The Darkest Heart, Part 9

“Haven’t we been down this road before?” Kryla asked, arching an eyebrow. “The last time you wanted me to help you shake the foundations of the Empire, a lot of people died.”

“Perhaps, but we also succeeded in unifying the Empire under one ruler for the first time in almost twenty years,” Belfamor replied.

“This is true, but it would take a more detached mind than mine to decide whether that was worth the cost or not,” Kryla responded coolly. Belfamor just eyed her with a flat expression on his face for a few moments. Kryla stared back at him, her expression just as neutral as his, but then she finally sighed and looked away. “All right,” she said, “tell me what you want.”

“Nothing too terrible,” Belfamor said with a slight smirk. “As you know, our beloved Emperor is not long for this world. Whether he dies in battle, or on an assassin’s blade, or simply from old age, his death is imminent. And as he has no heir, the Senate will be meeting to decide on his successor. When that time comes, I would like your support for my candidacy.”

“That’s it?” Kryla asked, looking skeptical. “You don’t want me to lay siege to the capital, or send my troops to assassinate the Emperor?”

“Of course not,” Belfamor said with a scowl.

“Well, supporting you for Emperor is hardly shaking the foundations of the Empire,” Kryla said with a slight shrug.

“You might be surprised,” Belfamor said. “I am not in as much…favor, as I once was.”

“Is that so?” Kryla replied. “I had heard that you were suspended, but I was under the impression that it was temporary.”

“That’s what the Emperor would like people to think,” Belfamor snarled. “I know the truth. Emelien Fanas has been trying to wrest control of the Army from me for years, and now he’s finally succeeded. But his victory won’t last. Once I’m Emperor, he’ll regret crossing me.” There was a fevered light in Belfamor’s eyes, and his handsome features were twisted in such a diabolical way that he didn’t look remotely handsome to Neska anymore. She was actually quite frightened, but she tried desperately to hide it.

If her aunt was at all alarmed at the transformation that had overtaken Belfamor, she hid it well. She was silent for a moment, sipping her wine, and eyeing Belfamor coolly. Belfamor, for his part, seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was in the room. A sort of savage pleasure crept over his features as he contemplated his coming victory over his hated enemy.

“So, is that it then?” Kryla asked quietly, making Belfamor jump and stare at her as if he’d forgotten she was in the room. “All you want me to do is support your bid to become Emperor?”

“I…yes, that’s it,” Belfamor said, blinking rapidly and shivering. “Your support would be…greatly appreciated.”

“I can see that,” Kryla replied, stone-faced.

“Then, do I have your assurance that you will support me in front of the Senate?” Belfamor demanded. Kryla gazed at him for a long time, seeming to weigh her answer.

“You have my assurance that I will support you in whatever way I can,” Kryla said finally. Tension seemed to visibly drain out of Belfamor’s body, and he sat down hard in a large, plush armchair.

“I was afraid you might say no,” Belfamor said, laughing shakily. Picking up his glass of wine, he swirled it around for a moment, and then downed a great quantity of it in a single gulp. Kryla’s expression was still flat, her eyes glittering like gemstones.

“We are old friends, are we not?” she said calmly.

“Old friends are the best positioned to stab you in the back,” Belfamor replied darkly. He drained his wine glass slowly but steadily, set it down gently, and then grinned unexpectedly. “Anyway, that is a weight off my shoulders.” His grin grew wider, and he eyed Neska as if he’d never seen her before. Neska suddenly felt the urge to cover her breasts, as if Belfamor’s gaze could pierce her dress uniform. She willed her hands to stay still.

“Say,” he said, his gaze becoming hungry, “you’re a pretty one, aren’t you?”

“You could say that,” Kryla interjected. Her tone was conversational, but her eyes were as hard as diamonds now. “She’s also my niece.”

“Is that so?” If anything, Belfamor’s look grew even hungrier, and Neska didn’t think he looked handsome at all anymore. She wanted to tear her eyes away from his, and curl up into the fetal position, but instead she tried to imitate her aunt’s cool gaze. She didn’t know if she was succeeding or not.

Neska didn’t know how long she and Belfamor sat, staring at each other, before Commander Venrel spoke up. “We should probably be getting back to the ship, shouldn’t we, Admiral?” he said.

At the sound of Venrel’s voice, Belfamor shook his head and looked away from Neska. His expression became mostly neutral, but there was a trace of his leering grin still on his face. Neska looked over at Venrel. His tone had been conversational, but there was definitely a look of worry on his face. Kryla’s face, on the other hand, could have been carved from granite.

“Yes, I think it is time for us to take our leave,” Kryla said, a hint of iron underneath the calm tones of her voice.

“So soon?” Belfamor exclaimed. “Ah well, I suppose the work of a naval officer is never done. I will be contacting you soon, Admiral.”

“Of course,” Kryla replied. She stood up, walked over to Belfamor, and shook his hand, and as she did so, she leaned over and whispered something in Belfamor’s ear. Neska couldn’t hear what it was, but whatever it was, it made Belfamor’s eyes widen and his face go white, and then red. As Kryla pulled away from him, he stared at her in anger and shock, but Kryla just looked back at him impassively. Then she turned to Venrel and Neska, and motioned for them to follow her. Neska had never been so happy to obey an order in her life.

To be continued…

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