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FROM ASHES TO EMPIRES

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Chapter 4

TW: N/A


“...What I humbly ask is that you do what you can to assist our freedom fighters, so that they can continue to push back the jaws of tyranny and keep us all safe from these invaders. You can donate supplies in any local recruitment center—currently, what’s needed most is rations as well as any scrap metal, cloth, and rubber. With your generous help, they’ll never take our home.’

That concludes our emperor’s announcement. Now, we return to Stories for the Evening with Matthew Allen. Good night, and may our Lord Andrew bless you.”


Valtteri wrinkled his nose. Maybe if the commune didn’t live so primitively, they’d actually be able to pitch in.

His room’s door creaked open. “Mr. Strom?” Erin, his nurse, poked their head in. “You awake? I’ve got your dinner.”

“Yes, come in, thank you.” He stiffly pushed himself into a sitting position as Erin brought over the tray and set it on the bedside table.

“How are you feeling?”

“All things considered, not terrible.”

“Good, good.” They glanced at the radio, which now played the gravelly voice of a storyteller. “I’m guessing you heard the announcement.”

“I did. I wish we were able to help, but there’s jack shit here to donate.” He looked up at them, putting on his most wistful expression he could muster. “Imagine being able to help win a war.

Erin shifted uncomfortably, their eyes darting to the floorboards. “I can’t say I imagine that kind of thing all too often. I’ve already got people to worry about here, including you. I guess it may not be much compared to ending a war, but it’s something.”

“Oh, don’t think I’m unappreciative. You’ve been wonderful. All I’m saying is that I think there’s so much more we as a community could do, if only the Assembly would allow us.”

They looked back at him, raising an eyebrow. “What do you mean? They’re not barring us from joining the war or, like you mentioned, donating things.”

“Well, what do you have to give?”

“...Not a whole lot.”

“Exactly!” Valtteri’s eyes lit up. “If they only allowed some business to set up here. I could help with that, I’d be happy to go into Lysehill and—”

Erin’s exasperated sigh interrupted him. “Look, I’ve heard about your... ideas.” They tilted their chin up, regaining their composure. “I should go. Good night, Mr. Strom.” With that, they made their brisk exit, the door shutting firmly behind them.

Valtteri stared at the door for a moment, unblinking. Then he fell back against the bed, pulled one of the pillows tight over his face and groaned into it. Appetite lost in his frustration, he laid there for minutes. Another person who wouldn’t bother to listen. This whole place was a heap of wasted potential from its leadership to even the damned inhabitants, blinded by whatever fairy tale of a life they thought they had. It’d soon come crashing down under the wheels of a Federation tank. 

He grimaced against the fabric. Hopefully some of the commune would survive, just so he could see the looks on their faces when they saw he was right.


***


“Why are you still here?” Rui stood in the garage entrance, hands on her hips. “The meeting started five minutes ago.”

Daniel looked up from the motorcycle he was working on. He was able to see the center of the commune, where community meetings were held, from his workshop. There was a large crowd gathered underneath an overcast sky, facing a low wood platform in the center, which five figures stood atop. The clouds dulled the usually vibrant flora that encompassed the commune and weaved a chilly breeze between the cabins. It looked like it was about to rain, but Daniel smelled nothing on the air. 

He gave her a sheepish smile. “It feels awkward to give my input on big decisions when I haven’t been here nearly as long as most of you. Like, is it really my place?”

Rui rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, of course it is. Besides, there are people who’ve come after you and they show up to meetings. C’mon.” She grabbed Daniel, who was still in his grease-stained tank top and canvas work pants, by the arm and tugged him away from his work and down the hill toward the meeting. As they approached, the People’s Assembly’s words drifted into his ears.

“...many have come to us and expressed a desire to acquire extra protection in light of the crash from a few nights ago,” said one of the older Assembly members—Kiyah—a woman with a dark brown, wrinkled face and coily gray hair pulled into a tight bun.

Like how Marie wore her hair, Daniel thought absentmindedly.

“The Assembly is more than willing to accommodate these requests. Though, of course, new rules will have to be implemented for everyone’s safety.” She stepped back, nodding to another of the five Assembly members, Ellis. 

