Chapter 19

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Driving on smooth, paved road for the first time in a week was a welcome relief for Zoe's spine. She relished the softness of the black leather seats inside the limousine and stretched her shoulders back. Captain Erwin Schmidt also looked glad to be rid of the turbulence. He kept his gaze focused outside, on the relatively unscathed and quiet city. If it weren't for the Dannic soldiers patrolling the streets, it wouldn't have even looked like a war had broken out.

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" Zoe said.

Erwin nodded. "Hard to see the sun through the tinted glass."

"Precautions. Right now we're important guests of the regional governor," Zoe said.

"I still think all this political posturing is a waste of our time."

"The millions who don't have to die in another genocidal war would beg to differ," Zoe replied.

"I really do wonder sometimes. Do you secretly pity these... aberrants?"

Zoe sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "They are still human aren't they? It's a shame no matter what form, creed, or conditions we find ourselves in, the human urge to slaughter, rape, and rob one another never fades. We just happen to live in an unfortunate world where an aberrant few have the power to call storms and split the earth with their mind."

Erwin sighed and shook his head. "Why are you always so dramatic?"

"Am I wrong?"

"No, just warped." Erwin muttered.

"All of us are warped. There is no such thing as an unbiased human being. Anyone who claims otherwise is either a liar or a fool."

The limousine stopped in front of a large, dome-shaped white building that served as Laniston's city hall. A pair of Dannic soldiers opened the doors for Zoe and Erwin as they stepped onto the curb. Wearing freshly ironed and laundered dress uniforms, the two Dannic officers looked more like stateswomen than officers. At the entrance, a greying woman in a faded black business suit was standing beside two unarmed Angleyan security guards in traditional red robes.

"Lady Hamilton. I'm glad you agreed to meet with us," Zoe said with a pleasant voice.

The older woman scowled while shaking her hand. "It's hard to refuse when you march an army into my city," she said.

"A perk I very much enjoy as an officer of the Dannic Military. Well, My Lady? Aren't you going to show me inside?" Zoe pointed to the door behind Governor Hamilton.

The walk through the hallways of the building was tense. Zoe kept her arms at her sides and her shoulders squared, a picture of calm dignity. Her mind, though, was spinning. It was a shame, really, considering the elegant sights around her. The oil paintings that hung on the lacquered mahogany walls on either side of her depicted various High Ladies and Knights of the Angleyan Empire and were beautifully painted. The pictures glorified butchers and despots but Zoe knew better than to judge. Most, if not all women or men who gained power became cruel. Her mind rushed back to how the Dannic people would remember her own use of power.

Her soldiers had, at most, a few hours to leave before the first Angleyan planes would circle overhead. Of course, that couldn't happen until her gambit paid off. Not if she wanted to end the war quickly. The meeting room at the end of the hallway was small, and the door was worn down. Hamilton was clearly taking her Dannic guests to her finest venue. Once everyone was seated, Zoe leaned forward to address the Governor. Every second was precious.

"I understand you hold no love for the nation that sacked your city, and I'm not going to try to change that," she said. "But I do want to know with whom your loyalty lies. Don't worry, you won't be punished for anything you say."

"You expect me to believe you?" Hamilton scoffed.

"I was hoping. I'm not surprised at your skepticism though," Zoe said with a sigh. "I've shown a great deal of restraint My Lady. Instead of slaughtering and throwing all your civilians into gas chambers the way most of my peers would have elected to do, I've let them stay in their homes and carry on with their lives after disarming them. Now, answer me. Why do you think I did all of that?"

"I don't know," Hamilton spat.

"It's because I don't see these colonies as extensions of Angley, My Lady. Oh yes, your talented propaganda ministers can preach about a united Empire all they'd like. Do you really feel like the Islanders see you as their equals? Do you not feel like they just step on you like serfs and tools for their own enrichment? When was the last time they exported food and goods to you instead of just taking all of yours?"

Hamilton's mouth gaped open and her eyes grew to the size of saucers. "I... What are you proposing?"

It was the opening Zoe had been waiting for. "The truth is, even if the Federation won every single battle of this war, we'd still fail to hold onto the colonies very long. Even with the second largest standing army in the world, we just don't have the manpower to do it. For that matter, Angley itself doesn't have that kind of manpower."

The flicker of covetous hope in Hamilton's eyes was encouraging.

Zoe had to act quickly to seal the deal. "An independent mainland, one which has broken free of its colonial master oceans away... Doesn't that sound like a glorious history book entry? Don't you want to be a coauthor of such a tale?"

"How do we know your genocidal Federation won't turn on us if we fight Angley together?"

Zoe let out an amused chuckle. "You're a beloved leader of the largest and richest colony on the continent. As I said before, fighting you would not only bleed the Federation dry, it would squander valuable trade opportunities with a new, liberated trading partner and ally. That you also govern nearly half the Empire's naval ports and garrisons on this continent doesn't hurt. At worst, we could easily cooperate to neutralize them before they threaten our new alliance."

"And how do you plan on ensuring my people's safety?"

Zoe scoffed. Of course the woman was going to play that card. "As if a woman as powerful as you cares. Oh well, I'll bite: I've proven myself to be a woman of restraint haven't I?"

"I mean from the colonial superpower I'm about to rebel against."

"I think you misunderstand my proposal. I'm not asking for anything spectacular like an armed revolt. That would bring us right back to that point about squandered trade potential. Powerful as we are, we can't protect you from the wrath of Angley's navy. No, I was thinking you would be a more... cunning collaborator. We need your economic resources and raw materials. Not the ashes of your masters' bombs."

"What do you want then?"

"Information. Some helpful advice for the Angleyan officers leading the defense efforts. Keep the soldiers moving where I tell you, and we'll all get what we want. How does that sound?" Zoe reached a hand across the table to Hamilton.

Hamilton wasn't smiling, but she wasn't scowling either. After several seconds of contemplation, the Angleyan took Zoe's hand and shook it.

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