The Darkest Heart, Part 13

Most of the speeches were the typical political gibberish, just a bunch of bland nonsense about how great the Republic was and how it was their destiny to dominate the galaxy and be the most prosperous civilization the universe had ever seen, and so on and so forth. Chieria listened with one ear open, if that. She’d heard plenty of political speeches before, even in Fangalin, and all politicians basically said the same things in public. It was what they said in private that mattered.

Chieria just barely managed to stifle a yawn as President Trilis finished his speech and Eregon Fadlamis came to the podium. Fadlamis was hardly a typical politician. After all, it took a lot of guts to found a breakaway republic, even in the midst of a civil war. Even so, Chieria wasn’t expecting Fadlamis’s speech to be anything other than a rote repetition of the glories of the Republic, like the ones that had preceded it. And for a few minutes, she was right. But then she heard her name, and suddenly she was paying careful attention.

“Chieria Peltoren is a true hero,” Fadlamis was saying. “A shining example of the type of virtues that we desire to promote in our great Republic. We need people like her if we are going to thrive, or even survive, and she has proven her worth as a citizen of the Republic. Therefore, it is my very great honor to announce that Chieria Peltoren is being promoted to Admiral of the Fleet, and given command of the entire Republican Navy.”

There was a stunned silence for a moment at this announcement, and then thunderous applause broke out. One by one, the politicians and dignitaries gathered in the room got to their feet, until everyone except for Chieria was standing and applauding. Chieria could feel her cheeks turning red, and she knew her eyes were as wide as dinner plates. The applause seemed to go on and on, and she gradually realized that the President was beckoning her up to the stage. She rose, mechanically, and seemed to float her way towards the stage and behind the podium.

For a moment, she just stood there, stunned, while she stared at all the men and women standing and clapping and cheering in front of her. She had never expected anything like this when she accepted the invitation to come to this state dinner. She had never expected anything like this at all! Her mind was completely frozen, a blank slate. But she knew she needed to saying something once the applause died down, so she racked her brains for something appropriate to say.

“Wow,” she finally said, as the applause faded and everyone began to sit back down. “I mean, that’s really all I can say.” There was a smattering of polite laughter at this feeble attempt at a joke. Or maybe they were all just sick of speeches, and were hoping she really wasn’t going to say anything more. “I honestly had no idea this was going to happen, so I have no prepared remarks to give. I hope you can all bear with me, and I also hope I don’t say anything terribly stupid.” This time the laughter was a little louder and more sincere.

“This really is a tremendous honor,” she continued. “For me to come here as a defector from Fangalin and be given this great responsibility, it’s…well, it’s overwhelming, really. All I can say is, thank you all for this opportunity, and I will do my very best to live up to the expectations you have for me.” She bowed to acknowledge the renewed round of applause that met this statement, and then she stepped away from the podium and returned to her seat. She thought maybe she hadn’t screwed up that impromptu little speech too badly, but she was honestly too stunned to think clearly at the moment anyway.

Admiral of the Fleet. The highest rank in the Republican Navy, aside from the President himself, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Republic’s military. She really was honored that they’d chosen her for this post, but she couldn’t help but think it was going to cause problems too. How many qualified officers had they passed over who had been part of the Republic from the very beginning? How many of them were going to be happy taking orders from a defector who’d only been a citizen of the Republic for a little less than two years? And did this mean she was no longer going to be in command of Heart of the Galaxy? That was a hard thought. Of course, Galaxy belonged to the Republican Navy now, and they could put whoever they wanted in command of the ship, but she couldn’t help but think of it as her ship. She’d been Galaxy‘s captain from the moment its basebeam had been laid in the massive shipyards orbiting Hechelen. If she had to give it up, it would be like losing a member of her family.

But, what was done, was done. She certainly wasn’t going to go to the President of the Republic and say, “Actually, thanks, but no thanks.” One didn’t turn down an honor as great as this, no matter how many difficulties came with it. She would take the job, and she would enjoy the job, and she would do it to the best of her ability.

