Chapter 23
Home Sweet Home

Gaomu (Pino Alto), Lingmu County, Tiandao Province

Although Batista's first instinct was to get moving and cover as much distance as quickly as possible, he decided to check the body of the Feng agent he fought and it was a good thing he did. Otherwise he might not have known how the agent found them in the first place. The agent had a receiver on him and that receiver was picking up the signal of a tracking device in their bag of emergency supplies. Batista left the tracker with the body then smashed the receiver, but not before checking several different frequencies to make sure there weren't any other trackers on them.
It took another day of walking to cross over into Lingmu plus one more to find a town. It was a small town but on the rail line, which meant they could go on to wherever they needed to go. Speaking of which...
"Where to now, princess?" Batista asked.
"We must find the post office," Masako replied.
"Ya plannin' on mailin' a letter or somethin'?"
"No. You will see."
Well, she was certainly being mysterious. Anyway, when they got into town, Batista asked around and it wasn't long before they found the post office. When they entered, Masako went directly to the clerk and said, "Bring me the postmaster. I must speak to the Red Lion."
The clerk blanched and muttered, "E-excuse me for a one moment, please," before scurrying off.
"What's the Red Lion?" Batista asked.
Masako shushed him, saying, "We must not speak of it here."
It only took a couple minutes for the clerk to return with the postmaster, a balding, reed-thin man with gold-rimmed glasses perched on his nose.
"Pardon me," he said in a rather nasal voice, "but may I see some identification?"
Masako pulled back hr sleeve and activated the crest on the inside of her wrist. Seeing it, recognizing it, the postmaster fell down on his hands and knees, bowing low to her, then tugged on the pantleg of the clerk to do the same.
"Forgive me, my lady! I have been instructed to check any who ask about the Red Lion."
"As well you should," Masako replied. "Now get up. You are making a spectacle."
"Of, of course, my lady," the postmaster stammered, getting back up.
"Now take me to the Red Lion."
"Yes, yes, of course. As you say, my lady. Please follow me."
The postmaster led them to the back where there was a door with five locks, each lock requiring a different key. Behind that door was another one, made of metal, unlike anything you would find on the surface. A black orb on the top of the door lit up blue and a voice said, "Please identify yourself."
At the right-hand side of the door, a panel also lit up blue. When Masako placed her hand on the panel, the voice said, "Scanning..."
A chime sounded and then the voice said, "Identity confirmed. Welcome, Lady Masako. Please enter."
The door slid open, such as they did in Mileyuan, to reveal a small room with seats for two on either side and a panel of instruments on the back wall. As soon as Batista crossed the threshold to follow Masako in, the lights turned red and the voice said, "Warning. Unauthorized entry. Warning. Unauthorized entry."
"Override," Masako said.
"Please confirm override, Lady Masako," the voice replied.
"Acknowledged," the voice said and the lights went back to normal.
The door closed behind Batista. He looked at the door and then back to Masako and asked, "What was all that 'bout?"
"You are not a Celestial," Masako replied. "The Red Lion Network is an emergency rescue system designed for Celestials stranded on the surface. The post office is the one government building you are certain to have in any town of 200 or more. You can safely wait in this pod until your rescue arrives. It is impenetrable by any technology the Infernals are allowed to have.
"Normally, only Celestials of noble rank are allowed to enter here, but you can override it to permit a servant or two. The computer tests the stress in your voice to determine if you are being coerced or else rebels could use the network to kill and capture those who take refuge here or ambush their rescuers."
Batista balked at the idea.
"When've we e'er been that organized?"
"It was more of a problem in the early years from I have been taught. The Infernals have been better conditioned since then."
"Like that postmaster," Batista noted. "Where'd that come from anyway?"
"Where did what come from?"
"All the sudden you're Her Imperial Majesty."
Masako blushed.
"I must act according to my rank. To do otherwise would jeopardize the balance of power."
"Yeah... Balance a' power..."
"Anyway, I must go send the signal."
She went over to the instrument panel and activated a vidscreen. She spent some time tapping on the screen until the voice announced, "An extraction team will arrive in approximately twenty minutes. Please make yourself comfortable until then."
Masako then took a seat and patted the space next to her to invite Batista to join her.
"Sure ya wanna big bad Infernal so close to ya?" he asked. "I might forget my place an' we can't have that."
