A Shard of Darkness, Part 8

When the message came from the capital for Belfamor, almost a month had passed since he’d last seen his father. He had been back on Medradi for over three weeks, and had been so busy assisting General Vorek Leshiel with the plans for an invasion of Nemixis that he’d almost forgotten about his father’s trip to Trisitania. The message from the capital brought that problem crashing back into his consciousness immediately. He was glad that he had been alone in his quarters when it arrived, as it was such a shock that he might have lashed out at anyone who had asked him what was wrong. Instead, he simply sat in silence on the end of his bed for a long time, and then he picked up his tablet and made a call.

“What can I do for you, Major?” asked General Leshiel once the call connected.

“I hate to ask this of you, General, but I need to request another leave,” Belfamor said with a sigh.

“Again?” Leshiel exclaimed in irritation. “It’s only been three weeks since you got back from the last one!”

“I understand, General,” Belfamor replied, “but it’s unavoidable. The Emperor has requested my presence in Selorin.”

“What?” asked Leshiel, confused. “If you were to be transferred to the capital, I should have received orders about it, but I’ve heard nothing!”

“It’s not a military matter, sir,” Belfamor responded. “It has to do with my family.”

“Oh, that’s right,” said Leshiel in satisfaction. “You’re a Hemetal, aren’t you? Probably has something to do with money. Well, see if you can convince the Emperor and your father to send a few more trinars our way, would ya?”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” Belfamor said in a neutral voice.

“Well, have a good trip, then!” Leshiel said boisterously. “Maybe the Nemixis operation will be all wrapped up by the time you get back, and we’ll have one less Emperor to deal with!”

“Yes, sir,” Belfamor said with a salute, and then he flung his tablet onto his bed and began packing furiously. In reality, he had no intention of going anywhere near the capital. At least not yet. He had another trip he needed to make first. Glancing over at his tablet, he pounded his fist against the wall and went back to packing. The message he’d received from the Emperor was displayed on the screen again. It read:

Your father is dead. I have your mother and sisters. If you want them, come to Trisitania and convince me that you deserve them.

His Glorious Majesty
Neminatrix IV

His father was dead, but that wasn’t what had him so angry. He would grieve for his father later, but first he needed to make sure his mother and sisters were safe. And he couldn’t do that alone.

***

Two days later, Belfamor was in an antechamber in a palace on Revellia, awaiting an audience with His Majesty, Emperor Valador I. He was dressed in civilian clothes, as he was here as the Head of House Hemetal, not as a member of the Imperial Army. Maybe he should have felt guilty about betraying the Emperor he’d sworn to serve, but that Emperor had betrayed him first. There was no way he was going to negotiate for his mother and sisters. He would not grovel and beg for their lives. Instead, he’d strike such a blow to Neminatrix that the rotten bastard would quake in his boots for years.

“Lord Hemetal,” said an aide, poking her head out of the door, “the Emperor will see you now.” Belfamor stood up and followed her into the audience chamber. He wasn’t sure he would ever get used to being called Lord Hemetal. It was impossible to get any pleasure out of his new title, considering the way he’d received it. Things weren’t supposed to have happened this way. He should have become Lord Hemetal after his father had lived a rich, full life, and died in his home, surrounded by his loved ones. To be executed as a criminal by a madman was just…too upsetting for words.

“Lord Hemetal, to what do I owe this honor?” said Valador as Belfamor approached his throne. “I was under the impression that House Hemetal supported Erelesk Votalin.”

“Votalin has taken our support and wiped his ass with it,” Belfamor spat. “I am willing to pledge my loyalty and the use of my coffers to you, in exchange for a small favor.”

“I see,” Valador said in a flat voice. He was a short man with a large nose, long white hair, and a somewhat bored look on his face. Belfamor knew better than to trust that, though. Valador had a reputation for disarming those he negotiated with by pretending to not pay attention, while in reality cataloging every detail in his mind. “You know, I’ve never had much use for the nobility.”

