Chapter 1, Part 2

After about half an hour in the sewers, she finally made it to the exit she was looking for. She climbed the ladder, emerging in a small, smelly alleyway between two towering buildings. A smirk crossed her face as she replaced the manhole cover. The smell of home, she thought to herself sardonically. This particular alleyway was only about two blocks from her clan house. Once she reached it, she could let her guard down. Slightly. She didn’t really even trust the other members of her clan, but she trusted them more than anyone else. Everyone else, she didn’t trust at all.

She strolled down the street leading to the clan house, managing to look perfectly casual while simultaneously looking in every direction at once. This territory was firmly controlled by her clan, but that didn’t mean there weren’t spies from other clans in the area. A moment of weakness could be too tempting for a member of a rival clan to pass up, even if they were surrounded by her clanmates. For that matter, a moment of weakness might be too tempting for a member of her clan to pass up. Jockeying for rank was a daily occurrence in the clans, and a knife in the dark was a perfect way to eliminate a rival.

Nodding to the lookout, she passed through the checkpoint just outside the clan house and slipped through the door. The clan house was a nondescript five story building that looked like any other apartment building in the slums of Serotopolis. Gray and somewhat disheveled, it was the only place that had ever felt like home to Alessandra. Considering that before she lived there, she’d lived on the streets, and before that she’d lived in the House of Vagrants, that wasn’t saying much, but she felt a sense of pride nonetheless.

“How’d it go?” asked a squeaky voice, coming from a room off the main hallway as she passed through. Alessandra turned to see Halidasa Mekoval emerge from her room. Halidasa looked a little bit like a mouse, which was fitting, because she sounded a little bit like one too. Fifteen years old, she looked like she was barely twelve, with short, brown hair and brown eyes that looked too big for her narrow face.

“It went great, as always,” Alessandra said with a grin, pulling a small leather bag out of her coat pocket and bouncing it on her palm. Alessandra herself was tall, although not as tall as the guards who’d been chasing her tonight thought, slender without being skinny, with short, spiky red hair, bright green eyes, and a mass of freckles.

“Oh man,” Halidasa squealed, her big brown eyes practically shining with delight, “Bezzum’s gonna be so impressed!”

“Yeah, I doubt it,” Alessandra scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Bezzum’s never impressed by anything I do.” Bezzum was the boss of Clan Mekoval, and although he had taken Alessandra in and made her a member of the clan, he really didn’t like her. Alessandra liked to think that it was because he was jealous of her.

“No, he really will be impressed this time,” Halidasa gushed. “I just know it!”

“Hali, how in the world do you maintain such a disgusting level of optimism?” Alessandra asked, somehow managing to sneer affectionately.

“I dunno,” Halidasa replied with a shrug. “I just do!” Alessandra snorted and gave her friend a pat on the back as she walked by. She liked to think of Halidasa as her special friend, but truth be told, everybody in Clan Mekoval loved Halidasa. She wasn’t a great thief, although she was competent. Her greatest asset, though, was her sheer joy. She was the only truly happy person Alessandra had ever met. Happiness was a commodity that was in short supply in Serotopolis, and that meant that Halidasa was a rare treasure. Maybe Alessandra’s cynicism and skepticism about everything should have meant that she found Halidasa obnoxious. After all, Hali’s outlook on life was the polar opposite on just about everything, compared to Alessandra’s. But instead, Alessandra found her…refreshing.

She could remember the day that Hali was taken into the clan like it was yesterday, but in reality it had been over five years. Hali had been just another scrawny little kid freshly kicked out of the House of Vagrants and looking for a place to live. Bezzum had been reluctant to take her in, because the clan house had been pretty full at the time, but his closest advisor at the time, a grizzled old thief named Ardolfon, had seen her potential and convinced Bezzum to make her an initiate. It had been one of Ardolfon’s best decisions, and one of his last, because he’d been caught by the Edgevon mercenary clan a few weeks later, and that was the end of him. Bezzum was ready to kick Halidasa out of the clan after Ardolfon’s death, but the rest of the clan members were already attached to her, and in a rare moment of unity, unanimously told Bezzum in no uncertain terms that they would kick him out if he tried to remove Hali.

In the end, even Bezzum came around, and now Halidasa was one of the only people he liked. He would sooner throw himself out of the clan now than throw her out. Which, as it turned out, was Alessandra’s saving grace. Unlike Halidasa, Alessandra was one of the people Bezzum liked the least, but she was also one of the people whom Halidasa liked the most, and so Bezzum couldn’t kick Alessandra out of the clan without upsetting his favorite person. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that Bezzum stopped going out of his way to make Alessandra’s life miserable.

Alessandra finally made it up to the third floor, where Bezzum had his rooms. Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the door, and waited.

“Come in,” said a woman’s voice after a few moments. Alessandra pushed the door open, and saluted, bringing her right arm across her body touching her fist to her chest, as soon as she saw the person waiting in the next room. Torea was a tall, stately woman with short, dark, curly hair, deep brown skin, and piercing brown eyes. She was Bezzum’s second-in-command, and the only person aside from Halidasa that he liked and respected. Torea was Alessandra’s other saving grace, because Torea was the person who had brought Alessandra into the clan, and had been her protector and patron ever since.