She still felt like she was in a daze as she and her officers left the Presidential Palace and made their way to the shuttle that would take them back to Heart of the Galaxy. Captain Lomor was grinning like an idiot, and had already congratulated her at least a dozen times, but Chieria was still too overwhelmed to do anything more than say “thanks” and smile back. It wasn’t until she was back on board Galaxy and in her quarters that it really started to sink in. She was the Admiral of the Fleet, the leader of the entire Republican Navy. A slow grin crept across her face as she looked at her reflection in the mirror. This is going to be fun, she thought.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 12

Chieria Peltoren didn’t easily get nervous. She’d commanded fleets of battleships in numerous life-or-death battles, in situations where it seemed like her forces were on the brink of disaster, only to rally and claim victory over her enemies. She’d rebelled against an usurping commander and taken his best fleet, his best army, and his best special forces unit with her. She could do things like that without breaking a sweat. But attending a formal state dinner in the Presidential Palace on Hadramoris? She was surprised that her hands weren’t sweaty and shaking, she was so nervous.

She was walking down a hallway in the Presidential Palace, all decked out in her best dress uniform, flanked by her senior officers from Heart of the Galaxy, wishing she was leading a suicide mission into the heart of Imperial territory instead. She knew why she was in this situation, but she didn’t have to like it. President Trilis was in the middle of a reelection campaign, and the successful test of a second Starfortress was a huge victory, not just militarily but also politically. Hadramoris was a young nation, only about twenty years old, and launching its own Starfortress was proof that the Republic had the technological and logistical chops to stick around for the long haul. That would go over well with the Republic’s voters, who, considering the history of previous republics that had tried to carve territory out of the Empire, had to be wondering if the Republic of Hadramoris would still be around in twenty more years.

And that was why Admiral Chieria Peltoren was there, because the Republic wouldn’t have any Starfortresses at all if it wasn’t for her. Her defection had also been a massive political victory for Badadum Trilis, not that he’d had anything to do with it. But people had a tendency to lay the blame or credit for anything that happened at the feet of their leaders. So Admiral Peltoren got to be paraded in front of them like a trophy.

But that wasn’t even what was bothering her. Peltoren understood the need for politics, and she appreciated the Republic’s system of directly electing all of its leaders, not just some of them, like in the Empire, or none of them, like in Fangalin. No, what really bothered her was the probability of her messing something up. But, there was nothing she could do about it now. She just needed to bite the bullet and do the best job she could.

She took a deep breath, glanced at the officers flanking her, and then pushed open the door leading into the Grand Ballroom of the Presidential Palace. As she entered, the doorman announced her, and she was temporarily blinded by the glare of a hundred cameras flashing in her face. Plastering a smile on her face that she didn’t remotely feel, she waved to the cameras, and made her way across the ballroom to where President Trilis was standing.

The broad smile on the President’s face grew even broader as he shook her hand and welcomed her to the party. Next, he introduced her to Eregon Fadlamis. Fadlamis had been the first President of the Republic, and although he was no longer President, he still maintained a great deal of power as one of Trilis’s chief advisors. He was in his early 60s, tall and thin, with a shock of white hair combed straight back, a thin, narrow, clean-shaven face, and steely hazel eyes. He had the smooth cheeks of someone who rarely smiled, which made him an interesting contrast with his successor, who was rarely seen without a smile on his face.

“It’s an honor to finally meet you, Admiral,” Fadlamis said in a deep, booming voice that seemed at odds with the slender body it came from. “The President has told me so much about your exploits.”

“The honor is all mine, sir,” Peltoren said truthfully. “It’s not every day that one gets to meet a living legend.”

“The President didn’t tell me you were a flatterer,” Fadlamis said, a tiny smile quirking his lips.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to offend. I…I just…,” Peltoren stammered, but Fadlamis cut her off.

“No worries,” he said, holding up a hand. “I just meant that it’s a little too soon to be declaring me a legend. Time will tell how many of my accomplishments stand the test of time.”

“Of…of course, sir. I’m sorry, sir,” Peltoren began babbling, and then she clamped her mouth shut tightly before she said anything else stupid.

“And this,” Trilis continued, “is the Chancellor of the Senate, Moreda Futalin.” Futalin was a short, compact man, with black hair that was parted in the middle and came straight down to his chin, a short goatee, and brown eyes. He gave Peltoren a slight nod and a quick handshake, and then ignored her, which suited her just fine after she had just finished making a fool of herself in front of the founder of the Republic.

She was quickly introduced to a few more important dignitaries, and then she was thankfully allowed to retreat to her table. She refused to look at her XO, Captain Emain Lomor, as she sat. She suspected her face was beet red, but she was attempting to retain as much of her dignity as she could muster.

