A Shard of Darkness, Part 4

Belfamor Hemetal sat on a third-floor balcony overlooking one of the main streets in Heretoral, one leg crossed over the other, holding a drink in one hand and a tablet in the other. It was raining, of course, but fortunately the balcony was shielded so that it remained perfectly dry. Although his main purpose in taking leave and coming home was to convince his father to bring Shala Votalin with him to Trisitania, he still wanted to take advantage of his time off to do some relaxing. It helped that his mother was busy with trade negotiations all day, and it turned out that she was the one he needed to convince. If he had to wait to talk to her, better to use this time for relaxation than just sit around and wait.

“So, I hear you want me to go to Trisitania?” said a female voice suddenly. Belfamor frowned and looked up at Shala Votalin.

“Please understand, it has nothing to do with you personally,” he sighed, setting down his drink and his tablet. “I simply want what’s best for House Hemetal.”

“That’s fair,” Shala said, settling down in the empty seat adjacent to Belfamor’s. “To be honest, I tried talking your mother out of this plan, but she was adamant. Not that I want to go to Trisitania, mind you. But I just wanted you to realize that it is not my goal to harm House Hemetal in any way.”

“I…,” Belfamor began, and then frowned. “You really would be willing to return to your father for the sake of House Hemetal?”

“Yes,” she said softly, but intensely. “Your family has done so much for me, and been so kind to me, and I don’t deserve any of it. The last thing I want is for my father to destroy your House to get to me.”

“But… Your father…he…well…,” Belfamor stammered, his face flushing.

“I know full well what my father will do when he gets his hands on me again,” Shala replied, her eyes narrowing and her voice hardening. “Do you think I am a fool?”

“No, it’s not that… It’s just… I can’t…quite see anyone…willingly returning to that situation,” Belfamor said, thoroughly uncomfortable.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Shala said, her gaze becoming distant. “I never want to see my father again. I want him to die a horrible, fiery death, his agony stretching on into eternity. But living with your parents has taught me something that had never occurred to me before. Our lives are not measured by how happy we are, or how beautiful we are, or how successful we are, or anything like that. In the end, it all comes down to this: when given the choice, did we do the right thing?” Belfamor was silent for a long time, gazing at Shala pensively, while for her part, Shala seemed thoroughly transfixed by the rain dissipating as it fell on the shield surrounding the balcony.

“You are a stronger woman than I gave you credit for,” Belfamor finally said. Shala slowly closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Do not flatter me, Belfamor,” she whispered. “I am a coward. I say that I would return to my father to spare your House, but what have I done about it? Nothing. Your mother is not my master, but I tell myself that I cannot go to Trisitania because she will not allow me. She is just a caila. If I truly wanted to go against her wishes, there is no power in the universe that could stop me. But I won’t.”

“It is a hard thing,” Belfamor agreed, “and you almost make me think I should not attempt to change my mother’s mind. But I can’t sit by and let House Hemetal suffer destruction and not try to avert it. I’m sorry Shala, but I must do what I must do.”

“Of course,” Shala replied briskly, sitting up straight. “We all must. I would not expect anything different of you.” She stood up and strode towards the door of the balcony, but then she stopped. “Would you like to hear something funny?” She looked back at him, but didn’t wait for his answer. “When we were children I had a…a crush on you, I guess you’d call it. I used to imagine that you’d storm Votalin Manor like some sort of knight or something, and rescue me from my father’s clutches.” She let out a bitter, ironic chuckle. “Fortunately, I have since outgrown the foolish fantasies of youth.” She gave him a sardonic grin, and then she once again turned and swept out of the balcony, leaving Belfamor alone with dark thoughts.

Of course, he didn’t want Shala to be abused by her father. If he could have protected her from her father’s perversions without endangering his own House, he would have done it in a heartbeat. But the welfare of House Hemetal had to come first. Didn’t it?

If only Shala hadn’t intruded on his relaxation time. Before their brief conversation, he had been one hundred percent certain that sending her to Trisitania with his father was the right thing to do. After all, despite what Lorgad might have thought, he had succeeded in planting his strong sense of right and wrong in his son. Belfamor would always do the right thing, no matter what. The problem was, suddenly he didn’t know what the right thing was anymore.

