“Well, my grandfather was a soldier too,” Leigh said. “Hardly a knight, though, or a samurai. He did have a sword, though, and he carried it into battle all over the United States until he was wounded and lost his leg. Didn’t keep him from finding a girl or having ten kids, of course.”

“So your father was a soldier as well?”

“Dad? Ha! No, he worked in a paper mill. Every day for twenty years until he dropped dead sweeping up the pulp. There were a lot of mouths in the family, and we all got the same idea early on. He loved us, but he could barely feed us when we were small. So there’s the great Leigh clan for you: Edith the seamstress, Thomas–just like dad!–the paper mill boy, Catherine the mother of four boys of her own now, and of course me, the soldier. I joined for three square meals a day and damn if I haven’t made a go of it.”

Yamaguchi took a moment to digest this. “So you, like me, have come back to arms after your family had turned away from it.”

Leigh nodded. “And like you I wonder if I really came that far. Don’t get me wrong. My boys are good boys, and I’ve learned a lot from them. Rosenthal’s from New York, Davis is from Tennessee, and I’d never have met either of them if not for all this. Even that son-of-a-bitch Jones, may God have mercy on his Kentucky ass, has taught me a lot.”

“What do you hope to get out of all this, when it’s done?” said Yamaguchi.

“Three square meals a day,” laughed Leigh. “And seeing all my boys home safe.”

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“I’m not used to discussing myself with my men,” said Yamaguchi. “Though I am not surprised that you asked. It was much the same when I was stationed in London–even passersby on the street were full of questions.”

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” said Major Leigh. “I thought it might pass a moment, that’s all.”

“My grandfather was a samurai–do you know them in your country?”

“I think I’ve heard of them. Like knights, right? Loyal to their lord and full of honor and chivalry?”

“That is, I think, how they would describe themselves,” sighed Yamaguchi. “Fifty years ago, my grandfather and his ilk were respected and unique, scholars and poets and warriors. They alone had the right to wear a sword in public, and they alone could cut down a peasant who showed them disrespect at will.”

Leigh squirmed at the mental image. “Sounds good for the samurai, not so good for the peasant.”

Yamaguchi shrugged. “It was never something that actually happened. But then, the Emperor decided that it was time for ours to be a modern country with a modern army, and the time of the samurai was over. My grandfather did not know how to adapt to being a simple soldier, one among many, and he took his own life. My father has worked as a postal inspector his whole life, and his feeling was that dedicated service in an important but unrespected profession was the ultimate proof of loyalty to the Emperor and to the nation.”

“We have a word for that as well. The good old Puritan work ethic.”

“I could not live that life. I wanted to show that the martial spirit of my grandfather and his ancestors lives on. So I joined the military. I’ve seen many battles–this is not the first time Russian guns have been turned on me. But in the end, Major Yamaguchi is…a postal inspector. I keep small things moving around and getting where they are supposed to go, and unlike my father’s letters many of them are unruly or undisciplined. And unlike him, I have more to fear than a papercut.”

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“I see. So it’s a choice of getting shot, or getting shot with a chance of missing, huh?” Jones sucked noisily on a molar. “How do you say ‘don’t shoot I’m on your side’ in bolo, Rosenthal?”

Ne strelyayte, ya odin iz vas” said Rosenthal. “At least I think it is. Did I mention my folks can’t read and they didn’t exactly speak the Czar’s Own at home?”

“Well, the way I see it, that gives your bolo a bit of down-home charm,” said Jones. “You speak too good, it’ll sound all practiced. Bolos might cotton that you’re a kike if you talk like that, and me too if I’m parroting. Shoot me anyway.”

“You really are not interested in getting out of this alive,” muttered Rosenthal.

“That a threat, kike? You gonna draw steel on me? Leigh’ll look real kindly on that, especially as we’re short on men and half of what we’ve got’re chinks that’ll break at the first sign that civilization might break out.”

“It’s thanks to you that we’re in this mess,” said Rosenthal His hands tightened around his Mosin. “You’d think after all we’ve done for you, you’d be a little more grateful.”

“Grateful for what?” Jones spat. “For you all saluting a bunch of chinks on my behalf? For some kike lecturing me when he’s about as American as a Wiener schnitzel? Someone’s gotta stand up for real Americans, and it that means stabbing a chink who needs to learn some respect, so be it.”

“You could have started a war.” Rosenthal’s teeth were clenched.

“Hell, if that’s what it takes for them to learn their place, so be it.” Jones spat again, this time directly on the berm. Rosenthal blinked as droplets struck him. “Way I see it, I’m the only real American here.”

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Rosenthal turned to the man. “Skolko prikhodit?” he said. “Sto? Dvesti?

The disheveled mop jerked back and forth. “Dve tysyachi.

“Well?” said Leigh. “How many bolos are coming down the line?”

