HEARTH #3

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By the time Tomasa finished with the headlines and was digging into improvements of  productivity on yield worlds, the train ride was over. She followed Manna off and the two of them headed into the BEACON district.

The architecture, orderly but unimaginative steel towers, reflected the sensibilities of the military women who lived and worked here. It was all centered around a huge park with an artificial river running through it. Women jogged, sparred, or simply relaxed at the end of the workday.

The 29 Matres of BEACON all shared a spiral office building, stylish but not ostentatious. Security was tight, but the beefy guards didn’t hassle Tomasa since she was with Manna. They headed for the elevator in the back of the hall, where three women stood. One of them, a tall, silver-haired beauty with sharp features and slitted eyes, looked familiar. She wore only sweatpants and a tank top while the other two were in full uniform, their chests covered in medals and commendations.

“That’s… Seffora, the Mater Avium!” Tomasa hissed through her teeth. Indeed, it was Seffora, the brilliant queen of the skies whose knowledge of aerospace warfare was unmatched. Tomasa had a notification on her watch to alert her whenever Seffora uploaded a new op-ed on atmospheric and orbital combat.

“Oh, yes, so it is. Perhaps the Mater Protectoris can introduce you to her later.” Manna didn’t slow down. As they walked, Tomasa quickly came to realize who were Matres: the ones not in uniform. Seffora wore sweats, a voluptuous woman with dark blue hair was in a summer dress, a third in a bright red waistcoat that complimented her cherry hair. Each of them was shadowed by a woman dressed identically to Manna: perfectly neutral black-and-greys with no distinguishing features.

Other than Grace, Tomasa had never conversed extensively with a Mater before. They were the titans of TORCH, the organization’s most legendary figures. Tomasa was a small fry by comparison.

Manna placed her finger on the elevator’s biometric scanner, then pressed the button for the 29th floor. “We’ll get you access too,” she said. “You’ll be visiting the Mater’s offices frequently.”

The top floor contained just seven rooms, three on each side and one on the end. The doors were a rich mahogany and the carpet was a tasteful grey. Manna explained what was behind each door as they went. “That’s the restroom. That’s the meeting room. That’s my office- very small. Never go in the room with the lock on the door. That’s the sitting room, for breaks and reception. That’s the gymnasium. And here is, of course…”

The door at the end of the hall was the only one labeled.  The simple metal plaque read:

GRACE DIAKON

THE MATER PROTECTORIS

MARSHAL OF BEACON

Manna knocked three times. “Yes,” a voice called from within. Only then did she open it.

Grace had great interior decorating sense. While the embellishments were sparse, they were all purposeful. The walls were a pleasant grey with exactly one minimalist painting per side. There were also filing cabinets for some reason- a rare sight these days.

The most colorful thing in the room was a hot pink Mark XV Gawain AEGIS in the far left corner, similar to Tomasa’s but customized for Grace. The Mater had worn that armor on Paran-7… she was amazing. She fought in the armor so naturally, like she had been born inside of it.

Everything was spic and span, shockingly neat. Even Grace’s desk, dominated by mountains of paper, looked well-maintained. Grace herself sat on the windowsill, smoking a cigarette. The Mater looked back with one eye and then beckoned Tomasa forward.

Grace wasn’t beautiful, but she had a ferocity and a sorrow that were hard to pin down. She kept her bubblegum pink hair as neat as ever. Her eyebrows were bushy, her nose chiseled, her cheeks full and her jaw surprisingly soft.

Same old Grace- other than the bags under her eyes, which were darker and more pronounced than they had been on Paran-7. In lieu of armor or fatigues, she wore an immaculately tailored suit with a pink tie to match her hair and a deep purple pocket square. She still wore calfskin gloves, as ever.

Tomasa bowed. Every time Grace stared at her with those cool, sad, lustrous eyes she felt like she should be bowing. “My Mater.”

Grace finished her cigarette and put it out. “There’s no need to be so formal.” Her voice was deep and distant, a little raspy.

“Oh, all right.” Tomasa stood up straight. “Sup?”

“There’s no need to be so casual, either.” Grace stood up and cracked her neck. She was still small, over a head shorter than Tomasa and even little Manna. “I’m teasing. Talk to me however you like. Just know that most Matres are sticklers for etiquette.”

“Yeah… gotcha.” Tomasa’s cheekiness left her rapidly. “You, uh, you look good. Kinda tired.”

“I dislike sleeping. It’s an inherently selfish behavior, as I can do nobody any good while I’m asleep. That’d be a good mindset for you to cultivate as well.” Grace walked over to her desk and gestured for Tomasa to take a seat. “I have three meetings tonight, the next one in…” she checked her watch. It was more ornate and more sophisticated than Tomasa’s. “Twenty-five minutes. That means we have twenty to talk.”

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