Certainly they might couch it in terms of ‘making connections’, but none her head any grand designs, or even particularly petty ones at that.

Aldrich feels a frown creeping its way onto his face again but stops before it makes him look more than mildly constipated.

“By your face you share my assessment, even if you will not do me the courtesy of agreeing openly.” Therese says, though more quietly. A flash of annoyance cuts through him, but he throttles it. He still remembers the zeal of youth, and the girl was barely sixteen, if that. Instead, he moves to gently admonish her.

“Speaking your mind is all well and good my dear, but know the time, place, and purpose. Quite honestly you’ve given me little indication you’re any different than your peers, save that you wear your opinions on your chest rather than keep them to yourself, as politeness dictates.”

She looks disappointed.

“I thought you might understand a little better. The way everyone talks you’re ‘no nonsense’ and ‘a real patriot’. Who cares about being polite to people like this?” she says, gesturing at the room. ‘They’ve never done anything for this country and probably never will. Except letting people like Gossler get fatter and fatter.”

Aldrich sighs.

“Not that I don’t agree with you, to a point,” he replies, keeping his voice low even as her own rises a bit once more “But you have to know how to play the game to accomplish anything. And not to put too fine a point on things, but again, what are you doing differently?”

She lights up, as if just waiting for this opportunity.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. My father says you’ve got a lot of pull in the army for a Major. I wanted…” she trails off, looking uncharacteristically subdued for a moment before rallying. “I want to join your company!” she declares proudly.

Aldrich is taken aback, expecting almost anything else to come out of her mouth. It takes him a moment to find a response. “I-“ he begins, before finding himself cut off.

“You? Join the army. You’re insane, Therese. Not that that’s any shock.” One of the ladies nearest her pipes up, putting on her best sneer. “Though if the rumors I’ve heard are any indication, spending your time surrounded by a bunch of-“

“Stop talking now, before you say something you’ll regret, Miss.” Aldrich interjects, finding his footing again. “I’ll not have you impugning the honor of one of your fellow ladies, nor the honor of the men under my command, for that matter.”

She turns the sneer on him, opening her mouth to reply, before a man -presumably her date for the event- puts his hand on her shoulder.

“Leave them my dear, it’s not worth it. Let’s go dance, the band is about to strike up again.”

Aldrich puts his hand to his head and indulges in a small sigh. This whole ordeal was always expected to be a headache, but not to this extent, and certainly not before he was inevitably drawn into conversation with Gossler.

“Your desire to serve this country is commendable Miss Wattenburg, but you know as well as I do that is impossible. The army is no place for a woman, much less a young lady like yourself.”

She bristles. “And who decided that?”

He is saved from having to respond for a moment by another interruption. “Champagne, my lord and lady?” a soft voice offers. Aldrich looks down to find the source, another frown coming to his face. Aldrich had seen several similar servants running around Gossler’s mansion. Sallow skin and slanted eyes marked them all as Daluni. This one was even shorter than his kind’s already short stature, and younger than the others he’d seen serving the guests. His bare fuzz of brown hair also marked him as out of the ordinary. He must be fresh from his homeland.

Aldrich feels a mixture of disgust and disappointment looking at the boy; he represented everything wrong with Gossler’s kind. Unchecked wealth, completely unconcerned with the common good. The expense of importing Daluni as servants was exorbitant, and actively took food out of the mouths of Rolgarans who would jump at the chance to serve at these events. The boy was as much of a trophy as all of the other gaudy accoutrements of Gossler’s estate.

Nevertheless, there was nothing he could do about it but take a glass and send the boy on his way. He gave Aldrich a short, fluid bow and took the Major’s nod as dismissal.

“Well?” a frustrated Therese demands, having barely taken notice of the servant.

“You know as well as I do that no one person decides these things Therese.” Aldrich sighs. “The closest is the king, and you overestimate me if you believe I have his ear, much less to the extent of convincing him that overthrowing the natural order of things is to the best interests of our nation.”

