The Solitude of Death, Part 3

Dren Calabane entered his luxurious mansion like a storm cloud. He was furious with the High Council for bickering about matters that should have been simple to decide, and he was furious with the Supreme Commander for dawdling over those same matters. To the Council, every problem could be solved by bludgeoning it to death, and the Commander had become a doddering old fool who was out of his element ever since the Emergence (which is what Fangalin called the destruction of the Senate and the beginning of open war with the Empire).

Calabane was the youngest member of the Council at 53 years old. He had been elected five years earlier, two years before the Emergence. He had quickly established himself as one of the most powerful members of the Council, and he was generally able to bend most of the other councilors to his will. But one person who rarely listened to him was Zhemeen Fortulis, which meant that all of his influence on the Council meant nothing. And it didn’t seem likely that Fortulis was going to listen to him in this matter either.

He stormed upstairs to his bedroom and swept inside in a fury, startling his wife, who was sitting in a chair reading. He flung his jacket on to the bed, and threw his briefcase into a corner, and then flopped down in his favorite chair, a grim expression on his face.

“That buffoon refuses to listen to reason!” he exclaimed. His wife rose and made her way across the room toward him. Her name was Shalor Calabane, and she was pretty much the opposite of him in every way. Where Dren was short and skinny, with narrow features and a perpetually grim expression, Shalor was tall and curvaceous, with a beautiful, heart-shaped face that was nearly always smiling. She was ten years younger than him, and looked like she was twenty years younger. An outside observer would be inclined to wonder what they saw in each other, but their marriage had lasted twenty years so far, with no end in sight.

“Fortulis again, my love?” she said sympathetically. Dren gave an affirmative grunt without looking at her. “Tell me all about it,” she said, kneeling down next to him so she could look into his eyes. Dren shook his head angrily.

“Zhemeen Fortulis was a great Supreme Commander before the Emergence,” Dren said with equal parts admiration and frustration. “But it’s as if the strain of fighting a full-scale war has drained the man of his wits. He used to be so subtle and patient. Now he wants to solve all of his problems by smashing them to bits with a hammer.” He pressed his fists together in a gesture of frustration. Shalor reached over and caressed his hair gently.

“I understand how you feel, Dren,” she said, “But think of it from his perspective. He’s 85 years old. He’s probably anxious to finish the job of destroying the Empire within his lifetime.”

“I get that,” said Dren, relaxing a little, “I really do. But our mission is so much larger than one man. Imagine if Wellin Votara had felt the same way! Fangalin would have been snuffed out before it ever got established. We and our predecessors in the faith have worked so long and so hard to get to this point. We cannot throw it away for one man’s vanity!”

“You are so right, my beloved,” Shalor said quietly, “But Wellin Votara never experienced the level of success that Zhemeen Fortulis has achieved. Wellin Votara did not bring about the Emergence. Zhemeen Fortulis did.” Dren gave her an angry look.

“And what is that supposed to mean? Are you implying that Fortulis is a greater Supreme Commander than the Founder of our order?” he growled.

“Not at all,” Shalor said, shaking her head, “But I am saying that even the greatest man can let success go to his head. Who knows how Wellin Votara would have acted if the Emergence had happened under his command? We should not judge Commander Fortulis too harshly in this matter.” Dren sighed heavily.

“I know, my love,” he said wearily, “As always, you are my voice of reason and sanity. Who knows how many times my anger would have gotten me into trouble if I didn’t have you around to talk me back from the edge?”

“Oh, Dren,” she said with a small smile, “You give me too much credit. You are too rigid and bound to the Charter to ever do anything in anger.” He smiled at her, and kissed her softly on the lips. Then they both stood up and held each other close. “Just remember,” she said, “Fortulis is a good man and a good commander, but he needs your wisdom and your knowledge, so you need to make sure that you don’t do anything to make him push you away.”

“I know that, dearest,” he said softly, “But the man doesn’t like me for some reason. I don’t know why. I haven’t ever given him cause to dislike me, as far as I know. But sometimes I think he goes against what I want just to spite me.” Shalor smiled slyly.

“What if you started suggesting the opposite of what you really want?” she said, only half serious.