“And we’ve never had much use for you,” Belfamor retorted. “We all followed Votalin, despite his unsavory reputation, because he was one of us. But he has gone too far with his perversions, and I am ready to turn against him, if you aid me. And if House Hemetal defects, other Houses will follow.”

“That would be a boon to my rule,” Valador said with a yawn. “Tell me, what is this favor you ask of me?”

“Votalin has my mother and sisters held prisoner in the Imperial Palace,” Belfamor replied. “Give me a strike team and help me rescue them, and House Hemetal is yours.”

Valador burst out laughing. “Oh, is that all!” he exclaimed. “Just help you break into the Palace? Why don’t we assassinate Erelesk while we’re at it! And destroy all of Fangalin and Hadramoris and Midigal, too! Just as simple as that!”

“Feel free to reject my offer, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said calmly. “I can just go to Midigal or Hadramoris instead. Surely one of them would see the value of House Hemetal’s vast resources. I would prefer to stay loyal to the Empire, but if the Empire won’t help me, then it doesn’t deserve my loyalty.”

Valador chuckled to himself for a while and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief, and then he said, “Okay, Hemetal. You’ve got yourself a deal.”

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 7

His Glorious Majesty, Emperor Neminatrix IV, sat on the Imperial Throne and drummed his fingers impatiently on its armrests. At any moment, he would be reunited with his daughter. It had been too long now that Lorgad Hemetal had kept her to himself. Giving her away in marriage to his closest political ally had been necessary to secure the Throne, but he never intended for Lord Hemetal to have her exclusively. For three years, Neminatrix had tolerated letting Shala stay on Infanalis while he secured his rule, but he couldn’t stand to be parted from her any longer. He felt…incomplete, without her. She satisfied desires in him that no other woman could.

It mattered little to him that his relationship with his daughter would be considered repulsive by any decent moral standard. Morals were for lesser men, not lords and emperors. Let the prudes whine and cry about virtue and honor. A midnight visit from the ISS would teach them to hold their tongues.

Neminatrix straightened expectantly as one of his aides announced the arrival of Lord Hemetal, and then frowned when the aide did not mention Princess Shala. Hemetal had said something about Shala wanting to stay on Infanalis, but Neminatrix had made it clear that Shala was expected on Trisitania, and no excuses would be accepted. Had Hemetal really disobeyed a direct order from the Emperor?

The disquiet filling Neminatrix’s soul quickly turned to naked rage as Hemetal approached the Throne alone, but he kept his face still. There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Perhaps Shala really was ill, and had gone straight to her chambers rather than approaching the Throne first. That would be completely unacceptable, of course, but more forgivable than if Shala was still on Infanalis. He watched as Hemetal paid homage to him, one knee on the floor and head bowed, as was the custom. Not nearly as deferent as Neminatrix preferred, but only so much could be changed in three years.

“Rise, Lord Hemetal,” Neminatrix said coldly. “I trust your journey here was pleasant?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Hemetal replied, polite but cool. The two men and their Houses had been political allies for decades, but they had never liked each other personally. House Votalin and House Hemetal had always been too evenly matched in power and prestige for Neminatrix to dispense with Hemetal, but now that Neminatrix sat on the Imperial Throne, any number of possibilities presented themselves.

“Very good,” Neminatrix said in a tone that suggested it was anything but. “Now, I am quite eager to see my daughter again. It’s been…three years, I believe? A long time for a loving father to be separated from his only daughter.”

“I can understand that, Your Majesty,” Hemetal said smoothly. “However, I am afraid that Princess Shala’s health is quite fragile, and she was unable to accompany me. As much as I sympathize with a father’s love for his child, I could not in good conscience endanger my wife’s health further with a lengthy interstellar voyage.”

“I see,” Neminatrix said in a carefully neutral voice, his face a mask of stone. Then, suddenly, he stood up from the Throne and screamed, “Place Lord Hemetal under arrest immediately!” A dozen ISS agents rushed from their places around the Throne, grabbed Lorgad Hemetal, threw him roughly to the ground, held his hands behind his back and slammed restraints on his wrists. The Emperor stalked down the steps leading to the Throne, knelt down, clutched Lorgad’s face tightly, and held it up close to his own. Lorgad’s expression was evenly mixed between shock and outrage.

