The Darkest Heart, Part 5

Shala frowned to herself when she heard shouting coming from somewhere in the manor. Her study was on the third floor, and on the far side of the building from the main entryway, but she could have sworn it was coming from there. If so, whoever was doing it was really bellowing. She tapped a button on her tablet to contact the head of security for the manor.

“Captain Verel, is something wrong?” she asked as soon as the call went through.

“Um, my Lady, actually, um, yes, there is,” Verel replied, sounding uncharacteristically hesitant. “You should probably get down to the main entry, actually.”

“What’s going on?” she asked, her frown deepening.

“It’s your husband, my Lady. Lord Hemetal.”

“I’ll be there right away,” Shala said decisively, but as she strode through the corridors, her confusion only deepened. What was Belfamor doing here now? It was still the early afternoon, and he usually worked until late at night. And what was he hollering about? Belfamor certainly had a temper these days, but she had never heard him like this.

What she saw when she walked into the main entryway shocked her. It was utterly trashed. Expensive vases and paintings were smashed all over the hall, while a number of servants and soldiers stood around the walls, looking shocked and helpless. In the middle of it all was Belfamor, screaming incoherently and smashing up the place.

“Belfamor!” Shala barked immediately, doing her best impersonation of her husband’s “soldier voice”. “What is the meaning of this!” Instantly, Belfamor froze, and then he slowly turned toward her. Despite her anger, she swallowed hard and took a step back at the look on his face. She’d never been afraid of her husband before, but at that moment there was something about him that reminded her unpleasantly of her father at his worst.

“I’ll tell you what the meaning of this is,” Belfamor said in a low, menacing voice. “I’ve been FIRED!” he roared, and flung the vase in his hand across the hall, where it shattered a few feet away from Shala’s head. She flinched, but otherwise stood her ground.

“What do you mean you’ve been fired?” Shala said in a calm but firm voice, folding her arms and fixing Belfamor with her best glare.

“I mean, that Emelien Fanas finally convinced Valador to give me the boot!” Belfamor yelled. “I’ve been relieved of duty! Temporarily, he says, but I know the truth. Now that the Senate is getting ready to meet, he doesn’t need me anymore! All he’s ever cared about is my money!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Shala shot back, her voice still calm but firm. “Valador only has your best interests at heart. If he’s relieving you of duty, there must be a good reason for it! The man loves you, Belfamor! He’s been like a father to you!” As soon as that last sentence was out her mouth, she knew she’d made a mistake. Anything that reminded Belfamor of his father was treading dangerously close to the elephant in the room, the huge barrier that had lay between them for the past four years.

Belfamor’s face instantly became closed off, and he turned away from her. Slowly, he trudged past the debris strewn about the hall, and walked up the stairs toward his quarters. As he walked, Shala just stood, frozen, unable to think or speak, helpless to figure out how to solve this problem between them.

After a few minutes, the servants in the hall seemed to get over their shock, and began bustling around, cleaning up the mess that the master of the house had made, but Shala still couldn’t seem to move. Finally, her chamberlain approached her and took her by the arm.

“Perhaps my Lady would prefer to return to her study,” he murmured, guiding her back into the corridor she’d just emerged from.

“Yes, that would perhaps be best,” she murmured faintly. What a frustrating mess this all was. How could she be so helpless to know how to approach Belfamor? Their marriage had been so wonderful once. They had been so madly in love with each other. Now it was like she was married to a stranger. How could this have happened?

The chamberlain, whose name was Vedfar Lonragen, guided her into her study, helped her ease into her seat, and then closed the door. Turning around, he gave her a look that was somehow fatherly and subservient at the same time.
“What is it, Master Lonragen?” Shala asked, still feeling slightly dazed by the scene in the main entryway.

“Forgive me, my Lady, but I felt like you could use someone to talk to,” Lonragen said, bowing as he spoke. Vedfar Lonragen had been in the service of House Votalin longer than Shala could remember. He was short and stout, with a ring of gray hair around his bald head. Shala remembered him being one of the few servants in her father’s household who would dare risk her father’s displeasure by being kind to her. Unsurprisingly, she’d always liked him.

