A Song of Sorrow, Part 1

Jimalin Redlamin was in the middle of his morning prayers when an aide informed him that the Emperor was dead. Redlamin had no need to ask which Emperor; on Bliddle, there was only one. The others were mere pretenders. Redlamin listened to the aide’s news in silence, and then he added the soul of Embamor Etralis to his prayer.

Once he finished his prayers, Redlamin stood up and asked the aide to follow him. Redlamin was in his private chapel, located directly behind his office. He was of moderate height and moderate weight, with a shaved head and a close-cropped goatee. He was in his mid-50s, and entirely nondescript, aside from his eyes. His brown eyes burned with the fiery intensity of one for whom religious faith was the only thing that mattered.

Redlamin was the governor of the Imperial Province of Bliddle, and had been for nearly 15 years. Bliddle was one of the oldest and most powerful provinces in the Empire, which made Redlamin one of the most powerful men in the Empire. He had never thought of himself in those terms, though. In his mind, he was merely a servant, of the One and of the people of the Empire.

He sat down at his desk and fixed the aide with his burning gaze. “So,” he said, “tell me more of this news.”

“Well,” said the aide, clearing his throat nervously, “a group of Fangalin terrorists broke into the Palace and assassinated the Emperor. They attempted to escape, but were killed by the Legion of the Heart before they could do so.”

“Hmm,” responded the governor, “Unfortunate that the Legion was unable to carry out its duty, but at least the terrorists were caught and punished. Is there more, or is that all the information you received?”

“No, sir,” the aide replied, “We also received word that Adlamor Finegal has taken Embamor’s place on the Imperial Throne. He has declared himself Emperor Preclonus IV and asked all citizens of the Empire to pledge their loyalty to him.” There was silence in the wake of this pronouncement. The governor stared at the aide, his expression utterly blank aside from the fire in his eyes. The aide lowered his eyes and began fidgeting uncomfortably under such scrutiny.

“This news is most unpleasant,” Redlamin said finally, “I shall have to prayerfully consider what to do. This tablet contains all the relevant information?” he asked, gesturing to a tablet that the aide had brought in with him. The aide nodded. “Then you are dismissed.” The aide hastily got up and practically ran out of the room. Redlamin did not notice him leave. He had already turned his gaze inward.

Everything that Jimalin Redlamin did and thought was filtered through his conception of his duty to the One and the Empire. His devotion to the old Empress, Emella II, had bordered on fanaticism, and once the Empress died and the Empire erupted in civil war, Redlamin had thrown his support behind Embamor II. Redlamin did not approve of Embamor’s drunkenness and general laziness, nor did he approve of the way that Embamor had seized the Throne, but he believed that the Empire needed unity above all, and so he was willing to subdue his misgivings and follow the one claimant who actually held the capital and the Throne.

But that had been a mistake, he realized now. The Empire needed strength and righteousness more than it needed unity, and Embamor II had provided neither of these things. Adlamor Finegal would not provide them either. The terrorists made greater and greater gains with each passing day, and the pretenders to the Throne and other traitors were growing in confidence and power as well. The Empire needed an Emperor who would put the interests of the Empire as a whole ahead of his own selfish interests. Redlamin had only met Finegal a few times, but he was confident that Finegal’s only interest as Emperor would be to enrich himself.

The problem was that the Empire was still in uncharted territory. There was still no Senate, three years after the Senate Hall was destroyed, and without a Senate there was no generally and legally accepted way to chose an Emperor. Redlamin would have gladly followed whoever the Senate chose to lead the Empire, but that simply wasn’t an option right now.

Redlamin was the type of person to carefully consider every course of action open to him, but once he made a decision, he acted on it quickly. He contacted his closest advisor, a priestess by the name of Haleita Ilem, and asked her to come meet with him as soon as possible. Then he withdrew into his chapel to pray and await her arrival.

About an hour later, the door to his chapel opened and Ilem entered. She was older than him by about 15 years, and short. She had the wizened and bowed look of someone who had spent her entire life in study and prayer. Her hair was gray and wispy, but her hazel eyes were still clear and full of life. She knelt down next to Redlamin without a word. After a few minutes, Redlamin looked up at her and spoke.