“What do you think you’re doing, Erelesk!” Lorgad hissed, his voice tight with pain and anger.

“What I should have done a long time ago, Lorgad,” Neminatrix spat, his eyes wild with rage. “You have been a thorn in my side for too long, and I put up with it, because I needed your money to get the Throne. Well, no more! I have the Throne now, so I don’t need you anymore. You and your House will learn what it means to incur the Emperor’s wrath!” He stood and stormed back up to the Throne. “Throw him in a cell, and let him rot until I have time to deal with him!” The ISS agents nodded, and quickly bundled him out of the Grand Hall.

“Get Jefmin Lakatai in here at once!” Neminatrix snapped at a nearby ISS agent. The agent saluted sharply and ran off, leaving Neminatrix to snarl silently and clench and unclench his fists as he waited for the Master of the ISS to arrive. He didn’t have to wait long before Lakatai rushed in, red-faced and sweaty.

“What is your pleasure, Your Most Glorious and Illustrious Majesty?” Lakatai blurted as he prostrated himself before the Throne.

“Get together a team of your most elite agents, and send them to Infanalis, to the Hemetal Manor in Heretoral,” Neminatrix said, his voice filled with barely suppressed rage. “Find my daughter, Princess Shala, and bring her to me. She is not to be harmed. Anyone who does harm her will suffer a slow and agonizing death. Also, bring back Ilena Hemetal and her daughters. Treat them as you will, but do not kill them.”

“As Your Magnificent and Noble Majesty commands, so it shall be done,” Lakatai replied, and hastily stood up and waddled out of the Grand Hall as quickly as he’d come in. Neminatrix scowled and drummed his fingers furiously on the armrests of the Imperial Throne. Arresting Lorgad and sending Lakatai to fetch Shala assuaged his rage somewhat, but he wouldn’t be completely satisfied until his daughter was safely ensconced within the Imperial Palace. A corner of his brain that was still slightly rational argued that arresting Lorgad was committing political suicide, and that corner had a point. His hold on the Throne was still more tenuous than he wished it was, and House Hemetal was exceedingly wealthy. He needed that money to fend off his rivals, and he’d almost certainly lost it now. But he didn’t care. He was the Emperor, and nobody defied his will. Not even his most important ally.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 6

Belfamor stood on the landing pad outside his family’s manor, watching his father’s shuttle rise up into the sky and soar out of sight. It was sunny, for once, giving Belfamor a fantastic view of the shuttle as it disappeared into the stratosphere. As he stood there, he couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever see his father again. For against all of his own expectations and his better judgment, Shala Votalin was not onboard that shuttle. He still couldn’t quite believe he’d made that decision, but in the end, he found that he could not look her in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry, but you have to go back to being raped by your father.”

He continued to stand on the landing pad for a long time after the shuttle was out of sight, and then finally he sighed and started trudging back up the path to the manor. As he walked, his head was down and he was staring at his feet, so when he reached the door and lifted up his head, he was somewhat startled to see Shala standing right in front of him, and he stumbled backwards to keep from running into her.

“I was wondering if you would notice me,” she said with a slightly mocking smile.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there,” he said, half apologetic and half annoyed.

“Clearly,” she said, her smile changing into a smirk. She clasped her hands behind her back and continued to smirk at him, as if waiting for him to do something. He frowned irritably back at her.

“What!” he finally blurted out, exasperated. She shrunk back from him slightly, and her smirk disappeared and was replaced by an uncertain look.

“I…I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “To be honest, I never expected you to take my side. I…find myself unsure of how to react to you now.” Belfamor stared at her blankly for a moment, and then he suddenly scowled and pushed past her into the manor.

The honest truth was that he didn’t know how to react to himself now. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d made a horrible decision, and the result would be disaster for his House. But he thought again about telling Shala to go to Trisitania, and he realized all over again that he couldn’t have made any other decision.

