A Sword of Ivy, Part 13

After several weeks of fruitless investigating, there came a day that started off perfectly normally. Hana had spent the whole day standing behind Dren Calabane while he met with a seemingly never-ending parade of Fangalin dignitaries. His final meeting of the day was with a member of Ven Ron’s faction. Calaza Mektoa was a short, round man, who looked a little bit like the late Supreme Commander, Zhemeen Fortulis. But where Fortulis had been a tightly wound ball of energy right up until his death, Councilor Mektoa was a lazy, indolent man who liked his luxuries a little too much. He had a red nose, dark, beady eyes, and a large bald patch in the middle of his grayish-black hair that was somewhat feebly combed-over. He had a glass of fine Iresilian wine in one hand, and an expensive Moratorilian cigar in the other, and he was surveying Calabane as one would survey a bug that one was about to crush underfoot.

Calabane, on the other hand, had a blandly tolerant expression on his face, but Hana knew him well enough to know that he was seething inside. Of all the members of Ven Ron’s faction, Calaza Mektoa was the worst. Hana knew that Calabane hated to waste time dealing with Ron’s faction, especially when he was so close to purging the lot of them from the Grand Council, but appearances needed to be maintained.

“I really do think you should consider my proposal, Commander,” Mektoa said, idly swirling his wine glass and inspecting the way it caught the light of the setting sun streaming in through the massive windows behind Calabane’s desk.

“You know that I always am willing to consider any proposal from the Grand Council, Councilor Mektoa,” Calabane said blandly, “but I think you should be aware that there is very little chance that I will approve this particular proposal. An alliance with the Kingdom of Midigal seems unlikely to further the interests of Fangalin.”

“I’m afraid the Council disagrees with you, Commander,” Mektoa said, after taking a long draw from his cigar. “The Empire is stronger than it has been at any time since the Emergence, and both the Kingdom of Midigal and the Republic of Hadramoris are consolidating their strength as well. If we are going to complete the conquest of the galaxy within our lifetimes, then we should take every advantage we can get.”

“And what happens when the Republic and the Empire are defeated?” Calabane asked, his voice still carefully bland. “Will we give up our dream of unifying the galaxy under our rule? Or will we betray our allies? I must admit, neither of those possibilities are overly appealing to me.”

“Well, you must do what you think best,” Mektoa replied, finishing off his wine and taking one last draw from his cigar. “You are the Supreme Commander, after all. I just thought you might like to know how the Council feels about this matter.”

“And I appreciate the Council bringing these matters to my attention,” Calabane said, standing up. “I hope the Council remembers that my door is always open.”

“Of course, Commander,” Mektoa said, following Calabane’s lead. “Of course.” After exchanging generic pleasantries, Morken Velenoth showed Mektoa out, and Calabane turned to Hana.

“That’s one person I won’t miss,” Calabane said grimly, going over to his liquor cabinet and pouring himself a glass of Iresilian wine. “The man does have good taste in wine, I will admit that.”

“Maybe so, but I suggest letting me scan that wine for toxins before you drink it,” Hana said wryly.

“Oh come now, Admiral,” Calabane said skeptically. “You just saw Councilor Mektoa down a whole glass of this without any ill effect. How do you suppose he could have poisoned the rest of this bottle?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Hana said firmly. “Your safety is my priority. Call me paranoid if you want, but I’m going to scan that wine.”

“Oh, very well,” Calabane said, handing over the wine. Hana took a small device out of pocket and passed it back and forth near the glass of wine. A few seconds later, the device beeped, and a green light flashed.

“Okay, it’s safe,” Hana said, handing the glass back to him.

“Thank you, Admiral,” Calabane said, taking the glass with a sardonic smile. He took a sip of the wine and smacked his lips appreciatively. “Ah, that’s good.” He sat down at his desk as Morken Velenoth came back in the room. “What’s next on the agenda, Morken?”

“That was your last meeting of the day, Commander,” Velenoth said, coming up to stand next to Calabane’s desk.

“Oh, good,” Calabane said. “That’ll give me some time to catch up on paperwork.”