She bristles again, breathing deep as though about to launch into a tirade, but is again interrupted before she can even start as the band suddenly increases in both tempo and volume.

Our illustrious host has arrived, it seems. The Major thinks to himself sourly. He’d have a hundred conversations with idealistic, if misguided young people to stave off meeting the slug hosting this party, but it seemed the hour would soon draw nigh.

Gossler entered, descending the stairs at the head of the room. He showed more taste in the dressing of himself than his abode, but only slightly. If the golden threads trimming eye searing brightly died silks of many colors draping him didn’t speak to his obscene wealth on their own, the sheer amount of them required to cover his equally obscene bulk would cover any gap.

He opened his arms wide once descending the staircase, either pausing for effect or to subtly catch his breath, Aldrich wasn’t sure. Perhaps both.

After a moment, he speaks. “Welcome, friends, to my humble abode. I trust you’ve all been enjoying yourselves?” to that, a chorus of affirmation and raised glasses greet him, smiles real and feigned plastered on nearly every face. Aldrich didn’t bother; his dislike of Gossler was well known to the man and hadn’t stopped him from bother the Major yet.

“Dreadfully sorry I couldn’t make it here earlier. I would like nothing better than to spend every waking hour with such distinguished company, but alas, it feels as though there is never an end to the work to be done.”

A chorus of indistinguishable commiserations erupts at this. From a room full of people who’ve never done a day of work in their life. Aldrich thinks to himself. Begrudgingly, he must also admit that despite all of Gossler’s flaws, the man was no shirker. He likely was tied up in some business until just moments before. Reportedly the man slept barely four hours a day and worked almost every waking minute when he wasn’t attending one of these parties.

Gossler makes a show of scanning the crowd and Aldrich nearly winces. Despite almost certainly spotting him instantly with the way the Major’s stature stood out in this crowd, he does several sweeps before his eyes settle on Aldrich in mock surprise.

“Ah, and there he is! Our guest of honor!”

At this another round of applause breaks out, though it is decidedly lukewarm.

“Welcome, Major Moltke. It is always an honor to have you grace us with your presence. But, I have kept you lords and ladies from your revelry too long. Back to it, with my blessing!” he calls, clapping his hands. The band resumes their more sedate musical style, and after a moment the dancing resumes.

Gossler himself moves swiftly through the crowd, graceful despite his size. In a distressingly short amount of time he is before Aldrich, and Therese has made herself scarce in the kerfuffle. Finding himself without an excuse to put it off any longer, Aldrich addresses his host reluctantly.

“Greetings, Mr. Gossler. And thank you for your warm welcome. Though it is hardly necessary to single me out. I’ve never been much for people fawning over me.”

Not that any in this crowd would, unless they wanted something from me.

Gossler waves a meaty hand. “Nonsense, Major. A soldier, nay, war hero such as yourself deserves such a welcome, and more.”

Aldrich grimaces but doesn’t respond.

“You know as well as I do that I was just doing my duty.”

“Perhaps, but sometimes that’s all one needs to do, and more than many would. People might go on about the value of duty, honor, and all of those other pretty values, but few actually live up to them.”

Privately Aldrich agrees, though he’d never admit it to the man. But he also wasn’t one to upsell himself on something he would have done regardless of the circumstances.

“Now, I do hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, but I was hoping we’d have a little time to chat about a certain business opportunity I’d like your involvement with.”

Aldrich is visibly surprised at this announcement. Gossler often invited him to these events, but never for anything substantial. Usually he only had to suffer through a short public discussion with the man and his being paraded around like a prize for a moment, and then he was free to leave these interminable parties.

As much as he dislikes the idea of spending time alone with the man, Aldrich has little choice but to agree.

“I would be…happy to, Mr. Gossler.” He reluctantly agrees.

