Father, mother, more than anything, I wanted to make you proud. Forgive me.
In her cabin on a heavily armed navy starship, Princess Erika Von Manstein gazed through a window and sighed. From that distance, Österreich looked like a polished blue marble with patches of green. The planet was the beating heart of The Empire, the most powerful space-nation in the Milky Way galaxy.
More importantly, it was her homeworld. Erika felt at once excited and fearful of the moment her feet would touch the ground.
Heavy steps approached from behind, thumping on the metal floor. Her eyes remained on the window.
“Wilhelm, do you believe the legend about Österreich’s yellow sun?”
“Which one, Your Highness?”
“That it’s identical to the star in humanity’s lost home system?”
“I believe legends uplift our spirits and see us through dark times.”
A vague yet gripping reply, typical of Cuirassier-General Wilhelm Halder.
Her father, the Emperor, appointed the veteran knight as her bodyguard when she was ten years old and he—thirty-seven. Erika recalled their first meeting. The blond mountain of a man entered her room in the grand palace and took a knee. Even in that pose, he dwarfed her, and she immediately asked for a piggyback ride.
“Such frivolity is unbecoming of Your Royal Highness!” the knight said in a voice as strong as his body. However, in the end, Erika received that ride and many more. At least until she reached thirteen, and he insisted it would tarnish her reputation.
“Do you think Father would be disappointed?”
“His Imperial Majesty exalts you, Princess.”
Perhaps, but Erika and the Emperor had an age gap of 162 years. During their rare meetings, although he treated her fondly, it was akin to spending time with a great-grandparent. After all, Karl Franz the Thirteen participated in events she only read about in history books.
It was even worse with her aloof mother. Even while Erika was away the past year, Annerose Von Manstein called only once—and spoke about herself.
“Your Highness seems concerned.”
She nodded. “I cannot rely on my parents, and I have few allies in court.”
“Trust in your sharp mind, Princess.”
“Every Noble has an enhanced brain.”
After puberty, Imperial aristocrats took secret gene treatments. Those improved physical ability, increased intelligence, slowed down aging, and even allowed changing looks.
Erika received her first genetic tweaks at fifteen. After inspecting an extensive catalog, she chose an eye-color titled sapphire. Since then, many people recognized her by that shade of blue alone.
“Some brains are still superior to others.”
The princess blushed. It wasn’t like General Halder to dispense blatant compliments. Perhaps he wished to ease her nervousness. She noticed the knight wore only a gray army uniform. Rather unusual for someone who foresaw assassins behind every corner.
“Where’s your power armor?”
“What if I’m attacked?”
He responded to her sarcastic remark with a confident smirk.
“The assailant would come to regret their decision.”
Erika chuckled. That was a likely outcome.
“My greater fear is that the other houses, or even the royal family, would pounce on me.”
“If you mean because of the colony, the blame isn’t yours alone.”
“I was in charge.”
“You’ve listened to advisors as a junior leader should. Nobody expected Doctor Bremen’s deception.”
Less than a year earlier, the Emperor made Erika the governor of a small colony named Kesselring’s Eye. Everything went smoothly until a noteworthy researcher requested to dig for ancient artifacts on the planet. He promised her fame and recognition; instead, calamity struck them all.
“They’ll claim the Emperor’s youngest is an incompetent ruler who led to the demise of thousands.”
“I will vouch for you. We also have the Lord Admiral’s recorded testimony.”
The words of honorable men carried some weight in the Imperial courtyard, but in effect, she had no concrete evidence to offer. A recent aerial examination of the colony revealed nothing but heaps of corpses.
“Should I say monsters have attacked us and then disappeared? I’d be a laughingstock.”
“We should inform the Inquisition of a demonic incursion at the earliest opportunity.”
A reasonable plan. The Imperial Inquisition’s declared purpose was to protect humanity from such horrors. Perhaps they would substantiate her fantastic claims.
If only he were here to alleviate my worries.
“You’re still thinking of him.”
H-how did he know?!
“Your Highness has a wistful gleam in her eye.”
“I’m eighteen, Wilhelm. I can think about men.”
“And I simply wish to protect your mind from heading in the wrong direction.”
Ah-ha! I’ve got you, now.
“Speaking of minds, people appreciate my eyes, my height, and my smile, but he said I was a personality. A unique accumulation of traits and quirks.”
“Princess, I strongly advise against continued infatuation with this unscrupulous heathen.”
They were referring to Lothar Nachtritter, the handsome, dark-haired colonel who rescued her and Wilhelm from the overrun colony. During their travels aboard his spaceship, he introduced Erika in secret to the supernatural arts known as psionics, and she developed intense emotions for him.
That put them both at significant risk. First, Lothar didn’t belong to the nobility, so even laying his hand on her was a capital offense. Worse, he was an undercover agent of the Empire’s rival space-nation, the Allied Free Stars.
Perhaps that was the reason for his sudden disappearance two weeks ago. He left behind a brief note promising he’d seek her again, and a gaping hole in her yearning heart.
“But Wilhelm, didn’t you two get along in the end?”
“While I respect the colonel, he makes a poor candidate for marriage.”
Marriage?! The idea hasn’t even occurred to her.
What if instead of the vicious game of power, I’d like to simply be a personality… going on an adventure… with another personality?
“For your sake, Princess, it’s best you forget him.”
General Halder meant well, and normally Erika appreciated his wisdom. However, in matters of romance, she respectfully disagreed.
With every passing moment, the planet outside grew larger. Soon she would have to turn thoughts into actions.