“That is an interesting idea,” Dren said thoughtfully, “It might be worth a try. Darkness knows that using logic and reason to persuade him to take my side hasn’t worked. What have I got to lose?” Shalor gave a surprised laugh.

“You crazy old man,” she said, bewildered, “You are really considering trying this, aren’t you?”

“Why not?” he said with a rare grin, “What have I got to lose? Our victory is inevitable at this point. The Empire is crumbling, and none of the nations that are rising from the rubble are any stronger. It’s not like it really matters whether Embamor II lives or dies, right?” Shalor just shook her head in wonder.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever understand you,” she said with equal parts admiration and exasperation, “A minute ago you were furious because Fortulis was leaning in a direction you didn’t like, and now you sound like you don’t care. Can you explain that to me?” Dren grinned broadly.

“Why, my dear,” he said, “you showed me the error of my ways!” Shalor rolled her eyes, and Dren chuckled mischievously.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 2

The High Council of Fangalin met in a large dining hall in what used to be the Imperial Governor’s mansion on the planet of Numoris. There were 32 councilors total, and they were all gathered around a large rectangular table, discussing the course of the war against the Empire. There were two contentious topics on the agenda, and volume and anger were both in great supply.

Zhemeen Fortulis sat at the head of the table, observing the fiery speeches and impassioned gestures without emotion. The Supreme Commander of Fangalin was both part of and above the High Council. The Fangalin Charter, which provided the foundation for all of Fangalin’s laws, stipulated that the Commander had to be chosen by a majority vote of the full Council from among their number. But that was the only real power that the High Council possessed. Every other function they carried out was purely advisory. The Charter required the Supreme Commander to listen to the advice of his Council, but it did not require him to follow that advice.

As a man of action, Fortulis found these meetings to be more tedious than enlightening, but he was loyal to the Charter, and so he did what it said. In reality, if he had chosen to disregard the Charter, in this or any regard, there was nothing that anyone could do about it. The Charter was adamant that the Supreme Commander be supreme in all respects. The word of the Commander was law, and there was no one and nothing that could circumvent or undo any of his commands or orders. Wellin Votara, the first Supreme Commander and the author of the Fangalin Charter, strongly believed that for Fangalin to succeed, the Supreme Commander needed full freedom to do what he believed needed to be done.

This meant that once a man (and it could only be a man – the Charter specifically forbade women from becoming councilors) was elected by the High Council to the post of Supreme Commander, he was there for life. Supreme Commanders could not be removed from their post for any reason save death. It was, potentially, a recipe for disaster if the Council elected someone incompetent, but the Charter contained a detailed description of how every member of Fangalin, from the least to the greatest, should behave, and loyalty to the Charter was drilled into every member of Fangalin from the moment they were born or joined.

Fortulis struggled to bring his attention back to the matters at hand. There were only two items on the Council’s agenda today, but they were both highly controversial. The first was whether or not Fangalin operatives should assassinate one or more of the men claiming the title of Emperor. The second was how to deal with the various factions that the Empire had split into, whether Fangalin should play one against another, or if the Grand and Invincible Army should indiscriminately sweep them all from the galaxy.

In reality, as much as Council meetings bored Fortulis, he really did need to pay attention to this one. He was unsure how to proceed in both of these matters. Things had gone well for Fangalin since they had come out of hiding three years earlier, but the conquest of the Empire was not proceeding as fast as he had hoped. Yes, the Grand and Invincible Army had won victory after victory, but the Imperial Fleet was still resisting, and that resistance was getting stiffer with every battle.

“I’m telling you, we should just kill that buffoon on Trisitania!” bellowed Councilor Heskin Non, his face bright red and sweaty, “If we have the opportunity to kill an Emperor, why wouldn’t we take it?” Non was fired up about this topic, but then again, Non was fired up about most anything. His normal speaking voice was considerably louder than most people were when they yelled.

“Your thinking is flawed,” responded Councilor Dren Calabane. His voice was much quieter, but contained a dangerous edge, “Our goal is the destruction of the Empire, not individual Emperors. If the Emperor is a fool whose actions do more harm to the Empire than they do to us, then it does not benefit us to eliminate him. What if someone competent takes his place?”

