<== ==>

Henrietta St. Thomas looked herself up and down in the mirror. After a few minutes, she decided she looked hot in suits.

Granted, she also looked hot in uniforms… but baggy fatigues hid her amazing body. The business suit that was standard for HEARTH agents meanwhile emphasized her strong shoulders and hips. The muscle on her arms and chest was obvious, but so were her curves, all in an extra-classy package.

She had elected to dress similarly to Grace: black pants and jacket, white shirt, silver tie to match her platinum hair and a complementary pink square. Since she wasn’t a soldier at the moment she was free to wear a bit of jewelry, so she complemented her suit with glittering white gold earrings.

Her apartment was on the outskirts of the BEACON district, comfortable but sparsely decorated. She’d worry about embellishments as soon as she got her first paycheck- she had received a major pay raise when she switched branches.

Wearing bespoke suits, working next to the Mater every day in the capital of all of TORCH, all the while making twice as much money as she used to… that was well worth the price of a new name.

Making sure she had everything she needed in her messenger bag, Henrietta left for her first day. She could save a few minutes by taking the train, but instead she chose to walk to Cresset Mound. The entire area already bustled with activity from morning commuters. Restaurants from a hundred different SPRING corporations served breakfast sandwiches and coffee to impatient girls. Office buildings, convenience stores, entertainment shops and small parks rounded out the landscape.

Cresset Mound itself was meticulously maintained, the air gently sweet as the emerald grass wafted in the wind. Busy as the surrounding areas were, the Mound was more lively still. There was far more security, including snipers on the rooftops of the lesser buildings and armored vehicles patrolling the streets.

Her destination, Sorority Hall, was magnificent. The building was C-shaped and eggshell colored, a synthesis of a dozen different architectural styles. Roman pillars and Arabic domes, Chinese thatching and Renaissance facades. The entire thing was covered in engravings, each one meant to represent the foundation of one of TORCH’s nine branches.

As it was HEARTH’s building, they put their own basrelief front and center. It depicted the tall and elegant Augusta, HEARTH‘s deceased founder and the Mater Politico, delivering a speech to a raucous crowd behind a podium. Right to the left of that was the BEACON basrelief: a scene of Grace and a half dozen armor-clad others driving their pneumatic blades into the flesh of a shrieking, twisted mass.

“The Cenotaph,” a clipped voice said from behind her. “Apparently. The Mater says that’s not how it looked.”

Henrietta looked behind her to see Manna, holding a paper tray with three coffees on it. She hadn’t heard her approach. “Hey Manna, one of those for me?”

“Three sugars, no cream.” Manna offered one of the cups to her. “I called the Azariah and asked them how you take your coffee.”

“I’m going to take that as thorough and not creepy. I notice you’re here early.” Henrietta took a sip and found it to be watery. BEACON girls liked their coffee strong enough to eat through steel.

“I came with the Mater. She had an early meeting with some of the other legislators already. ‘Last one to rest, first one to rise,’ that’s her motto.” Manna bowed her head in what might have been apology. “I hope you aren’t overly fond of sleeping.”

“I can keep up with anyone, don’t you worry about a thing.” Something about Manna’s demeanor rubbed Henrietta the wrong way. Everything so clipped and hollow, like Manna was a very slightly flawed copy of a person. What was her deal?

Henrietta decided to change the subject. “So, The Cenotaph… a Titan.” The greatest and most terrible enemy they had ever faced. If there was a god, then even he would cower before The Cenotaph. It had been defeated after many years and unthinkable sacrifice. “Grace really fought it, huh?”

“Delivered the killing blow herself,” Manna said, unable to hide her admiration. “She was just a sergeant with exactly two subordinates… distinguished for bravery and ability, but no one famous. But she fought brilliantly. Soon after, the Mater rose to prominence in meteoric fashion. From a complete nobody to our most eminent figure in less than a decade. And now here we are.”

“Here we are,” said Henrietta thoughtfully. That wasn’t something often said about Grace. She had been TORCH‘s most famous figure long before Henrietta… few were old enough to remember the Mater when she was just as a rank-and-file commando.

<== ==>

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