“Two thousand,” Rosenthal said.

“What? Are you sure?”

“You asking me if I can’t count, after all those miser jokes?” Rosenthal snapped. “Look at the poor guy. He’s leaking out of every hole. That’s genuine worry. If he’s not out of that Czarist rag as soon as he gets out of our sight, I’ll eat my hat.”

Leigh turned to Yamaguchi. “I have twenty-five men with me,” he said. “One machine gun and the rest are riflemen. We came in haste and I brought who I could.”

Yamaguchi bowed his head. “We are twenty-three. Twenty-four if you trust your man Jones enough to let him fight for his life. We have a Taishō 14 machine gun, and a supply of rifle grenades.”

Leigh turned to Davis. “You worked on an engine, right? Before the war?”

“Union Pacific stoker, I’ll have you know,” Davis said. “I could’ve ridden out the war behind a shovel if I wanted to.”

“Do you think you can get the engine at the station running before the bolos get here?”

Davis nodded. “With some water, a few tenders, and some fuel, we can get her going. Of course, I can’t guarantee she won’t blow up. But she’ll take fifty men.”

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Captain Yamaguchi stared impassively at his opposite number. “Yes,” he said. “I have some English. Why have you come here, armed, with reinforcements as if to battle an enemy?”

“Our man, Private Jones,” said Major Leigh. “You have him, yes?”

“If you are referring to the man who tried to shoot my officer, and did more than try to stab him, then yes. We have him,” said Yamaguchi. “We will spare you the bother of executing him for this transgression.”

The room was silent for a moment, with only the howling wind outside the old Czarist train station and the crackle of a fire in the hearth.

“We’d hate to…trouble you,” said Jones. “As our allies in the struggle against the Bolsheviks, anything that distracts you from your mission to bring stability to Siberia is…not in our best interests.”

“Not at all,” Yamaguchi said evenly. “As fellow soldiers, we recognize the importance of…discipline. It would be our honor to execute your Private Jones.”

“I appreciate your…honorable intentions.” Leigh licked his lips delicately; sweat beaded on the tip of his nose despite the cold leaking in between the slats. “But there is the matter of the private’s body. It will need to be repatriated, as per our government’s policy.”

“Of course,” said Major Yamaguchi. “We will return the body to you after the execution. For repatriation.”

Leigh flicked his eyes to his left and right. Davis had his hand resting on his holster, and Rosenthal’s rifle was shouldered but not slung.

When the major made for his pistol, the room exploded in movement. Davis pulled his Colt, and Rosenthal had his bayoneted Mosin ready, but they found themselves staring down the shaft of Captain Yamaguchi’s drawn sword, and the revolvers of his officers.

“Are you ready for a war between our two countries, Captain?” Leigh hissed. “Because that is what you’ll get if you strike one blow in anger here today.”

“And what,” Yamaguchi sneered, “about the blow struck in anger by your Private Jones? Perhaps the war has already started, and we are only now coming to realize it.”

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Each of the Ministry of Seven posts is held by the eldest member of a notable Taasian family. Cadet branches and their more distant relations make up the majority of the Tynwald and the Taasian Army officer corps. It is possible for a new family to
gain a Ministry, or for families to switch Ministries, though this is extremely rare.

Family Steyr
Virginia Steyr led the Taasians at the time of the Sundering, and every firstborn female in the Steyr family since has been named Virginia in her honor. The current Virginia Steyr only recently came to power after the death of her father, Vaughan Steyr, who had been First Minister for nearly fifty years. The Steyr family maintains an iron grip on power in the city, and has managed to remain in this position despite the machinations of other families.

Family Walther
Once led by legendary patriarch Ginsberg Walther, his son Frost now holds the position of Second Minister. The Walther family was closely linked with the Steyrs during the Sundering, and a Walther has always held the position of Second Minister, despite the rift that currently exists between them. Legend has it that Ginsburg Walther’s fall from grace and sudden death were the result of a plot to overthrow the Steyrs and take their place as First Minister.

Family Colt
Another longstanding Taasian family, the Colts were originally Ministers of Sustenance, the wily Khayyam Colt gained the Army ministry after his marriage to a Steyr and the untimely death of the incumbent minister. Keating Colt, Khayyam’s grandson and the current head of the family, has served with distinction since his ascension despite rumors that he murdered his father to gain his position. Their current closeness with the Steyrs mirrors the relationship that the Walthers once enjoyed.

Family Winchester
The Winchesters were not important members of Taasian society before the Sundering; the family has been able to attain its position through distinction in battle and strategic marriages with other families. As a result, the family is extremely attached to the symbols of ministerial power and remains fiercely ambitious. Whitman Winchester is among the oldest of the Ministers, and has held his position for nearly sixty years. His heir apparent was his elder brother, Wordsworth, but after the murder of his fiancee Emily Emerson, Wordsworth was exiled and his younger brother became heir to old Walker Winchester. There has been enmity between the Winchester and Emerson families since Emily’s death, though they are united in opportunistic opposition to the Steyrs and Colts.