He still needed to talk to his mother. Ilena was the key. If his mother could be made to see that the interests of House Hemetal were greater than protecting one young woman, then that would confirm in his mind that sending Shala to Trisitania was the right thing to do. And if he couldn’t persuade his mother that sending Shala to Trisitania was the right thing to do, then it wouldn’t matter. Neither his father not Shala were willing to go against Ilena’s wishes in this matter. So, persuading Ilena was essential if House Hemetal were to survive. Belfamor just wished he didn’t feel like he was doing something horrible by even trying to persuade his mother.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 3

After a couple of days of settling in, Belfamor decided it was time to broach the subject of Shala with his father again. Even though Lorgad had said that it was Ilena’s idea to keep Shala on Infanalis and not make her go to the capital, Lorgad was still the Head of House Hemetal, and his word was law. If Belfamor could convince Lorgad that leaving Shala on Infanalis was madness, it wouldn’t matter what his mother thought.

“So, it’s time for the talk, is it?” said Lorgad mildly as Belfamor entered his study. Lorgad’s study was as sumptuously understated as the man who occupied it. The decorations were simple, tasteful, but also undeniably expensive. The desk at which Lorgad sat had been built over 600 years ago with wood imported from Sevvelin, a heavily forested planet famed for its exotic trees. Everything about this room embodied the history and importance of House Hemetal. And this one fool move of his father’s could mean the end of all of it.

“Yes, Father, it is,” Belfamor said sternly, sitting down across from Lorgad’s desk. “How could you possibly even consider going to Trisitania without Shala Votalin, when the Emperor has specifically requested her presence? You know how Erelesk is. He’s mean, petty and vicious. He won’t hesitate to tear House Hemetal down around our ears for this insult.”

“Erelesk will bluster, and he will threaten, but the simple fact of the matter is that he still needs our support,” Lorgad replied calmly. “His hold on the Throne is still tenuous. Valador Mifalis grows stronger every day, and although Vibal Trogoron’s following is weak, he is still capable of being a thorn in Erelesk’s foot. No, he will not destroy one of his solidest bases of support just so that he can have sex with his daughter again.”

“Father, you’re expecting a mad man to behave rationally,” Belfamor sighed in exasperation. “Not only is Erelesk fully capable of tearing House Hemetal apart just to get his hands on Shala, I have no doubt that he will do it, and our support be damned. We may be one of the most powerful noble Houses in the Empire, but our strength is nothing compared to the combined might of the Imperial Fleet and the ISS. And he will not hesitate to use them.”

“And a fat lot of good all the ships in the Fleet will do him when he runs out of money to buy food and fuel for those ships,” Lorgad said dismissively. “With the Senate still out of commission, Erelesk needs as many Houses as he can find to fund the war effort. And House Hemetal is the richest.”

“Dammit, Father!” Belfamor yelled, slamming his hand onto his father’s desk. “You are not listening! Erelesk Votalin’s twisted pleasures are more important to him than the Imperial Throne! He would be willing to destroy the Empire itself to get his daughter back! There is nothing you can do to stop him, so please, do not destroy our family and my inheritance in this futile attempt!” For a moment, both men were silent, staring at each other coldly across the desk.

“Someday, Son, you will be the Head of this House,” Lorgad said slowly. His face was perfectly calm, but there was a fire burning in his eyes. “You will be Lord Hemetal, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that that role entails. And I hope when that day comes, you have learned that some things are more important than the prestige and power of a noble House.”

“Maybe I’ve already learned that, Father,” Belfamor said coldly. “Maybe I’m concerned because I care more about you than I do your wife.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Lorgad, arching an eyebrow.

“It’s not just our House that Erelesk will destroy if you go to Trisitania without Shala,” Belfamor said firmly. “It’s you. If you set foot on the capital alone, Erelesk Votalin will have you executed.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lorgad scoffed. “Not even the Emperor can put someone to death so arbitrarily.”

“What makes you think that?” demanded Belfamor. “The Senate is destroyed and the High Court is toothless. The only check to the Throne’s power in these days is guns and warships.”

