Culmination, Part 10

“You wanna do WHAT?” exclaimed Emelien Fanas, incredulous. “Are you COMPLETELY insane?”

“I assure you, sir, I am fully sane,” Belfamor replied, stone-faced. He was standing in Fanas’ office on the top floor of the tallest skyscraper on Revellia, a huge, open space full of glass and gleaming metal. It was very modern and tasteful, and completely inappropriate for the office of the SCIAF. For one, it was completely indefensible. If Revellia was attacked by an enemy force, Asteron Tower would almost certainly be the first thing to be destroyed, if only because it was so exposed. If an invading enemy force realized that Fanas had his office at the top of Asteron Tower, it would definitely be the first thing to be destroyed.

“Look, Belfamor, I know that you’re having a hard time, what with your wife having been kidnapped and all,” Fanas said, trying to sound patient, “but surely even you must see that invading Trisitania is not the best way to get her back! It’s more likely to get her killed than to rescue her!” Fanas was a handsome man, Belfamor supposed, eyeing him with disdain. He was tall and well-muscled, with long, wavy black hair and a charming smile, but his nose and ears were too big for his face, his hairline was starting to recede, and his washboard abs were starting to give way to fat. Belfamor wondered how much of his supposed prowess with women was real, and how much was the product of his own imagination.

“Which is all the evidence you need to know that I am not proposing this plan for personal reasons,” Belfamor said in a hard voice. Fanas replied by making an exasperated snort and rolling his eyes.

“Come on, man!” he scoffed. “What other possible reason could there be?”

“The only reason that makes sense,” Belfamor said. “The unification of the Empire under the rule of Valador I.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fanas said scornfully. “The Emperor is far too cautious to agree to such a reckless plan.”

“The Emperor has already all but approved this ‘reckless plan’,” Belfamor said coldly. “All I need is your approval, and the plan will go ahead.” Immediately Fanas threw back his head and started laughing, a loud, boisterous laugh.

“You ARE insanse, Hemetal,” he yelled, still laughing. “The Emperor knows I would never approve such a ridiculous plan! This was just his way of letting you down gently!” He continued roaring with laughter, while Belfamor folded his arms across his chest and gazed at him impassively. After a while, Fanas’ laughter slowed, and he flashed a broad grin at Belfamor while wiping away a tear, but one look at Belfamor’s face caused the grin to slowly fade away.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Fanas said, shaking his head wonderingly. “You really think you can convince me to agree to this crazy plan.”

“Of course I do,” Belfamor said flatly, “because it’s the right plan for this situation, and as thick-headed and ignorant as you are, even you have to see that.” Fanas rolled his eyes and shook his head at this.

“Insulting your superior officer?” he said with a smirk. “Never a good idea, especially if you want something from him.”

“It’s not an insult to speak the truth,” Belfamor replied with a sneer.

“Oh ho!” Fanas exclaimed. “Good one, good one. I still fail to see how these little jabs at me get you what you want. I would think that if you’re really trying to convince me to approve your plan, you’d be a little nicer to me.” Suddenly a malevolent smile crept across his face. “You know what I think, Hemetal? I think you came up with this plan, knowing all along that I would never go along with it. I think you just wanted people to believe that you were a bold, manly man, coming up with a grand scheme to save the Empire. And I think you want me to deny approval for your plan, because you’re really a coward.” Belfamor turned as white as a sheet, and a fire appeared in his eyes as he took a menacing step toward Fanas.

“How dare you!” he hissed.

“Well, it makes sense,” Fanas said with a nonchalant shrug that was belied by the wicked amusement in his eyes. “If I turn you down, then you get all the credit for coming up with such an audacious plan, without any of the risk of actually carrying it out.”

Belfamor’s eyes widened in shock and rage, and he took two steps toward Fanas, fully intending to punch him in the face as hard as he could, but then he stopped. The thought suddenly dawned on him that if he struck his superior officer, that would kill any hope of getting his plan approved. He took a deep, steadying breath, and then turned away.

“You’re right, sir,” Belfamor said in a voice that was calmer than he felt. “I should be acting more respectful towards you, not only because I want something from you, but also because you are my superior officer. I apologize for my indiscretion, and humbly seek your forgiveness.”

