The Bull and the Hyena, Part 9

Izik Hoshic was laying flat on his back on the floor when he was informed by Jefmin Lakatai that the Emperor had summoned him. He scowled up at Lakatai’s fat, arrogant face, and then begrudgingly rose to his feet. He had been practicing close combat drill with some younger members of the Palace Guard, the unit that had replaced the defunct Legion of the Heart, and one of them had just managed to flip him onto his back. It was bad enough to have the wind knocked out of him, but to have his hated rival walk in just at that moment made it immeasurably worse.

Hoshic brushed past Lakatai, ignoring the expectant look on the latter’s smug face, and retrieved his tablet from amongst his other belongings on a bench along the wall of the practice room. He tapped a few buttons, and a hologram of the Emperor’s face began hovering in the space above the tablet.

“Your Majesty,” he said reverentially, “what can I do for you?”

“You can come to my quarters, General, and help me plan a war,” Extrator said impatiently.

“A war?” asked Hoshic, confused, “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but haven’t we been at war for almost four years now?”

“Of course, you buffoon,” Extrator said with a scowl, “This is a new war. One that we need to crush before it really gets started. So get up here. Now.” With that, Extrator’s face disappeared.

That brief exchange left Hoshic feeling disoriented and a little disgusted, but that was how he normally felt after dealing with the Emperor these days. Hoshic and Extrator had been colleagues and friends for almost ten years, ever since Hoshic had replaced Xendin Lodimeur as the commander of the IAF troops stationed on Bliddle. Extrator had always been a religious fanatic, while Hoshic was agnostic at most, but in most other ways, they were alike. They both had a strong belief in duty, in justice, in order. But ever since Extrator became Emperor, Hoshic believed that his pursuit of power was clouding his mind and keeping him from fulfilling his deepest ideals.

Not that Hoshic believed Extrator had abandoned his ideals. He just was so determined to bring order and justice back to the galaxy as a whole that he was ignoring order and justice in the short term. He was becoming increasingly irritable and capricious, and it was obvious to Hoshic that the pressure of the Throne was wearing heavily on his friend. The problem was that Hoshic had no idea how to help him. Extrator had never been one to easily accept criticism, and now that he held the power of life and death, he generally responded to criticism with death.

So Hoshic spent his time training and fretting. In addition to his worries about the Emperor, he was still haunted by the deaths of so many good men and women when his forces seized the Palace. He saw their faces in his dreams, and he dwelled on their screams whenever his mind wasn’t otherwise occupied. So he did his best to drown his worries in sweat. When he was focused on knocking down the man or woman in front of him, and keeping himself upright, he didn’t have time to wallow in grief.

He entered the Emperor’s quarters still dressed in his training outfit. He worried that Extrator would be displeased at the lack of decorum, but he worried even more what would happen if he took the time to shower and change and Extrator decided he was late. He kneeled down in front of the Emperor and touched his forehead to the floor, hoping that debasing himself in this way would assuage the Emperor’s wrath at his appearance.

“Rise, my servant,” Extrator said in a patronizing tone which implied that such debasement was exactly what he expected. That made Hoshic cringe inside. The Throne really was changing his best friend, and not for the better. “I have just received word that a group of provinces in the Retigulous Sector have announced their secession from the Empire and are calling themselves the Kingdom of Midigal. Needless to say, we cannot allow this insult to stand. We must crush these rebels before they have a chance to establish themselves and further fracture the Empire.”

“I wholeheartedly agree, Your Majesty,” Hoshic said, who had quickly read the briefing on this matter on his way up. “However, I wonder if it might not be too late for that. From what little information we have, it seems like these rebels might already be too well established to be easily dislodged. Vor Shen has a reputation as a master strategist. I have to imagine that he has a plan to deal with any force we might send against him.”

“Are you thinking of disobeying me, General?” Extrator said, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

“Of course not, Your Majesty!” Hoshic said quickly. A sharp stab of fear pierced his heart. How could such a small suggestion be taken as evidence of disobedience? “I am simply offering my opinion. You may take it or leave it as you will.” Extrator regarded him suspiciously, and then shook his head.

