The Darkest Heart, Part 26

Belfamor Hemetal was reading in his study when Grandal Vomelien entered, bowed, and handed him a tablet, saying, “A message just arrived for you from the capital, my Lord.”

“Thank you, Master Vomelien,” Belfamor replied, accepting the tablet. He began reading the message it contained and smiled. “Excellent,” he said. “The Senate has accepted my candidacy for the Imperial Throne, and they are preparing to meet and decide who will be the next Emperor.” He read a little bit more, and the smile slid off his face and was quickly replaced with a snarl. “This can’t be right!” he growled.

“I’m afraid it is, my Lord,” Vomelien replied in a gloomy voice. “Admiral Zomulin has announced that she is supporting General Fanas’s bid for the Throne.”

“That ungrateful bitch!” Belfamor screamed, standing up and hurling the tablet across the room, where it shattered as soon as it hit the wall. “After all I’ve done for her! She would not be where she is if it wasn’t for me!”

“You are correct as ever, my Lord,” Vomelien said, standing unperturbed with his hands clasped behind his back as his master stormed and raged in front of him.

“She will pay for this outrage!” Belfamor bellowed. “I will destroy her! Once I’m Emperor…!” For a few minutes he stalked back and forth across his study, screaming incoherently, while his chamberlain stood perfectly still, only his eyes moving.

Finally, Belfamor seemed to have exhausted his rage, and he slumped down in the chair behind his desk and glowered up at Vomelien, who was still standing there watching him, completely unperturbed.

“What do you think I should do?” Belfamor demanded suddenly.

“Focus on the election, my Lord,” Vomelien responded immediately. “You can still win even without Admiral Zomulin’s support. Win the Throne, and then you will be able to deal with the Admiral at your leisure.” Belfamor nodded, a thoughtful look on his face.

“What happens if I don’t win?” he snapped, leaning forward suddenly.

“That depends,” Vomelien replied. “How badly do you want the Imperial Throne?” Belfamor stared at him for a few moments, his face perfectly blank, and then he began laughing loudly and slightly maniacally.

“I’ve always liked you, Master Vomelien,” he said with a broad grin after his laughter died down. “You’ve always been a good servant to my family.”

“It is my pleasure to serve House Hemetal, my Lord,” Vomelien said with a bow. “That has always been my highest, and indeed only, goal in life.”

“I wish I had more loyal servants like you,” Belfamor said with a sigh. “Everyone else is out to get me. I can’t even trust my own wife anymore.”

“It is unfortunate, my Lord, but I can assure you that undying loyalty is to you, as long as you live,” Vomelien said, bowing again.

“I am glad to hear it,” Belfamor said, his smile changing into a frown. “Well, I have an election to win, so you are dismissed for now.”

“Of course, my Lord,” Vomelien said, bowing and then departing. Belfamor stared at the door for a long time after he left, a frown fixed on his face. What did Vomelien mean, when he said that his loyalty was to Belfamor, as long as he lived? Could he be planning something? Could his veneer of absolute loyalty to House Hemetal be just that, a veneer? Covering over what? Maybe Vomelien was really a spy. What if Fanas had bought Vomelien, and Vomelien was just waiting for the perfect opportunity to eliminate Belfamor? It would be the perfect crime, subverting a loyal servant who had been with the family for generations. Belfamor was going to have to keep a close eye on Vomelien. Nobody could be trusted. Nobody.

***

Shala Votalin frowned slightly when she heard her husband bellowing in his study on the other side of the manor, but she put him out of her mind almost immediately. Belfamor was often angry about something or other these days, and Shala barely noticed it any more. At least he didn’t take out his anger on her. Of course, he didn’t dare, because she was the Head of House Votalin, and he needed all the support he could get to win the Imperial Throne. House Votalin was a shadow of what it had been before her grandfather became Head, but it did also have the prestige of having recently held the Throne. Shala didn’t overly think that Belfamor would be a very good Emperor, at least not in the state he was currently in, but Shala couldn’t quite give up her hope that he would someday return to being the man she had married.