“I should, Master Lonragen,” Shala said with a sigh, “but unfortunately I don’t seem to know what to say.”

“I understand, my Lady,” Lonragen said with another bow. “If you should happen to change your mind, please know that I am always available.”

“Of course, Master Lonragen,” Shala said, nodding her head slightly. Lonragen bowed once again, and turned to leave, but as the door slid open, Shala spoke again. “I do appreciate everything you’ve done for me, you know. Even…even when I was a child, you’ve always cared about me.”

Lonragen turned to look back at her, and a sad smile appeared on his face. “It was a tragedy, what your father did to you, my Lady,” Lonragen said softly. “I wish I could have done more to stop it.”

“You did what you could, Vedfar,” Shala said intently. “You did more than anyone else.”

“That is a tragedy of its own, my Lady,” Lonragen said with a sigh, “but what’s done is done, I suppose.”

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 4

“Absolutely not!” growled Belfamor Hemetal, slamming a tablet down on his desk. He glared up at the general standing in front of his desk, who was sweating and looking like he’d rather be anywhere but where he was.

“Sir, if you’ll just look at the proposal,” the general began, but Belfamor cut him off.

“I don’t need to look at the proposal,” he snarled. “I know exactly what it says, and I’m telling you, it’s not going to happen.”

“His Majesty would appreciate it if you would at least consider,” the general began again, but once again Belfamor cut him off.

“I don’t give a damn what His Majesty wants!” he roared, slamming his fist on his desk, rattling the pile of tablets and making the general jump. “Valador knows full well that he can’t proceed on this without my approval, and he’s not going to get it! Now get the hell out of my office!”

“Yes, sir!” the general saluted, snatched up his tablet, and practically ran out of Belfamor’s office. Belfamor glared after the man for a few moments, and then he shook his head and sighed. There had been a time when he didn’t have such a temper. He could barely remember what those days were like. Then he scowled again, thinking about the proposal that had just been presented to him. Although the general who had brought him the message claimed the proposal was from the Emperor, Belfamor could smell Emelien Fanas’s foul hand in it. Fanas was the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces, or SCIAF, the highest rank in the Imperial military hierarchy, aside from the Emperor himself. Belfamor, on the other hand, was the Overall Commander of the Imperial Army (OCIA), the highest rank in the Army, but one step below SCIAF. Belfamor hated Fanas, loathed him with a passion that he had formerly reserved for his father-in-law, and it chafed at him to no end to have to take orders from such a pig. Fanas would do anything to undermine Belfamor’s control of the Army, and this proposal was proof.

Valador couldn’t remove Belfamor from command of the Army directly. House Hemetal was the richest noble house in the galaxy, and had only grown richer in the past few years. Valador depended on Hemetal’s support for funds to run the Empire, especially since the Senate had only just been reincorporated after 20 years of inactivity, and hadn’t been able to actually meet yet. But Belfamor knew that Valador didn’t trust him. For two years, Valador had been trying to squeeze Belfamor out of his control of the Army without letting Belfamor know what he was doing. But Belfamor was too smart for that. The Imperial Army was his, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take it from him without a fight.

This latest proposal was just more evidence of Valador’s duplicity, and his subservience to Fanas. Valador wanted to replace the OCIA with a committee of five generals. Belfamor would be the chairman of this committee, but he would have to get at least two generals to agree with his plans before he did anything. Ridiculous. In 20 years, the Army had never been stronger. Why mess with a good thing?

Belfamor knew exactly why the Emperor wanted to mess with a good thing. Emelien Fanas was putting pressure on the Emperor to get Belfamor out of the OCIA office. Well, it would never happen. Valador liked Fanas better than Belfamor, but Valador needed Belfamor. And that wasn’t going to change.

A beeping sound made Belfamor jump, and he scowled at his desk for a moment before he realized that it was his secretary paging him. “Yes?” he growled.

“Sir, you are receiving a call from the Emperor,” his secretary replied.

“Put it through,” Belfamor said. A moment later, a hologram of Valador’s head appeared in the air above Belfamor’s desk. “Your Majesty,” Belfamor said, trying and failing to sound respectful.

