Culmination, Part 26

Shala smiled as she admired her new hairdo in the mirror. The Imperial Palace’s stylists really were quite good. Her thick, brown hair was notoriously hard to manage, but the women sent to her quarters by the Emperor had done an admirable job taming it. The smile on her face felt odd but natural, and the fact that it felt natural at all was itself odd. She wasn’t sure she’d ever smiled while in the same building as her father before, but something had changed about him. He was still utterly insane, but his insanity no longer took the form of raping and beating her. Instead, he lavished gifts and attention on her. It was still disconcerting, as Neminatrix was obviously convinced that Shala was his deceased wife, but it was definitely an improvement.

Her smile faded as she looked down at the clothes she was wearing. Actually, to call them clothes was something of an exaggeration. She wouldn’t have been much more exposed if she’d been naked. And it wasn’t even as if this ridiculous lingerie was in any way flattering. Shala had never been one who people considered pretty, and carrying a child plus the normal aging process had done nothing to improve her figure. She didn’t feel sexy or beautiful or anything like that in these outfits. Instead, she felt more like a particularly lumpy potato with scraps of lacy silk attached. She’d asked her father several more times for some decent clothing, but every time he’d smiled and told her that, since she couldn’t leave her quarters, she had no use for normal clothing. Which was better than being beaten for asking, but still frustrating.

Even so, all things considered, being on Trisitania was at least a thousand times less horrible than she’d expected it to be, especially considering how the first week had gone. There was still a nagging fear in the back of her mind that at some point, something would snap in Neminatrix’s head, and he’d go back to being the evil bastard that she remembered, but for the first time in her life, Shala felt like maybe there was hope that she could teach her father how to be a real father. She just needed to convince him that she was really his daughter, not his wife.

A chime sounded, and a second later, the door slid open and her father entered the room. That in and of itself was a change. As a child, and even as an adult until recently, there was no way that Neminatrix would have announced himself at all. He would have just barged in without any warning. Before she’d married Belfamor, Shala had never had any idea what it was like to have privacy.

“Ah, there’s my rosebud,” Neminatrix said warmly, a broad smile spreading across his face at the sight of her. He was carrying a package under his arm, and he reached out and handed it to her as he approached. “I brought you something.”

“Another present?” Shala asked, feigning irritation. “Your Majesty, if you keep lavishing gifts on me, there won’t be any room in these quarters for me to walk!”

“Oh, well, if you don’t want it, I can certainly take it away,” he said with a shrug, “but I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. I have a feeling that you’ll really regret it if you don’t accept it.” He made as if to leave, but his eyes were twinkling.

“Oh, give me that,” Shala said, snatching the package from him. Pretending to be annoyed, but with an eager smile on her face, she unwrapped the package and opened it up, and then gasped at what was inside.

“Oh my goodness,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful!” She reached in, pulled it out, and held it up. It was the most magnificent dress she had ever seen. It was red with gold accents, sparkling with jewels that were somehow tasteful, not gaudy. And, perhaps most exciting of all, it had a floor-length skirt and a high neckline.

“Do you like it?” Neminatrix asked with a slightly nervous smile.

“I love it!” Shala exclaimed, her face beaming. “But, why? You’ve refused me modest clothes for weeks now. Why the change of heart all of a sudden?”

“Well, I realized that if I’m going to convince you that I’ve changed, forcing you to wear lingerie all the time might not be the best way to go about it,” he said, his cheeks turning slightly pink.

“Thank you,” she said shyly, and then, impulsively, she rose from her seat and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Neminatrix’s cheeks turned bright red then, and his smile grew even broader.

“Well? Go try it on!” he exclaimed, waving her towards the bathroom. “I want to make sure it fits!” Shala bowed her head, gathered up the dress, and made her way to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she emerged in the dress, a radiant smile on her face. She even twirled like a little girl pretending to be a princess as she crossed the bedroom back to her father. For the first time in her life, she felt like a princess, and even better, like a little girl whose daddy loved her.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said in a shy, excited voice, and there were tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke.

“It certainly is,” Neminatrix replied, and there were tears starting to appear in his eyes as well. “Would you…would you like to have dinner with me tonight? In my quarters?” Shala stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment.

“You mean…leave my quarters?” she said hesitantly. “I thought you didn’t trust your men.”

“I don’t,” Neminatrix replied with a small frown. “At least not all of them. But I think I can muster together an escort of trustworthy guards to take you from here to my quarters. That is, if you would like to come?”

“I would love it,” Shala said, grinning eagerly.

“Excellent!” Neminatrix said brightly, clapping his hands together. “I will be here at 1830 to get you. Make sure you’re ready!” He hesitated, as if he wanted to say or do something else, but then he shook his head slightly and left her quarters.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 25

“You’re kidding me,” Arcten said, his voice flat with disbelief.