A few more guests entered the ballroom and were introduced to the President and his associates, and then it was time to eat. The one bright spot of these dreaded occasions was that the food was always excellent. Of course, it was hard to fully enjoy a feast when you were worried about slopping food all over your dress uniform, but Peltoren did the best she could. Once the food was done, then it was time for speeches, which weren’t so bad, as long as she was allowed to just listen and not expected to contribute. She could inspire troops with the best of them as long as she was on the bridge of a starship, but put her behind a podium in front of a bunch of politicians, and she became a blabbering idiot.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 11

Emelien Fanas tossed the tablet he’d been looking at onto his desk with a sigh and looked up at the man waiting expectantly in front of him. “We’re going to have to do something about this, you know,” he said wearily.

“The Imperial Fleet stands ready to go wherever the Emperor commands, sir,” the man replied crisply. His name was Admiral Vargen Inkalaow, and he was the Commanding Admiral of the Imperial Fleet. He was very tall, and very skinny, with wispy white hair, no facial hair, and a weak chin. He looked like someone who was more at home behind a desk than on the bridge of a starship, but he’d proven his mettle in battle more times than Fanas could count.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Fanas said with a grimace, “because whatever is coming might the biggest test the Fleet has faced since the war began.” He glanced down at the tablet laying on his desk, and his grimace deepened. Starfortresses. Not just one of them, but two. Somehow, the Republic of Hadramoris had not only been able to steal Fangalin’s new flagship, but in just two years, they’d been able to copy it. If Fanas had been able to evaluate the concept of a Starfortress objectively, he might have been excited at the prospect of such a powerful new weapon. But not when two of them were in the hands of his enemies, and he didn’t have any.

Fanas opened his mouth to say more, but closed it with a frown when his communicator beeped. Pressing a button, he heard his aide in the outer office say, “General, I’ve got an urgent message coming in from Admiral Zomulin.”

“Tell her to hold for a moment, Major,” Fanas replied. “I’m in a meeting with Admiral Inkalaow at the moment.”

“Yes, sir,” the major replied.

“Keep me posted on the situation, Admiral,” Fanas said as soon as the communicator shut off. “We’re going to have to do something about those Starfortresses sooner or later.”

“As soon as we know more, you’ll be the first to know, sir,” Inkalaow said with a salute. Fanas dismissed Inkalaow with a nod, and as soon as he was gone, he pressed his communicator again.

“Okay, Major,” he said, “Put Admiral Zomulin through.” There was a short pause, and then a holographic image of Kryla Zomulin’s head appeared in the space above Fanas’s desk. “Admiral Zomulin! What can I do for you?” His voice was cool but polite. He had no beef with Kryla Zomulin in particular, but he knew that she was allied with Lord Hemetal, who had an irrational hatred of him and had tried many times over the past few years to dislodge him from his position as SCIAF.

“Well, General, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin,” Kryla began, sounding uncharacteristically hesitant. “It has to do with a mutual friend of ours. Lord Hemetal.”

“And why, exactly, do you think I would have any interest in discussing Lord Hemetal, Admiral?” Fanas replied, his tone growing cooler.

“It’s no secret, General, that there is no love lost between the two of you,” Kryla said with a wry look. “And you know as well that I have traditionally been an ally of Lord Hemetal’s.”

“Yes, yes,” Fanas said impatiently. “What is your point, Admiral?”

“First of all, I need to ask you something, sir,” Kryla replied. Fanas waved a hand and rolled his eyes, indicating that Kryla was to proceed. “Am I correct in believing that the animosity Lord Hemetal holds for you is largely unreciprocated?”

“More or less,” Fanas replied drily. “I can’t stand the man, but only because he’s spent years trying to undermine me and using his vast wealth to go behind my back and get the Emperor to back his pet projects. Other than that, he’s a great guy!”

“Sarcasm aside, sir, would you say that if you knew of a way to convince him not to hate you, you’d take it?” Kryla asked.

“Of course!” Fanas said, throwing his hands up in the air. “But I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, Admiral. I’ve been trying to convince Lord Hemetal that I’m not out to get him for more than a decade, and the man just can’t seem to get it through his thick skull.”

“Well, I may have some ideas about that, sir,” Kryla replied.

“Oh? And what does my feud with Lord Hemetal have to do with you?” Fanas asked suspiciously.