“Having a bad day, General?” Valador replied with a smirk. “I just talked to General Faralai. He reckons that he just barely got out of your office with his head still attached.”

“As well he should, considering what he wanted me to look at,” Belfamor snarled.

“You still think that I’m trying to sack you?” Valador said in an exasperated voice. “By the One, man, all I’m trying to do is lighten your load. You’ve been working yourself raw for the past four years. I thought maybe you would appreciate not having quite so much responsibility.”

“Well, you would be wrong,” Belfamor snapped. “I like my work life just fine, thank you very much.”

“Oh yeah? And how are things going at home?”

“That’s none of your damn business!” Belfamor roared.

“And what makes you think that?” Valador snapped back. “You are one of my most trusted associates, but if you burn yourself out with overwork because you’re too afraid to deal with your problems at home, then you’re useless to me!”

“Don’t give me that crap, Valador,” Belfamor snarled. “I know full well that all you care about is my money!” Valador blinked, and his face became as cold and hard as stone.

“Is that what you think, Lord Hemetal?” he said in soft, dangerous voice. “Well, let me show you much I care about your money. As of right now, you are relieved of duty.”

“What?” Belfamor gasped, his eyes widening.

“You heard me,” Valador said in the same soft, dangerous voice. “Go home, make love to your wife, play with your son, and get your head on straight. Once you’re ready to act like a sane man, you’re welcome to resume your duties. But I’m not going to have a lunatic in command of my army.” Immediately the connection was severed, and Belfamor was left staring at the blank space above his desk.

For a few minutes, he just sat there, trying to convince himself that the Emperor was just bluffing, but when four burly and heavily armed MPs came into his office and respectfully told him that they were there on the Emperor’s orders to escort him from the building, there was no denying that what had just happened was real.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 3

Try as she might, Shala Votalin simply couldn’t get used to living on Medradi. Known as the Rock (which would give an outsider some idea of how desolate the planet was), Medradi was mostly notable for being the headquarters of the Imperial Armed Forces. Imperial soldiers loved to boast about how the Rock was invincible, unconquerable, but Shala privately felt like the real reason nobody had ever conquered the Rock was that no one else wanted it.

She sighed as she gazed out over the blasted wasteland that was visible from the window of her study. Four years now, she’d lived in this desert. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, the mansion that Shala lived in with her husband, Belfamor, and her son, Vendamil, was perfectly comfortable and quite beautiful. But all the technology in the galaxy couldn’t change the fact that going outside on Medradi was a miserable experience. She had always loved going for walks in her garden on Revellia, but there were no gardens on Medradi.

She sighed again and turned back to her desk. Brooding about having to live on Medradi wasn’t helping her get her work done. With her husband obsessively wrapped in his work with the military, it was up to Shala to handle the affairs of both House Votalin and House Hemetal. Not that she had to do all the work herself, of course. Both Houses had an extensive staff to handle all the day-to-day tasks, but somebody needed to overlook the big picture, and that somebody was Shala. It was hard work, but surprisingly rewarding, and it at least took her mind off of how miserable she was.

Just as Shala sat down, there was a soft knock on the door. Shala looked up and, although her face didn’t change at all, her heart felt like it was dropping down into her stomach.

“Excuse me, Mother,” said Vendamil quietly.

“Yes? Can I help you?” Shala replied, tearing her eyes away from him and focusing on one of the tablets on her desk. Try as she might, Shala couldn’t look at her son anymore without being overwhelmed with feelings of loathing and fear. Four years ago, when Vendamil had been just five years old, he had betrayed Shala to her father, a ruthless tyrant who’d had an unhealthy obsession with his only daughter. Although Neminatrix had eventually repented of his crimes against her, and Shala had forgiven him, she still couldn’t forget the torment she’d been put through before that point. Nor could she forget that it was her son who had put her there, all because she wouldn’t allow him to attend Imperial University at the age of five.

“I was wondering if you had gotten a chance to look over that message I sent you,” Vendamil said in a quiet, near-monotone. Shala glanced up at her son for a moment. He was looking at his feet, standing perfectly still. He was small for a nine-year-old, with mousy brown hair and a slight build. Physically, he took after his mother in almost every way. Except for his eyes. His eyes were the same brilliant blue as his father.