“No, I’m not,” Hana replied firmly. “This is what Starfengt exists for. I built the best teams of assassins in the galaxy so I would have the opportunity to hunt Neminatrix down and punish him for what he did to my father. I am NOT going to let this opportunity pass me by just because it might be a little dangerous!” Her eyes were ablaze as she spoke, and she kept creeping closer and closer to Arcten, so by the time she finished, she was standing practically toe-to-toe with him. Arcten stared at her impassively, huge arms folded across his broad chest, and once she finished, he just continued staring silently.

“Xeliana!” Hana barked, not taking her eyes off of Arcten. “Contact the rest of the team. Tell them to break off their exercises and assemble here immediately. We depart for Trisitania in one hour.” Xeliana saluted sharply and ran off, leaving Hana and Arcten to their staring contest.

“What are you going to do, Arcten?” Hana whispered, never taking her eyes off of Arcten’s.

“I will follow you to the deepest depths of Nerzaga,” Arcten whispered back. “You know that.”

“Do I?” Hana replied, and the tone of her voice almost made Arcten’s heart break, although he didn’t show it on his face. “You just punched me so hard it knocked me unconscious.”

“I had to do that,” Arcten said, his face unchanged but his voice cracking slightly. “You were trying to do something that I knew you would regret later. I had to stop you, for your own sake.”

“You knocked me out me for my own sake?” Hana asked, a small smirk appearing on her face.

“Everything I do is for your sake,” Arcten replied, his expression unchanged. Hana’s smirk disappeared, and she sighed deeply.

“I know,” she said, her expression a mix between sorrow and affection. “Believe me, I know.” She turned away and folded her arms across her chest.

“Hana,” said Arcten suddenly, and she turned back to him. “Please reconsider this decision.”

“I can’t, Arcten,” she whispered, tears appearing in her eyes. “You know I can’t.” She shook her head and turned away again. Arcten regarded her in silence for a few moments, and then he stood up straight and saluted.

“Very well, sir!” he barked. “I will prepare the team for departure immediately.” Then he strode out of the holding cell area, leaving Hana alone with dark thoughts.

***

Forty-five minutes later, the team had assembled and was ready for departure. Hana smiled inwardly as she looked over the 11 of them, lined up and waiting to load up into Fluttermask. They really were the best troops in the galaxy. To go from training and thinking they had weeks left to prepare, to being ready to depart and fight in less than hour, was a feat that no regular soldiers could match.

“Listen up!” she barked in her best “commander” voice, striding back and forth in front of her troops. “I know that we weren’t scheduled to depart for Trisitania for a few more weeks, but the Empire’s civil war has forced our hand. We’ve received reports the so-called Emperor, Valador, has dispatched a fleet to invade Trisitania and put an end to our target, the other so-called Emperor, Neminatrix. So if we want to be the ones to kill Neminatrix, then we need to move now!” She fell silent, and fixed each one of the Starfengt members with a piercing stare.

“You might be wondering why we’re even bothering,” she continued in a firm voice. “If Valador is going to invade Trisitania, why don’t we just let Valador take care of Neminatrix?” She fell silent again, and once again made sure to look all 11 assassins in the eye. “Because we are Starfengt. Because we are the best, and we are not going to just let the Empire do our work for us. It is our job to strike fear in the hearts of Fangalin’s enemies, and what better way to do that then by killing an emperor in the middle of a war zone?” Her striding back and forth became more energized now, her speech becoming faster and louder. “We will send a message to Valador, and to all the leaders of all the nations that oppose us! You are not safe from us! We will find you, even in the heart of your most fortified refuge, and we will break you! And when you think you are about to win a great victory, we will slip in under your nose and steal it from you!”

She stopped and fell silent once more, a fire raging in her eyes. “We are the best soldiers that have ever lived,” she said in a quiet, intense voice, “and we will prove it.” She paused again, and then she thrust her right fist into the air. “To victory!” she bellowed.

“To victory!” came the response from 11 men and women, their right fists thrust into the air as well. Hana nodded sharply, and 10 of them rushed up the ramp into the ship. Arcten, however, approached Hana as she was about to follow them.

“Gonna try and change my mind again, Arcten?” Hana asked skeptically.

“Of course not,” Arcten replied. “I know when I’ve lost. I just wanted to tell you something.”

“What?” asked Hana, one eyebrow raised quizzically. Arcten took her by the arms and gazed deep into her eyes.

“I’m proud of you,” he said quietly.

“Proud of me?” Hana said, her puzzlement deepening. “Why?”

