The Darkest Heart, Part 8

Ensign Neskatrai Dradital was less than happy to be accompanying her aunt to this meeting with Lord Belfamor Hemetal. It wasn’t that she had anything against rubbing shoulders with nobility. Just the opposite, in fact. She was extraordinarily nervous to meet one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, because she wanted to make a good impression, and she was afraid she’d screw it up. Neska’s family wasn’t poor. In fact, they would probably be described as upper middle class. But someone like Belfamor Hemetal was as much higher on the social scale than Neska, as Neska and her family were compared to someone digging in a field in a plantation on Birefal.

As she walked behind her aunt down the perfectly sculpted walkway leading toward Hemetal’s sumptuous manor, she felt like she had a smudge of dirt on her nose, even though she knew she’d washed her face thoroughly. Her aunt glanced back at her, and although she tried to look perfectly calm and composed, she knew it was no use. Auntie Kryla had always been able to read her like a book.

“Remember what I said,” Kryla muttered in a low voice, before she turned back to face the manor. Neska frowned slightly at the memory of the conversation she’d had in the Admiral’s quarters a few hours earlier. Of course, Kryla had said a lot of things in that conversation, so it was hard for Neska to pick out exactly what her aunt was referring to, but there had been one particular statement that had stuck in Neska’s mind. “Nobles are just like us.”

Which was all well and good for Kryla to say. She was practically nobility herself. One of the most decorated starship captains in the Empire, commander of the largest and most powerful single unit in the Imperial Fleet, and one of the main reasons that the Empire was still standing and hadn’t been completely swallowed up by Fangalin yet. If there was any commoner in the Empire who could stand toe-to-toe with a nobleman and feel like an equal, based on what she’d accomplished, it was Kryla Zomulin. But Neskatrai Dradital was a nobody. The greatest thing she’d accomplished was graduating from the Imperial Military Academy. Big deal. Lots of people had done that, including Belfamor Hemetal.

Her train of thought was interrupted by the fact that the three of them had reached the front door of the manor. Almost immediately the huge double door was opened, and an elderly chamberlain was welcoming them in. The sheer opulence of the massive entryway just about took Neska’s breath away, and only confirmed her fears of embarrassing herself in front of people who were clearly better than her in every way. As if reading her mind, as soon as Kryla finished exchanging pleasantries with the chamberlain, she looked at Neska firmly, willing her to remember their conversation, and then turned and followed the chamberlain down the vast hallway. Neska just swallowed hard and followed.

The chamberlain led them into a magnificent dining room that was both large and full of tasteful and expensive decorations. Belfamor Hemetal himself stood at the head of the table, and Neska swallowed hard again. Belfamor had to be almost 50 years old, but he looked to be just a little older than Neska herself, and breathtakingly handsome, to boot. Nobles are just like us, my ass, Neska thought to herself wryly. Belfamor greeted Kryla warmly, Commander Venrel respectfully, and Neska with little more than polite dismissal. At least I didn’t embarrass myself, she thought ruefully.

Belfamor next introduced his wife, Shala Votalin. She made Neska think that maybe there was something to her aunt’s insistence that nobles were just like commoners. Neska’s first impression was that she was a plain-looking woman with sad eyes and mousy brown hair that looked just like Neska’s, but when she rose to greet her guests, her smile was so genuine that it lit up her whole face and made her at least a thousand times more beautiful. But as soon as everyone was seated and no one was paying any more attention to her, Neska noticed that Shala’s expression reverted to plain and sad. Neska felt bad for her, which was not something she’d expected to feel for a noblewoman. Envy, yes. Pity? That was something of a shock.

The conversation over dinner consisted of pleasant but dry small talk, and Neska found herself focusing mostly on the food. The food was magnificent, both more delicious and more plentiful than Neska had ever experienced before. Neska was largely ignored by the other four, which was fine by her, as it gave her a chance to enjoy the food without worrying about having to come with something clever to say. Neska desperately wanted to impress Lord Hemetal, but she was also terribly worried about making a fool out of herself, and so she decided that being quiet and eating her food without getting it all over herself was about as impressive as she was capable of being at the moment.

Once all the food was eaten (or at least as much of it as anyone could handle – Neska found herself wondering what would happen to all the leftovers, and hoping they didn’t just get thrown out), the party retired to a nearby sitting room, where drinks were served. As soon as they were poured, Belfamor dismissed the servants, leaving him alone with the three Imperial Fleet officers. Shala, Neska was surprised to note, was also missing from the room.

Belfamor stood up and paced slowly around the room. He looked relaxed, but Neska noticed a tightness to his eyes, as if he was stressed about something and desperately trying to hide it. Neska also noticed that her aunt was watching him shrewdly, as if she knew he was going to ask her for something and didn’t want to give it to him.

“Kryla, we’ve had a good relationship over the years, haven’t we?” Belfamor asked suddenly.

“For the most part,” Kryla replied carefully, still eyeing Belfamor shrewdly.

“What if I asked you to do something that would shake the very foundations of the Empire?” Belfamor said, in a neutral tone that belied the content of his words.

To be continued…

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