“I’m sorry Vendamil, I have been very busy,” Shala said, looking back down at the tablet in her hand. “Once I have finished my work today, maybe I will have a chance to look it over.”

“Of course, Mother,” Vendamil said. There was no sound after he spoke, and after a few moments, Shala glanced up and saw that he was gone. She leaned back in her chair and, with a sigh, began massaging her temples. What a mess her life had become over the past few years. Her father was dead, and once she would have expected that fact to be a glorious one, but instead it brought her nothing but pain. Right before his death, her father had come to his senses and given up his obsession with her. Shala almost wished that he hadn’t. For a few wonderful days, Shala had thought that she was on the verge of having a real relationship with her father, but instead he had been gunned down by a Fangalin assassin. And so something she’d once thought would bring her joy brought her grief instead.

And if that had been all, it would have been enough, but of course it wasn’t. Her need to grieve her father had driven a wedge between her and her husband. For almost a decade, Shala and Belfamor had been madly in love with each other, but now they could barely stand to be in the same room as each other. Belfamor had amassed an armada to assault Trisitania and rescue Shala when she’d been captured by her father, and he resented the fact that Shala was grieving her father’s death. He’d expected her to be overjoyed at her rescue, and the fact that Neminatrix died in the process should have been a cause for celebration. Especially since Neminatrix had murdered Belfamor’s father, mother, and two of his sisters. Belfamor had absolutely no feelings of grief over the death of his father-in-law. And Shala didn’t expect him to. But he wouldn’t even allow her to grieve, and she resented that. And so they departed to their own little worlds, and their marriage died a little bit more every day.

Not for the first time, Shala considered going back to Revellia. That was the only place she’d ever lived where she’d been happy. But it wasn’t the place, it was the people. And if she went to Revellia now, she’d be going there without her husband, and without her son. And it would be a tacit admission that her marriage had failed. No matter what else happened, she didn’t want that. Deep down inside, she still loved Belfamor. But he refused to admit that she needed to grieve her father’s death, and until he did, there was no way she could show him love. There was a wall between them named Neminatrix, and that wall had been there since before they were married. How ironic that after his death, the wall would only grow stronger.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 2

Kryla Zomulin was sitting at her desk, looking over some reports, when her niece came into her office. Kryla surveyed Neskatrai for a moment over her reading glasses, not saying anything, while Neskatrai simply gazed back at her impassively. Mostly impassively. There was a hint of worry in her brown eyes, but Kryla doubted anybody who wasn’t close to Neskatrai would notice it.

“Sit down, Neska,” Kryla finally said, gesturing to a chair in front of her desk and taking her glasses off. “You and I need to have a chat.”

“Is this about what happened in the mess hall?” Neska asked as she sat down, a hint of guilt in her voice.

“No, although I did hear about that,” Kryla said, keeping her face smooth.

“What are you going to do about it, sir?” Neska asked.

“Me? Nothing,” Kryla replied, her eyebrows lifting slightly in surprise. “Crew discipline is the XO’s purview. I’ll only step in if Commander Venrel’s measures prove insufficient, and in five years of having him as my XO, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to intervene in matters of crew discipline. The Commander runs a very tight ship.”

“Thank you, sir,” Neska said, bowing her head.

“Worried about becoming the Admiral’s pet?” Kryla asked with a wry grin.

“Something like that, sir,” Neska admitted. Kryla just studied her for a few moments, and then she sighed.

“Okay, we need to get something straight,” she said. “Of course, when anyone else is around, you must refer to me as ‘Admiral’ or ‘sir’, but when we’re alone, I need you to call me ‘Aunt Kryla’, or even ‘Auntie’. Do I make myself clear?”

“Admiral, I-,” Neska began, but Kryla cut her off.

“Do you see anyone else in this room, Neska?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

“No, but-,” Neska tried again, but Kryla cut her off again.

“I could make it an order, if I have to,” she said. Neska froze for a moment, and then she smiled.

“Okay…Auntie,” she said hesitantly.

“That’s better,” Kryla said, returning Neska’s smile. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten the little girl who used to squeal with delight when I’d show up at her house with a bag of presents at Festival. You may be a crewmember on my ship, but you’re also my niece, and I’m not going to forget that.”