“Because nobody thought you would ever come to this point,” he replied. “Nobody believed that you could build the finest team of assassins in the galaxy. Nobody but me. And you proved them all wrong. Starfengt is feared by all of Fangalin’s enemies, and if we pull this off, that reputation will only become greater. We’re on the verge of accomplishing what you set out to do 10 years ago, and I couldn’t be happier to have been by your side every step of the way.”

“Thank you, Arcten,” Hana replied, and her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “That means everything to me. And we WILL pull this off. I promise you. Our victory over the Empire will be a thing that future generations will tell stories about for a thousand years.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 24

“I’m going to kill you, Vertrane!” Hana hissed viciously, lunging at Kyla, but Arcten grabbed her before she could cover the distance.

“Hana!” he barked. “What is wrong with you!”

“This…this bitch has betrayed us!” Hana screamed, flailing uselessly as she tried to escape Arcten’s strong grasp. Kyla backed up a few steps, eyes widening in shock at her CO’s reaction to her news.

“Betrayed us? How?” Arcten yelled, his voice showing the strain of holding Hana in check. “By following the rules? By showing greater loyalty to the Supreme Commander and to Fangalin than to you?” Hana howled wordlessly, and managed to slam her knee into Arcten’s crotch. His only reaction was a slight grunt and a widening of his eyes, but it did distract him enough that Hana was able to slip out of his grasp. She flung herself on Kyla, a whirlwind of punches and kicks that Kyla was just barely able to block. After a few seconds of this, Arcten had recovered enough to intervene. He grabbed Hana by the shoulder, spun her around, and punched her hard, right in her shocked face, knocking her unconscious. Then he took a deep breath and sat down heavily on the floor next to her.

“Thanks,” Kyla said, putting one hand on her chest and breathing heavily.

“Don’t mention it,” Arcten said darkly. “Ever.” He glanced down at Hana’s prone body and shook his head. “She’s going to be so pissed at me when she comes to.”

“I’m sorry,” Kyla said, but she didn’t sound like she meant it.

“You don’t need to be,” Arcten said dismissively. “I did what I had to do.” He was silent for a moment, staring at the floor, and then he glanced up at Kyla. “You handled yourself well. Hana’s extremely skilled, but she wasn’t able to land a blow on you.”

“A smuggler needs to know how to protect herself,” Kyla said with a shrug. There was silence for a few more moments, and then Kyla spoke up again. “What do you think she’ll do when she comes to?” she asked.

“She’ll likely try to attack you again,” Arcten admitted. “I should probably put her in a holding cell until she calms down.” He glanced at Kyla again. “You should probably make yourself scarce for awhile.”

“Good advice,” Kyla grunted. She headed for the door, but then she turned and looked back at Arcten again. “Do you…do you think I did the right thing?”

Arcten gazed at her silently for several moments, his face expressionless, and then, slowly, he nodded. “Dropping a Nexus bomb on the Imperial Palace would have turned the entire galaxy against us. Hana should never have even considered stealing one.” He looked away from Kyla and back to Hana. “You did what I should have done. You’ve got bigger balls than I do, Vertrane.”

Kyla snorted, shook her head, and walked out of the shooting range.

***

Arcten’s prediction had been right on the money. About half an hour after he deposited Hana on a bed in a small holding cell several levels beneath the Amarise House, she woke up, and almost immediately began screaming obscenities and throwing herself at the door of the cell. After several minutes of this, Arcten, who was standing outside with his arms folded, shared a worried frown with Lt. Cmdr. Xeliana Merane, Starfengt‘s number three, who was a tall, striking woman with dark skin, short, curly dark hair, and piercing blue eyes.

“What are we going to do?” Xeliana whispered. Normally a lively, exuberant woman, she was currently quite subdued, her mouth pressed into a thin frown and her eyes crinkled with worry.

“We wait until she calms down, and then we talk to her,” Arcten replied in his calm, taciturn manner. Despite his demeanor, though, he was desperately concerned about Hana. He’d known her for ten years, ever since she founded Starfengt, and he had never seen her like this. He worried that the strain of the past few weeks had finally broken her.

For a quarter of an hour, Arcten and Xeliana watched the holding cell door, listening to Hana’s screams in silence. They were the only two members of Starfengt who knew what was going on. The rest of the unit was taking part in a training exercise at a military base a few miles away. Xeliana had been in charge of that exercise, but Arcten had called her back to the Amarise House to help deal with Hana. Arcten was hopeful that they’d be able to calm Hana down before the rest of the unit returned. It wouldn’t do for them to see their commanding officer in such a state. Arcten didn’t even want to see her in this state.