“Apologies from Lord Hemetal?” Fanas said skeptically. “I can hardly believe my ears. If you keep up this attitude, I might actually listen to you. Maybe.” Belfamor could hear him sitting down at his expansive desk and placing his booted feet on top of it. “Very well,” he said grandly. “State your case.”

Belfamor could hardly believe his ears himself, but he turned around and opened his mouth to start defending his plan. Before he got a word out, however, Fanas cut him off.

“Okay, I’ve heard enough,” he said with a malevolent smirk. “Approval denied.”

“WHAT!” Belfamor roared.

“You heard me,” Fanas replied, his smirk deepening. “Your plan is too risky, and nothing you can say will change my mind. Now get out of my office before I throw you out.” Belfamor stared at Fanas, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly in shock, and then he shook himself slightly, turned sharply on his heel, and stormed out of the office of the SCIAF without a word.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 9

For a moment, Valador simply stared at Belfamor with an utterly blank expression on his face, and then, all of a sudden, he burst out laughing, and continued to laugh for at least five minutes, while Belfamor stared at him, completely straight-faced. Belfamor hadn’t entirely expected this reaction, but it was certainly not out of character for the Emperor. In a way, Belfamor couldn’t blame him. It was ludicrous to think of launching a full-scale assault on Trisitania. Neminatrix was certainly weaker today than he’d been ten years ago, but he still had substantial resources to call upon. An assault on Trisitania would have to be planned and executed perfectly if it wasn’t going to lead to complete disaster. Even at that, successfully capturing Trisitania and capturing or killing Neminatrix wasn’t guaranteed to unite what remained of the Empire under Valador’s rule. Certainly there was a very great possibility that one or more of Neminatrix’s supporters would claim the Throne in his stead. Still, Belfamor stood by his assessment of the situation. Neminatrix needed to be stopped, and the time to do it was now.

After what seemed like a very long time, Valador finally sighed, wiped his eyes, and gazed at Belfamor with a bemused smile. “Alright, General,” he said with a chuckle, “sell me on this plan. Tell me why you think it has any chance of success.”

“It is a risky plan,” Belfamor admitted, “but one in which I believe the potential reward outweighs the risk. Intelligence reports indicate that the defenses around the capital are at their lowest point at any time since Neminatrix seized it 11 years ago. Meanwhile, our forces are stronger now than they have been at any point since you first declared yourself Emperor. Indeed, the forces under your command right now are greater than any Emperor has had access to since the day that the Empire was first broken. The balance of forces is heavily in your favor, and the fact that the capital is so lightly defended also means that a swift victory would leave the bulk of Neminatrix’s remaining forces intact, which would strengthen your rule greatly, assuming they swear loyalty to you once Neminatrix is dead.”

“Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?” Valador said with a sardonic grin. “And what happens if they don’t swear loyalty to me? What happens if an ambitious commander or two decides to seize the initiative and declare him- or herself Emperor? We could end up fracturing the Empire even more than it already is!”

“That is a possibility,” Belfamor acknowledged with a slight nod, “however, every intelligence report I’ve seen indicates that every ambitious general or admiral under Neminatrix’s command was purged a long time ago, and my own intuition backs that up. Neminatrix would never allow anyone to serve him that he thought was capable of or interested in taking his place.”

“Interesting argument,” allowed Valador, stroking his magnificent beard. “However, you realize that an assault on the capital would have to be lightning fast, and carefully targeted to do as little damage to the civilian population as possible. If we got bogged down in a long, drawn-out battle, that would give time for Neminatrix’s forces to arrive and hem us in. If that happens, most of our military strength will be wasted, and we will lose everything we’ve gained over the past ten years. And if the civilian population of Selorin takes heavy losses, it won’t matter how fast we take over the capital. We’ll lose all the support we’ve spent twenty years amassing.”

“I understand all that, Your Majesty,” Belfamor replied, nodding. “I admit that we will be taking a huge risk with this operation, but I believe, and so do my advisors, that the reward will be worth the risk. We can pull this off, and once we do, the Empire will be unified under one ruler again for the first time in nearly twenty years.”