“I would like to think that we are still more civilized than that, even with someone like Erelesk Votalin on the Throne,” Lorgad said.

“Father, I have been in the Emperor’s presence when he ordered men put to death for wearing the wrong shoes with their dress uniform,” Belfamor said darkly. “Even worse, there were three men wearing those same shoes, and only two were executed. The man is dangerously unstable, and unless your plan to keep Shala here involves removing her father from the Throne, your life and the lives of our whole family are in danger if you go through with this.”

“Belfamor, I understand your concerns, I really do,” Lorgad sighed. “But as I tried to explain to you earlier, this was your mother’s decision, not mine. If you really want me to take Shala to Trisitania, then you are going to have to convince her.”

“You are the Head of House Hemetal,” Belfamor replied angrily. “Not Mother. I do not understand how you can allow her to make a decision that will destroy our House and our family.”

“Because doing the right thing is more important than preserving our House or even our lives,” Lorgad sighed again. “Even if it comes to that.”

“So you’re decided then,” Belfamor said, disappointed.

“I am,” Lorgad said firmly.

“Then I will have to speak to Mother instead,” Belfamor replied.

“You are, of course, welcome to do so,” Lorgad said, “and I wish you luck. I will warn you, however, that if you are successful in persuading your mother to change her mind, it will be your responsibility to inform Shala.”

“Why?” Belfamor inquired, puzzled.

“Because, if she is to be sent back to the tender care of her father, she deserves an explanation from the man who sent her there,” Lorgad said mildly. Belfamor frowned at him silently for a moment, and then stood up and left the room without a word.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 2

Belfamor Hemetal frowned at the rain as his shuttle flew over the city of Heretoral towards his family’s manor. He’d always hated the weather on his native planet. A little bit of rain wasn’t a big deal, but it rained more often than not on Infanalis. A major in the Imperial Army, Belfamor had been stationed on Medradi for the past two years, an arid planet that was the headquarters of the Imperial Armed Forces. It would take a bit of adjustment to go from living on a planet so dry that it was nicknamed “The Rock” to go back to a planet as drenched as Infanalis.

All these thoughts about weather were just a distraction from what was really on his mind, though. He had requested a leave of absence from the Army as soon as he’d gotten word of his father’s mad plan to defy the Emperor. It was necessary to try and talk his father out of this crazy idea of going to Trisitania without the Emperor’s daughter. As disgusted as Belfamor was by the things that Neminatrix did to Shala, there was no way it was worth risking the fortune and very existence of House Hemetal over. As Lorgad Hemetal’s oldest child, Belfamor was next in line to become the Head of the House, Lord Hemetal himself. He wanted there to be a House for him to be Head of when the time came.

The shuttle touched down on the landing pad outside the Hemetal manor, and Belfamor sighed heavily at the downpour outside. As soon as the shuttle’s hatch popped open, he leaped out and ran as fast as he could, through the rain, along the path leading into the manor.

“Well, Belfamor, I didn’t expect to see you so soon,” said an unfamiliar voice as Belfamor stomped his feet on the rug and shook the rain off of his jacket. He looked around, and was quite surprised to see Shala Votalin standing there.

“Shala!” he exclaimed. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you outside your chambers since my father married you! What’s going on?”

“I’ve started to feel more like this place is my home,” she said with a sardonic smile. “Does that disturb you?”

“Of course not!” Belfamor said uncomfortably. “You are Father’s wife, and therefore this is every bit your home. I just…didn’t expect to see you while I was here. Do you know where Mother is?”

“I believe she is discussing House Hemetal’s trade negotiations with House Margolis in your father’s study,” Shala replied. “She will be in charge of those negotiations once Lorgad is on Trisitania.”

“I see,” Belfamor frowned. “Why her? Why not you?” he demanded, hoping to hear her say that she would also be on Trisitania.

“I am not part of House Hemetal, as you know very well,” she replied, her smile growing even more mocking. “I can no more negotiate on behalf of House Hemetal than I could on behalf of House Margolis.” Belfamor frowned at her silently, and then turned to find his parents.