“Excellent. I’ll have you brought to one of my private chambers in just a moment. I’ll send one of the servants to fetch you once I’ve dispensed with the requisite meeting and greeting of the other attendees.”

To Aldrich’s temporary relief he bustles off, and Therese likewise never reappears, though he’s sure he’ll run into her again eventually.

Just as Aldrich is starting to get even more bored than before Therese showed up, the young Daluni boy from earlier appears. Or at least, Aldrich is fairly certain he is.

“Master Gossler will see you now. Please follow me.” he says in subdued tones.

Aldrich nods. “Lead on, then.”

The boy obeys, gliding off. Aldrich frowns at the sight. Something about the way he walks niggles at Aldrich’s brain, as though it were familiar in some way but he couldn’t quite place it.

Aldrich doesn’t have much time to ponder it before the boy stands in front of a door, opening it outward for Aldrich to enter. The Major puts it out of his head for now. Whatever Gossler has to talk about is likely more important than a Daluni servant’s strange gait.

Gossler himself sits in a comfortable armchair in a surprisingly appointed sitting room. The air is cozy, with a fireplace burning lightly to the north of the room. The room itself is out of sorts with the way Gossler usually presents himself, the man’s current garb clashing with the subdued, refined atmosphere of the sitting room.

“Come now, don’t look so shocked, Major. I can’t have all my rooms appointed the same way I arrange them to amuse the children outside.”

“Quite frankly, Mr. Gossler, I had assumed the décor outside matched your own tastes.”

The merchant frowns. “I knew you held a dislike for me, but I’d thought you a more discerning man than that. Appearances are important, but I didn’t think I’d cultivated that one so well it would fool a man with more worldliness than my usual guest.”

He shakes his head. “No matter. Hopefully we can put that past us, as I do truly have something important to speak with you about.”

“And what is that?” Aldrich asks, though he’s half-figured the answer by now. Gossler was a war profiteer; a weapons merchant most commonly, but a procurer and purveyor of everything the military needed to keep running. There was little he’d want of an army officer other than to make a deal about some kind of weapons transaction, the only question was…what, exactly, he could be peddling that the army needed?

“You should know by now that I am a very rich man, Major Moltke…or may I call you Aldrich, to speed things up?”

“You may, if you have anything more to offer besides self-aggrandizement.” Aldrich says, a bit annoyed at the man’s stating of the obvious.

“Yes, of course. My point is that when you have as much money as I do, you need something to do with it. Once you’ve bought all the things you want, money that is left lying around is just valueless. Some find creative ways to waste their money, and others invest. In people, enterprises, ideas, you name it.”

“I am an investor, Aldrich, and I dabble in all three. In this case I come to you bearing the fruits of an idea: the results of years of research and painstaking refinement.”

“What would you say if I offered your company the honor of being on the cutting edge of military technology, going places no soldier has ever been able to go?”

Aldrich is intrigued, and doesn’t bother to hide it, but does his best to sound skeptical. “It sounds like something too good to be true, Mr. Gossler. And even if it were, you know I’d have to get special dispensation from the Lieutenant Colonel, or even the Brig for such a deal. Why not approach them directly?”

Gossler gives Aldrich an exasperated look. “We can dispense with the false modesty, Major. No one important is around to hear you underplay your influence. You and I both know that a recommendation from you is enough to sway most of the army’s hierarchy, even after your demotion. Your authority is diminished on paper, but barely so in practice.”

Aldrich gives him a wry look, but doesn’t challenge him. It was true enough that he was still trusted implicitly, even if his explicit commands no longer held the weight they’d had before his ‘war heroics’.

“Fine, let’s hear it then. What are you offering, Mr. Gossler?”

“Simply put, Major, I’m offering your company the ability to strike anywhere, at any time, without threat of retaliation.”

“And how exactly do you expect to accomplish that?” Aldrich asks, growing irritated at the beating around the bush.

“I’ll give your men the ability to take to the skies.” The merchant says with a smile.

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