Valador didn’t allow his face to show much of what he was feeling, but Belfamor thought he’d known him long enough by now to be able to read him, and he was certain that he’d managed to persuade him. So Belfamor was a little surprised when Valador said, “And what does General Fanas think about your plan?”

Suppressing a grimace, Belfamor replied, “I have not informed General Fanas about this plan yet, Your Majesty.”

“So,” said Valador with a smirk, “thought you’d go over his head, eh?”

“Your Majesty,” Belfamor said, holding back an exasperated sigh, “you know what Emelien is like. Everything I propose, he opposes, just because I proposed it. It’s been that way for ten years.”

“And everything he proposes, you oppose, just because he proposed it,” Valador shot back, his smirk deepening. “Why do you think I keep both you around? I’m guaranteed to get both sides of every argument!”

“Your Majesty-,” Belfamor began, but Valador held up a hand to cut him off.

“Not another word, General,” Valador said firmly. “You are a man, not a spoiled child. Inform General Fanas of your plan, and get his approval. If you can do that, it will go a long way toward persuading me that you can pull off this crazy plan.” Belfamor wanted to argue with Valador further, but he understood when he was being dismissed. He saluted sharply, turned on his heel, and stalked out of the Emperor’s study.

He kept his face carefully composed as he walked through the outer chamber, but as soon as he entered the corridor outside, he could feel a vicious scowl spreading across his face. He knew he wasn’t a spoiled child, but Emelien Fanas made him feel like one. Fanas was Valador’s SCIAF (Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces), the highest ranking military officer in the Empire, or at least the part of it that Valador controlled. He was also arrogant, pompous, loud, vain, self-absorbed, and incompetent. Belfamor and Fanas had clashed almost from the first moment they’d met, when Belfamor was assigned to Fanas’ staff almost ten years ago. Belfamor had tried to please Fanas, but Fanas seemed to dislike him merely for who he was. If Belfamor said the sky was blue, Fanas would say it was green with pink polka dots. Convincing Fanas to approve a plan this risky and bold would be impossible. Belfamor was about ready to just go back to his manor and forget the whole thing. But then he remembered his wife, and what she was most likely going through at that moment, and a twisted smile crept across his face. Suddenly, convincing Emelien Fanas to agree to his plan seemed like the easiest thing he’d ever done.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 8

Belfamor had a grim expression on his face as he strode down a broad and lavish corridor of what had once been the governor’s mansion on Revellia. He was on his way to speak to the Emperor, and he didn’t expect that the Emperor would like his request, but he needed to request it anyway. Who knew? Maybe the Emperor would even grant it.

The corridor which he was striding through was part of an ancient and luxurious complex. Although still technically the Revellian governor’s mansion, it had been appropriated by Valador Mifalis almost twenty years ago as his palace-in-exile, until he could be properly enthroned in the true Imperial Palace on Trisitania. Until then, the governor’s mansion was good enough. Revellia was an old province, and the governor’s mansion was almost as old as the Imperial Palace anyway, and almost as luxurious as well, if not nearly so large.

Belfamor frowned and shook his head as he approached the doors to the Emperor’s study. This was no time to be thinking of frivolities! He had an important task here, and he needed to focus completely if he was going to carry it out.

The secretary in the outer room nodded to Belfamor as he approached, and waved him in. Belfamor was one of the few people who were allowed to enter the Emperor’s study without waiting for his permission. Belfamor wanted to believe that it was because of his rank and military acumen, but even he had to admit it probably had more to do with his money.

Despite the fact that Belfamor’s father had sworn allegiance to Neminatrix, and House Hemetal’s ancestral properties were located on Infanalis, a planet controlled by Neminatrix, Belfamor had retained access to the vast majority of House Hemetal’s financial resources even after he defected to Valador. Bank accounts controlled by noble houses employed a sophisticated genetic locking mechanism, which made it so only the rightful Head of House could access the account. Banks that did business with noble houses maintained detailed lists of their lines of succession, so that if a Head of House died, the bank knew exactly who was supposed to have access to the account next.