Hope or no, however, Shala was also a practical woman, and she had a backup plan. Her husband was a military man, and had never had the time or the inclination to pay much attention to the business of running House Hemetal. In happier days, he had left that job to her, trusting her to run the House, despite the fact that she was not a member of the House. And she had done a great job. House Hemetal was richer than it had ever been before, richer than any other noble house in the galaxy. At least on paper.

In reality, there had always been a voice in the back of her mind telling her to have an exit strategy. She had spent too much of her life being abused by powerful men to allow anyone to potentially have too much power over her again. Once her father died, and she became Head of House Votalin, she had begun stealthily manipulating the books. Even though her relationship with her husband had been increasingly strained after her father’s death, he had been too busy with his feud with Emelien Fanas to pay much attention to House Hemetal’s assets. All she had to do was send one message, and 90% of House Hemetal would belong to House Votalin. She hoped she would never have to send that message. She did not want to destroy her husband, or his family. But she would not allow him to abuse her the way her father had.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 25

“The One knows I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but this debacle is one of the most disastrous things that has happened to the Empire in the past 20 years,” said Emelien Fanas, tossing a tablet down on his desk with a look of disgust on his face.

“This is going to sound like me trying to pass the buck, but I did try to talk him out of this mission,” Kryla Zomulin replied, a stony look on her face. “And I tried to talk him out of coming along.”

“I believe you, Admiral,” Fanas said, waving a dismissive hand. “The old man had a stubborn streak a mile wide, and a desperate need to do something grand and glorious that would save the Empire before he died. Trust me, no one is going to blame you for this disaster. Anyone who knows what Valador was like will believe that he was the mastermind behind it. Your reputation is too good for anyone to assume that this idiocy was your idea.”

“Be that as it may, and I do appreciate it a great deal, we still need to deal with the fallout from this situation,” Kryla said, leaning forward slightly. “I assume you’re going to stake a claim to the Imperial Throne?”

“Of course,” Fanas replied, raising his eyebrows slightly. “I was Valador’s right hand man for almost his entire reign. I am the best qualified for the job, and everyone knows it.”

“I would agree with that,” Kryla said. “I imagine my reputation will be at least somewhat tarnished after this recent battle, despite what you think about the late Emperor taking the blame, but I suspect my support will still mean something to the Senate. Therefore, it is yours, if you want it.”

“And what will your ally, Lord Hemetal, think about this?” Fanas replied, looking somewhat surprised. “Given what you told me the last time we spoke, I will be very surprised if he does not also make a bid for the Throne.”

“Lord Hemetal doesn’t know it, but he lost my allegiance the moment he started undressing my niece with his eyes in my presence,” Kryla said in disgust. “The man is unhinged, and entirely too powerful where he is. It would be a disaster for the Empire if he was allowed any more power than he has.”

“I can’t ask for a better declaration of your allegiance than that,” Fanas said with a grin. “I would welcome your support, Admiral Zomulin.”

“We also need to start working on a plan to neutralize Lord Hemetal entirely,” Kryla said. “We both agree that the Senate cannot be allowed to choose him to sit on the Imperial Throne, but even if he isn’t Emperor, he still is the Head of House Hemetal, the wealthiest and most powerful noble House in the Empire. I am certain that he will go to war over the Imperial Throne, and he has the resources and allies to win such a war. Even before the Senate elects you to sit on the Throne, we need to makes sure that House Hemetal is weakened to such an extent that Lord Hemetal is not tempted to shatter the Empire once again for the sake of his hatred of you.”

“Nonsense,” Fanas replied, shaking his head. “House Hemetal has lots of money, but that’s all they have going for them. The military is loyal to me. If civil war breaks out, I will win it handily.”

“Even if you win a civil war, it will still be worse for the Empire than if there was no civil war at all,” Kryla said, trying very hard to mask her exasperation.

“Be that as it may,” Fanas interrupted, “I think I have enough on my plate with trying to secure the Throne. Lord Hemetal is an irritant who can be dealt with at a later time.”