"Please, Batista-xiansheng, do not say such things," she replied. "I cannot help how I was raised, what I was taught, nor can I change the way of the world. I have seen for myself that the Infernals have a hard lot, but would you be any better off without us?"
Batista shook his head.
"There're folks who do nothin' but bitch 'bout you Celestials, high-minded folks who go on 'bout liberty an' self-determination an' all that shit. I'm jus' a paid killer. Been makin' my livin' off your damn wars my whole 'dult life. Poppalation control, resource management. Most a' all, redirection. That's what it's all 'bout. I don't think 'bout it much 'cause I don't wanna think 'bout it. I'm either fightin' for my life or drownin' in booze an' whores so I don't gotta think 'bout it..."
Masako put her hand on Batista's shoulder, but he shrugged it off.
"Knock it off, princess," he said. "You're gonna be home soon, go back ta treatin' ever'one like that postmaster, 'cause that's your place. I'll take my reward an' go back ta the booze an' whores till the money runs out. After that, there's always another war."
"How can you say that!? We--"
"What? Ya think what happened changes anythin' 'tween us, who we are, where our place is?"
"I thought..."
"Ya thought what? Ya might keep me 'round like some kinda exotic animal for your menagerie? Look, ladies an' gennlemen, the savage Infernal!"
"Stop it!" Masako shouted, her eyes brimming with tears.
Batista did stop, and not because it was the Mandate of Heaven forcing him to obey.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Forget what I said. But if ya thought there was some kinda tamorra for us, you're dreamin'."
Except in moments like this, it was easy for him to forget Masako wasn't even a woman grown yet.
"C'mere," he said.
He put his arm around her and pulled her close, letting her quietly sniffle into his chest. It was a nice little moment when they could forget about all that stuff he dredged up, so of course it was interrupted.
The door opened and in burst a man in full armor, proudly announcing, "My lady, we have come for you!"
Masako hastily sprang to her feet, wiping away her tears with her sleeve.
""My lady," the man in armor said, "what has happened?" Seeing Batista, he reached for the hilt of his sword. "Who is this?"
"This is Batista-xiansheng, Lord Soichiro," Masako said. "He is my protector. He has saved my life many times over and he is the reason I am here this day."
Dropping his hand to his side, the man in armor--Lord Soichiro--bowed stiffly and said, "Forgive me, my lady."
"I would have you apologize to Batista-xiansheng as well," Masako said.
This seemed to catch him for a moment, but he nevertheless bowed to Batista--though not as low as to Masako--and said, "My apologies, Batista-xiansheng. Any man who has my lady's gratitude has mine as well. I am Soichiro, Baron of House Sakuma."
More to torment the uptight Baron than any other reason, Batista extended his hand to him, saying, "Batista Rodrigues. Pleased ta meet ya."
The Baron gave him a confused look at the foreign gesture. He then looked to Masako, who simply nodded. Reluctantly, like someone being told to pick up a dead rat, he extended his hand too, which Batista then took and shook.
While Baron Sakuma held his hand as if it had been unspeakably defiled, he said, "Shall we be going, my lady? Lord Hisatada awaits."
"Lord who?" Batista asked.
"Lord Hisatada of House Hasegawa," Masako replied. "He is my father's viscount and has been in stewardship of Lingmu ever since my father was called to serve in the Capital. It is all the more in his hands now that my father is dead..."
"The Feng will pay for their treachery," Baron Sakuma vowed. "I swear to you, my lady."
"Has the news reached you yet about Lord Wenhe?" Masako asked.
"We have been told there was some tragic mishap in Baron Ning's garden."
"He was assassinated by the Feng for aiding me. Traitors in his own house let in the Feng and bugged the craft we used to escape and the emergency gear in case their attack fliers failed. It led the assassin right to us, but Batista-xiansheng defeated him."
"An Infernal?" the Baron asked, astonished. "Defeated a Feng assassin?"
"Yeah, I didn't believe it neither," Batista replied sarcastically.
"Batista-xiansheng is quite skilled in combat," Masako said.
"I suppose he would have to be, my lady. Here we are."
Outside the post office, four dropships were hovering over the four corners of the building with well over a hundred troops positioned in the streets and on the rooftops. Directly overhead was a decidedly less military craft. Batista remembered several like it in the hanger at Mileyuan. Probably how the nobles traveled in style.