It was a good thing for Belfamor that such a system was in place, because even at that, Neminatrix had still attempted to seize the Hemetal fortune. Fortunately for Belfamor, even the bank executives couldn’t bypass the genetic lock, and they had certainly tried. Unfortunately for the bank executives, their failure to undo their own security had led to their deaths, and all of the bank’s assets that were not controlled by noble houses had been seized by the Throne. Belfamor had transferred House Hemetal’s money to a bank located on a province controlled by Valador soon after. Genetic locks were sturdy, but they weren’t completely unbreakable, and Belfamor had no intention of allowing Neminatrix another chance to seize his family’s money.

Belfamor took a deep breath as he entered Valador’s study. He wasn’t nervous, precisely. Just a little…apprehensive. Valador and Belfamor were close, even if that closeness was facilitated by Belfamor’s wealth, but even with those he was close to, Valador had a disconcerting habit of making you feel like you were a complete fool for holding to whatever viewpoint you were arguing for, even if he completely agreed with you. After a decade of serving him, Belfamor was more or less used to it, but it was still somewhat uncomfortable.

“Ah, General Hemetal,” Valador said with a fatherly smile as Belfamor entered. “What can I do for you, son?” Valador had a fringe of white hair around the top of his head, but a long, full white beard that went down past his chest. He was in his 80s, but he had the energy, focus and determination of someone a quarter of his age, tempered by the experience and wisdom of his long years. In more peaceful times, he might have been one of the greatest Emperors in history, but in these troubled times, he was likely to go down in history as a footnote. Even if he could defeat Neminatrix and gain sole possession of the Imperial Throne, it didn’t seem likely that he would have much time to accomplish anything lasting. It didn’t help that he was childless, as well. Even if he did unify what was left of the Empire, it would likely be thrown into chaos again a few years later when he died.

There were so many reasons for Belfamor to abandon Valador, and yet he stayed. In the end, Belfamor had given his oath to serve Valador, and he would not turn his back on that oath unless Valador turned on him. Besides, what other options did he have? Going back to Neminatrix would undoubtedly cost him his head, and he wasn’t about to leave the Empire. Despite its flaws, the Empire was the only thing standing between galactic civilization and chaos.

“I have a request, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said with a deep bow, “and I’m afraid you’re not going to like it.”

“You want to go rescue your wife from her father again,” Valador said with a sardonic grin.

“Well, that’s part of what I’m going to ask for,” Belfamor replied.

“Oh?” Valador asked, arching an eyebrow. “What else could you want on top of that?”

“It is my opinion, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said, “that if you are to have any hope of uniting the Empire under your rule, the time to strike is now.”

“Is that a crack about my age?” Valador asked with a straight face, although there was a glimmer of mirth in his eyes.

“Of course not, Your Majesty,” Belfamor replied, barely keeping his eyes from rolling in exasperation. “What I mean is, Neminatrix is weakening, and the weaker he gets, the more desperate he gets. This raid on my manor proves it. It is my considered opinion that we need to finish him off now, before he can do something that will cause irreparable damage to the Empire.” Belfamor took a deep breath, and then looked Valador firmly in the eye. “I propose that we launch a full-scale assault on Trisitania.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 7

“Well, what did you think of Hibellia, son?” asked Belfamor as he and Vendamil boarded the transport that would take them back to their home on Revellia. Belfamor had taken Vendamil on an inspection tour in order to spend some more time with him. He had decided that maybe part of Vendamil’s problem was not getting enough quality time with his father.

“I suppose it was alright, Father,” Vendamil replied with a noncommittal shrug. Belfamor frowned at his son in response. Ever since they had left their manor, Vendamil had been even more somber than usual, which was saying something. Belfamor hadn’t spent a lot of time around children, but he’d always gotten the impression that children were generally cheerful and easily excited. Vendamil had always been the opposite, but even at that, Belfamor could usually get a small smile out of him once in a while. Somehow this trip wasn’t having the effect that Belfamor had intended.

“What’s bothering you, son?” Belfamor said with a frown.

“Me?” Vendamil asked, seemingly surprised. “Why would you think anything was bothering me?”

“Well-,” Belfamor began, but then a lieutenant rushed up to him.