Even after five years, it was still difficult for Belfamor to get used to the idea that his parents were technically not married anymore. Imperial law only allowed for a person to be married to one other person at a time, so in order for Lorgad to enter into a marriage alliance with House Votalin, the law required him to divorce his wife of almost 30 years. They weren’t completely divorced, however. This situation was common enough among noble houses that Imperial law recognized a form of secondary marriage, known as caila. A cailas was something like a mistress, but with legal rights and protections. Legally, Belfamor’s mother Ilena was Lorgad’s cailas, but Belfamor knew that, in Lorgad’s heart, Ilena was still his wife. His marriage to Shala was nothing more than a political maneuver.

Or at least it had been, at the start. Belfamor wasn’t so sure anymore. Clearly his father had developed some sort of feelings for the girl. He wondered how far it went. His mother would have done everything in her power to prevent any sort of romance from blossoming between Lorgad and Shala, but Ilena had been born a commoner, and as such, there wasn’t much she would be able to do if Lorgad decided to cut her loose. Belfamor hoped his father wouldn’t be so callous as to treat his mother that way, but this plan had him wondering.

Belfamor pressed a button on the panel next to the door of his father’s study, and a few seconds later the door slid open. His mother and father were standing there, welcoming smiles on their faces, but the thing that struck Belfamor the most was how much they’d aged. His father’s hair was much grayer than he remembered, and his mother’s face had considerably more wrinkles. But they looked happy, and he immediately forgot those concerns as they embraced him.

“Father, Mother, it’s good to be home,” Belfamor said with a smile of his own. As much as he hated the weather on Infanalis, this place, with these people, would always be his home.

“It’s good to have you home, son,” Lorgad said in his deep, booming voice.

“It certainly is,” Ilena said, beaming. “You look great. We heard about your latest promotion, Major Hemetal. Keep this up, and you’ll be a general by the time you’re 40!” Belfamor just smiled at her and shook his head. Promotions were nice, but what really motivated Belfamor was serving his House, and the Empire.

“Father, we need to discuss this plan of yours,” Belfamor said seriously, the smile fading from his face.

“Later, son,” Lorgad said, shaking his head. “Later. I’m not leaving for Trisitania for another week or so. You’ll have plenty of time to try and change my mind. But you’ll need to change your mother’s mind, too. This was her idea, after all.” Belfamor looked at his mother in surprise, and she nodded.

“I will not allow anyone to suffer abuse if it is within my power to stop it,” she said firmly. In reply, Belfamor just stared at her in disbelief. This was going to be more difficult than he thought.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 1

In a small, dark, cluttered room in a palatial manor in the city of Heretoral, Shala Votalin sat, stared out the window, and waited. It was raining outside, which was normal on the planet of Infanalis. Shala liked rain. Something about the dreary gloominess of rain made her feel like the dreary gloominess in her heart was normal. For two hours now, she had been sitting in her roo and waiting. She wondered if a normal person would be bored in this situation. Not her. This was relaxing to her. If she was just sitting and looking out a window, it meant that worse things weren’t happening to her.

Of course, it had been three years those worse things had happened, but old habits died hard. Ever since she was a child, her father had raped her regularly. It had been, sadly, normal for her, and if she didn’t enjoy it at all, it had been so engrained in her regular routine that she didn’t overly hate it either. But once she had been married off to an allied House, her husband had gotten wind of her father’s habits, and put a stop to them. That had surprised Shala, and she still wasn’t sure what to think about it. Nor was she convinced that her father had given up on her. But for three years, she had gotten a respite, and that was better than nothing.

That respite was likely to end soon. Her father, Erelesk Votalin, more commonly known now as Emperor Neminatrix IV, had requested the presence of herself and her husband, Lorgad Hemetal, at the capital, Trisitania. Lorgad had replied that he was more than happy to visit the capital, but that Shala wasn’t feeling well and wished to stay on Infanalis. The Emperor’s reply was expected today, and it was what Shala was waiting for.

