Heat bore down on the line of soldiers, hot enough to melt helmets as well as thoughts. Rinalda hefted the pick ax over her shoulder and sent it into the ground, breaking up the hard mantle of red clay. She hesitated briefly and wiped the dripping sweat on the shoulder of her uniform. The next swing cut deeper, leaving an access hole for those following in her wake with shovels. The rough terrain, littered with a diamond-hard rock known as cliaster, made using the laser drills impossible. The crystalline substance had a nasty habit of refracting the laser beams and splintering them in multi-directional chaos. Thus, Rinalda and her fellow soldiers had to dig the damn postholes by hand. Every last one of them.
At this rate she'd look like a stevedore before her assignment ended. What with the unbearable heat of Scicia's fourteen common-month long summers, and the back breaking labor, she'd already dropped down to a dangerously low percentage of fat and had a body as ripped as any professional athlete's. Not that she was complaining. Thanks to the fine folks in the Telesian Army and mandatory five year conscription, she was in the best shape of her life. Problem was she hadn't a chance to show it off lately.
She glanced down the line at her troop mates. Not that she would bare her ass for any of them anyhow. Not that there would be time. Reports from the scouts confirmed a large army of Vandens were on the march. They'd be lucky to get the trenches dug before the battle began in earnest.
Her stomach tightened and burned at the thought.
Her heart ached.
Duran, where are you?
A loud ear-piercing whistle cut over the sounds of industry. Rinalda put the head of the pick ax in the dirt and turned toward the sound. General Anton's aide-de-camp approached the line and spoke briefly with the troop commander.
"Sergeant D'Aubry!" The troop commander's voice came over the small radio clipped to Rinalda's collar.
She touched the talk button, holding it down. "Yes, sir."
"Report to command, immediately."
"Yes, sir." She hefted the pick ax over her shoulder and left the line. At least the command center would have air conditioning. However, there wouldn't be time to change before her meeting. She lifted her arm and sniffed. Her eyes rolled back in her head.
Not a good sign.
The command center was a squat prefab building, brought in on the transport ships and assembled in a matter of minutes. While it would crumble like dust if caught in the crossfire of bombs, it kept the wind and elements off the delicate computer grid and defense network for the rest of the base. The trick was to not let the bombs penetrate the shields set up around the camp.
The trenches the troop worked on so diligently were for the relay posts that carried the grid signals to protect the other outposts. If they didn't get up and running in time, some of the smaller bases scattered over the continent would be more vulnerable to attack.
Rinalda picked up the pace as she neared the building. She took a non-regulation handkerchief from her pants pocket and wiped her face. The grime had probably been embedded in her skin by now. Well, the CO would just have to understand she'd been working on the line for Gods and country.
A guard sentry saluted her and opened the door. She returned the salute and entered the building.
Cold air swirled around her, cooling the sweat on her skin. It felt like a divine deliverance. An audible moan rose from her throat.
The conference room was located halfway down the main hall, and when Rinalda came to the doorway she stopped short.
Her shoulders sank, even as her blood pressure rose.
Chancellor Elmut D'Aubry stood from his place at the head of the conference table. There was no smile or warm fuzzy feelings that passed between them. There were too many years of pain to undo for them to ever have a comfortable relationship. The most Rinalda could hope for was that they didn't both draw their weapons on each other. While working out on the line, she hadn't even known his transport had arrived. He must have come over land instead of air.
"Come in and close the door."
She did as told, her gaze surveying the other men in the room. His advisors--or as she like to call them, the Hyenas--took up the rest of the chairs. It looked as if she'd have to stand for the entirety of this unprecedented visit.
"There have been major developments in the last few hours with the Regency of Vanden. The Vanden government is willing to negotiate a peace settlement."
"Congratulations." The word dripped with sarcasm, though her heart raced with hope. Maybe Duran would be sent out of harm's way. She hadn't seen his name on the Vanden's casualty lists yet.
Her father narrowed his eyes. "At this moment we are preparing an envoy to send to their capital in hopes of sealing a binding peace. We need an emissary to ensure of message of peace is declared and understood. Shall we say, to put a pretty face on it?"
She doubted very much an envoy would happen. The history of their two peoples was very long and very bloody. Lasting peace was as unlikely as having gold fall from the sky. "What brought on this sudden change of heart?"
Reed, the first advisor, gave her a greasy smile. "The Vanden Regent is eager to end the bloodshed in his reign. The death of his father last month has shifted the power balance at the capital. With the tide of war favoring us, it is prudent for him to pursue a settlement."
