Chapter 20

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Joanna shook her head after glossing over the first few lines of the letter and tossed it into the campfire, obeying its instruction to destroy it as soon as possible. She ran her free hand through a bush beside her camp chair and downed the remainder of her beer bottle. She tilted her head back to glance at the bright orange horizon, where the sun had set a little under half an hour before.

The sky was clear, meaning the first stars would appear soon. The lush, green hillside where they had set up camp was beautiful. It reminded Joanna of so many fun camping trips she would take with her family as a girl. Only now, it wasn't her family; it was Sophia and Charlotte who sat on the other side of the campfire, whittling fist sized pieces of wood with sharpened, crystallized fingernails. It was clear from their amorphous carvings that neither were artists. Nonetheless, the cutting must have helped pass the time.

Charlotte lifted her head up when she saw Joanna had burned the letter. "You know what this means right?"

"Governor Hamilton sounds pretty desperate for us to send reinforcements. Sounds like the Goddess forsaken world will end if we don't head to Colchester tonight."

"This is Zoe Kruger we're talking about. I can't exactly blame her," Charlotte said.

Joanna scoffed. "And what if this is another trap? Just another place to draw in all our forces while they waltz into some other important town full of supplies?"

"Less than 10% of our colonial population lives more than 50 kilometers inland. There's not a whole lot left for the Dans to take other than small towns and villages," Charlotte said. "Colchester's the regional capital of over a third of the Mainland Colonies. Even without Hamilton's warning, it still would have been the logical choice to move troops. Her secret letter just confirms our suspicions."

"Besides," Sophia piped up. "If you really wanna get picky, I still think that Amazon kid you decided to take into your tent's a bigger problem than our own Regional Governor. What nasty things are you making him do to you at night?" A crooked grin etched across her face.

Joanna scowled and shook her head. "For the last time Sophia, not everyone's a twisted pervert like you. The boy looked like he was going to starve to death. What was I supposed to do?"

"Send him to an Internment Zone? It's not like they kill or torture them there, ya know? If you're worried about him getting fed, that would have been the easy thing to do," Sophia said.

Charlotte cleared her throat, catching her friends' attention. "What I think Sophia's trying to get at is you really should be careful about taking pity on every random child we run across. We're fighting a war. You can't save them all. And there will be more of them."

Joanna could already tell where this conversation was heading. "You're worried he's a security risk because he's an Indigenous Amazon, aren't you?" she muttered.

"Well... among other reasons," Charlotte muttered.

"Char here did just spend a week before all this shit broke out hunting down Amazon militants," Sophia chimed in.

"This boy was locked in a Dannic concentration camp for weeks, just for the crime of being a caster like us. I doubt he's had the opportunity to think about fighting or terrorizing anyone except the Dans," Joanna said.

"That would be exactly the kind of cover story I'd come up with if I wanted to insert a spy," Charlotte said.

"So what? Are you going to lock that boy up and grill him? You should have seen how emaciated he looked. That's way beyond what any spy would be willing to go through just to build a cover story."

"Well..." Sophia muttered.

"Not now!" Joanna snapped.

Charlotte shook her head. "That's not what I'm going to do, Joanna. I'll keep him safe and comfortable but I need to be mindful of the security risks he and anyone else in this camp may pose to Angley."

"Sure. Just like Alex?" Joanna shot an annoyed glare at her friends.

"The kid's tough, alright? Not all boys and men are childish tantrum throwers. Believe me, I spent over a decade pretending to be his mom." Sophia shrugged, as if bewildered by Joanna's protests.

Charlotte, likewise, had an eyebrow raised at Joanna. "The Queen takes the security risks of all members of the military seriously. That doesn't mean she's mistreating Alex. It doesn't mean I intend on mistreating children either. Look, before we waste all our energy arguing about this, I want to make it clear you can keep the boy if it pleases you. Let him change your bedding, prepare your meals, whatever other chores you need. He'll be your squire if anyone asks. Just be careful around him. And let me know the instant you see or hear anything suspicious. Understood?"

"Yes, My Lady," Joanna said with a scowl.

"Good. Now let's actually finish our more important discussion. Governor Hamilton may come off a little hysterical. But keep in mind she's a Dannic hostage and it must have been incredibly risky sneaking this message out to us with the enemy breathing down her neck. And besides, the colonists are watching. We can't afford to look like we're abandoning them to the Federation." Charlotte stood up and paced around the campfire. "I'll have the 6th and 7th Legions sent to liberate Colchester. Their priority will be to get Hamilton out of Dannic custody as soon as possible. Who knows, they might have found out about her leaking intel already. In which case, let's hope they leave her alive long enough for a rescue."

"What about us?" Joanna said.

"We're going to take the rest of our forces and rendezvous with the fleet at Stanisport. We're taking this fight to the enemy," Charlotte said.

"Fleet?" Joanna's stomach churned. She hated long naval voyages. Sailors didn't seem to have any notion of personal space. Goddess knew how much worse it would be if she had to take the boy with her.

"We're already at war, the least we can do for both our peoples is end it quickly. If we cripple all their eastern shipping lanes, we'll at least have another bargaining chip when we demand peace. We leave in an hour by stealth ship and rendezvous with the 17th Strike Group just off the coast of Stutgar. Sophia will be with the rear fleet in case the Dans try to sneak behind us. We need to start fighting this war on our terms, not theirs."

"An hour?"

"Yes. Tell that boy of yours to get ready. I doubt anyone else here wants to take care of him, at least not gently. And since you seem so attached to him, I'd advise you keep him a healthy distance from the ship's crew as well."

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