“Haleita, my friend,” he said, “I am about to embark on the boldest and most dangerous gamble of my life, and I need guidance.”

“That is what I am here for, my son,” she said softly.

“The Empire needs strong leadership,” he said, “A leader of faith and courage. I fear that the One is calling me to be that leader.” Ilem looked at him intently, unafraid to meet his intense gaze with one of her own. After a few minutes, she nodded.

“Yes,” she said with conviction, “You are quite right. You are the sword of the One, the Chosen to lead the Empire out of darkness and into light. You must do what you will.” Redlamin nodded, and stood up. Prayer was the most important thing a man could do, but there was a proper time for all things. Now was the time for action.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 11

Adlamor Finegal was deep in meditation when an aide knocked on his door and told him the studio was ready. Embamor II had died only a few hours earlier, and Finegal was wasting no time in claiming the throne. He had prepared his speech several weeks ago, and he had rehearsed it many times. The people of the Empire and the rest of the galaxy would soon know that a true Emperor had taken control.

He rose slowly, and made his way to the studio. He was wearing a gloriously expensive robe, as befit his new station. His hair and makeup had been carefully done by an army of stylists employed by the Palace, to the point where he felt like a different person. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he passed by and didn’t recognize himself at first. It was an odd feeling, but it was necessary. It was time for greasy, sallow Adlamor Finegal to give way to the grand and regal Emperor Preclonus IV.

He had thought about calling himself Adlamor I, but he recognized that his claim to the throne was very tenuous. He needed a name that people would associate with stability and tradition and strength. Preclonus III had been the grandfather of Empress Emella II, whose death had been the trigger for the war with Fangalin. He had become Emperor at the age of 24, and ruled until his death at 91. People still remembered the reign of Preclonus III as a golden age of stability and prosperity, and Finegal believed that people, especially those who had been alive during those days, would associate the name of Preclonus with those qualities, and be more likely to rally behind him.

He entered the studio and took his place behind the podium. He waited while the director announced to the people of the galaxy that all current content was being temporarily suspended for an address by the Emperor, and then he assumed a somber expression and began reading his speech.

“People of the Empire,” he began, “I am Adlamor Finegal, Chief Advisor to His Grace Emperor Embamor II, and it is my solemn duty to tell you some unfortunate news. Approximately three hours ago, a group of terrorists broke into the Imperial Palace and murdered the Emperor in his quarters. The terrorists attempted to flee after they had committed their sordid deed, but were hunted down and eliminated by brave men and women of the Legion of the Heart. Emperor Embamor II was a courageous and strong ruler, and his presence will be sorely missed.

“As the Emperor had no heirs, and as we are still in the process of electing a new Senate, there is no simple and effective way for us to choose his successor. However, as we are at war with a ragtag collection of traitors and scoundrels, the need for leadership is great. Therefore, I have decided to take on the heavy burden of ascending to the throne, so as of this moment, I am no longer Adlamor Finegal, but Emperor Preclonus IV.

“I assure you, my reign will be as long and as prosperous as that of my namesake, whose reign some of you still remember. Emperor Preclonus III presided over one of the greatest periods in our glorious Empire’s history, but the reign of Preclonus IV will be even greater! I will crush the Empire’s enemies under my heel, and I will bring forth peace and justice and wealth for all loyal citizens of the Empire! Put your faith and your trust in me, citizens, and I promise I will lead you to a new golden age!”

Short, sweet and to the point. As he left the podium and returned to his quarters, Emperor Preclonus IV felt that with that speech, his reign was off to a truly spectacular beginning.

***

On Numoris, Supreme Commander Zhemeen Fortulis and Councilor Dren Calabane were watching the coverage of the new Emperor’s speech together. For the first time, it seemed as if the shadow cast by Calabane’s father over both men was starting to lift. Fortulis was realizing that Calabane was not trying to undermine him, and Calabane was realizing that Fortulis needed all of his support if the war with the Empire was going to be a success.