Deep in her heart of hearts, Shala hoped and prayed that her father was done with her, that the reply would come, and he would say that it was okay for her to stay on Infanalis. But she knew that was a false hope. Her father would never be done with her. His soul was too sick and twisted to ever let her be free of him. She didn’t know why, but something about Erelesk Votalin was so broken and warped that he couldn’t be happy unless his only daughter was miserable.

Shala gave a start as the door of her room opened, and for a brief moment, there was a strange lightness in her heart that made her think the news would be good. But one look at her husband’s face told her that her hope was misplaced.

“Well?” she said faintly, hope warring with despair in her voice. Lorgad just shook his head sadly.

“I’m afraid the Emperor was disinclined to acquiesce to our request,” he said in a sorrowful voice. She sighed deeply and turned back to the window.

“It’s no more than I expected,” she said, trying, and failing, to sound strong.

“Shala,” said Lorgad, kneeling down beside her, “you are not going to Trisitania.” She turned to him with a quizzical expression on her face.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Of course I am! I mean, I don’t want to, but I can’t cross my father’s will.”

“You won’t be,” Lorgad said firmly. “I will. I will go to Trisitania without you, and I will face the consequences of that action.”

“Lorgad,” she said softly, shaking her head, “you can’t do that. If you defy him, he will destroy you and your entire House. He’s not just the head of House Votalin anymore. He’s the Emperor. I know House Hemetal is powerful, but compared to the might of the whole Empire, you won’t hold out long.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said emphatically. “I’ve sworn to uphold the honor and prosperity of my House, but my own personal oath has always been to do the right thing. And handing you over to your father is absolutely not the right thing. And if that means the destruction of House Hemetal, then so be it.”

“Lorgad,” she said quietly, tears welling up in her eyes, “thank you. I don’t think anyone has ever been nice to me before you. It’s…a strange feeling, but…I…I think I like it.”

“Oh, Shala,” Lorgad said with a wistful smile, “if life was in any way fair, you would have been my daughter, not Erelesk’s. I’m sorry that it took me so long to stand up for you. I should have adopted you when you were little.”

“You didn’t know,” Shala said sadly, turning back to the window. “Nobody knew.”

“You give me too much credit,” Lorgad said angrily, shaking his head. “I’ve always had a pretty good idea what kind of person Erelesk is. I just didn’t care. As long as he stayed away from my children, I wasn’t going to be bothered with what he did with his own.”

“But you changed, didn’t you?” Shala said. “You and Ilena have done so much more for me than anyone else ever has. Whatever your failings in the past, you’ve more than made up for them now.”

“Thank you, Shala,” Lorgad said, clearing his throat and blinking. He took a deep breath, then stood up and said, “In any case, I need to get ready for my trip to Trisitania. Please let me know if you need anything from me before I go.”

“I will do that, Lorgad,” Shala replied. She didn’t look as he left the room. It was a strange thing, having somebody care about you. Even though she was legally considered Lorgad’s wife, in a very real sense, she was more like his daughter. As much as she wished to have a knight in shining armor to love her and cherish her, having a father who treated her like a person was almost as good. She was almost in a good mood, but then she remembered that her real father was still out there, and he still desired to get his twisted claws on her again.

A plaintive sigh escaped her lips as she gazed at the streets below. People were running to and fro, trying to finish their business and get out of the rain. How many of them wished that they were a princess, daughter of the Emperor, married to a powerful lord? But she would have given up all of her wealth and status for the freedom of being a regular person, where nobody paid any attention to her, and no one cared who she was.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 30

Achave Veren’s alternate coordinates put Fluttermask in an empty sector of space, far from any inhabited solar systems. It was a spot that would be impossible to find if you weren’t looking for it, and sure enough, there was only one ship there, a small freighter that was broadcasting the authentication code that Achave had given her. The two ships docked with each other, and when the airlock opened, Kyla was stunned to see Treben Holkas on the other side.

“You!” she gasped, her eyes wide.

“Me,” he said with a satisfied smirk. “Been a long time, hasn’t it, Kyla?” In response, she stalked over and slapped him on the face so hard his head jerked back. He rubbed his jaw with a rueful grin and chuckled. “Yeah, I probably deserved that.”

“You abandoned me, you jackass!” she yelled. “What the hell did you do that for!”

