Today has been hell.
I knew Aunt Midnight. I'd know her for all of my conscious life. I probably knew her better than I knew my own mother. But this person she was inside a barracks was completely unlike anything I thought I knew.
Let's start with something unrelated so as to make it look like I'm not whining.
Eomer, or "Clay", has fourteen wet-nurses - seven for every day of the first week of a fortnight, and seven for the second week. And Midnight had picked these women from the docks! The docks! How do you hire prostitutes to be wet-nurses for your child? And why the hell would one kid need that many? What's more is that they're paid so generously - Midnight pays them more money for one day than they would earn in a month lying on their backs! And they get full accommodations in the Fortress over-night!
What the hell?
And while she's been treating whores with so much kindness, she's been screaming her brains out at the lot of us for the whole week! Protestations and complaints are not even thinkable, it's like blaspheming in a full Church on a Sunday. And these new recruits that don't know Midnight as their commander can't stand her. For the whole week, we've been just cleaning the Fortress, restocking food and repairing damage - and we are working tirelessly. Some hunt for all 5000 of our bellies, others have been making the kitchens and eating areas absolutely spotless, other have been cleaning out stables and bedrooms (literally washing linens and sheets like they were housemaids) and still others were rebuilding turrets or filling sizable cracks.
My whole body is aching as I'm writing this.
But Midnight has a bottomless pit of gold coins, so the boys don't really protest.
There was this one guy who'd had enough and threw his washcloth or rag or whatever on the floor and shouted, “Women shouldn't be governing!”
By the way Midnight howled at him, I thought she'd bite his head right off his shoulders! It was scary. Like... not frightening or petrifying or shocking - but scary, in all the senses that that word implies.
“Women shouldn't govern?” she said really quietly, “Women shouldn't govern?” she repeated, louder this time, “I have been gone from this place for over thirty years and there are five-thousand of you fit-to-fucking-govern men within these walls. The farmers are starving, there are women and children selling their bodies and souls at the docks, your pricks are dragging across the fucking floor with venereal diseases! If you wanted to fuck around, you should have gone to Poland! Khadir hasn't been governing this place. Khadir is old, so he was just looking over my land for me. If Khadir governed this place, by God, you would have been praying to all heathen gods for your fucking lives five times a bloody day! This mess that you've created of my Fortress is a disgrace! These men who call themselves soldiers are fatter than the starving fucking horses! If women are not meant to govern, then who will - when all you idiots do is throw your bloody shit around? You should be ashamed of saying what you've said, if you actually believe it! Lout! Get your fucking head out of your arse, before I pull it from your spine! Pick up your goddamn rag and get back to work!”
I didn't see much protesting after that.
I'll grant Midnight this, though: our breaks were lengthy and we were well-fed. We all ate together on the floor - in either the dining quarters or outside around small camp-fires. I noticed that there was no specified uniform, or ranking within walls. Anybody sat near anybody, and everyone talked with everyone. Aunt Midnight herself sat next to Khadir and another man I didn't know. Not far from her was a man that looked like Aldrin - a furry or Romulite. He was imposing to say the least - and I grew up around Uncle Tom. But this furry was much larger than my uncle, and probably taller - though it was hard to tell because he was sitting. His fur was snow white and he wore tribal armour under dark robes. This must be the Cecil son of Romulus I heard Midnight talking to a few nights ago.
I sat closer to Aunt Midnight and she glanced up at me from a sheaf of papers she was skimming through, “'Evening, Kenny.”
I didn't reply.
She looked up with more concern, “Everything alright?”
“...Not as alright as I thought I would be.”
Aunt Midnight tilted her head to a side, “Kennedy, within these walls you cannot be my niece and I cannot be your aunt. You're a soldier now,” she returned her attention to her papers, “This is a job and you asked for it. I hope you understand that.”
“I feel like I'm back in gladiatorial training school. Be this way, don't to that, throw your fucking weight into it...”
“Soldiers don't become soldiers by being coddled and caressed, Kenny.”
I shook my head, “You still sound like my aunt.”
She laughed, “Oh, that, my dear, will never change.”
“What are you reading?”
“Well, many people have heard that I've returned to office,” Aunt Midnight said, “These are what we call contracts and... excuses.”
“You're not just going to dive into another war, are you?”
“Finding your uncle's map is the priority at the moment. And so far, all I know is that Kenobi isn't heading to Temple Mount. I'll have some time tonight to discuss this issue with Cecil in depth. But I'm just sifting through these. Seeing if I can attend to them while I have time and I'm not really keen on letting them pile up.”
“Where does all this money come from? How are you paying everyone? The soldiers, the wet-nurses?”
“Fighting other people's wars is a very profitable business if you take care with the money you receive. Now every man here would receive his share, but my portion has to be saved for further motivation in terms of... well, things like renovation and cleaning. I'm very good at saving up. And to establish some order, I collect a tax at the end of each year to go back to the peasants that tend our land and give us portions of their harvest and livestock. That way, resources and wealth are recycled well.”
“How much do you tax?”
“2.5% from each soldier.”
“That's not a lot.”
“Exactly. But the meagre change from many people adds up. And they're free to give more if they want.”
“Where... did you learn all of this?”
I saw Khadir roll his eyes, “When it came to my father, your aunt was such a daddy's girl,” he muttered.