"Shall I have them lower a line for you, my lady?" Baron Sakuma asked.
"We can walk to the outskirts of town and they can set down there," Masako replied.
"Walk, my lady?"
"Yes, walk. I have become rather accustomed to it."
"As you wish, my lady."
He gave a hand signal and the fliers started to move toward the edge of town. The troops on the ground formed up around the three of them, making a square three ranks deep front and back with three files on the sides. As they started to move, the troops drove off any citizen unfortunate enough to be in the way.
When Masako saw this, she told Baron Sakuma, "Have the men close ranks. They are not to molest the citizens unless they pose an actual threat to us."
"Yes, my lady," the Baron said, then relayed the order.
The troops tightened up the formation, making it easier for the townspeople to stay out of the way. Once they found a flat place outside town, the troops fanned out to form a defensive circle around the landing zone as the big fancy flier touched down.
Baron Sakuma gestured to the loading ramp, saying, "After you, my lady, Batista-xiansheng."
He said Batista's name with no small grudging in his voice. It was a good thing Batista wasn't the delicate sort whose feelings got hurt by such things.
Once they went up the ramp, they were greeted by a servant, who bowed to them, saying, "Welcome aboard, my lady, my lords."
"Jus' that one's a lord," Batista replied, pointing to Baron Sakuma behind him.
This confounded the poor servant, but Masako said, "So long as you are with me, you are as good as any lord."
Batista glanced at Baron Sakuma.
"I don't think e'er'one's gonna agree with that."
"Please do not be difficult, Batista-xiansheng."
"Alright, alright. So do filthy Infernals like me sit in the back or down in the hold?"
Masako gave him a furious look, seized his hand and pulled him into the passenger cabin. There were three classes of seats: the first were two large single seats on either side, followed by two rows of doubles in the middle and three rows of four in the back. She pointed to the first large seat and said, "You will sit here."
"But, my lady," the Baron said, "that seat--"
"I know exactly what seat it is, my lord Baron," Masako replied.
"So what seat is it?" Batista asked.
"The first seat on the starboard side of a passenger vessel such as this is reserved for the person of highest rank," the Baron explained.
"And as the person of highest rank here, it is my right to do with the seat as I see fit," Masako said. "I intend to bestow on Batista-xiansheng every honor that is within my power for his service to me and my house. I shall smother him in gratitude."
The way she said it made it sound more like she wanted to smother him with a pillow instead of gratitude. Baron Sakuma had the good sense to say nothing until Masako took the seat behind Batista.
"Oh, no, my lady," he said. "At least take the second seat."
"No," Masako said firmly. "I am placing Batista-xianshing above us all here in Lingmu."
With no small amount of consternation, all the Baron could do was bow and say, "As you will, my lady."
Showing that at least in the company of their superiors a Celestial could grovel and humble himself more than any Infernal, the Baron began to quietly go toward the second group of seats, but Masako wouldn't allow him even this display.
"No, my lord Baron," she said. "This is your aircraft and as you have personally led this extraction, I insist that you sit opposite to me."
The Baron bowed.
"I am not worthy of this honor, my lady."
"A loyal man is worth more honor than can be paid in this world."
"I humbly accept your most gracious condescension, my lady. Please fasten your seatbelt, my lady. We will be taking off soon."
He didn't tell Batista to fasten his seatbelt, prompting Masako to get up and go over to his seat.
"I did not see any seatbelts during our time on the surface, Batista-xiansheng," she said, leaning over him. "Let me show you how they work."
She reached in by Batista's hips and pulled out the two sides of the belt, saying, "You have two ends, male and female. You put the male and the female together--" She clicked the ends together. "--and then they are pulled tight."
Taking hold of the loose end of the belt, she pulled with all her might. If she could have cut him in half with the belt, she probably would've.
"Ow, f--"
Batista stopped his curse short, mindful of the oversensitive Baron sitting only a couple meters away.
"Yes, it does hurt when the male and female come together," Masako said.
"Look, I'm sorry, alright?" Batista said in a harsh whisper. "Shit's bout ta be over an' whate'er you're wantin' or expectin' ta happen next, there's forces bigger'n either one a' us callin' the shots. You an' me won't be the ones decidin' it."