Finally, the sounds coming from inside the holding cell faded. Arcten and Xeliana glanced at each other, worry and hope mingling in their expressions. Then a voice called out from the cell. “Arcten? I know you’re out there,” Hana said, her voice hoarse from screaming.

“I’m here, Captain,” Arcten said cautiously.

“Can I come out now?” Hana asked, sounding pitiful. Arcten glanced at Xeliana again, and motioned silently to the side of the door. Xeliana nodded, and stood next to the door, so that she’d be behind Hana once she came out.

“As long as you promise not to attack me,” Arcten replied.

“I promise,” Hana said in a very small voice. Arcten nodded at Xeliana, and then pressed the button to release the door. It slid open, and Arcten tensed, expecting Hana to leap at him, but instead she just stumbled forward. She blinked unsteadily a few times, straightened up, and then shook her head. “You can stop hiding Xeliana. I know you’re there, and I’m not going to try anything anyway.”

“Sorry, sir,” Xeliana said, stepping forward and looking half-sheepish, half-defiant.

“I’m the one who should be apologizing,” Hana said ruefully. “I lost control, and I should have never let things get to this point. Vertrane was right. It was a mistake to appropriate that Nexus bomb.”

“I’m glad to hear it, sir,” Arcten said carefully. “Would you like me to start making plans for how to proceed if Valador’s forces fail to take the capital?” Hana gave him a strange look.

“Of course not,” she said stiffly. “We are proceeding with the mission as planned.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 23

Hana Lodimeur was perfectly still, her body like a compressed spring. She was crouched down behind a barrier, a sniper rifle cradled tightly in her arms. Holding her breath, she carefully centered the scope on her target, and then, ever so gently, she pulled the trigger. A blast of energy silently erupted out of the barrel of her rifle and pierced the target, 2 inches to the left of where she’d been aiming. Snarling, she stood up and slammed her fist into a nearby wall, while keeping a tight grip on the sniper rifle. The rifle was a Fanimar Industries WN7-329 Injected Fusion Heavy Sniper Rifle, one of only ten in existence, and possibly the most expensive piece of equipment that Starfengt possessed.

“What are you so mad about?” Arcten Sidel asked calmly. He was leaning against a nearby wall, arms folded, watching Hana practice. “That was your best shot yet!”

“It still isn’t good enough!” Hana growled. “I’ve seen you nail the bullseye from twice this distance! I need to get better if I’m going to be the one to take out Neminatrix, and I’m running out of time!”

“I still don’t understand why it’s so essential that you be the one to kill Neminatrix,” Arcten said with a slight frown. “No matter who kills him, at the end of the day, he’ll be dead and your father will be avenged.”

“It’s essential because it was MY father who was murdered!” Hana roared. “It’s essential because this is what I have devoted my life to for the past ten years! If, after all the work I’ve put in, all the blood, sweat, and tears that I’ve shed, I’m not the one to pull the trigger, then what in Nerzaga have I been doing with my life!”

“You’ve been building the best team of operatives that this galaxy has ever seen,” Arcten said quietly. “I hardly think that qualifies as wasting your life.” Hana scowled at him, and opened her mouth to yell some more, but Arcten cut her off. “You need something to live for once Neminatrix is dead, even if you do succeed in killing him. You can’t keep clinging to this vendetta once it’s over. What will fill the void for you, Hana Lodimeur? Because there will be a void, even if you pull the trigger.” Hana’s scowl deepened, and she took a deep breath, but then she let it out in a heavy sigh.

“Why do you have to be so damn wise?” she asked in a sour voice, but her eyes twinkled as she spoke.

“It comes with the years,” Arcten replied solemnly, but his eyes were twinkling, too. “You’ll be wise someday, too, once you’re old like me.”

“Oh, knock it off,” Hana said, laughing and punching Arcten playfully in the shoulder. “I don’t want to hear any more talk about how old you are. That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir, Captain Lodimeur, sir!” Arcten shouted, standing up straight and saluting sarcastically. Hana opened her mouth to tease him some more, but she shut it with a frown as the door of the shooting range slid open and Kyla Vertrane raced in, breathing heavily as if she’d been running.

“Captain Lodimeur!” she yelled, skidding to a halt and saluting. “I have urgent news for you!”

“Yeah? Well, spit it out, Vertrane!”

“Intelligence reports that a huge fleet just left Hibellia,” Kyla said breathlessly. “They’re headed for Trisitania! Command thinks that Valador is getting ready to end the civil war and crush Neminatrix in one fell swoop. That means-“

“That means, if I’m going to kill Neminatrix, we need to go now,” Hana interrupted with a hard voice.