“I really don’t think that’s wise,” Kryla began, but Fanas cut her off.

“When I want your advice, I will ask for it, Admiral,” he said in a hard voice. “Until then, I think your time would be better spent contacting senators and lobbying their support.”

“Of course, sir,” Kryla said, sounding more obedient than she felt. She stood up, saluted and moved toward the door.

“Kryla,” Fanas called, just as she was about to reach the door. She turned and looked at him, while he said, “If you think of any way to eliminate Lord Hemetal as a rival before the Senate meets, I would appreciate it.”

“Of course, sir,” she said with a slight nod. “I will be in touch.”

“I can’t ask for anything more,” Fanas replied with a slight smile. Kryla saluted again, and then made her way through the door. She had a lot on her mind as she rode in her private hovercar back to her apartment. Despite the gesture Fanas had made just before she left his office, there was no doubt that Fanas did not take her warnings about Belfamor seriously. And that was definitely going to cause problems, because there was no doubt in her mind that she was correct, and Belfamor Hemetal was going to start a civil war if he didn’t get elected to the Throne.

Unfortunately, Fanas had a point as well. How could they weaken House Hemetal to the point where Belfamor wouldn’t be tempted to start a war? House Hemetal had long been one of the richest noble houses in the galaxy, and under Belfamor’s rule, it had only grown richer. Money couldn’t buy success in a civil war (the late and unlamented CEO of Vinallix, Vibal Trogoron, who had briefly proclaimed himself Emperor Malador VI, was proof of that), but money combined with military skill and charisma, both of which were things that Belfamor Hemetal had in abundance, could, if not win a civil war, certainly cause it to drag on for many years. And a protracted civil war was the last thing the Empire needed right now.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 24

Standing on the observation deck at the top of Heart of the Galaxy, Admiral Chieria Peltoren had a great view of the wreckage strewn around the planet of Amalania, and the surviving ships under her command. The ones that were still intact, and the ones that were…less so. The damage to Iron Dragonfly had been less extensive than initially feared, but it still would take several months to repair. Clearly, a Starfortress had vulnerabilities. Not that Chieria expected that too many captains would send their cruisers on a suicide mission, but obviously it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. And if one cruiser could cripple a Starfortress, could two destroy it entirely?

In any case, despite that tragedy, the battle as a whole had been a success. Heart of the Galaxy still belonged to the Republic, the Imperial Fleet had taken devastating losses, and the Imperial marines who had boarded Galaxy were on their way to a prison camp on the planet’s surface. They wouldn’t be boarding any Republican ships any time soon.

Yes, the battle had been a success, but it left Chieria feeling a little dejected. Being on the bridge of Heart of the Galaxy once again had been a wonderful experience, but now she was going to have to go back to sitting behind a desk on Hadramoris. Which wasn’t all bad, of course, but it didn’t compare to commanding from the bridge of the the greatest warship in the galaxy.

Then again, maybe there would be missions like this again one day. Chieria Peltoren could but hope.

***

“Lord Hemetal, there is news from the Imperial Fleet,” announced Belfamor Hemetal’s chamberlain as soon as he entered Belfamor’s study. Grandal Vomelien had been in House Hemetal’s service since before Belfamor had been born, possibly even since before Belfamor’s father had been born. Tall and slim, with a fringe of gray hair ringing his otherwise bald head, he possessed a dignity and a poise that made most nobles look like incurably common slobs. He also was utterly and completely loyal to the Lord of House Hemetal, a fact that made Belfamor almost trust him.

Belfamor waved impatiently for Vomelien to proceed, and he said, “The Fleet suffered a devastating loss. Most of the ships sent to Amalania were destroyed, including Admiral Zomulin’s flagship, and all of the marines who boarded the Starfortress were taken prisoner.”

“A devastating loss indeed,” Belfamor said in a somber tone that was at odds with the glee in his eyes.

“Yes, my lord,” Vomelien said with a bow. “I’m afraid there is even worse news. The Emperor is dead.”