“Commander, if you don’t need me for anything at the moment, I thought I would go back to my office,” Velenoth said. “I, too, have a great deal of paperwork to do.”

“Of course, Morken, of course,” Calabane said, waving a hand dismissively. As he bowed and departed, Calabane looked over his shoulder at Hana and gave her a wink. “Such a good assistant. I don’t know why you were ever suspicious of him.” Hana ignored him, and Calabane chuckled and took another sip of his wine.

Immediately, Hana could tell that something was wrong. Calabane jumped out of his seat, clutching his throat and gasping for breath. Hana instantly pressed a button on her tablet, calling for medical aid, and then she rushed to him and began administering first aid. She eased him down onto the floor, pulled the first aid kit out from under his desk, and gave him a shot of coloteral to ease his breathing. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to have any effect. The next thing she did was give him a shot of mistikal, which was an antidote to many common poisons. This didn’t have any effect either. Suddenly, she realized that he wasn’t breathing at all anymore. A sharp jolt of panic stabbed her heart, but she wasn’t ready to give up yet. Before she could do anything else, though, the door to the Supreme Commander’s office opened. Assuming it was her medical team, she didn’t look at the door at all, so she was not expecting to hear Ven Ron’s voice roar, “TRAITOR!”

Startled, she looked up, but before she could do anything, she was tackled by two burly security officers and swiftly handcuffed before she could retaliate.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 12

Being the head of the Supreme Commander’s security detail was surprisingly mundane, at first. Or perhaps it wasn’t so surprising. After all, an exciting day when you were trying to protect somebody from bodily harm would most likely be a very bad day as well. Still, Hana couldn’t help but feel a little disappointment at how boring her life was now. Even though she had plenty of work to do, it wasn’t the same as the work she’d done in command of Starfengt. She knew it was important, and she still did it with the same level of dedication and excellence as she’d done all of her work, but she couldn’t help but feel a little let down at how ordinary it all was.

There was also a little frustration involved in being responsible for the safety of an extremely intelligent and stubborn man. For example, now that she was in charge of Dren Calabane’s security, Hana felt obligated to share her vague suspicions of his personal assistant, Morken Velenoth. Unfortunately, Calabane had absolutely refused to allow Hana to do anything to investigate him. He’d said that he was completely and utterly convinced of Velenoth’s loyalty, and he didn’t want to hear another word against him. Granted, Hana had absolutely no proof that Velenoth was anybody other than who he said he was, but it was more than a little frustrating to not even be allowed to investigate.

After all, Calabane himself had said that Hana was the only person he could trust completely. If he really trusted Velenoth, why wasn’t Velenoth part of Hana’s security team? Nobody had more access to Calabane than Morken Velenoth, except for Hana herself. If he was really working for Ven Ron, he was perfectly positioned to eliminate Calabane whenever Ron decided.

So, Hana went ahead and investigated Velenoth in her spare time. She felt a little bad going behind the Supreme Commander’s back and doing something that he’d specifically ordered her not to do. But knowing she’d followed orders to the letter wouldn’t be much of a comfort if Ven Ron managed to seize control of Fangalin. Unfortunately, Hana had very little free time these days. The work she was doing may have been boring, but there was also a great deal of it. In addition to screening for threats and making sure the Grand Hall was secure, she was also investigating Ven Ron and the other members of his party on the Council. If she could find any dirt on Ron or his party, it would at least help undermine his campaign to overthrow Calabane.

But Hana was obsessed with finding something fishy about Velenoth. She just had this gut feeling that he was hiding something. Unfortunately, between her lack of free time, and Velenoth’s subterfuge, (or, Hana had to admit to herself, the fact that there wasn’t anything there to find), she hadn’t been able to find any proof that he was working for anyone except the Supreme Commander.

Aside from her lingering suspicions about Velenoth, things were going pretty good for Hana. Being an admiral certainly had its advantages, not least of which was a large, new apartment near the heart of Crez. It was by far the fanciest place that Hana had ever lived, and in fact, it was nice enough that it almost made her not miss being in command of Starfengt. Almost.