“Forgive me, my friend,” he said with a sigh, “It’s so hard to sit here, in this place of authority and responsibility, and not feel like I’m surrounded by traitors and fools. I know that you are neither, but it’s very hard for me not to treat you as such, because I have to treat everyone else like that.”

“I…am not sure how to respond to that, Your Majesty,” Hoshic said warily.

“Don’t worry about it,” Extrator said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “We need to focus on the task at hand. I appreciate your feedback, and I see your point, but I believe that we need to crush this rebellion at all costs, or else we will risk looking weak in the eyes of our many rivals. Above all else, we need to project an aura of strength, or we will be overwhelmed. Whether or not to strike now is not up for debate. All I need from you is the best way to strike.”

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 8

Seven months ago, everything changed. At least, that’s how Emperor Extrator IV liked to view things. In his mind, he had ascended to the Imperial Throne and single-handedly brought order and justice back to the galaxy, obliterating the pagan terrorists of Fangalin and reuniting the shattered remnants of the Empire. That’s what he wanted to believe.

But as much as he had convinced himself that he was the chosen of the One, even he had to admit that the reality was much removed from what he had envisioned seven months ago. Fangalin continued to grow and advance. There were still three other men who had the audacity to challenge Extrator’s rightful claim to the Throne. And the Republic of Hadramoris continued to pretend that they were a separate nation, apart from the holy and sacred Empire. It was enough to make a pious man’s blood boil.

And on top of everything, new reports were coming in about a new faction forming in the Retigulous Sector. Several Imperial cruisers had gone missing over a year ago. Two units were involved, one commanded by Haasadis Ventelin and another commanded by Vor Shen. They had continued to send in reports about their status and their disposition, but no one had been able to confirm whether those reports were accurate or not. And it was becoming increasingly apparent that they were not.

That was frustrating enough on its own, but now Extrator’s agents were getting information about what those two rogue generals were actually up to. It seemed that they were planning to break a significant chunk of the Empire off and set up a kingdom centered around the province of Midigal. Midigal and the rest of the Retigulous Sector weren’t terribly important, but they weren’t completely insignificant either. Aside from that, it offended Extrator to the very core of his being to think of any province seceding from the Empire, especially while he sat on the Throne.

He was sitting at his desk in his living quarters in the Imperial Palace, reading reports and trying to figure out what to do with the mess that his predecessors had made. His quarters were magnificently luxurious, as befit the living quarters of the most powerful man in the galaxy, but Extrator scarcely noticed it. Truth be told, it offended him. His intention was to sell off most of the decorations and treasures in the Palace and donate the money to charity, but he had much more pressing matters to deal with before he got to that.

Extrator’s work was interrupted suddenly by an insistent beep from his tablet. He found a message from one of his aides, urgently requesting that he view a live news broadcast coming from Midigal. With a scowl at the interruption, and a feeling of foreboding, he pulled up the broadcast. What he saw only deepened his scowl.

His worst fears for the Retigulous Sector were coming true. Haasadis Ventelin was standing at a podium emblazoned with an unfamiliar royal seal, the Merchants’ Council of Midigal arrayed behind him, announcing that Midigal and 27 other provinces were seceding from the Empire and forming the Kingdom of Midigal, with Ventelin himself as king. Extrator sat and watched the entire broadcast, seething with righteous fury, and as soon as it was over, he slammed down the tablet and called the Master of the ISS.
Jefmin Lakatai came into the Emperor’s quarters a few minutes later. He sauntered in with his usual arrogance, and Extrator felt the familiar feeling of dislike and disgust that he felt whenever Lakatai was in his presence. Unfortunately, Extrator’s personal dislike of a man wasn’t enough to disqualify him from a position, and Lakatai was an excellent Master. Or he had been, anyway.

“Your Majesty,” Lakatai said as he came in, his voice suitably subservient, but mixed with a nearly imperceptible hint of smugness, “what can I do for you at this late hour?”