“Sir!” he said, saluting sharply. “There’s an urgent message for you from Revellia!” Belfamor’s frown deepened as he stood up and took the tablet from the lieutenant. Thinking that perhaps one of Valador’s many enemies had launched a surprise attack somewhere, he scanned the message quickly, and he felt as if his heart had stopped. Taking a deep breath, he read the message again, slowly and carefully, but unfortunately the second reading was worse than the first.

“Is this report accurate?” Belfamor whispered urgently to the lieutenant, not wanting Vendamil to get any hint at what he was talking about.

“I don’t know any more than you do, sir,” the lieutenant whispered back.

“How could this even be possible?” Belfamor whispered fiercely, utterly flabbergasted.

“I have no idea, sir,” the lieutenant replied, shaking his head in frustration. “I wish I could tell you more.”

“What seems to be the problem, Father?” Vendamil piped up suddenly.

“Oh, um, there’s some trouble at home, son,” Belfamor said, not looking at Vendamil. “Nothing you need to worry about.” He hated lying to his son, but he couldn’t bear to burden Vendamil with the news that his mother had been kidnapped.

“I think I can clear up any confusion you may have about what’s happened,” Vendamil replied. Belfamor froze, and then he slowly turned and stared at his son, who had a strangely smug look on his face.

“What…are you talking about, Vendamil?” Belfamor asked, in a quiet, intense voice.

“I know what happened to Mother,” Vendamil replied calmly. “She was kidnapped by soldiers loyal to my grandfather, Neminatrix IV.” Belfamor stared at him in shock. “You’re probably wondering how they were able to bypass the manor’s defensive systems. There’s a simple answer to that question. I gave my grandfather the password.”

If Vendamil’s revelation that he knew about Shala had frozen Belfamor to the core, the news that her own son had betrayed her sparked a fire that began to melt his frozen soul again. “You…what?” he said in a low, dangerous voice.

“I gave Neminatrix the password,” Vendamil said again, still perfectly calm. “I told Mother that she would regret not allowing me to attend Imperial University. Now I can go to Trisitania and no one has to worry about me being held hostage. My grandfather has what he wants, and he’s told me that he is eager to see me begin my studies.” Vendamil stared up at his father in perfect, childlike innocence, giving no outward sign that he had just admitted to committing a monstrous crime. But Belfamor stared at him as if truly seeing what he was for the first time.

“When we get back to Revellia, you will be confined to your quarters, under guard, indefinitely,” Belfamor said, his voice quivering only slightly with the fury that was threatening to consume him. Vendamil’s expression immediately turned to rage, and he opened his mouth, but his father immediately cut him off. “Do not say a word!” Belfamor roared. “The only reason I am not throwing you in prison for the rest of your life is because you are my son!” Vendamil’s mouth snapped shut, and an expression of shock appeared on his face.

“But…but I…I’m going to Imperial University,” Vendamil said weakly.

“Don’t be absurd!” Belfamor snarled. “Do you really think you could betray your mother and deliver her to a man who only wants to hurt her, and still get what you want? Never! If I have my way, you will never go to Imperial University as long as you live!” Belfamor glared at his son, unable to fully comprehend the fury welling up inside him, while Vendamil stared back at him with eyes full of horror and confusion.

“I…I don’t understand,” he said in a small voice, sounding more than ever like the small boy that he was. “I…I just thought Mother didn’t like her father. I-I didn’t know he wanted to…to hurt her.” Belfamor felt his fury slowly fade as he listened to his son speak, replaced by a deep sorrow.

“Vendamil, I’m sorry,” Belfamor said sadly. “I forget sometimes that you are just a child, because you so often talk and think like an adult. You have no idea how horrible your grandfather is, and how could you? You don’t have enough experience of life to have any kind of reference for his loathsome behavior.” He sighed deeply, and then sat down next to his son and wrapped his arms around him. “How could you understand Neminatrix’s hatred for your mother? I don’t even understand it, and I’ve known about it my whole life.”

Belfamor sighed again and shook his head. Vendamil was sobbing now, and as much as Belfamor hated the idea of his son being in pain, it was a relief in a way. For a moment, he’d been afraid that Vendamil was as incapable of empathy as his grandfather. To see him show remorse over what had happened to his mother told Belfamor that maybe not all hope was lost.

To be continued…