Ellis was also quite old, with graying black hair and ivory skin beginning to speckle with liver spots. Most of the Assembly members had been in the Assembly since the commune’s founding around twenty years ago. A rejection of standard Haelian society that had grown into a thriving community, Rui had told Daniel during one of their lunch breaks. Despite the commune holding elections every year, there had never been a reason to vote Ellis, Kiyah, or Oscar—the second oldest—out. They’d founded the commune, they knew how to run it best. Two of the Assembly Members standing on the platform, however, were barely older than Daniel. Aisha and Quinn. Daniel didn’t know the reason their predecessors had been voted out, as he’d arrived a while after they were appointed, but it didn’t matter. Aisha and Quinn brought new ideas to the Assembly’s table and took on some of the more physically taxing tasks, like making supply runs, while the older members focused on keeping all kinds of records and organizing work for the commune.

Ellis spoke, “Yes, we want to make sure these arms are used only for defense. That means housing all weaponry in the Assembly Hall, which is having a small armoy added onto it for this exact purpose, and keeping records of who has what weapons, when they have them, and for what reason,” they paused to look back at the rest of the Assembly, lips pulled into a somber frown. The others matched their sentiment with various expressions, and, as Daniel looked around the crowd, he could almost see the apprehensive aura entombing the commune’s center.

Ellis turned back to the crowd and took a long breath. “The Assembly will provide funds, but we’ll need some volunteers to go into nearby towns and pick up some rifles and ammunition. This isn’t urgent, so feel free to attend to any other business you may have while in town. Now!” They clapped their hands together, trying to force a smile. “If you’d like to go, meet us at the trucks. We’ll divide you into groups.” The crowd began to disperse, some heading back to their work, some heading for a field behind the Assembly Hall where the commune’s transportation was kept. Mostly trucks, but also a couple motorcycles and any other kinds of vehicles people brought when they arrived at the commune.

“Guess you didn’t have to give any input after all,” Rui said. “I’m gonna go, there’s some supplies I need to pick up for school. Wanna come?”

Daniel looked to the workshop and his very unfinished project. Eh, it could wait. He was due for a break anyway. Also, he wanted to spend some time with Rui. It’d been a while since their last outing together.

“Sure, a change of scenery would be nice,” he said. 

She smiled, took him by the hand, and began leading him to the trucks.


***


The towns sprinkled between the Eastern and Western ranges were small but populated, with one long main street lined with family-owned shops and restaurants housed in buildings of brick, reinforced with steel from the decades-old industrial age. Few purely wooden buildings remained, and those that did were falling apart at the gaps in their planks. Even some of the stronger buildings were worn from the harsh storms that would occasionally funnel through the valley in the wet months. And they stayed that way, as it was difficult to find anyone with the skills to repair them. 

This disrepair was all fairly normal, as far as Daniel was aware, but the dusty teal uniforms patrolling the cracked sidewalks of the town of Lysehill were definitely not. He stared worriedly at them from the back seat as Rui drove them down the main street, eventually parking in a lot beside one of the shops. Their group hopped out of the truck, agreeing to meet back at it in an hour before heading towards their various destinations. Daniel, however, couldn’t take his eyes off two Haelian soldiers smoking outside a restaurant across the street from them.

“You alright?” Rui asked, tossing a satchel over her shoulder. Daniel blinked a couple times before looking at her.

“Yeah. Where are we going first?”

“Since they said they’d handle the rifles, I figured we’d go pick up my stuff then get lunch or something. Sound good?”

“Uh-huh,” he responded, only half paying attention. The soldiers across the street were laughing loudly now. About what, he wasn’t sure. 

Rui raised an eyebrow at him, turned to the soldiers, then made a knowing ”ah” sound. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Daniel sighed, “I will be. Let’s go.”

She nodded. They walked down main street toward one of the older shops, a bookstore, while cars from the previous decade drove by. A bell tinkled as they entered. If dust had a smell, it was this bookstore. It was charming, though, like an old candle-lit library.