“Are you crazy?” Arcten growled. “You’re going to take the team into the middle of a war zone? Without any preparation? We’ve spent a month training for an assassination in a secure location. We’re not prepared to do this in the middle of a battle!”

“We’ll be fine,” Hana snapped. “Both sides will be focused on each other. They won’t even notice us. Security will be a mess, so this will be even easier than infiltrating the Imperial Palace. We’ll use this to our advantage.”

“You’re not thinking straight,” Arcten snapped back. “You’re so obsessed with your vendetta that you’ve lost all perspective. If Valador’s forces take Trisitania, they’ll almost certainly kill or capture Neminatrix. I know you think that you need to kill Neminatrix, but if Valador wins this battle, your father will be avenged. And if Valador loses, then we can move in and complete our mission. But if we try to do this now, a lot of good men and women are going to be killed. Are the lives of your troops really a reasonable price to pay to avenge your father?”

“You worry too much,” Hana said with a sneer. “Starfengt has the best troops in the galaxy. Nothing the Empire can throw our way will be a match for us. Besides, like I said, neither side will even notice us. They’ll be too busy killing each other.”

“This is ridiculous,” Arcten scowled. “You do realize there’s only 12 of us, right? Neminatrix and Valador will have tens of thousands of troops apiece! And, need I remind you that both sides want us dead?”

“Enough!” Hana barked. “I am in command of Starfengt, and I say we are departing for Trisitania as soon as possible. Besides, we still have our secret weapon. If I decide that things look too hot, I’ll just drop the Nexus bomb on the Imperial Palace and we’ll head home.”

“Um, about that, sir?” Kyla interjected.

“What!” Hana bellowed.

“Well, I talked to the Supreme Commander about your secret weapon,” Kyla said, looking nervous yet defiant.

“You what!?” Hana hissed through clenched teeth.

“He told me to tell you that you’re too valuable to be locked away,” Kyla went on, pretending she hadn’t heard Hana, “but that under no circumstances will you be allowed to use a Nexus bomb on this mission, and that you’re lucky he’s not going to rescind his authorization for the mission.”
Kyla clamped her mouth shut so quickly that her teeth clicked, and for several minutes, the only sound was Hana’s tense breathing as she stared at Kyla with seething hatred.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 22

“What do you mean, ‘it never should have happened’?” Kryla asked carefully. “I read the reports about Phumelenin. Are you saying that something was falsified?”

“No, of course not!” Alaia replied quickly, shocked. “I just meant, I was never supposed to be in the Captain’s chair on Majestic Falcon. I had no idea what I was doing. I just happened to be the most senior officer left alive. I took command because I had to, and I just acted on instinct. I didn’t have any grand scheme. I just did stuff and it happened to work.”

Kryla eyed Alaia thoughtfully for a moment, and then, much to Alaia’s surprise, she started chuckling. “Commander Farlen,” she said, her tone a mixture of amusement and sternness, “do you think it’s different for any of us?”

“Well, I…,” Alaia began uncertainly. “When you’re in the Captain’s chair, sir, you just have such poise, such an air of command. Surely you know exactly what you’re doing at all times.” Kryla just started laughing even harder at this.

“I sure do have you fooled, don’t I?” she said with a smirk, and then laughed even harder at the bemused look on Alaia’s face. “I apologize, Commander,” she said once her mirth died down. “I don’t mean to make fun of you. I just find it surprising that you’ve advanced as far as you have without learning the ‘secret of command’.”

“The ‘secret of command’?” Alaia said, her puzzlement deepening. “What’s that?”

Kryla leaned forward and whispered, “None of us know what in Nerzaga we’re doing.” She leaned back, her expression perfectly serious for a moment, and then a wide grin split her face in two. “It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. You think I know exactly what I’m doing every moment I sit in that chair? You think every decision I make is the absolute best decision I could have made at that moment? Every commander in this fleet, and in every other fleet in the galaxy, is just acting on instinct. Instinct is the best weapon we have, Alaia! And from the results you got at Phumelenin, I think your instincts are pretty damn good.”

“It just…it just seems like there should be more,” muttered Alaia.

“Maybe it does,” Kryla said, her smile growing warmer. “Heck, maybe there are people who have such command of the battlefield that they can just see every move they need to make at every moment. But if there are, I’ve never met any. I’m certainly not one.”

“But you plan your moves several steps in advance, don’t you?” Alaia asked, her brow furrowed.

“I try to,” Kryla said with a shrug. “You need to try and anticipate what your enemy will do, of course. But it just happens. You don’t think to yourself, ‘oh, well, they’re going to do this, so I’m going to do this’. You just do it.”

“That…does basically sound like what I did at Phumelenin,” Alaia admitted.