And that was the hardest part of her new position, by far. The people in Starfengt were the closest thing she had to family, and she missed them terribly. In theory, she could still contact them, but they had been sent off on an assignment in the Empire, and as she was no longer within the chain of command for Starfengt, she wasn’t privy to their assignments anymore, so she didn’t know where they were or what they were doing. And losing that connection with those people was far harder than she imagined it would be. Not only did she miss them terribly, but it was easy to imagine that they didn’t miss her at all. After all, she hadn’t heard from them at all since they’d held a going-away party for her, and, as far as she knew, they hadn’t given her a moment’s thought since that party. She knew it was a completely irrational thought, but she was also lonely enough that, when she didn’t have anything else occupying her mind, it was all she could think about.

Fortunately, moments when she didn’t have anything else occupying her mind were extremely rare. Between her work and her obsession with Morken Velenoth, her mind was usually pretty crammed full of thoughts and information. At times, it almost felt like being back at Imperial University, working with her friends to overthrow the corrupt rule of an unjust usurper, spending all of her time studying and researching, trying to find that one little piece of information that would make everything else fall into place.

But just as she was never able to find that one little piece during her insurrectionary days, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to find it now. If Velenoth was dirty, he’d covered his tracks extremely well. Here and there, Hana found bits and pieces that increased her suspicions about Velenoth, but nothing concrete. He’d had dinner with Ven Ron once, years before he became Dren Calabane’s executive assistant. One of the councilors in Ron’s faction was Velenoth’s sister’s husband’s uncle. Little things, that were enough to convince Hana that her gut was right, but not enough to convince Calabane to begin a formal investigation of Velenoth.

Even aside from Velenoth, her investigations into Ron and his party were also going nowhere. If Velenoth was an eel, then Ron was a mist. Even knowing that Ron was actively conspiring against the Supreme Commander, she was finding it very difficult to pin anything concrete on him. The most suspicious thing she could find was that one of his financial backers was based in the Empire. But that was hardly unusual. The Empire was riddled with Fangalin sleeper agents. No, she was going to have to find something much more nefarious than that, if Calabane was going to be able to remove him from the Grand Council. And time was running out.

To be continued..

A Sword of Ivy, Part 11

The news that she was being relieved of her command of Starfengt had come as a shock to Hana, but she’d gotten over that shock pretty quickly, as it was abundantly clear that this new role was vitally important for the future of Fangalin, and it was temporary anyway. The members of Starfengt, however, were not taking the news nearly as well.

“You’re leaving us!?” exclaimed Shalaminas Retico in a high-pitched voice. He always sounded like he hadn’t reached puberty when he was upset. Sometimes Hana wondered if maybe he hadn’t reached puberty at all.

“It’s only temporary,” said Hana in a voice that was half reassuring, half exasperated. “As soon as the situation is taken care of, I’ll be back, and everything will be back to normal again.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to us,” Vedregela Holomein said in a sullen voice. She had her arms crossed over her chest, and everything about her seemed shrunken, from her stature to the color of her red hair. Her green eyes, however, held a menacing light that made Hana kind of glad she was leaving.

“I’m not doing anything!” Hana replied, the note of exasperation in her voice growing stronger. “These are the Supreme Commander’s orders! If you have a problem with it, then I suggest you head over to the Grand Hall and petition the Supreme Commander directly!”

“So who’s going to be in charge?” asked Velencias Moratino. He seemed outwardly unperturbed by the situation, but there was a tension in the way he was standing that was unusual, and Hana could tell he was as bothered by her leaving as everyone else.

“I already told you, Xeliana is being promoted to Captain and will be the commanding officer of Starfengt,” Hana said, growing more and more exasperated all the time.

“What if I refuse?” Xeliana Merane said in a quiet voice. Hana’s head whipped toward Xeliana, a startled look in her eyes. Xeliana hadn’t said anything yet so far, but she had been radiating hostility and anger ever since Hana had gathered the team.

“Refuse?” Hana barked. “What are you, insane? Who refuses a promotion?” Of all the people in the room, Hana was most upset by Xeliana’s attitude. She had said all those things about being somebody Hana could trust, but now, when Hana needed a shoulder to lean on most, she certainly wasn’t doing a good job of being that friend.