Both of them were pleased with the results of the operation so far. Although it was unfortunate that their agents were killed in the course of doing their duty, the new Emperor seemed like he was at least as big a fool as the old one, and maybe more so. The ultimate demise of the Empire seemed like even more of a sure thing than ever.

***

Haasadis Ventelin was less pleased with the report he had gotten back from Midigal.

“What do you mean, they’re not amenable to my plans?” he growled.

“I mean exactly what I said, Haasadis,” Vor Shen responded. “The governors of Trifelimoor and Dalamaris have agreed to accept your rule, but the Merchant Council of Midigal feels they are better off sticking with Embamor II.” Ventelin cursed and spit to show what he thought of that.

“Friggin’ cowards,” he muttered, “I should lay waste to their rotten planet!”

“Wouldn’t that defeat the point of this whole enterprise, Haasadis?” Shen replied patiently, “I thought you wanted to provide Midigal with the glory it so richly deserves?” Ventelin sighed and rolled his eyes.

“I know, I know,” he said, “I’m just getting impatient, is all.” He opened his mouth to say more, and then he closed it as one of his lieutenants signaled to him. “Hold on, Shen. One of my men has news.” He turned to the lieutenant. “Well, what is it?”

“General, we’re receiving word from Trisitania that Embamor II has been assassinated and Adlamor Finegal has ascended to the throne!” the lieutenant said.

“WHAT!” Ventelin bellowed, and then he laughed uproariously. “Well, what do you think about that, Shen?”

“I think this improves our position with the Merchant Council immensely,” Shen said with a small smile. “I will send our representatives back to Midigal immediately.”

The End

The Solitude of Death, Part 10

Olaio and Joraz soon met up with two other members of their team, Sergeant Veren Lachai and Lieutenant Holia Zhumen. Lachai was a short yet powerfully built man with a black crew cut, short black mustache, and brown eyes. Zhumen was the only woman on their team. She was shorter than all the rest of them, except for Lachai, and she had short red hair and a scar across her cheek. She was as tough and mean as Olaio looked.

The four of them made their way up to the Emperor’s quarters. There was no talking once they’d greeted each other. All of them could feel the tension in the air. They were all veterans, both of the war and of various secret ops before the Emergence. Each of them had assassinated people before, but the stakes were higher here than ever before. Embamor II might have been only one of three claimants to the throne, but he was the only one of the three who actually held it.

As they approached the door leading to the Emperor’s quarters, they noticed that there were only two guards on duty. The two were Corporal Hesig Lotaia, and Sergeant Neimaur Oben. They were the other two members of their team. Lotaia was tall and skinny, although not as tall as Olaio, with medium-length brown hair that was perpetually messy. Oben was a little shorter than Joraz, with close-cropped black hair speckled with gray, and a fu manchu mustache. There was no other ISS personnel in sight.

“Lotaia, Oben,” Joraz said as they approached, “Where are the others?” Lotaia shook his head.

“We’re the only ones on duty, Joraz,” he said. Joraz frowned. Normally, there were supposed to be at least six guards in front of the Emperor’s quarters at all times.

“Who else was supposed to be on duty?” Zhumen asked.

“No one,” responded Oben. “Lotaia and I were the only ones on the schedule.” That only made Joraz frown deeper.

“I don’t like this, Joraz,” Olaio said quietly, “This doesn’t fit the plan. I recommend that we abort for now and try again another day.” Joraz shook his head.

“We can’t do that, Olaio,” he said, “We were given an immediate execute order. We have no choice but to carry out our mission right now.” Olaio crossed his arms with a grim look on his face, but he held his peace. Joraz was in command of this operation.

“How are we gonna do this, then?” Zhumen asked with a scowl. “We won’t have a scapegoat!”

“We’re going to go in quick, do the job, and get out before anybody knows what’s happened,” Joraz said. “Everybody have their tickets off-world?” Every member of the team nodded.