“You see?” Kryla said with a smile. “You already know how to command. You just need to work on your confidence.” She leaned forward and fixed Alaia with an intense gaze. “And you don’t need to be afraid of me. Don’t worry about what happens during battle drills. Failing during a battle drill is meaningless. Take any mistakes you make and learn from them. That’s what they’re for.”

“I’ll try to do better, Admiral,” Alaia said, bashful.

“Don’t just try, Commander,” Kryla said, her voice and expression growing hard. “Do better.”

“Yes, sir!” Alaia replied, blushing and sitting up straighter. “I will, sir!” Kryla eyed her for a moment, and then her expression softened again.

“I know you will,” Kryla said in an encouraging voice. “Dismissed, Commander.” Alaia nodded, and then stood up, saluted sharply, and left Kryla’s office.

Well, thought Kryla in satisfaction, that went better than I expected. Of course, there was no guarantee that Kryla’s little pep talk would actually change anything. Maybe Alaia was right, and her performance at Phumelenin had been an accident. Maybe next time she was in command, she would freeze up and get everyone under her command killed. But there was no sense in dwelling on such possibilities. Alaia Farlen had the potential to be a great officer. All she needed was some confidence.

An alert sounded, telling Kryla that someone was trying to contact her, and she pressed the button to answer the call. “Yes?”

“Admiral Zomulin, General Hemetal has arrived,” said the voice of one of her aides.

“Excellent,” Kryla replied. “Show him into my office.” A few minutes later, the aide arrived, followed by Lord Hemetal and two of his aides.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Kryla said as she stood up and saluted.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor said, returning her salute. “How are your preparations going?”

“Everything is progressing as smoothly as possible, General,” Kryla replied, and they both sat down on opposite sides of her desk.

“Good,” Belfamor said, nodding sharply, “because in two days, the fleet departs for Trisitania.”

“That soon?” Kryla asked, her eyes widening. “I thought I’d have at least two more weeks to prepare! I haven’t fully integrated my units yet. Just this morning, you sent me a note that you’re adding 15 more ships to my fleet! They haven’t even arrived yet, and you’re saying that we’re leaving in two days?”

“Those 15 ships will be here tomorrow,” Belfamor said calmly. “You will have 24 hours to get them situated, and then the operation begins.”

“Why the rush?” exclaimed Kryla, exasperated. “Did the Emperor figure out what you’re planning?”

“Yes, but that’s not why I moved up the timetable,” Belfamor said, a slight frown appearing on his face. “I’ve looked over your reports. You’re as ready as you need to be, considering the resistance we’ll face on Trisitania.” He handed a tablet to Kryla, who perused its contents quickly, and then let out a low whistle.

“Are you sure this is accurate?” she asked, amazed.

“As sure as it is possible to be,” Belfamor replied. “75 percent of the forces defending Trisitania have been reassigned to other sectors. The capital is virtually defenseless.”

“We will be too, until this battle is over,” Kryla said in a warning tone, but Belfamor waved a hand dismissively.

“We’ll crush Neminatrix’s forces, kill or capture him, and then the rest of his troops will swear allegiance to Valador. What else can they do? There won’t be enough of them left to put up an effective resistance.”

“That’s a pretty big assumption,” Kryla said skeptically.

“That’s not your concern,” Belfamor replied harshly. “Your job is to capture Trisitania. Let me worry about the bigger picture.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 21

Admiral Kryla Zomulin sighed as she tossed a tablet on her desk, and then gazed around at her surroundings. She was sitting in her quarters onboard Decimator, the flagship of the fleet that Lord Hemetal was amassing to invade Trisitania. Decimator had been Kryla’s first command, and she’d always regretted being promoted out of the Captain’s chair. So one of her requests when she’d agreed to join Lord Hemetal’s potentially treasonous crusade had been that she would be reinstated as captain of Decimator, in addition to being in command of the fleet. Lord Hemetal had been happy to oblige. Decimator was no longer the newest ship in the fleet, but it was still one of the fastest and most powerful ships in the Empire. Kryla had served on many ships over the past 13 years, but Decimator would always hold a special place in her heart.

She shook her head and turned her attention back to the report she’d been sighing about. 15 more ships had been added to her fleet. That brought the total to 100, and also meant that she had more than 100,000 ground troops. That was more than half the total strength of the Imperial Fleet. Kryla knew that Trisitania would be a tough nut to crack, but Lord Hemetal was taking a huge risk by stripping the Empire’s defenses so bare. It wouldn’t be all that helpful for the Emperor to control the capital if Fangalin or Midigal seized a big chunk of territory in the meantime. But, that was Lord Hemetal’s problem, not hers. The important thing for her was that she’d gotten her ship back, and if this mission was her last, then at least she would die where she belonged.