“Actually, I had a very good reason,” he replied. “I work for Fangalin now, and I was ordered to cut off contact with you until we could be sure you were trustworthy.”

“I see,” she frowned. “Well, you’ll understand if that explanation doesn’t exactly make me forgive you.”

“Of course I understand,” he said with a sigh. “But I hope you’ll at least let me try to make it up to you.”

“And how will you do that?” Kyla asked skeptically.

“Is the cargo secure?” he asked in response.

“Of course!” Kyla replied, offended.

“Well then, here you go,” Treben said with a grin, handing her a tablet. Kyla took it with a scowl, but that scowl faded as she gazed at the tablet, a look of wonder appearing on her face.

“This…how is this possible?” she whispered, her eyes wide.

“Easy,” Treben replied, his grin widening. “Fangalin has deep pockets and vast resources. It was a simple matter for me to figure out how much you owed on Fluttermask, and who you owed it too, and my superiors valued your services enough to authorize me to pay your debt in full. Fluttermask is all yours now.”

“I…I had intended to use my fee from this job to pay off Grolder Hanh,” Kyla said breathily, still overwhelmed by this turn of events. “I never imagined things would turn out like this.”

“Well, now you can use your fee for more entertaining things,” Treben said cheerfully. “Speaking of which, the access code for your money is on that tablet too. As soon as the cargo is safely on my ship, it’ll go live, and you’ll be filthy stinking rich.” He grinned cheekily at her.

“I have to admit, this almost makes me want to forgive you,” she said with a rueful smile.

“Well, it was the least I could do,” he said with a wink. They moved off to the side of the cargo bay while their crews started moving the box from Fluttermask to Treben’s ship. “So, what do you think you’ll do now? Retire in style? Go live in a palatial villa on one of the beaches of Amaladua?”

“Are you saying that Fangalin doesn’t expect me to work for them, now that they’ve paid for my ship?” Kyla said, arching one eyebrow.

“Of course not!” Treben exclaimed with a dismissive hand gesture. “If you had a debt to Fangalin, delivering this cargo paid it off. You know what it is right?” Kyla pursed her lips and didn’t say anything. “It’s okay. We know you had a run-in with Madame Veren. It doesn’t matter now. Achave didn’t want you to know what it was, cause he thought you might try to sell it to the highest bidder. I know you better than that. In any case, now that Fangalin has this weapon system, it’ll neutralize any advantage the Empire will get from having it. With Fangalin’s superior numbers and organization, we’re certain to win this war soon. And it’s all thanks to you. No, I don’t think you owe Fangalin anything, my dear.”

“Well,” Kyla said thoughtfully. “Fangalin’s treated me pretty good so far. If you wanted to make me a job offer, I just might consider it. I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to have another smuggler, right?”

“Atta girl,” Treben grinned, patting her on the shoulder. “I knew I liked you.”

***

Hana Lodimeur stood on Ranger‘s bridge, her arms crossed and her face as hard as stone, as the cruiser raced through subspace toward Numoris. She’d stayed by her father’s side until the medics pronounced him dead, and then she’d gone to the bridge and had been standing there ever since. None of the bridge crew spoke to her or otherwise acknowledged her presence, which was what she preferred at the moment. She had too much thinking to do.

In one sense, she was pleased with how everything had turned out. Her father had died, not as a fat drunk, but as a man, a soldier. He had fallen in the line of duty, protecting his only daughter. Hana hoped that when her time came, she would face it with as much dignity and bravery as her father did. In one sense, she was content.

But that contentment was almost completely swallowed up by a consuming fury. She had thought, once she’d joined Fangalin, that she had escaped the Empire’s reach, that they would never again be able to do anything to harm her. But she had been wrong. The Empire had struck again, and they’d taken the most important person in her life away.

Of course, as a member of Fangalin, she was sworn to destroy the Empire anyway, but her father’s death made it personal. And the person she blamed more than anyone was Erelesk Votalin. He would suffer for what he had done to her. No matter how long it took, no matter who stood in her way, if she accomplished nothing else in her life, she would see Votalin dead.

The End