Rui headed up to a counter with a white-haired woman standing behind it while Daniel took to the shelves, running his fingers over spines with worn silver lettering that read things like “The Legend of Einar” (one of Daniel’s favorite childhood stories), “History of the Old Clans,” and, of course, “The Manifest of Lord Andrew.” 

He flipped through a couple of the books, mainly looking at the detailed illustrations that popped up every few pages, until the bell jingled again. A middle-aged couple had entered the store. They gave a friendly wave to the woman at the front desk, who had piled thick history books in front of Rui, then continued to the aisle Daniel was in.

He gently closed the book he had been skimming and placed in back on the shelf, then turned to the pair. “Excuse me,” he said. They gave him quizzical looks. “Is there… a reason the Haelian Army is here?”

One of the two women gave Daniel a quick once-over, then responded in a drawl typical for communities in the Central Provinces, “You’re one of them commune folks, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, why?”

“That’d be why you don’t know, I guess. They’re preparing for the Federation. ‘Parently they’re moving southwest rather quickly.”

Daniel’s tongue turned to sand. “...What do you mean? I thought they’d only made it to the tip of the Eastern Range.”

She raised an eyebrow. “No, they’re at least a couple hundred miles down the western edge, pretty much perpendicular to us accordin’ to the soldiers. Did you hear that from a broadcast? You can’t trust those too often. ‘Specially not now—Hell, it’s even hard to trust what them foot soldiers told us and we’re just an enlistment letter away from being right beside them in a foxhole—practically war buddies already.”

It was Daniel’s turn to give them a confused look. “Why would the emperor lie?” Her partner snorted a laugh, but when Daniel’s expression didn’t change, she stopped.

“Oh, you’re serious,” she said. “Sorry, y'all have a reputation for knowing better than to trust ol’ Haelan.”

He took a tired breath. Rui was beginning to slide the books into her satchel. She motioned for him to join her at the front of the store. “It’s fine. And thank you—looks like I’ve got to go.” He started to leave, but one of the women put a hand on his shoulder, suddenly serious.

“Be careful who you trust.” 

Daniel stiffened at her words. He carefully pulled his shoulder out of her grasp and nodded before hurrying to Rui.

Rui narrowed her eyes at the couple. “What’d they say? Did they do anything to you? ‘Cause I will fight them if you need me to.”

Daniel surprised himself with a laugh. He didn’t think anything could break through the anxiety wrestling around in his chest. “No, no, nothing happened. But I do have something to tell you.”

“Liiiike?” Rui asked as she pushed the door open to a gust of chilly wind.

Daniel’s brow furrowed and he rubbed his bare arms, which had sprung goosebumps. “Rui, do you think the emperor would lie to us about something like, say, where the Federation’s army is?”

“Yep.” She said it without a second of hesitation.

“...Seriously?”

“Uhuh.”  Her brows furrowed. “Why, did you hear something?”

Daniel’s brain spun between Ansfield and the commune. The emperor would never lie—but he has, hasn’t he—but that doesn’t make any sense—doesn’t it? He has an image to preserve. “I… may have.” He took a deep breath, the air icy in his dry throat. “The Federation is very close.”

Rui froze. “How close?”

“Those women said they’re a decent way down the Eastern Range’s western edge. Perpendicular to this town. At least that’s what the soldiers told them.”

“That’s only a couple hundred miles away from us.” Rui’s breath came out shaky. She forced a nervous smile. “It’s a good thing that we’re picking up defenses.” She started walking again, but slower than before.

“I hope we won’t have to use them.”

“Me too.”


***


After Daniel told everyone in the truck what he had learned, the ride home had fallen silent. The only things left were the crunch of dirt roads sprinkled with gravel underneath tires and the wind whistling against dusty windows. He thought the tension would ease when they finally pulled up behind the Assembly Hall, but it stuck in the air like molasses.

“I should go tell the Assembly,” Daniel said.

Rui just nodded, staring blankly through the windshield.