“Nonsense!” boomed Councilor Non, “Of course it benefits us to assassinate the Emperor! Cut off the head and the body will die, that’s what I always say! Anything we do to damage the Empire benefits us!”

“You’re not listening to me, Non,” Calabane said, exasperated, “I’m saying that the death of Embamor II will not damage the Empire in any way, and it may even strengthen them. If that drunken idiot was the Supreme Commander of Fangalin, wouldn’t we welcome it if Imperial assassins came to eliminate him for us?” There was considerable muttering around the table at this. Every Councilor was well aware that the only way a Supreme Commander would leave his office was if he died. The idea that someday a bad Supreme Commander might have to be assassinated by the Council was one that every Councilor had without talking about it. Calabane had come dangerously close to speaking the unspeakable.

After an awkward silence, Fortulis cleared his throat. “In any case,” he said firmly, trying to break the tension, “I think that we have discussed this issue enough for one day. I will make sure to let you all know what I decide, when I decide it.” He banged his gavel on the table, hard. “The Council is dismissed.” That pronouncement caused some more muttering, as there was another issue on the agenda, but the word of the Supreme Commander was law.

Dren Calabane came up to Fortulis as the other councilors filed out of the council chamber. “My lord, I hope you are aware of the importance of the other item on the agenda.”

“I am aware, Councilor,” Fortulis said with a voice like stone. Fortulis didn’t particularly like Calabane, not least because he didn’t seem to hold Fortulis in awe like the other Councilors did, but he also had to admit that Calabane was the most competent man on the Council. “Rest assured that we will discuss it tomorrow. For now, I have dismissed the Council, and that includes you.” Calabane bowed and withdrew, but he didn’t even bother to disguise the scowl on his face.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 1

Night fell over the city of Selorin. There was a time when the noise and bustle of the great capital of the Trisitanian Empire was unfazed by the time of day, but that time ended three years ago, when the Senate Hall and all of its occupants were destroyed by terrorists. Now the Empire was at war, and Selorin had become a somber, even grim, place.

Emperor Embamor II stood on a balcony of the Imperial Palace, looking out over the deathly quiet city. The years of his reign had not been kind to him. All of his hair was gone now, his nose was redder and puffier, his gut was larger than ever, and his posture was stooped, as if he was slowly being crushed by the burden of ruling the Empire. He was reflecting on everything that had happened in the past three years, but there wasn’t much positive to reflect on. Somehow, Fangalin had been able to build a massive war machine right under the Empire’s nose, and the Imperial Fleet now found itself woefully outmatched. In three years, the Fleet had yet to score a victory against their enemy. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.

General Embamor Etralis had proclaimed himself Emperor in order to provide stability in a time of crisis, but so far he had failed miserably. Two other generals had also proclaimed themselves Emperor a few months after Etralis did, and although their forces weren’t as powerful as Embamor’s, they still were a distraction when the Empire needed to focus all of its might on Fangalin.

But there was more. A year ago, a collection of provinces led by the powerful and wealthy province of Hadramoris had seceded from the Empire and formed the Republic of Hadramoris. The governor of Hadramoris, Eregon Fadlamis, had been elected President of the Republic, and one of his first acts was to declare war on the Empire. So Emperor Embamor II found himself in the unenviable position of fighting a war against four different enemies at once.

The one consolation in all of this was that all of his enemies were fighting each other as well. The so-called Emperor Neminatrix IV was sending his forces against his rival Emperor Valador I, and both were attempting to reconquer the Republic, while all of them were getting hammered by the massive and well-disciplined Fangalin fleet. It was a mess, but it was the kind of mess that Embamor II excelled at dealing with. If only he could establish some semblance of order over the provinces that he supposedly held.

He heard the door to his chambers open and turned to see his chief advisor, Adlamor Finegal, enter the room. Finegal was short, with greasy brown hair and a long, crooked nose. His eyes were heavily lidded, so he looked like he was half asleep at all times, but in reality he was always closely observing everything around him. He had a photographic memory and phenomenal attention to detail. He was also immensely ambitious, and Embamor had no doubt that Finegal would stab him in his sleep if he thought it would be to his benefit. Regardless, Embamor found his talents to be incredibly useful.