“Everything,” Kryla said. “I just had a meeting with him at his manor on the Rock, and he revealed to me that he intends to try and secure the Imperial Throne once the Emperor is dead, and as far as I could tell, his main motivation is that he wants to use that power to destroy you.”

“Oh, the One have mercy,” Fanas said with a scowl. “That idiot on the Throne? The sad thing is, he probably has enough money to pull it off.”

“While I wouldn’t put it quite that way, I think we can both agree that Belfamor Hemetal on the Imperial Throne in his current state is something neither one of us want.”

“That’s the understatement of the century, Admiral,” Fanas said drily.

“Indeed,” Kryla replied, her tone just as dry. “So you can see that our interests are aligned.”

“I can see why I don’t want Lord Hemetal to become Emperor,” Fanas shot back. “I still fail to see what your stake in this is.”

“Lord Hemetal is dangerously unbalanced at the moment,” Kryla said calmly. “He is obsessed with his hatred of you, and it’s destroying him. If he ascended to the Throne in this state of mind, he could easily destroy the Empire as well. And I certainly don’t want that, General Fanas.”

“No, I imagine you wouldn’t,” Fanas said grimly. “Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about, Admiral, but I’m not ready to give you a decision yet.”

“Of course, sir,” Kryla said. “Just remember, the Emperor won’t live forever. The longer you take to decide, the closer we get to disaster.”

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 10

No one spoke until they were back on the shuttle headed for Decimator. Commander Venrel looked more worried than Neska had ever seen him before, and her aunt looked like she was trying to decide who she was going to murder first. As for Neska herself, she didn’t know what to feel. She had been nervous about making a fool of herself. She had so desperately wanted Lord Hemetal to notice her! And oh, how he had. Neska should have been pleased with how the evening went, but instead she felt…dirty. She couldn’t figure out why. She certainly hadn’t done anything. She’d barely said a word before Hemetal laid eyes on her. But the way he’d looked at her…like she was a trophy just waiting to be claimed. She couldn’t wait to get back to Decimator and take a long, hot shower.

“Commander, I’m going to need a secure link to General Fanas as soon as we get on board,” Kryla said once the shuttle was airborne.

“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said. For a few minutes, the shuttle flew on in silence, and then Neska couldn’t take it anymore.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said in a small voice. Kryla turned her diamond-hard look on her niece and frowned.

“For what?” she replied.

“For…messing up your meeting,” Neska said, her voice growing even smaller. Kryla’s look softened ever so slightly, and she turned to Venrel.

“Commander, would you excuse us for a moment?” she asked.

“Of course, sir,” Venrel replied, and went into the cockpit.

Once he was gone, Kryla’s expression softened even more, to the point where Neska almost forgot that Kryla was her commanding officer and not just her aunt.

“Oh, Neska,” Kryla said sadly. “Oh, my little Neska. If I’d had any idea what was going to happen tonight, I never would have brought you.”

“I’m sorry, Auntie,” Neska said, hanging her head and feeling like she was five years old and her aunt had caught her sneaking a piece of cake before supper.

“No,” Kryla said firmly. “Do not apologize. Never apologize for being who you are. What happened tonight was not your fault. None of it.”

“Then why do I feel so horrible!?” Neska wailed suddenly. “Why do I feel like I did something wrong!?”

“How can powerful men treat women like objects and make them feel like it’s their fault?” Kryla asked wryly. “I’ve always wondered that myself. I have no idea. But I do know that they’re wrong. It is not your fault. You are not a prize to be won. You are a human being, and you need to remember that. Because as long as you do, you have a weapon that cannot be beaten, and men like Belfamor Hemetal can never overcome you.”

“Oh, Auntie,” Neska said with a sigh. “This is so much more complicated than I wanted it to be.”

“Isn’t everything?” Kryla murmured.

“How can you support a man like that?” Neska asked. “Why would you want someone like him to be Emperor?”

“Did I say I wanted him to be Emperor?” Kryla replied with one eyebrow raised.

“You said you would support him in front of the Senate!” Neska cried.

“No, I said I would support him,” Kryla replied, smiling slightly. “But I never said how or where.” Kryla winked, and a look of comprehension slowly crept across Neska’s face.

“You lied!” Neska gasped.

“I did not!” Kryla said in faux indignation. “It’s not my fault if Belfamor heard what he wanted to hear, rather than what I said.” Kryla grinned suddenly, and Neska felt like she was right back in her parents’ house on the evening of Festival, listening to her aunt tell stories of her adventures as a Captain in the Imperial Fleet. She wanted to just embrace that feeling of joy, but she still felt somewhat sick to her stomach about what had happened in Lord Hemetal’s manor.