“Belfamor! Wait!” called Shala’s voice behind him. He stopped, sighed, and turned around slowly. “I just wanted to say thank you,” she continued. “I really appreciate you letting me stay here. I know that it was difficult for you to make this decision, and I hope that maybe one day, I can repay you for your kindness.”

“Honestly, Shala,” Belfamor said, running one hand through his hair bashfully, “it wasn’t that hard a decision to make, in the end. I just couldn’t bear the thought of being the one to tell you to go to Trisitania.”

“So I guess you’re just as much a coward as I am,” Shala replied cheerfully, and then cringed when he scowled at her. “I’m sorry. That was cruel.”

“No, you’re right,” Belfamor said, his expression softening. “I am a coward. I should put the interests of my House ahead of my own feelings, but when it came down to it, I just couldn’t.”

“Well, to be honest, I’m really rather glad you couldn’t,” Shala said brightly.

“You don’t really think that staying here will keep you safe from your father forever, do you?” Belfamor asked darkly.

“Of course not,” Shala replied. “But just knowing that people care enough about me to sacrifice things that are dear to them in an attempt to keep me safe is…pretty spectacular.”

“I guess you wouldn’t really know what that’s like, huh?” Belfamor said with a heavy sigh. “I can’t even imagine how hard your life has been.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know,” Shala said wistfully. “It’s the only life I’ve ever lived.” Belfamor regarded her sadly for a moment, and then, before he entirely knew what was happening, he was wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight. At first she seemed shocked, and held her arms tightly against her sides, and then slowly, uncertainly, she lifted her arms and returned his embrace.

“Belfamor,” she said hesitantly, “Th-thank you.” They held each other close for a long time, and then they somewhat awkwardly let go of each other and stepped back.

“I don’t know what else I can do to help you, Shala,” he said, not quite looking her in the eye, “but I promise to do whatever I can. By the honor of House Hemetal, I swear to you that I will do whatever is in my power to keep you away from your father.”

“Thank you,” said Shala in a shy, quiet voice, then she smiled. “You’ve turned out to be my knight in shining armor after all, haven’t you?”

“I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but…I suppose if you want to think of me that way, I’m okay with it,” replied Belfamor with a faint smile. Shala’s smile grew wider, she leaned over and kissed him lightly on his cheek, and then she walked past him and down the hall with a spring in her step that Belfamor had never seen before.

He still wasn’t sure if he’d made the best decision or not, but he didn’t really care anymore. Shala’s reaction had shown him that his father had been correct, that defending the innocent was more important and more rewarding than protecting the honor and power of his House. Of course, he had yet to pay the price for his decision. It would be a few days before his father arrived on Trisitania, and there was no telling how long it would take before Neminatrix acted. Perhaps the Emperor’s reaction would be milder than Belfamor had anticipated. Or perhaps not. Either way, Belfamor had done what he believed to be the right thing, and that was all that mattered.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 5

“I know what you’re going to ask, and the answer is emphatically, unequivocally, no,” said Ilena Hemetal without looking up as her oldest son entered her study. Belfamor couldn’t help but grin at this greeting. His mother had always been one to take no crap. He suspected that was a large part of the reason why his father had fallen in love with her in the first place. Nobles had a tendency to be surrounded by fawning yes-men and -women. The most successful Heads of Houses were the ones who found themselves a spouse who would keep them grounded and remind them that they were not automatically assured of success just because of their birth.

“Well, hello to you too, Mother,” Belfamor replied, sitting down in a chair across from her desk. “I’m so glad you’re willing to take time out of your busy schedule to spend time with your beloved son.”

“Belfamor, if you were really here just to spend time with me, I would drop everything in a heartbeat,” Ilena said with an exasperated sigh. “But I know that all you want is to try and convince me that Shala should go with your father to Trisitania. No. Absolutely not. I will not have it on my conscience that I allowed that child to return to her Nerzaga-spawn of a father.”

“Shala wants to go, Mother,” Belfamor said firmly. “She has no desire for House Hemetal to be destroyed because of her.”