“I’m…glad to hear that, Auntie,” Neska replied, her smile wavering a little bit.

“Now, down to business,” Kryla said, her voice becoming more brisk. “I understand you’ve been studying subspace wave theory.”

“Just…trying to be well-rounded, Auntie,” Neska said, her smile fading.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Kryla replied, a note of approval in her voice. “Sometimes it seems like ambition is lacking in the Fleet these days. It makes me very pleased to know that someone from my family is bucking that trend.”

“I…thank you,” Neska said, a little taken aback.

“You seem surprised,” Kryla said.

“Well, it’s like you said,” Neska replied, “nobody seems to have any ambition. Nobody takes this war seriously. So many of my fellow crewmembers have looked at me like I’m a mutant toad with three heads because I spend most of my free time studying.”

“You can be certain that I do not think you are a mutant toad,” Kryla said with a slight smile. “In fact, I’m planning to transfer you to engineering.”

“Engineering?” Neska replied, startled. “But I don’t have any training in engineering! I focused on command principles and battle tactics at the Academy.”

“I understand that, and I believe you will make a superb captain someday,” Kryla replied in a level voice. “Which is all the more reason for you to get some hands-on experience in engineering. The best captains are those who know their ships inside and out.”

“Is…that why you’ve stayed on Decimator for so long?” Neska asked hesitantly.

“Precisely,” Krlya said with a nod. “I know Decimator like the back of my hand. Some people even joke that I’m still single because I’m married to this ship, and there’s probably more truth to that than I’d like to admit. But in any case, I’m not saying you need to get married to a ship, but I am saying that the more you know every facet of how a ship works, the better prepared you’ll be to assume command someday.”

“I understand that, Auntie, but…engineering?” Neska said doubtfully.

“I’m not sure what the hesitation is, Neska,” Kryla said with a slight frown. “You’ve been studying subspace wave theory, so you’re obviously interested in the principles behind subspace engines. Just think of it as hands-on study!”

“Well, it’s not that…,” Neska said, still hesitant. “It’s just that, well, I don’t have any experience working with engine cores, and, well…”

“You’re afraid of making a fool of yourself?” Kryla said with an understanding smile.

“Well, yeah,” Neska admitted.

“That’s something you’re going to have to deal with if you want to be a captain someday,” Kryla said, firmly but not without warmth. “When you have a split second to make a life or death decision, you can’t be worrying about what people will think about you if you make the wrong decision.”

“Yeah, I had instructors tell me that at the Academy,” Neska said glumly, “but it’s easier said than done.”

“Well, you’re going to get an opportunity to confront your fears,” Kryla replied. “I’m assigning you to engineering, effective immediately.”

“Yes, sir!” Neska barked, suddenly sitting up straight and saluting. Kryla regarded her for a moment silently, and then smiled.

“That will be all, Neska,” she said quietly. Neska smiled back, and stood up to go.

“Neska,” she said just before Neska reached the door. Neska turned around and looked back. “Nobody in engineering is going to expect you to be an expert. Heck, most of the kids we get who studied engineering at the Academy don’t know what they’re doing when they get here. You’re going to be fine.”

“Thank you, Auntie,” Neska said with a smile. “I won’t let you down.”

“There’s no way you could, Neska,” Kryla replied, smiling back.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 1

“Hey, Neska!”

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was hunched over a tablet in a quiet mess hall when these words boomed through the silence and shattered her calm. She frowned and looked up for the source of the disturbance, and her frown deepened when she realized who it was.

“Ensign Cadramon,” she said coolly to the young man approaching her table. Most of the other crewmembers on Decimator already knew that the young woman fresh out of the Imperial Military Academy preferred to be left alone, but Gredlix Cadramon somehow hadn’t gotten the hint yet.

“What, are you still studying?” he said with a sardonic smirk, plopping down onto the seat across from her. “Didn’t you graduate from the Academy already?”

“For your information, Ensign,” Dradital replied, her voice growing steadily colder with every word, “I do not consider education to be something that ends once a degree has been granted. I intend to continue to grow and advance, both personally and professionally, regardless of whether my formal education has ceased or not.”