She frowned down at the tablet, and then she shook her head, stood up and strode out of her quarters. It was time to run battle drills again. Not that her presence was required for battle drills, but she liked to keep up with what her XO was doing. Her XO was good, but she was still pretty green, and Kryla wanted to make sure that she was there to correct any mistakes. Of course, after 15 years of war, nobody could rise to the rank of Commander and still be truly green. But her XO had either been really lucky or really clever, and had managed to avoid most of the battles that she should have taken part in over the course of her 10 year career.

“Admiral on the bridge!” announced an ensign as Kryla stepped through the door and past the officers sitting in the tactical section.

“At ease, everyone,” Kryla said firmly as people began to stiffen and stand up in response to her presence. “No need to get up, Commander Farlen,” she said, holding out a hand to forestall her XO, who was just rising up out of the Captain’s chair so that she could sit down. “I’m only here as an observer.” Farlen nodded uncertainly and slowly lowered herself back into the chair.

“Helm, change course to heading 4732.9,” Farlen ordered, studiously ignoring Kryla’s presence. Kryla, on the other hand, studied Commander Farlen carefully. Alaia Farlen, graduated 3rd in her class from the Imperial Military Academy in 2159, six years after the war started. Served under Emperor Neminatrix for three years, and then was part of a sizable fleet that defected to Emperor Valador seven years ago. Since then, she had served with distinction but had so far failed to exhibit the exceptionality expected of those who graduated from IMA with high honors. Somehow, she had managed to avoid most of the major battles that Valador’s forces had taken part in, with the exception of one.

Two years ago, Valador’s forces had struck at Phumelenin, a province held by Fangalin, far beyond Valador’s borders. The objective had not been to seize the planet, but rather to destroy a munitions plant located there. Unfortunately, Valador’s intelligence about the forces stationed at Phumelenin had been faulty, and there were nearly three times more ships in orbit than had been expected. The commander of the mission, Captain Lodech Nermaia, had made the decision to go ahead with the operation, but was killed almost immediately after the battle began. Several other officers fell soon after, and then-Lt. Commander Alaia Farlen had been the highest ranking officer on the lead ship, an Imperial cruiser called Majestic Falcon. She had taken command of Majestic Falcon, and the operation, and she managed to destroy the munitions plant and escape with a minimum of casualties. It had been a brilliant display of cunning and courage, and it had led Kryla to request Alaia as her XO, hoping that it hadn’t been just a one-time thing.

“Target coming into range, sir,” announced the tactical officer.

“Open fire,” Alaia ordered. There was a moment of silence as the computer simulation calculated the effects of Decimator‘s actions.

“No good, sir,” said the tactical officer. “We missed them.”

“Target is dropping into subspace!” announced the sensor officer next.

“Damn it!” snarled Alaia, pounding her fist on the arm of the Captain’s chair.

“Careful, Commander,” Kryla said quietly, standing just to Alaia’s left. “That’s my chair you’re abusing.”

“Y-yes, Admiral,” Alaia said nervously, her fury evaporating immediately. “S-sorry, Admiral.” Kryla watched her thoughtfully for a moment.

“Come with me for a moment, Commander,” she said calmly.

“Y-yes, sir,” Alaia replied, practically leaping out of the Captain’s chair.

“Commander Verallen, you’re in charge,” Kryla announced as she and Alaia left the bridge. They walked a short way down the corridor, and came to Kryla’s office. Once they entered, Kryla sat down behind her desk and gestured for Alaia to sit across from her.

“Talk to me, Commander,” Kryla said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, sir,” Alaia replied, avoiding Kryla’s eyes.

“Yes, you do,” Kryla said firmly. “You’re making foolish mistakes, losing your temper, and you seem to think that I’m a venomous calrach who’s going to crush your neck if you make one false move.” Alaia eyed Kryla for a moment, and then she let out a deep sigh.

“Everyone expects me to be a genius, to repeat what I did at Phumelenin,” she replied wearily, “but it’s just not going to happen.”

“Why?” Kryla asked quietly.

“Because Phumelenin was an accident,” Alaia said defiantly, meeting Kryla’s eyes now. “It never should have happened.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 20

General Lord Belfamor Hemetal bowed low to the ground as he approached the Imperial Throne. It wasn’t the real Throne, of course. It was just a chair that Valador Mifalis had found in the Revellian governor’s mansion. It was a very nice chair, yet still just a chair. But if Belfamor had his way, the Emperor would soon be sitting in the real Imperial Throne, and this pseudo-Throne could go back to whatever closet Valador had pulled it out of.

“Your Majesty,” Belfamor said as he bowed. “What can I do for you?”