“I don’t like this at all,” Zhumen said, “Have any of you seen any other ISS officers today?” The men all frowned, and one by one they shook their heads. “Doesn’t that strike anybody else as odd?”

“Odd or not, we have our orders and we need to carry them out,” Lachai said, “Are you afraid to die for the Dark Presence?”

“Of course not!” yelled Zhumen, “I just don’t want to die needlessly!”

“Enough,” said Joraz, “Lachai is right. I don’t want to die tonight either, but we have our orders, and if we die while performing them, then that is the will of the Presence. Let’s go.” All the men nodded immediately, but Zhumen glared at Joraz for a few minutes, before she finally nodded as well. Joraz drew his sidearm and opened the door to the Emperor’s quarters.

***

Emperor Embamor II was pouring his fifth glass of whiskey when the door to his quarters opened suddenly and six of his bodyguards burst in with their guns drawn. So, he thought to himself, they have come for me at last. He put down the whiskey glass and turned toward the traitors with his hands in the air.

“You are here to kill me, are you not, Sergeant Joraz?” he said calmly.

“I am,” Joraz responded, “But you are slightly mistaken. I am actually Colonel Joraz.” Embamor nodded.

“Of course,” he said, “Well, do what you came to do.”

A few seconds later, as he lay in a pool of his own blood, his life flashed before his eyes. It wasn’t much of a life. He had no children, no one to pass on his legacy to. He didn’t even have much of a legacy. He had claimed to be the Emperor, but if his reign was remembered at all, it would be as a complete failure. And although he had spent his whole life building relationships and making connections to enrich himself, at the end all of that effort counted for nothing. In death, he was completely alone.

***

For a short moment, Joraz stared down at the body of the former Emperor, and then he shook himself, holstered his sidearm, and motioned to his team to move out. The corridor outside the Emperor’s quarters was empty, and so were the next few corridors they went through after that. They were headed for a poorly guarded and rarely watched side entrance. The shift change for the Emperor’s bodyguard wasn’t for three more hours, so hopefully they would be able to slip out unnoticed before anybody realized that the Emperor was dead.

They were almost to the exit when their hopes for a safe escape were dashed. They turned a corner, only to find 20 heavily armed members of the Legion of the Heart, each with an assault rifle trained in their direction. Standing in their midst was Adlamor Finegal, the Emperor’s chief advisor.

“So,” he said with a smirk, “you traitors thought you could kill the Emperor and get away with it, eh?” He shook his head in mock disappointment. “What a shame. Well, I won’t say that I’ll mourn the loss of our great and fearless leader, but I can’t allow you to leave the Palace alive. That would set a bad precedent, you see. I’m sure you understand.” He turned to the squad commander and clapped him on the shoulder. “Kill them.”

The last thing that Fernan Joraz saw was the blinding glare of twenty assault rifles going off at once.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 9

Fernen Joraz was relaxing in his apartment, smoking a cigarette and watching a movie, when the message arrived. Joraz was 6’2″ with a lean, muscular build. He had long, wavy auburn hair, dark green eyes, and no facial hair. He was ostensibly a sergeant in the ISS, but his true identity was as a Colonel in the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin. He was one of the agents sent to Trisitania by order of the Supreme Commander to determine the feasibility of assassinating the Emperor.

Despite his former role as Commander of the Legion of the Heart (the military unit that guarded the Imperial Palace), Emperor Embamor II seemed to have no concept of security. Joraz had arrived on Trisitania about a year ago, and had been accepted into the ISS with only the most cursory look at his background. Even though the Empire was at war with four other factions, the ISS was so desperate for men that they didn’t want to risk having to turn anybody away by uncovering anything unpleasant in their past.

As simple as it was to join the ISS, getting close to the Emperor was somewhat more difficult. Not because the Emperor was overly picky about who was allowed to join his bodyguard, but more because he seemed to be trying to commit suicide by neglecting his bodyguard. After three months of service in the ISS, Joraz had submitted an application to join the Emperor’s bodyguard, and it had taken six months of constant requests for information to even get a response. Once somebody finally returned his call, he was accepted into the bodyguard almost immediately.