“That’s all well and good, Neska,” Cadramon said, his smirk deepening, “but it’s still okay to have fun once in awhile. Decimator may not be the newest ship in the fleet, but she’s still got some of the best entertainment facilities in the galaxy. Let me show you some of them.”

“First of all, Ensign,” Dradital said, emphasizing his rank as if to point out that he hadn’t used hers, “we are at war, and we have been ever since I was a child. Perhaps someday there will be time for us to play, but I intend to take this war seriously even if no one else does. Secondly, I am not interested in entertainment facilities. I have studying to do, and that is what I enjoy doing, and it is what I intend to do. Finally, my name, is Neskatrai. If you will not do me the courtesy of referring to me by my rank, as is proper for an officer of the Imperial Fleet, than at least refer to me by my proper name.”

“You know, Neska, you’re too uptight,” Cadramon said, ignoring the look of fury that appeared on Dradital’s face. “You really need to loosen up and have some fun. The war isn’t going to be over any time soon. If you wait until it ends to have fun, you’re gonna be old and gray, and then it’ll be too late to have fun anyway.”

“Ensign Cadramon,” Dradital said in a tight voice, as if she was barely restraining herself from screaming at him, “I am not going to ask you again. Leave. Me. Alone.”

“What’s your problem, Ensign?” Cadramon said in a loud voice, suddenly angry. “Why can’t you just lighten up and have some fun?”

“I am not here to have fun,” Dradital shot back, her voice ice-cold again. “Surely you can find some other woman to have fun with. It is not going to be me.” Immediately, she stood up, picked up her tablet and stalked out of the mess hall.

She didn’t know if Cadramon was following her or not, and she didn’t care. Gredlix Cadramon was thoroughly irrelevant to her. All she cared about was not being bothered while she was trying to study. Perhaps trying to study in the mess hall wasn’t the best idea, but most of the other crewmembers on Decimator knew who she was, and more importantly, knew who her aunt was, and weren’t interested in annoying her. Cadramon was apparently too stupid or too stubborn to care.

Neskatrai Dradital was short, with pale skin and mousy hair that fell just past her shoulders. She was 22 years old, fresh out of the Imperial Military Academy, and Decimator was her first assignment. In a way, she wished she had been assigned somewhere else. Decimator was a venerable ship with a storied history, the type of ship that young officers were generally eager to serve on. And Neskatrai was happy to be there. For more reasons than one. But she couldn’t help but wonder if she had been assigned to Decimator for her own merits, or simply because of who her aunt was.

“Ensign Dradital!” called a voice behind her. She turned to see who it was, and saluted sharply once she saw.

“Commander Venrel!” she said in a crisp voice.

“At ease, Ensign,” Venrel said with a slight smile. Venrel was a large man, both wide and tall, with dark skin, a shaved head, and an easy-going manner. As long as you were on his good side. If you weren’t, he transformed into a truly terrifying force. He was also the XO on Decimator, which gave Dradital even more reason to stay on his good side. “The Admiral would like to see you in her office as soon as possible.”

Dradital made a sound that was halfway between a sigh and a whimper. “I suppose she heard about what just happened in the mess hall,” she said with an embarrassed frown.

“I don’t know what she wants, but I heard about what happened, and I can assure you that it won’t happen again,” Venrel said in a grim voice, “Ensign Cadramon will regret pestering you, no doubt about it.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Dradital said with a smile that was more like a grimace. Venrel responded with a sympathetic smile.

“I know you don’t want preferential treatment, Ensign, but rest assured that I would do the same for anyone. Ensign Cadramon has been spoken to before about harassing young women. It’s just his bad luck that the young woman he chose to annoy today was you.”

“I…thank you, Commander,” Dradital said again, and this time she sounded like she meant it. “Well, I suppose I’d better go see what the Admiral wants.”

“I suppose you should,” Venrel replied with a grin. “And double-time it! You’ve already wasted enough time talking to me, and there’s no way you’re going to get any preferential treatment from her.” Dradital grimaced again, but she saluted and began striding down the corridors to her aunt’s office.

To be continued…