“How can you support that man at all?” Neska said, partially in anger and partially in sadness. “He…he scared me.”

“He scared me too, my little Neska,” Kryla replied in a soft voice, all trace of mirth gone from her tone. “And that’s why I need to support him, because the Belfamor Hemetal you met tonight is not the Belfamor Hemetal I’ve known for four years. Something happened to him, and that something changed him. I need to find out what happened, and I need to help him, if I can. He’s my friend, and I always stand by my friends.”

“If you say so, Auntie,” Neska said doubtfully. “If he’s your friend, I’d hate to meet your enemies.” Kryla smiled and even chuckled a little.

“Enemies are no big deal,” Kryla said lightly. “Like Belfamor said, it’s friends who are best positioned to stab you in the back. They’re the ones you need to keep an eye on.”

“I guess so,” Neska replied. She was silent for a moment, and then she remembered something. “What was it you said to him right before we left, that made him so mad?”

“Oh, that,” Kryla said with a frown. “I just reminded him that he’s a married man, and he has an obligation to his wife. As you can see, he didn’t take too kindly to that reminder.”

“I feel bad for Shala,” Neska said mournfully.

“You should,” Kryla replied. “She’s had an exceptionally hard life. You would think being a princess and the heir to a powerful noble house would mean you get to live in luxury and ease, but I wouldn’t swap places with her for anything. She’s a tough woman, though, and smart. If anyone can snap Belfamor out of whatever’s wrong with him, it’s her.”

“I hope she can do something,” Neska said with a shudder. “I hate to think what would happen if Lord Hemetal became Emperor in his present state.”

“Don’t worry, Neska,” Kryla said. “I will do whatever is in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Either Belfamor won’t attain the Throne, or he will be his old self again when he does. I promise you that.”

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 9

“Haven’t we been down this road before?” Kryla asked, arching an eyebrow. “The last time you wanted me to help you shake the foundations of the Empire, a lot of people died.”

“Perhaps, but we also succeeded in unifying the Empire under one ruler for the first time in almost twenty years,” Belfamor replied.

“This is true, but it would take a more detached mind than mine to decide whether that was worth the cost or not,” Kryla responded coolly. Belfamor just eyed her with a flat expression on his face for a few moments. Kryla stared back at him, her expression just as neutral as his, but then she finally sighed and looked away. “All right,” she said, “tell me what you want.”

“Nothing too terrible,” Belfamor said with a slight smirk. “As you know, our beloved Emperor is not long for this world. Whether he dies in battle, or on an assassin’s blade, or simply from old age, his death is imminent. And as he has no heir, the Senate will be meeting to decide on his successor. When that time comes, I would like your support for my candidacy.”

“That’s it?” Kryla asked, looking skeptical. “You don’t want me to lay siege to the capital, or send my troops to assassinate the Emperor?”

“Of course not,” Belfamor said with a scowl.

“Well, supporting you for Emperor is hardly shaking the foundations of the Empire,” Kryla said with a slight shrug.

“You might be surprised,” Belfamor said. “I am not in as much…favor, as I once was.”

“Is that so?” Kryla replied. “I had heard that you were suspended, but I was under the impression that it was temporary.”

“That’s what the Emperor would like people to think,” Belfamor snarled. “I know the truth. Emelien Fanas has been trying to wrest control of the Army from me for years, and now he’s finally succeeded. But his victory won’t last. Once I’m Emperor, he’ll regret crossing me.” There was a fevered light in Belfamor’s eyes, and his handsome features were twisted in such a diabolical way that he didn’t look remotely handsome to Neska anymore. She was actually quite frightened, but she tried desperately to hide it.

If her aunt was at all alarmed at the transformation that had overtaken Belfamor, she hid it well. She was silent for a moment, sipping her wine, and eyeing Belfamor coolly. Belfamor, for his part, seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was in the room. A sort of savage pleasure crept over his features as he contemplated his coming victory over his hated enemy.

“So, is that it then?” Kryla asked quietly, making Belfamor jump and stare at her as if he’d forgotten she was in the room. “All you want me to do is support your bid to become Emperor?”

“I…yes, that’s it,” Belfamor said, blinking rapidly and shivering. “Your support would be…greatly appreciated.”