Rinalda crossed her arms under her breasts then uncrossed them when Reed's gaze settled on her bosom. "I'm surprised you accepted the overture. I'd think this group bloodthirsty enough to use the new Regent's offer of peace talks as a means for gaining control of the entire continent."
Her father made a face. "Peace is very important to me, Rinalda."
Yeah, right. That's why he gave the order to invade in the first place. Bastard. He'd always had a grudge against the late Vanden Regent. The reason for which, she didn't know and he had never confided. Ten years of fighting wore on a small world such as Scicia, especially when only two of the populated regions were capable of inter-stellar travel.
"Then I wish your envoy luck in the negotiations. But I'm still unclear as to why you would break the line when we're on a tight schedule to get those relays in place and single me out of my troop to tell me this."
A perverse light came into her father's eyes. Dread crept up her spine and tickled the hair on the back of her neck.
Oh, God. As the Chancellor's daughter she was going to be the emissary. The machinations stung. He used her love for Duran to gain her cooperation. He and his advisors knew she would never turn down the opportunity to get so close to the Vanden seat of power to search for her lover.
She gave a stiff nod. If her father thought to manipulate her with this special assignment, the least she could do would be to use it to her advantage.
Rinalda used her preparation time to best advantage: researching Vanden protocols and court politics. The Vandens were a fussy lot. The Regent's Court full of pomp and pageantry. A soldier such as herself among all the colorful courtiers was going to be quite comical. She almost wished she had the audacity to wear her side arm and Sergeant's bars among them. However, if her tenure as an emissary was to be a success she had to break the mold of those who had gone before her and failed.
What could she do differently? Something that hadn't been tried before by the Telesian side of the negotiations?
The first item of course was honesty. Rinalda didn't think even one Telesian ambassador in the past fifty years had tried that basic principle while trying to work around the deep-seated distrust held by both nations.
Rinalda keyed the search into her info-link. File after file scrolled across the screen in a dizzying array of brilliant technology.
Vanden negotiating customs.
She tapped the topic and brought it to the main link. "On large screen."
The verbal command moved the file from her handheld device to the large console screen on the barrack's wall.
"Show me proper court dress for visiting dignitaries and their envoys."
Screens flipped as the information was sought and loaded.
She put a hand to her chest when images of the garments filled the screen. "Oh, my."
If her father meant to put a pretty face on the peace talks, the court dress accomplished the goal and so much more.
The Vanden Regent was not only going to meet the Telesian emissary, but was bound to get an eyeful of her other charms as well.
Odd how the late Vanden Regent never allowed vids of his only child and heir shown to the public. Perhaps the kidnapping danger was too great to take a chance. Rinalda's father never felt such a responsibility to her. There wasn't a news feed or grid that hadn't carried her likeness across the galaxy the day she'd sworn her oath of allegiance to the Telesian Army on the occasion of her conscription.
She held no expectations for the outcome of the peace talks. The only thing she knew wholeheartedly was the war had not been of Vanden making. They had been on the defensive since it began. The late Regent had been stubborn to a fault and allowed the Telesians to run them over the continent, in the military equivalent of a slap and tickle.
Rumors abounded on the reason for the war. Rinalda boiled it down to her father's greed. He never saw something someone else had that he didn't want for himself. It was a compulsion with him. As essential as air and water. Even her mother had given up on the man and moved halfway across the planet to be rid of his machinations.
Rinalda didn't blame the woman a bit.
Enough with the family drama. She had a delegation to get ready for. But really, what in the hells did she know about being an ambassador? No one offered crash courses on diplomacy on the info-link vidversity-the remote equivalent of universities. All she knew about negotiations came at the end of a hot stunner set for kill. Finesse not required.
The circular thoughts brought her back to why her father selected her for this mission if she was so under-qualified. Obviously, she wasn't the best choice as the emissary. So, why? If he only wished to put a pretty face on the matter, Ambassador Cliadori was a very handsome woman. Stately. From an impeccable pedigree. Why not send her? The woman's credentials read like a statesman's dissertation.
Rinalda worried her lip with her teeth, positive her father had some other reason for sending her into the Vanden capital.
She let out a sigh and sat on the camp cot, thumbing through appropriate Vanden court dress. Rinalda ordered a few items ensured to impress upon the Regent she was serious about the peace process. She only hoped it made up for, in some small way, her glaring inexperience.
Damn, she hated being unprepared. Right under that on her peeve list was being the recipient of unpleasant surprises. Nothing aggravated her or put her back up more than not knowing what to expect.
Thus, going into Vanden was a major stressor.
The two most positive aspects she'd cling to in the Vanden capital of Alden: a chance at peace and a possibility of locating Duran.