“A report just came in from the military for you, your majesty,” Finegal said with a bow, handing a tablet to the Emperor. Embamor took it with a scowl that deepened once he read its contents. He swore and tossed the tablet back at Finegal, who caught it without looking.

“This is just great,” the Emperor said with disgust, “Yet another province lost to the terrorists. I swear a week doesn’t go by without us losing a province to one of our enemies.”

“It certainly does seem as if we are losing this war,” Finegal said blandly. Embamor cast a withering glare at him, which he ignored.

“Is there anything else, or are you just here to annoy me with news I can’t do anything about?” Embamor asked.

“There is actually something else,” Finegal said with a bow, “I didn’t want to put this information on a tablet, as it is somewhat sensitive.” He paused, and Embamor glared at him impatiently.

“Well?” he exclaimed, “What is it? Spit it out!”

“Sire,” Finegal began, and paused again, “I have received disturbing information of a Fangalin plot against your life.” He stopped, and Embamor stared at him, and then burst out laughing.

“Is that all?” he roared, “I wouldn’t concern yourself too greatly about that, my dear Adlamor. Even I know that I’m probably the most ineffective person to ever sit on the Imperial Throne! I don’t think the terrorists would bother knocking me off as long as I’m doing more to help them than harm them.” He chuckled to himself and turned back to the balcony.

“As you say, your majesty,” Finegal said with another bow, but his customary ingratiating smile was replaced with a cold frown. “Even so, I would highly recommend doubling your bodyguard.”

“Very well,” Embamor said with a dismissive wave of his hand, not even turning to look at Finegal. “Are you done now? Or do you have another pointless tidbit to waste my time with?”

“That is all, your majesty,” Finegal said, still staring coldly at the Emperor’s back.

“Then get out of here,” Embamor said. Finegal bowed and withdrew silently. Embamor sighed wearily as the door slid closed. He probably shouldn’t have been so harsh, but he just couldn’t make himself like Finegal. Finegal reminded him too much of himself.

Not for the first time, he found himself thinking about Ven Aganar. Aganar had been a lieutenant and Embamor’s aide when the terrorists first struck, and he had quickly become the Emperor’s closest advisor. Aganar had been wise beyond his years, and would have made a much better Emperor than Embamor ever could. Two years ago, Embamor had promoted Aganar to General and given him command of an operation to retake a key province from Fangalin. It was a brilliant plan, and if it had succeeded, Embamor was planning to abdicate in favor of Aganar. Unfortunately, General Aganar was killed during that operation, and without his leadership the task force fell apart and was decimated.

Unfortunately, Emperor Embamor II also relied heavily on General Aganar, and without his steadying influence, Embamor had become more unstable and also returned to his heavy drinking habits. Embamor knew that he was a failure as an Emperor, and he yearned to give up the throne and leave the Empire in more capable hands, but unfortunately, there were no more capable hands. Everyone who might have been an effective ruler had died in the Senate Hall three years ago, and Embamor had no desire to just abandon the Empire to its fate. In some ways, he hoped that Finegal was right about Fangalin’s plot to kill him. Death would be preferable to life at this point.

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 11

Zhemeen Fortulis was very pleased. Everything was going more or less according to plan. The upper levels of the Imperial government had been eradicated, the Imperial provinces that had been most heavily penetrated were now fully under Fangalin control, and several more Imperial provinces were under siege by Fangalin forces, with the Imperial Fleet retreating at every turn. The only thing that made Fortulis less than perfectly elated was the fact that Ahsken Lorovic and his men had not survived the destruction of the Senate. Lorovic and those under him had been some of Fangalin’s best operatives, and their loss stung. But balanced against the massive success that the operation was having elsewhere, it was a sting that Fortulis was willing to accept.

“Supreme Commander Fortulis,” said the voice of his secretary over the intercom. “Shaz Vodin is here to see you.” Shaz Vodin was Fortulis’ chief strategist. She had been the primary architect behind Fangalin’s plan to deal with the Empire in the wake of the Empress’ death.

“Very well,” Fortulis responded, “Send her in.” A few seconds later, the door opened and Vodin entered with a grin on her face. She was a tall, wiry woman with wispy gray hair. She smiled too much and laughed too loud for Fortulis’ taste, but there was no denying her strategic brilliance or her devotion to the Dark Presence. And to Fortulis.