"You do not have to go out of your way to be unpleasant just when I have started to l--, to like you."
It was a good thing she lowered her voice too or it might've set off a real shitstorm. She went back to her seat and buckled in. The Baron touched the radio on his throat and said something, probably the order to take off, because they were in the air shortly thereafter.
Although it might've been a better survival strategy to keep his mouth shut for the duration of the flight, Batista turned his seat around--a neat feature of the four choicest seats--and said to Masako, "It's been buggin' me this whole time. Ya said this Red Lion Network's got stations in ever' post office, so why the hell've we spent the last two month goin' all over the damn place ta get here?"
"I did not know who my allies were outside Lingmu," Masako replied. "As dangerous as the surface is, the the technology level is much lower and makes pursuit more difficult. With a tough Infernal for an escort, I thought it was the safer choice."
"I do not appreciate the tone you take with my lady, Batista-xiansheng," Baron Sakuma said tersely.
"Leave him be, Lord Soichiro," Masako said. "He knows no better. I have grown accustomed to his impertinent tongue. It amuses me to have an unvarnished voice ringing in my ears."
"As with the court jesters some of our peers keep, my lady?"
"Something of the sort."
Batista certainly felt the fool at least. He turned back around and didn't make any further small talk. The change that had come over Masako bothered him, but he figured it was just her true face coming out. He'd seem glimpses of it at first, but it seemed to go away until now. He'd probably never again see that girl scared of lightning and thunder again, but it was probably just as well.
It took about an hour to reach the floating city of Viscount Hasegawa. While this was only his second floating city to see up close, but it was Batista's observation that while the floating cities were scaled to rank and customized to fit the ruling household's tastes, the basic construction was mostly the same.
Whereas the late Baron Ning seemed to exclusively favor scenes of mountains and forests on the vidscreens all about, Viscount Hasegawa's preference was to have similar forests and mountains to the west while to the east was this endless expanse of blue Batista had heard about in stories called the ocean. Who would leave a world with something like that for a place like this?
Masako seemed to notice how the ocean view kept drawing Batista's eye and said, "It is beautiful, is it not? I have only enjoyed it in projections such as this or in induction simulations. They say Earth is more sea than land, and of all the worlds Man has colonized, not even a hundred can boast anything similar. I would like to see a real ocean one day."
Her earlier anger seemed to be gone. Batista didn't want to bring it back, so he tried saying something constructive for a change.
"Maybe ya will."
"It can never be," she said with a sigh. "As you said, it is not for us to decide."
Before Batista could try and fail at saying something to comfort her, Baron Sakuma said, "My lady, Lord Hisatada awaits."
They continued on to a large courtyard, where they were met by a middle-aged man dressed--as Batista would later learn--in the traditional fashion of men of rank among the Wo, accompanied by at least a dozen courtiers and attendants. Stopping a short distance from them, the man--Viscount Hasegawa--bowed while those with him knelt to Masako.
"Welcome to Yingtianyuan, my lady," he said. "We are grateful to see you alive and well back in Lingmu once more."
Masako returned his bow and replied, "I humbly accept your generous hospitality, my lord Viscount, and am grateful in turn for your labors to maintain peace and order in our lands after my house was stricken by our hated foe."
Rising from his bow, Lord Hisatada's demeanor changed. Less like a loyal vassal and more like a family member--an uncle or something--, he opened his arms and said, "My child, come here."
It seemed to take all of Masako's willpower not to go running into his arms. They shared a more reserved embrace while he spoke quietly to her, almost where Batista couldn't hear.
"It is good to have you back," he said. "I feared the worst."
"Thank you, Uncle," she replied. "I would have faced that and worse if not for Batista-xiansheng--the man with me."
"Who is he?"
"An Infernal. Baron Ning believed it was the Mandate of Heaven that compelled him, but I do not think that alone can explain why he continued to protect me until now with half the planet hunting us."
"Whatever the case may be..."
The Viscount straightened himself up and Masako stepped aside.
He bowed.
"You have my thanks and the thanks of all the people of Lingmu for bringing our princess back to us."
"Yeah, uh, it was nothin'," Batista said awkwardly.
Lord Hisatada got a hearty laugh out of this.