Needless to say, when the War Council asked him for his assessment on the situation, Joraz had told them that it would be almost ridiculously easy to eliminate the Emperor. He never really expected to get the confirmation to go ahead, though. Embamor II was such a feeble drunk that almost anyone would be a more effective Emperor. Joraz couldn’t imagine that the War Council would want to remove him. Which made the message he had just received all the more surprising.

The message read, “Hey man. How’s it going? Haven’t heard from you for awhile.” That message, coming from a specific source, meant that the Supreme Commander had authorized the death of the Emperor. If the message had said, “Dude! Long time no see!” then the mission would have been aborted and Joraz would be heading back to Numoris.

As soon as he saw the message, he put out his cigarette and turned off the movie. He had work to do. His first job was to send a special message to every member of his team. Like the message he received, it was seemingly innocuous to anyone on the outside, but to his team members, it meant that they had received an execute order and needed to get ready immediately.

He quickly took off the t-shirt and sweatpants he had been wearing, and put on his ISS uniform. He grabbed his sidearm, his ID badge, and his tablet. On his way out the door, he checked the tablet to make sure it had the information for his ticket on a transport to Kellora. Kellora was a province on the edge of the territory controlled by Embamor II. There was a significant underground Fangalin presence there, so if Joraz and his team could make it there, they would be able to make it the rest of the way back to Fangalin space.

The plan was simple, as all good plans should be. His team had six members, including himself. All six of them were members of the Emperor’s bodyguard. Two were on duty outside the Emperor’s quarters right now. The plan was for Joraz and the other three to show up, seemingly to give the true bodyguards a break, but Joraz and his team would kill them, and then the Emperor. If all went well, Joraz would be able to claim that the dead men were traitors, and that Joraz and his loyal team had killed them after they murdered the Emperor. In the confusion that followed, Joraz and his team would hopefully be able to leave Trisitania and get to Kellora.

Joraz had no illusions about the risk he was taking, though. He fully expected to die this night. He didn’t want to die, but if he had to, he could think of no better way to do so than in the service of the Dark Presence. He had the tickets to Kellora if he needed them. He hoped he would need them. But he didn’t expect to need them. He fully expected that he would be dead before the transport left Trisitania.

He left his apartment building and walked down to the nearby transit station. From there, he would take a train to Selorin’s main transit station, where he could get on a special train specifically for ISS members that went directly to the Palace. He didn’t live that far from the main station, and the main station wasn’t very far from the Palace, so it didn’t take him very long at all to arrive.

He entered through the east wing of the Palace, and made his way to the ISS office. He checked in with security, and soon after he did so, he met up with one of his Fangalin team members. Sergeant Ahvamar Olaio was really a Major in the Grand and Invincible Army. He was a giant of a man, 6’6″ and easily 350 pounds. He had no hair on his head or his face, and no neck to speak of. His nose had been broken at least twice, and he had a perpetual scowl on his face. He looked like the meanest, toughest man in the galaxy, but in reality he was soft-spoken and gentle. He could be as tough as he looked when he needed to be, though.

“And how are you this evening, Joraz?” Olaio asked in his surprisingly calm, quiet voice.

“I’m doing well, Olaio,” Joraz responded. “I have a good feeling about tonight.” Olaio nodded in satisfaction.

To be continued…

The Solitude of Death, Part 8

Zhemeen Fortulis glowered at the man sitting in front of him, unsure how to respond to what this man was presenting him with. What he was hearing was the complete opposite of everything he’d heard from this person over the past few weeks. The fact that it was coming from someone he’d never quite trusted was only making him more suspicious.

“Councilor Calabane,” he began, “I don’t know how to respond to this. You have been steadfastly opposing the assassination of the Emperor for weeks, and now all of a sudden you think it’s a good idea? And you won’t tell me where this change of heart comes from? How am I supposed to take that?”