“Is that so?” Belfamor murmured, the glee in his eyes taking on a wild cast. “That is tragic news, indeed.”

“As my lord says,” Vomelien said with another bow.

“Thank you, Master Vomelien,” Belfamor said, turning away. “That will be all.”

“Of course, my lord,” Vomelien replied, bowing a third time and leaving the room silently. Belfamor got up and began to pace as soon as the door slid shut. Everything was falling into place now. It had been child’s play to leak the details of the Imperial raid to the Republic, and it had been just as easy to convince the Emperor, through a third party, to join the raid. Now Valador was dead, and the way was clear for Belfamor to replace him on the Imperial Throne. All he had to do was convince the Senate to elect him. And if they didn’t? Well, he had once promised Valador that he wouldn’t start a civil war if Emelien Fanas became the next Emperor, but that had been a long time ago, and Belfamor had been a different man then. Besides, Valador was dead now, and dead men didn’t care if people kept their promises or not.

***

Kryla couldn’t help a sigh of relief as the escape pod dropped back into normal space near Medradi. The trip had been fairly short, but escape pods weren’t made for comfort, especially when one of the occupants was a corpse. Now that they were back in Imperial space, she could hand off Valador’s body to people who could take proper care of it.

That was the easy part. Everything else was the hard part. Somebody was going to have to take responsibility for this disaster, and it was almost certainly going to be her. Which was deserving, of course. She had planned the attack, she had led the attack. She hadn’t ordered the attack, but the man who had ordered it was dead. That left her as the highest-ranking person who took part, and that meant she was going to take the fall.

But that was the least of Kryla’s worries. The bigger problem was that a new Emperor needed to be chosen, and the Senate hadn’t met in twenty years. Valador had begun the process of rebuilding the Senate. Elections had been held, and new Senators had been chosen. But most of them hadn’t made it to Trisitania yet. They had yet to meet, and now their first meeting was going to revolve around choosing an Emperor, the most important duty the Senate had. It was going to be a disaster.

The Senate’s inexperience was going to put Kryla between a rock and a hard place. There were only two men powerful enough that they were likely to submit their candidacies to the Senate: Belfamor Hemetal and Emelien Fanas. Kryla had been an ally of Lord Hemetal’s for several years, but she had serious reservations about backing a madman for the Imperial Throne. On the other hand, General Fanas would probably be less than thrilled about accepting the backing of a long time ally of his greatest rival. Kryla had been hoping to use her influence with Valador to convince Fanas that she would be a trustworthy ally, and then maybe the three of them could combine to diminish the power of House Hemetal. But that wouldn’t happen now. Valador was dead, and the stage was set for Hemetal and Fanas to clash over the Throne.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 23

On the bridge of Decimator, Kryla Zomulin’s face looked as if it was carved in stone. She was about to lose her ship. She knew that. There was no saving Decimator now. But she would make these Hadramoran bastards pay in blood for it.

“Admiral, all non-essential personnel have evacuated the ship,” announced the sensor officer.

“Very good,” Zomulin said in a voice like the coldest ice. “Everyone else, get to your escape pods now.” There was a flurry of activity as the senior officers stood up and hurried to the exits. Zomulin grabbed Sahrinae’s arm as she passed. “You locked in that course, right?”

“Of course, Admiral,” Sahrinae replied.

“Excellent,” Zomulin said with a grin that was nearly a snarl. “We’ll see how a Starfortress can stand up to a cruiser smashing into it.” Sahrinae’s answering grin was nearly as savage. The two of them moved toward the bridge’s exit, when suddenly it opened, and Zomulin was shocked to see the Emperor standing there.

“Your Majesty!” she exclaimed. “Why aren’t you in an escape pod?”

“Do you really think I would run away so easily?” Valador asked wryly. “I see you haven’t left yet either.”

“Of course I haven’t!” Kryla yelled in exasperation. “I’m the captain of this vessel! It’s my responsibility to make sure everybody evacuates safely! You, on the other hand, your only responsibility is keeping yourself alive so that a civil war doesn’t start on top of this debacle of a battle!”

