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…