Dren Calabane folded his arms and stared back at Fortulis impassively. “I’ve told you, my lord, if I revealed to you why I came to this decision, it would compromise a sensitive and highly placed source within the Imperial bureaucracy,” he said. “All I can say is that my information comes from a source that has never steered me wrong. Besides, why would you even make an issue about this? I know that you favor assassination. I’m willing to add my support to your decision. Why would you have a problem with that?”

Fortulis had to admit to himself that Calabane was making sense, but he wasn’t going to admit that out loud. He and Dren Calabane had always had a complicated relationship. Dren’s father, Orfan, had hated Zhemeen Fortulis with a passion, and Fortulis had always reciprocated. Fortulis’s election as Supreme Commander over Orfan had intensified that hatred, but the two men had been rivals almost from the day they met. Fortulis had breathed a huge sigh of relief the day that Orfan died of lung cancer, but it wasn’t long after when his rival’s son was elected to the Grand Council.

Fortulis knew that Dren was a very different man from his father. He knew that the son had hated his father almost as much as Zhemeen had. He knew that Dren Calabane looked up to him and saw him as almost a father-figure. He even knew that Dren was a brilliant strategist and a forceful and persuasive leader who would be a valuable ally and a formidable enemy. And yet, he could never quite get over the fact that Dren was Orfan’s son.

“I have a hard time agreeing to something if I don’t understand the motivations behind it,” Fortulis said coldly. “I admit that I have been leaning toward ordering the death of the Emperor. But your sudden about-face has me wondering if that might be a bad idea. What will you gain from Embamor’s death? And how much of that gain will be at my expense?” Fortulis regretted those words almost as soon as they left his mouth, especially when he saw the stricken look that appeared on Calabane’s face.

“I know this might be hard for you to believe, my lord,” Calabane said in tight, quiet voice, “but I am not my father. I am not looking to enrich myself at your expense. I serve the Order, and the Dark Presence. At one time I believed that leaving Embamor II alive would provide greater benefit to Fangalin than killing him would. Now, I believe the opposite. I cannot, and will not, tell you why that is. All I can tell you is that my loyalty to Fangalin has not, and will never, waver. Take that for what you will.” And with that, he stood up and strode from the room.

Fortulis sighed wearily and rubbed his temples after the door slid shut. What a mess this situation was turning into. When he had gone to the War Council and asked them to investigate the feasibility of using agents already in place within the Imperial Palace to assassinate Embamor II, he had never imagined that the question of whether to do so or not would become so political.

Originally, Fortulis had no serious thoughts of actually assassinating the Emperor. Embamor II was a drunkard and an imbecile, completely unable to provide any kind of effective resistance to the Fangalin onslaught. His order to the War Council had simply been a matter of determining the logistics of assassinating the Emperor in general, not this specific Emperor. But once Fortulis got the report back and realized how little security was in place in the Palace, he began contemplating the possibilities.

Embamor II was incompetent, but it was unlikely that any successor would be more competent, with as dysfunctional as the Empire was at the moment. Killing him might also have the bonus effect of destabilizing the Empire further. The Emperor hadn’t even begun the process of reconstructing the Senate, so any successor to Embamor would likely be seen as even less legitimate than Embamor himself, who was already seen by many within the Empire as an usurper.

The bigger problem was that directing the course of a war was hard. Much harder than Fortulis imagined it would be. For forty years, Fortulis had directed the majority of his energy toward Operation Thunderclap. He would never have admitted it at the time, but in hindsight it was obvious that he had just kind of assumed that the Empire would immediately crumble in the wake of the Emergence. Three years later, it was becoming painfully obvious that decapitating the Empire was not sufficient to kill it.

Still though, Fortulis had no doubt that Fangalin’s ultimate victory was inevitable. The question was simply a matter of how best to proceed, so that victory could come quickly and at a minimum cost. More and more, Fortulis was leaning toward the elimination of Embamor II as the most logical way to proceed. The longer Embamor was allowed to stay on the throne, the more used to him the Imperial populace would get, and the more likely that he would be able to pull himself together and begin to develop an effective response against Fangalin’s assault. Further destabilization of the Empire seemed like the most desirable outcome at this point.

To be continued…