“You can explain the meaning of this,” Extrator said, hurling a tablet at him, which he caught with a grunt against his ample gut. He saw the broadcast from Midigal, and his oily smile slowly turned into a scowl.

“Where did you get this?” Lakatai demanded without looking up, and when he didn’t get a response, he went pale, realizing that his lack of respect was a terrible mistake. He looked up, and when he saw that the Emperor was radiating fury, he knew he was right.

“I do have other sources of information, Lakatai,” Extrator said with quiet intensity. “Better sources of information, it would seem. Do you care to try and explain yourself? Or shall I order your execution now?” Every last shred of color drained from Lakatai’s face at this.

“Y-your M-majesty,” Lakatai groveled, getting on his knees before the Emperor, “please forgive my failure. I had received some reports indicating that these events were imminent, but I did not believe them credible at the time, so I declined to pass them on to you. I plead with you to give me another chance, my Sovereign.” Extrator scowled down at him for a few minutes, making him sweat.

“Rise, my servant,” Extrator said coldly, “I give you back your life and your position…for now. Know that I will not tolerate another failure of this magnitude, however. I believe that this was more than just mere incompetence. I suspect that you were attempting to hide this plot from me on purpose. Fortunately for you, I have no evidence of this, and I will not execute you based on suspicion alone. And truth be told, you are still the best man for this job. But if you had thoughts of treason, I strongly suggest you put them aside. I will not tolerate treasonous thoughts or actions. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lakatai said obsequiously, “You have made yourself perfectly clear.”

“Very well,” Extrator said, turning away to look out the window at skyline of Selorin. “Find me all the information you can about this so-called kingdom. And tell General Hoshic to see me. We have a rebellion to crush.”

Lakatai bowed and departed. Extrator didn’t see him go. He was already deep in prayer. He was the instrument of deliverance, a tool in the hands of the One. He knew the end was near, that he would be the one to heal a bruised and battered Empire. He just wished the One wasn’t taking so long to carry out his will.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 7

“Hey, what the heck is going on, Treben?” Kyla asked as Treben stormed out of the bar. He was walking so fast that she could barely keep up with him. “Who is Vor Shen? Why are you so upset?” He ignored her and continued to barrel along down the street. She raced to catch up, and grabbed him by the arm. “Hey!” she yelled. He turned and glared at her.

“This has nothing to do with you,” he said coldly, “You better mind your own business.” She glared right back at him.

“How can you say that?” she said, “You obviously have some sort of history with this Shen guy. If he’s in the Council Hall, and we need to get into the Council Hall to do our job, then obviously the fact that he’s there affects me, because I’m part of this job!” They glared silently at each other for a few minutes, and then finally Treben’s face softened and he sighed heavily.

“Fine,” he said in a tired voice, “You’re right. It does affect you. You do have a right to know.” He sighed again, and then turned back to the bar they’d just left. “We might as well go sit down. It’s a long story.” They went back into the bar and sat down in a booth. Garvin started to come over to them, but Treben waved him away. Garvin nodded, a look of sympathy on his face.

“The first thing you need to understand is that my reputation as a womanizing rogue is, or at least was, a smokescreen,” Treben said, leaning forward and lacing his fingers together under his chin. “Once upon a time, I had a family. A wife and a son to be exact.”

“You?” Kyla exclaimed, incredulous, “You were married? You had a kid? Wait… what do you mean, ‘once upon a time’?” Treben sighed heavily and suddenly looked about twenty years older.

“They’re both dead now,” he said in a sorrowful voice, “Murdered by the ISS, on the orders of General Vor Shen.”

“Oh, Treben…,” Kyla said in a voice that was equal parts horrified and sympathetic.

“My son…Joras…he was such a sweet little boy. He’d be…wow, he’d 12 years old now. How time flies.” He fell silent for a few moments, staring off into space. Kyla gazed at him, marveling that she had never suspected that this side of Treben Holkas existed.

“What happened?” she asked quietly after a few minutes. He focused on her, and took a deep breath.