“Commander,” she said, sitting down in front of Fortulis’ desk, “There is a news report coming out of the Empire that I think you’re going to want to see.” She handed a tablet to Fortulis that was displaying a live news report coming from Selorin. Fortulis watched the report for a few minutes with a small frown on his face, and then he pulled out another tablet. Within a few seconds he had in front of him all of the information that Fangalin had about Embamor Etralis. He skimmed this report for a few minutes, and as he did, his frown was slowly replaced with a smile.

“Very interesting,” he said, “What is your take on this news?”

“My take is that this is nothing but good news for us,” Vodin said with a small grin, “I’m a little surprised that he wasn’t in the Senate Hall, but it’s just as well. I’m not sure we could have picked a better person to sit on the Imperial Throne than Embamor Etralis. In fact… He’s not working for us, is he?” Fortulis shook his head.

“Not at all,” he said, “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” said Vodin, rubbing her hands together, “this development is hugely advantageous to us, not just because of who Etralis is and what kind of Emperor he will be, but also because of the way he’s ascending to the throne.”

“What do you mean?” Fortulis asked with a frown.

“The Empire has no rules or laws to cover the situation in which they now find themselves. No one ever imagined that the entire Senate would be or could be wiped out with no Emperor on the throne. That is, of course, what we were counting on when we came up with this plan. This means that the only legal course of action they could take right now is for each province to elect new senators and have a new Senate choose an Emperor. The problem, for them, is that they’re fighting a war that they are woefully unprepared for. They need decisive leadership, and they don’t have time to wait for elections to be held and for the Senate to deliberate and choose an Emperor.”

“That’s why Etralis decided to just proclaim himself Emperor. He more or less said so in his speech. The problem for him, and why this helps us, is he’s completely flouting Imperial law by doing this. There is nothing in the Imperial law books that allows an individual to unilaterally declare him- or herself Emperor. What he should have done was proclaim himself the temporary commander or regent or whatever of the Empire, and only take charge of the war effort until a new Senate could be elected and a new Emperor chosen. That would have ensured stability and continuity. Instead, this declaration of his is almost certainly going to be contested in the courts, leading to further chaos and confusion at a time when the Empire needs unity.”

“Not only that, but now that General Etralis has proclaimed himself Emperor, what’s to stop other powerful leaders from doing the same? If you’re a low-ranking but ambitious general, aren’t you going to do whatever you can to profit from the chaos all around you? I wouldn’t be surprised if we see several rival Emperors rise up now, which may even lead to civil war in what’s left of the Empire.”

Fortulis whistled appreciatively. “And a civil war in the Empire will, of course, make our job easier,” he said.

“Of course,” Vodin said with a grin, “In one fell swoop, General Embamor Etralis has done a great deal of our work for us.” Fortulis couldn’t help but join in with Vodin’s mirth.

“Well, isn’t that just marvelous?” he said, chuckling. Vodin let out a loud guffaw.

“I knew that our plan was a good one,” she said, “but I certainly didn’t foresee just how well it would work out. Aside from the unfortunate deaths of Lorovic and his men, everything has gone in our favor. Who knew that overthrowing the Empire would be so easy?” At that, Fortulis let out a loud guffaw of his own. Soon both of them were laughing gleefully, to the point that Fortulis’ secretary called to ask if everything was okay.

“Oh…,” he started, and then took a deep breath to try and keep himself from laughing more, “Oh yes. Shaz and I are just having a discussion about how easy our jobs are.” And then they both started laughing uncontrollably again. Fortulis’ secretary just shook his head with a small smile and disconnected.

After a while, when the laughter died down, Vodin looked at Fortulis and said, “So what happens now?” Fortulis rested his hands on his desk and sighed.

“The plan is to keep pressing on and wipe the Empire from the face of the galaxy,” he said, suddenly looking every bit the old man that he was. “That is our mission, and has been since our great and glorious order was founded 350 years ago. We will not be satisfied with half-measures. We will carry on until our mission is complete or we are dead.” Vodin nodded, satisfied. Then she rose and quietly left the room, and Fortulis turned his attention to other matters.

The End