“Shala is a scared little girl who thinks her life is worthless because she’s spent it surrounded by people who tell her she’s worthless,” Ilena retorted. “If she tells you she ‘wants’ to go to Trisitania, it’s only because she believes she’s not worth protecting. I aim to change her opinion of herself.”

“Is that worth the devastation of the power and honor of House Hemetal?” Belfamor shot back angrily.

“What good is power if we refuse to use it to defend those who are powerless?” Ilena exclaimed heatedly.

“What good is spending generations building up power if we throw it away over one pitiful husk of a woman?” Belfamor countered.

“I don’t know why I’m even arguing with you,” Ilena said, shaking her head in exasperation. “It isn’t as if I have to justify myself to you, and I’m not going to convince you.”

“I don’t see why you think that,” Belfamor said with contempt. “After all, I am the heir to this House. I have more right to determine its future than you do. You’re just a caila.” As soon as those words left his mouth, Belfamor regretted them, but it was too late. His mother turned as white as a sheet, and she looked as if he had slapped her across the face.

“I see,” she said in an emotionless voice. “Well, if you feel that way, by all means, do whatever you want. Send Shala packing. Have her murdered, for all I care. What does it matter what I think? I’m just a caila, after all.” Belfamor shook his head.

“Mother, I’m sorry. Please-,” he started, but his mother cut him off.

“Don’t even start,” she said in a taut voice, like a knife cutting through tightly wound strings. “You wouldn’t have said what you did if you didn’t feel that way deep down inside.”

“Mother, I…I was frustrated, I-,” he began again, but Ilena cut him off once more.

“Do not call me ‘mother’,” she said in a scathing voice. “A high and mighty noble lord such as yourself could not possibly consider a lowly caila such as myself to be his mother. Please, refer to me as ‘you there’, or ‘wench’, or even ‘whore’, if it pleases Your Lordship.”

“Mother, I’m sorry,” Belfamor pleaded. “Don’t you think you’ve taken this too far?”

“Forgive me, Your Lordliness, but I believe you’ve already gotten what you came for,” Ilena said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “If it pleases Your High and Mighty Worshipfulness, I do have work that I need to get back to. After all, even we lowly cailas have roles to play, as pitiful and demeaning as it may be compared to the grand and glorious work of a noble heir.” And with that, she turned sharply away from him. Belfamor stared at her back for a few moments, and then sighed deeply and left her study.

He looked up as the door slid shut behind him and was surprised to see his father standing there. “That went well, did it?” Lorgad said with one eyebrow raised and his hands clasped behind his back.

“You, uh, heard all that, did you?” Belfamor asked with an ashamed half-smile.

“I heard enough,” Lorgad confirmed. “You touched a nerve there, son. Your mother is very touchy about the fact that she is no longer legally my wife. Never mind that she is still a full member of House Hemetal. Never mind that my feelings for her have nothing to do with her legal status. And never even mind that my marrying Shala was her blasted idea in the first place! She’s very sensitive about being a caila, irrational as it may seem. I know that you just blurted something out in the heat of the moment, but if you had been deliberately trying to hurt her, you couldn’t have done a better job.”

“I know,” Belfamor sighed. “I feel absolutely awful, but she didn’t even give me a chance to apologize.”

“Give her time, son,” Lorgad said, giving Belfamor an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “I know you didn’t mean what you said, and she’ll figure that out, too. In the meantime, what are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?” Belfamor asked, his brow furrowed.

“Your mother gave you permission to send Shala to Trisitania, even if she did it in anger,” Lorgad replied. “The ball is in your court. Your mother, Shala, and I have all told you what we think, but we’ve given you the chance to make your own decision. So what will your decision be?”

“I…I don’t know,” Belfamor said, sounding surprised about that. “I thought my mind had been made up before I came home, but…things have not unfolded the way I expected.”

“They never do,” sighed Lorgad. “Well, I’m leaving in five days. Let me know what you decide before then.” He gave his son another friendly smack on the back, and then strode away down the hallway.

To be continued…