“I told you that I was once the biggest smuggler in this sector. Well, you don’t get to that sort of position without making some enemies. That’s why I cultivated the reputation I have. I knew that Harasai and Joras would have been targets for my enemies if anyone knew they existed. I thought I’d hidden them well. I thought they were safe. But I was wrong.” He sniffed loudly and rubbed his eyes, as if he was trying to hold back tears.

“Five years ago, I got a tip that the ISS was about to raid my warehouse. I’d been playing cat and mouse with the ISS for my whole career, so I didn’t think too much of it. The ISS had never taken smuggling terribly seriously. Every couple of years they’d launch a token raid, partially to make people think they were doing something, but mostly just to fill their coffers. I’d get the most valuable stuff out early, but I’d leave most of it behind. It was basically a bribe. But this time was different. A new submaster had taken over in this sector a guy by the name of Torkan Volmula. He was serious about stamping out smuggling for some reason, so he decided to bring in the military. The IAF placed Shen in charge of the operation. Somehow, and I’ve never figured out how, Shen found out about Harasai and Joras.” He took another deep breath and covered his face with hands for a few moments, trying to gather the strength to continue his story.

“I told Harasai that I was going to the colonies for a few weeks. Neither one of us thought anything of it. Like I said, these raids happened periodically. It never occurred to me to take Harasai and Joras with me. Even if it had, I was convinced that they were hidden, so they would have been in more danger with me than they were on Midigal. So I left. The next day, the ISS raided my house. They were looking for me, but since I wasn’t there, they took Harasai and Joras instead.” He took another deep, shuddering breath, and blinked repeatedly, trying to keep tears out of his eyes.

“I don’t know exactly what happened to them, but I do know they were both beaten severely. The ISS was trying to figure out where I’d gone, but they didn’t know, so they were executed.” At this, the tears that he had desperately been trying to hold back began to flood out. He lowered his head to the table, and began sobbing. Kyla awkwardly reached out and patted him on the shoulder.

“I’m…sorry, Treben,” she said, feeling horribly inadequate. After a few minutes, he took a deep breath and sat back up. His sobs had stopped, but there were still tears running down his cheeks.

“It’s alright,” he said, wiping his face with his hands, “It’s over and done with now. I don’t know why they were executed. I don’t know if it was intended to send me a message, or if the ISS was just pissed that they didn’t get any useful information out of them. But I do know that the orders for their executions were signed by Vor Shen.” He looked Kyla directly in the eyes, and what she saw there terrified her. The sorrow that he’d displayed previously had now been replaced with pure fury.

“I know that killing Shen won’t bring them back,” he said in a quiet, intense voice, “but I don’t care. I will kill him. I will make him suffer. No matter the cost.”

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 6

“What’s goin’ on, Fatso?” asked Treben Holkas as he slid onto a grimy bar stool in a different grimy bar. His question was directed at the bartender, a large, one-eyed bald man with a sour expression on his face. Kyla held her breath as the bartender gave Treben a look like he was going to smash a beer glass over his head. Treben just grinned goofily back at him, and then, to Kyla’s surprise, the bartender’s weathered face broke out into a huge grin.

“Treben Holkas, you are a sight for sore eyes,” the bartender said with a hearty laugh, “Or sore eye, anyway. Where’ve have you been hiding yourself? I haven’t seen you in nearly five years!”

“Oh, I’ve been here and there,” Holkas said with a wink, “You might recall that the ISS put a bounty on my head. I was trying to keep a low profile out in the colonies, and then the war broke out, and, well, business has been booming.”

“Well, I’m glad those bastards never got you,” the bartender said, shaking his head and smiling, “I daresay they have bigger problems to worry about now than a small-time smuggler.”

“Hey, now,” Holkas said, faking indignation, “I’ll have you know that I was the biggest smuggler in this sector until the ISS busted me. Maybe even the biggest smuggler in the outer provinces!” The bartender just chuckled.

“So who’s this lovely lady?” he said, bowing his head slightly in Kyla’s direction.

“Kyla Vertrane,” she said, sticking her hand out for him to shake. Instead of shaking it though, he took it and kissed it gently, a gesture that Kyla was not used to, and certainly was not expecting from a one-eyed bartender in a dirty bar. She blushed slightly, and said, “And you are?”