Family Ruger
The Ruger family once held the Minister of the Army position, but have since been demoted to the far less important Ministry of Sustenance. Maya Ruger, the family head, is the second oldest Minister, and has headed her family for forty years. Despite her father’s fall from grace at the hands of Khayyam Colt, the Rugers are still closely allied to the Steyrs and Colts, as the Army is entirely responsible for organizing Sustenance shipments. Maya herself deeply resents this, and given an opening, would willingly align herself against Steyr and Colt.

Family Emerson
The most recent family to enter the Ministry, the Emerson family rose from the Tynwald to replace a family that was demoted for plotting to overthrow the Steyrs. In exposing this, the Emersons were rewarded with their post. Elizabeth Emerson is approximately the same age as Virginia Steyr, and the two were long close personal friends. Elizabeth had a younger sister, Emily, who was engaged to marry the oldest son of Walker Winchester. Emily was unfortunately murdered before the wedding could take place, and this led to a enmity between the Walther and Winchester families. They currently find themselves in an uneasy alliance opposed to Steyr; Elizabeth Emerson’s turn on her former bosom companion is one of the enduring mysteries of the current Ministry.

Family Lebel
Hugo Lebel is notorious for his hedonism and flamboyant manner, but the Lebels are also notorious as some of the most unshakable allies of they Steyrs. So while the Walthers have fallen from grace, the Rugers plot and plan to swing their support elsewhere, and the Emersons would rather take up with their daughter’s murderer than Virginia Steyr, Lebel has been unwavering. One might say that is the quality which has seen him through all his personal and familial scandals. Despite, or perhaps because of, his penchant for marriages and affairs, Hugo is growing older and has no legitimate offspring. None of his seventeen marriages have been for political gain, interestingly, and it is not know what, if any, plans he has in place for his death.

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The Tynwald, the Supreme Assembly of the Taasian People
1000 hereditary deputies from Taas and Included territories. Serve a consultative role, advising the Ministery of Seven on local concerns and rubber-stamping all acts proposed by Ministers, especially the First Minister. Each Deputy is, theoretically, eligible for appointment to the Ministry of Seven and each of the Ministers is, in turn, theoretically a Deputy. But aside from those rare occasions when one of the Seven has been demoted or their line has gone extinct, this rarely occurs.

Each of the 1000 deputies is also theoretically elected by direct universal suffrage. But in practice, the elections are formal affairs asking citizens to simply affirm a ballot put before them. In the rare occasions when a citizen rejects the ballot, even accidentally, they are often immediately arrested. New Deputies are only appointed when an existing Deputy is removed or when one dies without issue.

Grand Army of the People of Taas
Divided into several combat divisions, each headed by a People’s General. Groups of ten divisions are commanded by a People’s Marshal. The Third Minister, in his capacity as Minister of the Army, hold the rank of Grand People’s Marshal. At every level, the officer structure is mirrored by “Ministerial Officers” who are members of the STASI and serve to keep the troops loyal. Promotions are usually given based on family connections, though soldiers can distinguish themselves on the battlefield and earn field commissions.

Included territories furnish soldiers as well, though they are ineligible to become officers and are, in fact, preferred as laborers and auxiliaries. When they are allowed to fight, they are typically issued the worst equipment and sent into battle against the longest odds.

State of Taas Association of Security Information (STASI)
The security force responsible for maintaining order and enforcing the will of the Seven Ministers. Stasi agents function in uniform as police officers and Ministerial Officers, but also work undercover to expose anti-Seven sentiments and other forms of subversion. The Stasi hierarchy reports directly to the Second Minister, and only the personal intervention of the First or Second ministers can reverse or nullify a Stasi order or decision. People deemed gulity of anti-Ministerial conduct are dealt with in a variety of ways; some minor offenders are recruited as Stasi agents, others are sentenced to hard-labor gangs in Included territories. Serious offenses are usually punished by execution, though this can be commuted to exile as a Taasian Scout on a case-by-case basis. Exile is usually applied to members of Ministerial or Tynwald families.

Taasian Scouts
In lieu of execution, people accused of crimes by the STASI may elect to serve as a Taasian Scout. Scouts are given a weapon and supplies, as well as a focusing mechanism that allows the Gate in Taas direct linkage to a corresponding Gate. The Scouts are then deployed into an unfocused Gate, hopefully landing in an area that his not yet known to or occupied by Taas. They will then affix their focuser to the local Gate and aid Taasian troops in overrunning the area they have discovered. If a Scout fulfills their duty, they are absolved of all crimes, granted a Taasian Army commission, and their STASI files are sealed. Few survive to claim this reward, however.

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