“Yes, this has been a debacle, hasn’t it?” Valador said sadly. “I apologize, Kryla. This operation was my idea, so I take full responsibility for the dog’s dinner that has resulted.” Kryla just stared at him for a moment, eyes wide in shock that he felt that now was the best time to have this discussion.

“With all due respect, Your Majesty, now is really not the best time to have this discussion!” Kryla said, a manic edge entering her voice. “We need to go, NOW!” As if to emphasize her point, the ship lurched heavily, knocking them all to the floor. Kryla scrambled to her feet, grabbed the Emperor, and hoisted him to his feet as well. Then she got on one side of him, put his arm over her shoulders, while Sahrinae did the same on his other side.

“I never expected when this day started that I would be carried off by two beautiful women,” he said with a sly wink.

“I swear, Your Majesty, if you say one more word, I’m going to knock you unconscious and drag you to the escape pod,” Kryla growled, all semblance of propriety gone. Valador just chuckled at this, while Sahrinae looked half scandalized that Kryla would speak to the Emperor that way, and half ready to clobber him herself.

Between the two of them, the women were able to help the elderly Emperor down the corridor to the last escape pod on the bridge deck. Kryla opened up the hatch leading to the pod, and was just about to help the Emperor enter it, when Decimator gave another massive heave, lifting the three of them up off the floor, and then slamming them back down. Kryla’s head rang for a few moments as she lay on the floor, trying to recover. She slowly started to get up, and winced at a stabbing pain in her side. It felt like several of her ribs were broken. She looked around her, and saw Sahrinae already on her feet. Then her eyes fell on the Emperor, and the vilest curse word she could think of erupted from her mouth.

The Emperor was obviously dead. His head was hanging from his body at an unnatural angle, his neck clearly broken, and his eyes were glazed over in a look of shock.

“That stubborn…idiot!” Kryla said fiercely. “I knew this would happen!”

“What do we do, sir?” Sahrinae whispered.

“We get the hell out of here!” Kryla yelled. Then, she added, “And we take him with us.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Sahrinae replied, and the two of them managed to get the Emperor’s body into the escape pod. As soon as the hatch was sealed, Kryla launched the pod, and then all that was left for her to do was sit back and watch the last moments of her beloved cruiser.

***

On the bridge of Iron Dragonfly, Admiral Voderik Lavatiel could not have been more pleased at the course of the battle. The Imperial Fleet had taken the bait, and they had been crushed between her hammer and Admiral Peltoren’s anvil. Her losses had been minimal, and the Empire’s losses had been devastating. And Admiral Peltoren had informed her that the Imperial boarding party had been captured without her marines firing a shot. It was always so satisfying when a battle plan went perfectly.

“Admiral, there’s a cruiser at bearing 9921.4, headed straight for us,” the tactical officer announced suddenly.

“Evasive maneuvers!” Lavatiel barked. “All guns, direct fire on that cruiser!” There was a subtle sense of motion as the gigantic ship started to swerve out of the path of the oncoming cruiser, but as Lavatiel watched the positions of the ships on the main screen, she could already tell that there was no way to avoid the collision. “All hands, brace for impact!” she yelled.

Iron Dragonfly was the largest ship ever built, but Decimator was big for a cruiser, so the resulting explosion when the one slammed into the other was immense. The bridge crew were thrown out of their seats from the force of the impact, and dozens of alarms began blaring as reports of damage came in from all over the ship.

“Report!” Lavatiel bellowed as she hauled herself to her feet.

“Hull breaches on decks 13 through 35!” yelled the damage control officer. “Life support is offline! Engines are offline! Shields are down! Weapons are offline! Main power is offline!” Lavatiel swore under her breath viciously.

“Casualties?” she asked.

“More than a thousand,” the damage control officer replied. “I can’t give you a better estimate than that right now. Reports are still coming in.”

Lavatiel just shook her head in disbelief. So much for everything going according to plan.

To be continued…