“Oh, this is Fatso,” Treben said, popping some nuts in his mouth and crunching loudly. The bartender scowled at Treben and turned back to Kyla.

“Ignore this lout,” he said, “Some people find it amusing to make fun of my girth with a rude nickname, but you can call me Garvin Lotora.” Kyla smiled brightly at him, and Treben grinned mischieviously.

“Oh, Fatso,” he said, “Don’t take it so hard. Nobody’s making fun of you. It’s a term of endearment!”

“Oh really?” Garvin said with an arched eyebrow.

“Yeah!” Treben said, “We only call you Fatso cause you’re fat!” Kyla failed to stifle a snort of laughter, and Garvin frowned at her.

“I see how you are,” Garvin said in a wounded voice, although he ruined it by smiling slightly, “I show you manners and you repay me by laughing at my weight problem? And here I thought you would be better than that.”

“Well, now you know the truth,” Kyla responded with a grin, “I’m just as much an uncultured lout as Treben here.” Treben and Garvin both chuckled at this.

“As much as I’ve missed horsing around with you, Fatso, we do have some work we need to do,” Treben said, his demeanor growing more serious.

“Of course, of course, old friend,” Garvin said. He poured a beer for each of them and put them down on the bar. Kyla took a suspicious sip, and was surprised to discover that it was some of the best beer she’d ever had. Treben took a long swig of his and sighed contentedly.

“Ah, I’ve missed you, Fatso,” he said, “Okay, first of all, what can you tell me about the Kingdom of Midigal?”

“Worst kept secret in the city,” Garvin said with a snort, “The Merchants’ Council thinks they’re being clever and hiding it from us plebes, but we all know that they’re about to announce their secession from the Empire.”

“I knew that much,” Treben said, “Do you know any details? Especially timing?”

“I’ve heard all kinds of things, but nothing really concrete,” Garvin said, grimacing, “The Council is doing a much better job of locking down the details.”

“How about guesses?” Treben asked.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that the announcement is most likely going to happen in about two weeks,” Garvin said with a shrug.

“Two weeks…,” Treben said, stroking his chin. He glanced over at Kyla, who raised her eyebrows slightly. “What do you know about Haasadis Ventelin?”

“I know a lot of things about Ventelin,” Garvin said with a sneer, “He’s Midigal’s most famous son, isn’t he?” He spit on the floor to show what he thought of that.

“Anything specific?” Treben asked.

“Well, I’ve heard a lot of reports that he’s been staying in the Council Hall for the last few months. Don’t know anything more than that,” Garvin said.

“Hmmm,” Treben mused, “Well that certainly matches up with other things I’ve heard.”

“Oh?” Garvin asked, “What do you mean?”

“I mean that the rumor is that Ventelin is going to be crowned King of Midigal in two weeks,” Treben said.

“Ugh,” Garvin said with a sneer, “I’ve no love for the Empire, but I think I’d rather stick with them than have that buffoon as a king.”

“Well, I don’t know that you have much to worry about there,” Treben said, taking a swig of his beer. Garvin squinted at him.

“Are you… What are you up to, Treben?” he asked suspiciously. Treben just replied with a wink and a grin. Garvin shook his head with a sigh. “I see how it is. Well, let me give you a friendly word of warning, on the off chance that you try to bust into the Council Hall. Vor Shen is here on Midigal.”

“What did you say!” Treben exclaimed, slamming his mug down on the bar. All trace of mirth was gone from his face. Garvin just gazed back at him evenly. Kyla looked back and forth at the two of them, utterly baffled at what had just happened. After a few moments, Treben leaned back, his face completely blank except for a slight twitch in one eye.

“That’s okay,” he said, but the tone of his voice made it clear that it was anything but. “It doesn’t matter.” Garvin gave him a skeptical look, but kept quiet. Kyla just looked more baffled than ever. “Thanks for your help, and for the drinks, my friend,” Treben said, “Come on, Kyla. We need to go.”

To be continued…