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…