Prologue
The Man in Black

22nd of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Ellesgard, Wymar Province, Kingdom of Byrandia

In a spacious but bare office, a man sat at a large desk. Everything was black. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling all black marble. On the walls hung large black flags with a white roundel in the center which was almost entirely consumed by a clenched black fist gripping arrows and lightning bolts. The desktop was smooth black enamel, polished to reflect the image of the man at the desk.
As with everything else in the room, his uniform was black with only a few accents of silver: the buttons and the buckles, the piping around the collar, the stripe down the leg, and most importantly, the insignia on the sleeve and at the man's throat. To the right was a badge with the same fist clenching arrows and lightning bolts as seen on the flag. To the left was two sets of three arrows crossed, wreathed in laurel and topped with three stars. Even the man's face was painted black, a disconcerting, vaguely greenish sort of black. He was the Commandant General of the paramilitary unit known as the Blackamoors. Most people simply called him 'the Grand Dux'.
The door to the Grand Dux's office opened and in walked one of the Quadrumvirs, the Blackamoors' chiefs of staff. As with all the Blackamoors, his face was also painted black and the effect was much more unnerving with his bright red hair flecked with silver.
Standing at attention a few paces from the Grand Dux's desk, the Quadrumvir clacked his heels together and delivered the stiff-armed Roman salute.
"Excellency."
The Grand Dux lazily returned the salute with what was more like a wave. It was a luxury off the parade field that he alone enjoyed, for if any Blackamoor acted in kind, the consequences would be severe.
"What is it?" he asked.
Lowering his arm, the Quadrumvir replied, "We've received reports from the Air Defense Command of an unidentified object having passed through our airspace. They estimate it landed in Neveland, about 600 kilometers from the border."
It could be a spy plane and it could be something else. Neveland was disputed territory but sparsely populated. A discreet operation ought to escape notice and avoid attracting any attention that would upset the delicate balance of international affairs. The time was not yet ripe for all-out war, after all. The Grand Dux still had much work to do first.
"What is our nearest airbase?"
"Berenice, Excellency."
Berenice was a small border town ruined in the previous war. The airbase was mostly repaired and a new village had been built away from the ruins of the old town. It would not be difficult to keep things quiet there.
"What is a fast ship we can spare?" the Grand Dux asked.
"The Junker Jorg, perhaps, Excellency," the Quadrumvir replied. "It has just finished its refit, but there will not be time to assemble a full crew. We suspect the Palatinians will be moving to intercept as well."
The Kingdom of the Palatine was one of Byrandia's many enemies and intelligence indicated that they were not being idle while the Byrandians were busily rearming and expanding the military. If this unidentified object was valuable, the Grand Dux would not suffer the Palatinians to have it. Indeed there was no time to lose.
"A skeleton crew will have to suffice," the Grand Dux said. "We will get more men at Berenice. Who can we send to ensure all goes well?"
The Quadrumvir thought a moment before replying, "Centurion Tofels would do well, I think, Excellency. He is young and ambitious and he handled the matter in Clairmont quite satisfactorily."
Yes, Clairmont. That was a pretty piece of work. Centurion Tofels could prove to be a great asset. This mission would be a fine test of his ability.
"Very well then," the Grand Dux said. "Tofels will do. Send him on ahead of the Junker Jorg to Berenice to make preparations. He can take the maniple of his choice with him to see that the job gets done."
"As you command, Excellency."
"You are dismissed."
The Quadrumvir saluted and said, "By your leave."
The Grand Dux waved him off and the Quadrumvir smartly did an about-face and walked out of the office. The race against time had begun.