"After everything you have done, 'It was nothing'? I think I like you, Batista-xiansheng, and not only for your services for my lady."
Well, wasn't this his lucky day?
Before Batista could say anything else so clumsy, Masako told Lord Hisatada, "I am sure you have your people on high alert already, my lord Viscount, but I advise you to tighten security even further. The Feng were able to infiltrate Mileyuan and assassinate Lord Wenhe. They could attempt an attack here. There may already be Feng agents here lying in wait."
"This could only happen if Baron Ning was betrayed from within," Lord Hisatada said. "We have reason to believe it was Count Edo himself who made a deal with Count Feng."
"A lord betraying his own vassal..."
"The easiest way to gain access to a noble house from the outside is to use their vassals or their liege lord. They are the only ones outside the family with direct access."
"Then Count Edo too must pay for his crimes alongside Count Feng."
"Would you see three comital houses brought to ruin in so short a time? The Three Excellencies would never permit it."
"Surely you are not counseling me to do nothing, my lord Viscount."
"Of course not, my lady. I would see House Suzuki restored and so the responsibility falls to you. Before his death, your lord father and I spoke of the prospect of marrying you to Hisanori, my eldest."
"And he denied you," Masako replied.
Surprised, Lord Hisatada asked, "You know of this?"
"My father concealed little from me. Even if I do not inherit the title in full, I am his successor. He wished to forge an alliance with one of the comital houses in the western frontier or perhaps with the family of Marquess Dou."
"We Yamato need to band together," Lord Hisatada said, "not thin our blood any more, my lady."
"On the contrary, my lord Viscount, our distinction makes us a target. It would be better to assimilate until there is now appreciable difference to divide us. In unity we are stronger. This is what my father believed."
"Spoken like a Shina halfbreed..." Lord Hisatada grumbled.
Batista saw the change come over Viscount Hasegawa and said, "Masako, get away from him."
In spite of everything they had been through, Masako still wasn't alert to the danger.
"Batista-xiansheng, what--?"
Lord Hisatada grabbed her by the wrist. Gone was the friendly avuncular facade. All that remained was anger, greed and contempt.
"You listen to me, my lady, you will marry my son and I shall be regent over Lingmu. Count Feng will not deny me this. He was supposed to give you to me in the first place, but instead he sold you off to the savages for his own amusement. I do not know how those beasts defiled you--" He glanced at Batista. "--nor do I care. So long as you give me sons, it does not matter what came before."
"My lord, what is the meaning of this!?" Baron Sakuma demanded. At least it seemed he wasn't in on it.
The realization finally dawned on Masako in full.
"You... It was you... You betrayed us..."
The Viscount grinned cruelly.
"As I said, the easiest way to strike at a noble house is through their vassals or liege lord. Your father would not listen to reason. For months I entreated him humbly like the good and faithful vassal I was. Denied, denied, denied... He brought it on himself."
Baron Sakuma drew his sword and pointed it at the Viscount.
"Lord Hisatada, unhand my lady at once! Surrender yourself for judgment! Testify against the Feng and their network of traitors and your house may be spared."
With only a slight tilt of his head, Lord Hisatada called the guards in the courtyard to action, twelve on the walls and twelve on the ground. The ones on the ground started closing in with their rifle-spears at the ready.
"You are in no position to be making demands, Lord Soichiro," Lord Hisatada said. "You are a good and faithful vassal and I would see House Sakuma continue to serve Lingmu. Put away your sword and swear fealty to me." He then looked to Batista and said, "Normally I would think no more of killing an Infernal than crushing an ant underfoot, but you did deliver my daughter-in-law to me and that deserves a reward. Lay down your arms and I will grant whatever that savage heart of yours desires."
Batista responded by drawing his sword and saying, "Ya better take that hand offa her, else you're gonna lose it."
Baron Sakuma did not relent either, shouting, "This is your last chance, Lord Hisatada! Release my lady!"
Lord Hisatada frowned.
"There is no winning with fools... I had hoped you would be more intelligence about this. Kill them!"
"Batista!" Masako cried.
The guards closed in and primed their weapons. Batista glanced to Baron Sakuma and said, "I take left, you take right?"
The Baron managed something of a bitter grin and replied, "I only hope my lady was not exaggerating about your combat prowess."
"Yeah, me too."