“I can see that,” Kryla replied, stone-faced.

“Then, do I have your assurance that you will support me in front of the Senate?” Belfamor demanded. Kryla gazed at him for a long time, seeming to weigh her answer.

“You have my assurance that I will support you in whatever way I can,” Kryla said finally. Tension seemed to visibly drain out of Belfamor’s body, and he sat down hard in a large, plush armchair.

“I was afraid you might say no,” Belfamor said, laughing shakily. Picking up his glass of wine, he swirled it around for a moment, and then downed a great quantity of it in a single gulp. Kryla’s expression was still flat, her eyes glittering like gemstones.

“We are old friends, are we not?” she said calmly.

“Old friends are the best positioned to stab you in the back,” Belfamor replied darkly. He drained his wine glass slowly but steadily, set it down gently, and then grinned unexpectedly. “Anyway, that is a weight off my shoulders.” His grin grew wider, and he eyed Neska as if he’d never seen her before. Neska suddenly felt the urge to cover her breasts, as if Belfamor’s gaze could pierce her dress uniform. She willed her hands to stay still.

“Say,” he said, his gaze becoming hungry, “you’re a pretty one, aren’t you?”

“You could say that,” Kryla interjected. Her tone was conversational, but her eyes were as hard as diamonds now. “She’s also my niece.”

“Is that so?” If anything, Belfamor’s look grew even hungrier, and Neska didn’t think he looked handsome at all anymore. She wanted to tear her eyes away from his, and curl up into the fetal position, but instead she tried to imitate her aunt’s cool gaze. She didn’t know if she was succeeding or not.

Neska didn’t know how long she and Belfamor sat, staring at each other, before Commander Venrel spoke up. “We should probably be getting back to the ship, shouldn’t we, Admiral?” he said.

At the sound of Venrel’s voice, Belfamor shook his head and looked away from Neska. His expression became mostly neutral, but there was a trace of his leering grin still on his face. Neska looked over at Venrel. His tone had been conversational, but there was definitely a look of worry on his face. Kryla’s face, on the other hand, could have been carved from granite.

“Yes, I think it is time for us to take our leave,” Kryla said, a hint of iron underneath the calm tones of her voice.

“So soon?” Belfamor exclaimed. “Ah well, I suppose the work of a naval officer is never done. I will be contacting you soon, Admiral.”

“Of course,” Kryla replied. She stood up, walked over to Belfamor, and shook his hand, and as she did so, she leaned over and whispered something in Belfamor’s ear. Neska couldn’t hear what it was, but whatever it was, it made Belfamor’s eyes widen and his face go white, and then red. As Kryla pulled away from him, he stared at her in anger and shock, but Kryla just looked back at him impassively. Then she turned to Venrel and Neska, and motioned for them to follow her. Neska had never been so happy to obey an order in her life.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 8

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was less than happy to be accompanying her aunt to this meeting with Lord Belfamor Hemetal. It wasn’t that she had anything against rubbing shoulders with nobility. Just the opposite, in fact. She was extraordinarily nervous to meet one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, because she wanted to make a good impression, and she was afraid she’d screw it up. Neska’s family wasn’t poor. In fact, they would probably be described as upper middle class. But someone like Belfamor Hemetal was as much higher on the social scale than Neska, as Neska and her family were compared to someone digging in a field in a plantation on Birefal.

As she walked behind her aunt down the perfectly sculpted walkway leading toward Hemetal’s sumptuous manor, she felt like she had a smudge of dirt on her nose, even though she knew she’d washed her face thoroughly. Her aunt glanced back at her, and although she tried to look perfectly calm and composed, she knew it was no use. Auntie Kryla had always been able to read her like a book.

“Remember what I said,” Kryla muttered in a low voice, before she turned back to face the manor. Neska frowned slightly at the memory of the conversation she’d had in the Admiral’s quarters a few hours earlier. Of course, Kryla had said a lot of things in that conversation, so it was hard for Neska to pick out exactly what her aunt was referring to, but there had been one particular statement that had stuck in Neska’s mind. “Nobles are just like us.”