“I don’t have any problem with the promotion,” Xeliana replied. Her voice was level and calm, but her dark eyes were burning. “But we all know that you should be in command of this unit, not me.”

“Well that isn’t an option anymore, is it?” Hana snapped. “Look, I don’t like this anymore than you do, but being in the military isn’t about what we like, is it? Our job is to follow orders, not debate about whether they’re the right thing to do or not!”

Starfengt isn’t exactly a normal military unit,” Vedregela said, still looking sullen and angry.

“No, it’s not, but we still follow the Supreme Commander’s orders!” Hana exclaimed. Suddenly, she slammed her fist into the wall, making everybody else jump. “Dammit, people! I thought I’d trained you better than this! You’re all acting like whiny babies whose favorite toy has been taken away! Grow up and realize that the universe doesn’t revolve around you!” She glared at everybody in the room in turn, and one by one, they all dropped their eyes and looked ashamed.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Xeliana said. She was in second-in-command mode now, representing the whole team in front of their captain. “This is just so sudden! I felt like we’d really gotten our groove back on Weblish, and now this! And we don’t even know where you’re being reassigned or what you’re doing! You can’t blame us for being a little frustrated!”

“No, I can’t,” Hana replied, softening a little, “but I can expect you to act like men and women, not like spoiled babies. Trust me, I would love to be able to tell you about my new assignment, not least because I could really use your help. But it’s absolutely top secret. If I told you what I was doing, and that information got back to the wrong ears, it would be disastrous for Fangalin. You know me, guys. You know I wouldn’t keep secrets from you for no good reason. But trust me when I say that the very existence of our people is at stake.”

“Okay, Captain, we know you’re just being reassigned to a cushy desk job at Navy HQ, but if you want us to think you’re doing something super important, we’ll just go along with it,” Moratino said with a wink. Hana glared at him for a moment, and then a grin broke out on her face.

“Oh, is that the game we’re playing, Lieutenant?” Hana said. “Well, so be it. I hope you guys will be okay out there in the field without me there to change your diapers.” Everyone roared with laughter, but none of them was quite as loud as Moratino. There was that odd sense of humor of his again. He loved mocking people, but nobody ever got mad at him about it, because he loved being mocked even more. Hana just shook her head as she watched him doubled over in laughter.

And then, out of nowhere, she started sobbing. Immediately all the laughter in the room ceased, and she was surrounded by 11 people, hugging her and telling her it was going to be okay.

“I know,” she said in response, “I know! I’m just…I’m just going to miss you idiots!” And then she was crying and laughing at the same time, and everybody else was crying and laughing too, and even though nothing was okay, everything was okay. Once upon a time, she had believed she’d lost everything, but she’d gained a family, a family that she knew would never abandon her, no matter how rough things got. And really, how many people could say they even had that much?

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 10

Hana burst out laughing as soon as Dren Calabane spoke. “You have got to be kidding!” she said derisively. “Me? A bodyguard? That’s your mission that would make full use of my talents? Come on!”

“I suspected this would be your reaction,” Calabane said with a small smile. “But I assure you, I am quite serious.”

“Why?” Hana said, all trace of mirth suddenly gone from her face.

“I need somebody I can trust completely,” Calabane said bluntly. “There are factions in the Grand Council who are working against me, factions that want nothing more than to see me ousted.”

“Ousted?” Hana blurted, confused. “You can’t oust a Supreme Commander. You’re chosen for life!”

“True, but if I was no longer alive, I would no longer be Supreme Commander, would I?” Calabane said grimly. Hana frowned slightly at this. “I’m afraid I haven’t been as skilled at handling the Grand Council as my predecessor was. As a Councilor, I chafed under the tight leash that Commander Fortulis kept on us, so I was determined to give the Council greater freedom once I became Supreme Commander. Unfortunately, my strategy backfired, and there is a powerful faction within the Council that is determined to do whatever it can to undermine me.”

“Even including assassination?” Hana asked skeptically.

“I’m afraid so,” Calabane replied with a grim nod. “I have a plan in motion to eliminate the rebellious faction, but I cannot guarantee that it will be successful, and if the rebels figure out what I’m planning, it may accelerate their own plans. So I need to have somebody by my side that I’m one hundred percent certain I can trust, to keep me safe until I can bring the Council firmly back under my control.”