He left her for the Assembly Hall. Most of the groups sent out had come back and were carrying slings filled with rifles of varying makes and qualities. Light conversation bounced around them, seemingly unaware of their predicament or, if they did know, trying to not let it get to them. Daniel trailed behind one of the groups as they entered the hall, which veered to the right where Quinn was waiting, directing the groups to a makeshift storage system of crates.

Daniel broke from the groups and walked towards the back of the hall. It was larger than most cabins in the commune, but it wasn’t grand by any means. The fanciest things in the place were the cream colored trim along the bottom of the walls and a collection of mounted antlers that lined the two longest walls—one set per assembly members’ desk, which sat directly below them, currently unoccupied—the wood-carved deer bust at the entrance, and the two sets of double doors at each end of the hall.  Other than that, it looked like the rest of the buildings, save the hospital.

Muffled conversation flowed from the doors at the back. They were clearly in the middle of a discussion, but this was important. He knocked and the voices stopped.

“Yes?” Kiyah answered. She was the sweetest of the assembly, but even she couldn’t hide the annoyance in her eyes.

“Sorry, may I come in? It’s important.”

She glanced over her shoulder before looking back at him and sighing, “Please, make it quick. We’re very busy.”

Daniel flashed her a smile. “Thanks, I will.” She stepped aside to let him in. Daniel had expected their private meeting room to be coated in the finest woods and carpeting, maybe even some mahogany bookshelves and a carved desk, but it was the opposite. Just as basic as the main hall with a round table in the center and a few chairs around it. There were a couple bookshelves, but they housed files rather than novels.

“Look, if this is about your friend, you should really come back another time,” said Oscar, a short man with only 9 fingers—Daniel had heard Rui’s students tell wild stories about how he lost it, but in reality, he was injured while helping with some farming equipment.

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “What, Val? No, it’s…” he hesitated. “It’s the Federation.”

“We’re aware that they’re closer than the emperor is letting on, yes.”

Daniel blinked. “Not to be rude, but you seem awfully calm when they’re only a couple hundred miles away.”

The room stilled. Oblivious shouts of joy from children playing outside the schoolhouse wormed their way through the quiet. All eyes were on Daniel, making him shift his weight nervously.

“That… we did not know,” said Kiyah. “Who told you this?”

“I talked to some locals in Lysehill. There’s tons of Haelian soldiers stationed there, probably in other towns around here too.”

“They’re moving so fast,” Oscar murmured.

“Do we tell everyone?” Aisha asked. “It could cause panic.”

Ellis replied, “Of course we do, our people deserve to know what’s going on. Besides,” they gestured to Daniel, “the news is getting out one way or another.”

“It would be worse to have it twisted in a game of telephone rather than informing the commune as a whole,” Kiyah said. “We’ll discuss once Quinn is finished with the groups, then have a community meeting, yes?” The other members nodded their agreement. She turned back to Daniel. “Now, we have business to return to, but thank you. And apologies for the less than warm welcome, we’re all quite tired.”

Daniel, taking the hint, pushed open the doors. “It’s alright, I understand. And,” he added, “if it helps, I’ll talk to Val about whatever it is he keeps bringing up.”

“That would be appreciated.”

With that, Daniel returned to the hall, passed the groups, and headed back to the workshop. Getting any work done proved impossible, though. He sat on a rusty stool, tools in hand, staring at the motorcycle’s handles.

Emperor Haelan had lied. And about something so important, something that could get unsuspecting civilians killed.

What else was a lie? The empire-sanctioned books he’d read by lamplight with Marie, the tales his teachers told about the shining Haelian capital—what about Haelan’s reasons for fighting this war? Now that he thought about it, it certainly was odd that a random Haelian border guard accidentally fired the first shot. Why would something as small as that start such a conflict?

Clang! Daniel nearly jumped out of his skin when the wrench slipped from his hand and struck the concrete floor. He puffed out a breath, picked it up, and set it and the rest of his tools on a workbench. The workshop had gone dark, the grass had taken on a blue nighttime hue, and his stomach rumbled despite him not having an appetite. How long had he been sitting there?

He shook his head to clear it. It can’t all be lies. After pulling the garage door down, exhausted, he began trudging toward his cabin. Can it?