Which was all well and good for Kryla to say. She was practically nobility herself. One of the most decorated starship captains in the Empire, commander of the largest and most powerful single unit in the Imperial Fleet, and one of the main reasons that the Empire was still standing and hadn’t been completely swallowed up by Fangalin yet. If there was any commoner in the Empire who could stand toe-to-toe with a nobleman and feel like an equal, based on what she’d accomplished, it was Kryla Zomulin. But Neskatrai Dradital was a nobody. The greatest thing she’d accomplished was graduating from the Imperial Military Academy. Big deal. Lots of people had done that, including Belfamor Hemetal.

Her train of thought was interrupted by the fact that the three of them had reached the front door of the manor. Almost immediately the huge double door was opened, and an elderly chamberlain was welcoming them in. The sheer opulence of the massive entryway just about took Neska’s breath away, and only confirmed her fears of embarrassing herself in front of people who were clearly better than her in every way. As if reading her mind, as soon as Kryla finished exchanging pleasantries with the chamberlain, she looked at Neska firmly, willing her to remember their conversation, and then turned and followed the chamberlain down the vast hallway. Neska just swallowed hard and followed.

The chamberlain led them into a magnificent dining room that was both large and full of tasteful and expensive decorations. Belfamor Hemetal himself stood at the head of the table, and Neska swallowed hard again. Belfamor had to be almost 50 years old, but he looked to be just a little older than Neska herself, and breathtakingly handsome, to boot. Nobles are just like us, my ass, Neska thought to herself wryly. Belfamor greeted Kryla warmly, Commander Venrel respectfully, and Neska with little more than polite dismissal. At least I didn’t embarrass myself, she thought ruefully.

Belfamor next introduced his wife, Shala Votalin. She made Neska think that maybe there was something to her aunt’s insistence that nobles were just like commoners. Neska’s first impression was that she was a plain-looking woman with sad eyes and mousy brown hair that looked just like Neska’s, but when she rose to greet her guests, her smile was so genuine that it lit up her whole face and made her at least a thousand times more beautiful. But as soon as everyone was seated and no one was paying any more attention to her, Neska noticed that Shala’s expression reverted to plain and sad. Neska felt bad for her, which was not something she’d expected to feel for a noblewoman. Envy, yes. Pity? That was something of a shock.

The conversation over dinner consisted of pleasant but dry small talk, and Neska found herself focusing mostly on the food. The food was magnificent, both more delicious and more plentiful than Neska had ever experienced before. Neska was largely ignored by the other four, which was fine by her, as it gave her a chance to enjoy the food without worrying about having to come with something clever to say. Neska desperately wanted to impress Lord Hemetal, but she was also terribly worried about making a fool out of herself, and so she decided that being quiet and eating her food without getting it all over herself was about as impressive as she was capable of being at the moment.

Once all the food was eaten (or at least as much of it as anyone could handle – Neska found herself wondering what would happen to all the leftovers, and hoping they didn’t just get thrown out), the party retired to a nearby sitting room, where drinks were served. As soon as they were poured, Belfamor dismissed the servants, leaving him alone with the three Imperial Fleet officers. Shala, Neska was surprised to note, was also missing from the room.

Belfamor stood up and paced slowly around the room. He looked relaxed, but Neska noticed a tightness to his eyes, as if he was stressed about something and desperately trying to hide it. Neska also noticed that her aunt was watching him shrewdly, as if she knew he was going to ask her for something and didn’t want to give it to him.

“Kryla, we’ve had a good relationship over the years, haven’t we?” Belfamor asked suddenly.

“For the most part,” Kryla replied carefully, still eyeing Belfamor shrewdly.

“What if I asked you to do something that would shake the very foundations of the Empire?” Belfamor said, in a neutral tone that belied the content of his words.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 7

Kryla Zomulin frowned slightly as Decimator dropped out of subspace and moved into orbit around Medradi. She had been the captain of this cruiser for many years, and she knew it better than the back of her hand. A ship always shook slightly as it transitioned to or from subspace, but that shudder seemed more…pronounced, somehow. She looked over at her XO, Commander Hosken Venrel, but he didn’t seem to have noticed anything. Her frown deepened, and she made a decision.

“Engineering!” she barked.

“Yes, Admiral?” came the voice of Decimator’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Herezel Motain, over the ship’s intercom.

“I need you to run a level 2 diagnostic on the subspace interlink coils,” she said. “Make sure you check for elevated levels of infazain.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” responded Commander Motain briskly. Zomulin looked over at Venrel, who was staring at her with a bemused expression on his face.

“Interlink coils?” he asked. “What do you know that I don’t know?”