“And that person is me,” Hana said flatly. “How do you know you can trust me?”

“Hana,” Calabane said, giving her a droll look. “How long have we known each other? If I can’t trust you, then I can’t trust anybody.”

“That doesn’t seem like a very good reason,” Hana replied, her voice even more flat than before.

“Well, I do have a better one,” Calabane said with a smirk. “You know who the leader of the rebel faction is? Ven Ron.”

“Ugh,” Hana said, her lip curling in disgust.

“Exactly,” Calabane said in satisfaction. “If nothing else, I can trust that you would never conspire with Councilor Ron against me.”

“You got that right,” Hana said, disgust still etched on her face. “If I never see that toad again, it’ll be too soon.”

It wasn’t just young men in Starfengt who considered Hana an object of lust and desire. Members of the Grand Council also saw Hana as a prize to be won at any cost. Apparently they felt that bedding the hero of Fangalin, slayer of Emperors and generals, would greatly increase their own prestige.

Hana had been propositioned by every Councilor at least once, some multiple times, but none of them had been as persistent in their pursuit of her as Ven Ron. He had plied her with gifts, swamped her with invitations to dinner, and filled her message inbox with confessions of his undying love and devotion to her. All of that would have been difficult enough to deal with, but the thing that pushed her feelings for Councilor Ron from annoyance to hatred had been the time that he had invited her to his office under the pretext of discussing strategy. She had gone, reluctantly and against the advice of her second-in-command, and sure enough, military strategy had been the farthest thing from Ven Ron’s mind. In fact, he’d attempted to rape her, but he had discovered, to his misfortune, that raping a highly trained assassin was more difficult than he’d expected. But even though the attempt failed, the fact that it had happened, and the fact that Ven Ron was too powerful to be held accountable for his actions, made Hana’s face burn with shame and anger every time she thought about it.

“With your help, and a little bit of luck, I can finally remove ‘that toad’ from his position as Chairman of the Grand Council,” Calabane said seriously. “But I do need your help. If he has me assassinated before I can execute my plans, he will almost certainly be elected the next Supreme Commander. And I don’t need to tell you what a disaster that will be.”

“No, you certainly don’t,” Hana said, thinking quickly. “I suppose I can’t really say no, under these circumstances.”

“I was hoping that would be the case,” Calabane replied, smiling broadly. “I’m afraid this means I have to remove you from command of Starfengt.” Hana froze for a moment, not breathing, and then she relaxed and took a deep breath.

“I can’t say I saw that coming,” she said in a resigned voice. “But it does make sense. I can hardly be your bodyguard and command Starfengt at the same time.”

“It’s not all bad,” Calabane said with a shrug. “I don’t want you to think that you’re not getting anything out of this deal, so I’m promoting you to Admiral, with all of the benefits and privileges that go along with that rank. And once Ven Ron is dealt with, I can put you back in command of Starfengt, if you like.”

“It would be odd to have an admiral in command of a unit like Starfengt,” Hana said. Calabane shrugged again.

Starfengt is an inherently unusual unit,” he said. “And you deserve the promotion. If I thought I could get away with it, I’d make you a four star admiral. You’ve done more for the cause of Fangalin than just about anyone else in the past 15 years. If anyone deserves to be at the top of the hierarchy, it’s you.”

“Too bad I’m a woman,” Hana said with a bitter smile.

“Yeah, well,” Calabane said apologetically, “the Fangalin Charter restricts the Supreme Commander’s power in very few areas, but that’s one of them. As much as I would love to make you a Councilor, and as much as I believe that Wellin Votara was wrong to exclude women from the Grand Council, if I go against the Charter, the very foundation of our power will crumble.”

“I know, I know,” Hana said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’d just as soon not be on the Council anyway. Who wants to hang out with a bunch of insufferable windbags?” She said this last sentence with a mischievous grin. Calabane burst out laughing.

“I’d be mad you think that way if it wasn’t the truth,” he said, mirroring her grin.

To be continued…