“Rise, Lord Hemetal,” the Emperor intoned. “I require a status report on your latest operation.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said smoothly as he straightened, hiding the sudden apprehension he felt. As far as the Emperor knew, his latest operation was an invasion of Grafllionis, a province controlled by Neminatrix on the edge of Valador’s territory. In reality, his latest operation was a full-scale invasion of Trisitania that had not been authorized either by the Emperor or by Emelien Fanas, Belfamor’s direct superior.

“I have assigned 15 ships under the command of Admiral Kryla Zomulin to the invasion of Grafllionis,” Belfamor continued. “In addition, there are 15,000 IA troops assigned to the operation as ground forces.”

“Seems like a solid allocation,” the Emperor replied musingly. “Not bad, General.” He perused something on a tablet for a few moments while Belfamor watched him with a carefully neutral expression. “Two battleships, four cruisers, and nine destroyers, correct?”

“That is correct, Your Majesty,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly

“Yes, that will do nicely for this operation,” the Emperor said calmly. Then, continuing on in that same calm voice, he said, “So why am I hearing that you have assembled 85 ships and nearly 100,000 troops near Epikalia?”

Belfamor froze. How could Valador have learned of his preparations? He’d been so quiet, so careful. Maybe Valador was just guessing. Maybe he could still bluff his way out of this. So he said, in a very nonchalant voice, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Your Majesty.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” the Emperor replied with an amused smirk. “There’s no need to act all coy about this, Lord Hemetal. I know exactly what you’re doing. You’re going ahead with your plan to assault Trisitania even though General Fanas denied you permission.”

“That’s absurd, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said calmly, although inwardly he was sweating bullets. “I would never so flagrantly disobey orders.”

“Of course you would,” the Emperor said, rolling his eyes. “I would do the same thing in your position. Here’s the thing. Officially, I condemn your actions and warn you of grave consequences if you continue on your current path, yada yada yada. But unofficially? I say, go for it.”

“I don’t understand,” Belfamor said with a puzzled look.

“Here’s the thing, Belfamor,” the Emperor said, all pretense at formality dropped. “I need you, desperately. Well, technically, I need your money, although your brain is useful too. Without the backing of House Hemetal, your father-in-law probably would have ground me to dust five years ago. So it’s in my best interests to keep you happy. Because if I court-martialed you and locked you up, you could just transfer the House headship to your son and send him off to Neminatrix, which is where, I gather, he would prefer to be anyway. And even if I could force you to give me access to your sizable bank accounts, that’s not my style anyway. I’d rather you help me because you want to.”

“I see,” said Belfamor with a frown. “What happens if I’m wrong, and the invasion is crushed?”

“Ah, that’s best part,” the Emperor replied with a twisted grin. “If you lose, I’m finished. Which means I won’t need your money anymore, which means that I’ll either be satisfied at your death in battle, or I get the enjoyment of having you court-martialed and executed.”

“And what happens if I win?” Belfamor asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Then you will be a hero, Lord Hemetal,” the Emperor replied, his grin widening. “Off the record, of course. Officially, I’ll have you court-martialed either way. But,” he added with a wink, “I bet you’ll beat the court martial if you come back victorious.”

Belfamor considered all of this for a moment before he responded. Finally he looked up at the Emperor with a grim frown, although there was a slight twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “It would have been nice to know this in the first place,” he said.

“If I had authorized this invasion, Emelien would have never let me hear the end of it,” the Emperor said wryly. “I’m not supposed to give you preferential treatment, after all.”

“At least one of us will be happy once this is over with,” Belfamor said, a small, sardonic smile appearing on his face.

“I don’t understand why you’re so convinced that Emelien hates you,” the Emperor said, rolling his eyes again.

“Do we really need to talk about this right now?” Belfamor snapped, his smile quickly turning to a scowl.

“We need to talk about it sometime,” the Emperor said firmly. “The One knows that I’m not going to be around too much longer. The last thing I want is for you and Emelien to start a new civil war after I’m dead.”

“Once we get the capital back, a new Senate will finally be elected, and whoever the Senate chooses to replace you, I will be loyal to them,” Belfamor replied just as firmly.

“Even if the Senate chooses Emelien Fanas?” the Emperor asked, quirking one eyebrow.

“If the Senate elects Emelien Fanas to be the next Emperor, then I will have serious doubts about the intelligence of the citizens of the Empire,” Belfamor said wryly, “but yes, I will pledge my loyalty to him.”

“I certainly hope so,” the Emperor said doubtfully, “because one way or another, this civil war will be over soon, thanks to you. And it would be a terrible black mark on your legacy if you started another one in a few years.”

“That will not happen,” Belfamor said firmly. “I promise.”

To be continued…