“Possibly nothing,” she said with a thoughtful frown, “but I know this ship better than anybody, and something didn’t feel right about that last drop. It could be that the interlink coils are out of phase.”

“If you can tell that just from the motion of the ship, I will be even more impressed with you than I am now,” Venrel said, his eyes widening slightly.

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Commander,” Zomulin said, rolling her eyes. “You’re still coming with me to meet with Lord Hemetal.” Venrel sighed theatrically and then grinned.

“At least the food oughta be good,” he said.

“Considering House Hemetal has more money than the rest of the Empire combined, yeah I think you’re right about that,” Zomulin said with a snort. “If Belfamor Hemetal can’t afford a good chef, then no one can.”

“Man, do you ever think about what it would be like to be a noble?” Venrel asked wistfully.

“Nah,” Zomulin replied dismissively. “Too much responsibility.”

“Says the most decorated starship captain in the Empire,” Venrel said, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, but this is different,” Zomulin said. “If I was a noble, I’d spend all my time behind a desk, sending out orders to people hundreds of light years away. It’d be so hard to tell if those orders were actually carried out or not. On the bridge of a starship, everything’s so much more immediate. I give an order, and I know right away whether it’s been carried out or not. Nobles think they have so much power, but put me on the bridge of a starship anyday. This,” she said, slapping the arm of her chair, “is real power.”

“You said it, Admiral,” Venrel replied with a grin.

“Incoming message from Lord Hemetal,” interjected the communications officer.

“Put it onscreen,” replied Zomulin. A moment later, Belfamor Hemetal’s face appeared on the screen. “Lord Hemetal, good to see you again.”

“And you, Admiral Zomulin,” he replied. “Thank you for responding to my message on such short notice. I know that the commander of the 7th Fleet must be very busy.”

“Not too busy to make time for an old friend,” Zomulin said with a slight smile.

“Good to hear,” Hemetal said, returning her smile. “My staff is putting the finishing touches on the preparations for tonight. Everything should be ready by 1900 hours.”

“Excellent,” Zomulin said. “If it’s not too much trouble, I would like to have my XO and one of my aides attend me tonight.”

“Not at all,” Hemetal replied. “I would be pleased to entertain them as well.”

“Very good,” Zomulin said. “I will you see you at 1900 hours then.”

“Indeed,” Hemetal said, and then his face disappeared and was replaced by a view of the reddish-blue orb of Medradi.

“1900 hours,” Zomulin mused. “Well, that gives you at least four hours to freshen up. That oughta be almost enough time.”

“You wound me, my captain!” Venrel said, clutching his chest and putting an expression of mock pain. “I am the cleanest, most stylish man on this ship!”

“Sadly, you might be right about that,” Zomulin replied, lifting an eyebrow and frowning, although there was a twinkle in her eye that told Venrel she wasn’t being entirely serious. “Well, impressing a lord is a much different game than impressing a group of ensigns fresh out of the Academy. I expect you to approach this challenge with the same level of enthusiasm and mental fortitude as you have every other challenge you’ve faced under my command.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Venrel said, standing up and saluting with a wink. “Right away, sir!” Giving Zomulin a rakish grin, he turned and strutted out of the bridge. Zomulin watched him leave with a rueful grin on her face, and then shook her head.

“That man is something else,” she said softly, but not so soft that the rest of the bridge crew couldn’t hear it.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” asked the navigation officer, Lt. Commander Edgrain Sahrinae.

“I know what you’re going to say, Commander, so you might as well get it out,” Zomulin said wryly.

“You really should marry him, sir,” Sahrinae said with a grin, her green eyes twinkling.

“I should, shouldn’t I?” Zomulin mused, stroking her chin. “Ah well, who knows? It could happen. In any case, Commander Venrel isn’t the only one who needs four hours to get ready for a fancy dinner. Commander Sahrinae, you have the bridge.”

“Aye-aye, sir!” Sahrinae said, taking the command chair that Zomulin had just vacated.

“Oh, before I forget, tell Ensign Dradital to meet me in my quarters as soon as possible,” she said just before she reached the bridge’s exit.

“Right away, sir,” Sahrinae said with a nod.

A small, satisfied smile played around the corners of Kryla Zomulin’s mouth as she strode through the corridors on the way to her quarters. It was time for her niece to get a lesson on some of the subtler points of being a great captain. There was nothing better for getting what you wanted than having a friend with power, wealth and influence.

To be continued…