“I cried so much when he died,” Aunt Midnight said, “He would literally traverse the ends of the earth for me. And I'm not even his real daughter. I miss him,” she looked down at her papers again and furrowed her brows, “Wait... This can't be right...”
“What?” Khadir said.
“It's a letter from Liam. It says he should arrive today.”
“Who's Liam?” I asked.
As if on cue, the Fortress doors opened up and a horde of perhaps a hundred men marched in.
“The queen of the castle has returned!” cried one of them and the others chanted after him like a pack of barking dogs.
“If I was a queen,” Aunt Midnight said, “Liam would be my court-jester.”
“One you didn't like?” I asked.
“One I would die for,” she laughed getting up to meet the contingency.
I followed after her and saw her give a large ageing man a big hug.
“It's been too long, what are you doing here?” Aunt Midnight said, smiling at him, “I didn't expect you - any of you - to come back!”
The man named Liam smiled back, “Well, it was supposed to be a surprise visit. We all heard the rumour of you heading back to Ol'e Normandy and we're not as cynical as your German lot or as far as your Ethiopian lot, so - here we are.”
Aunt Midnight looked at a loss for words.
“What! Not happy to see us?” Liam laughed.
“Not happy? Are you mad? I am going to cry,” Aunt Midnight laughed, “In front of my new recruits that I have been screaming at all day, I am going to cry. I have never been this happy to see you!”
“What about that time in that Buddhist Monastery? Happier than that?”
Aunt Midnight narrowed her eyes, “I will still gut you from your groin, Liam.”
He laughed, “Right, apologies, ma'am.”
“Have a seat! Bring these old men something to eat and drink! We've a full house tonight!” Aunt Midnight announced.
“Old men indeed,” Liam said, sitting down, “but I must say, time has been far too kind to you. You don't look a day older than when you left Normandy.”
Aunt Midnight paused, “It's... a long story.”
“I heard rumours. But I didn't really think...”
“About the Fountain of Youth. About Tortuga. About Cortés and the El Tívu... About your husband.”
“It's... all true.”
Liam paused, his face become less humoured, “I'm sorry.”
Aunt Midnight looked away. She hadn't been joking about crying.
“Oi, in front of these fat vegetables?” Liam said, gesturing to the soldiers around him, “Stop that.”
Aunt Midnight sniffed, “It hasn't been very long.”
“Midnight, you need you give yourself time. Remember-”
“I remember Tortuga, Liam. I'm... trying. But I don't have time.”
“This again? Of course you have time! Why wouldn't you have time?”
“Because. The map to the Fountain of Youth has been stolen by a man who bears ill will. If I don't find and stop him... It could mean real trouble and he isn't the most discreet thief. It got my husband murdered and if anybody else catches wind of this...”
Liam stared at Aunt Midnight.
“War is something we thrive on, but I'm not prepared to allow this world to fall into hundreds and hundreds of years of it over a pool of water, Liam!”
“Alright, calm. Calm down,” Liam said, holding my aunt's shoulders. He paused a moment, “Then you should go.”
“Go after him. Me and the boys will manage this mess.”
“You know you can trust me.”
“You're old. Statement of fact.”
“Aye, but I've got plenty of fight in me yet and twenty times more voice!” Liam bellowed, “I'll get Normandy working again like a well-oiled machine, on my honour.”
“Midnight, I can do this. Imagine - the mills rebuilt, the farms replanted, this army marching as one to the steady beat of a low drum. And when Hans get here they'll fight like warriors and not children playing with sticks. And when A'dil comes, they'll be no more fear of injuries and wounds! Everyone and everything'll be just as it was. Remember when some of the lads had to head to Germany or France to even get the whiff of a brothel? I'll make it so again! I-”
“Liam!” Aunt Midnight interrupted, “Fuck's sake, man, you haven't changed. God, just shut up for ten seconds!”
“Sorry, what is it?”
“If you're sure you can manage it, alright.”
“I won't let you down.”
“I want you to take care of my niece also. She's new to soldiering,” Aunt Midnight gestured to me.
“You're not taking me?” I said, incredulous.
“I promised you Normandy, not every daring mission or feat, Kennedy. This won't be an intense mission of thousands of men anyway. Just a short assassination. You'll miss nothing interesting.”
“But nothing! You're staying in Normandy. That's an order.”
I looked at her, “Yes, ma'am.”
“What about your baby? We heard there was a child. You're not taking him, are you?” Liam asked.
“I was... Um...”
“You're going to take Eomer, but not me!” I said.
Aunt Midnight turned her glowering gaze to me slowly, “What did I say about protesting?”
“Oh, you are such a dictator!”
“If you want to live in freedom, go home! This army can afford no such chaos!” she barked, “You're to stay. That's final. Disobey and I will send you crying back to your mother.”
“I'll come back!”
“Oh, I'm sure you'll try,” Aunt Midnight said. I hated this version of her, “I raised you. I'll send you packing as many times as it takes, Kenny. I can do it for the rest of my life without remorse.”
“I think you should leave your son here,” Liam said, completely ignoring our argument, “He'll be cared for. I promise.”
“I know, Liam, I'm just...”
“You can't take him with you, Midnight,” Liam said, “My wife is here and he has nurses in the Fortress. We'll care for him like we would our own. I promise you.”
“Alright. I'll set out tonight, then,” Aunt Midnight handed her papers to Khadir, “Give Hans and A'dil my best when they come, alright?”
I watched as Aunt Midnight went up to Cecil, spoke a few words and then they both went up into the study.