To be continued…

Chapter 1, Part 1

Alessandra Mekoval was running for her life, which meant that this night was just a typical night for her. Serotopolis was a dangerous city even in the best of times, and these were far from the best of times. Not to mention that running for your life was just another part of the job when you were a thief like Alessandra.

She grinned as she leapt over a traffic barrier onto a busy highway, and she laughed as a massive semorjo had to swerve to avoid hitting her, crashing into a smaller denarja. A second denarja smashed into the first one from behind, and as Alessandra leaped over the barrier on the far side of the highway and dropped down onto the causeway below, she could hear even more smashing sounds, causing the grin on her face to grow wider. Hopefully she’d started a huge chain reaction of wrecked vehicles, which would likely put a stop to her pursuers. She didn’t stop running, though. She wouldn’t stop until she was completely certain that they’d given up chasing her.

She raced down the causeway, running parallel to the massive stone bridge above her. She wasn’t worried about running out of breath, or about her pursuers catching up to her. She could run faster and farther than anyone in her clan, including Mikaelo, who had once outrun a sevendejo, and she was certain that there weren’t any of those after her tonight anyway. No, tonight’s heist had been small-time, just a fat merchant and his guards who thought they chase down a single girl on foot, get the goods back, and keep the Circle of Elders out of their hair. A sneer crossed Alessandra’s as she thought about the Circle of Elders. A sneer tinged with delight. There was nothing better than being a thief in a city where the government were the biggest thieves of all. Few merchants would bother calling the Elder Guard to help them track down a thief, because if the Elder Guard found stolen property, they kept it for themselves.

Alessandra ducked into a small hole in the stone wall that led down to the sewers. There was no way the merchant would follow her down here, but the same unfortunately couldn’t be said about his guards. She would have been surprised if the guards had seen her slip down here, but she didn’t slow down. Not yet. A few more twists and turns to make extra sure that they had no idea where she was, and then she could proceed at a more leisurely pace. But not relax. Never relax. The Circle of Elders might not take an interest in petty larceny, but the mercenary clans certainly did not appreciate being made fools of. If the guards failed to find her, they would report the failure to their clan, and the clan would be on the lookout for a tall girl with dark skin, blue eyes and long brown hair. They would never find her, because she would cease to exist after tonight, but it was never a good idea for a thief to let her guard down.

She wound her way through the tunnels underneath Serotopolis, taking seemingly random turns, even doubling back a couple of times to really make sure that no one was on her tail. After about fifteen minutes of this, seeing and hearing no signs that anyone was after her, she finally slackened her pace. Grinning mischievously to herself, she stripped the wig off and flung it on the ground. If the merchant’s guards managed to track her this far, they would quickly realize that the description they had was useless. Which wouldn’t surprise them. The mercenary clans knew how this game was played. They would beat her to death if they ever laid hands on her, but they knew as well as anyone how unlikely that was. Few thieves were ever caught in Serotopolis. The mercenary clans existed more as a deterrent than as an actual police force. The only true police force was the Elder Guard, and they only protected the interests of the Circle.

Of course, there was also the Order of Sunaru, but they had bigger problems to worry about than thieves. If the Order ever decided to stamp out crime in Serotopolis, crime would cease to exist in the city. Not just because the Order was that effective, but because they were held in such high esteem, that even the most hardened criminal would devote himself to the straight and narrow if a member of the Order of Sunaru told him to. But that would never happen. After all, the Order had much bigger problems to worry about.

Or so Alessandra had always been told. Just shy of her eighteenth birthday, Alessandra Mekoval had been born and raised on the streets of Serotopolis. She had no idea who her parents were. She suspected they were dead, but she didn’t know, and she didn’t care. Very few of her friends knew who their parents were. That was just the way of things in the slums of Serotopolis. Alessandra had never stopped to consider that things might be different. Parents weren’t ever something she had given much consideration to. The only reason she knew she had parents was that she knew how procreation worked. Someday she would probably have a kid, and very likely she would dump that kid at the House of Vagrants, where she had been dumped as a baby, and then never give it a second thought. That was just the way of things in Serotopolis. It never occurred to Alessandra that things could be different, or should be different. In any case, she had grown up on the streets, scrounging for food, finding a clan to join, fighting for every scrap of recognition she’d ever gotten, viewing the Circle of Elders with contempt and the Order of Sunaru with something akin to worship, just like everybody else in the slums. That is, when she thought about them at all. For most people living in the slums, the Order and the Circle were so far distant as to practically be myths. All she knew about the Order of Sunaru was that they were the champions of those who lived in the slums, protectors of all that was good and true and pure and noble. That was what everybody said, anyway. Alessandra didn’t know if that was true, and nor did she particularly care.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 29

Belfamor Hemetal was still fuming by the time he got back to his manor on the Rock. Actually, still fuming implied that he had been fuming from the start. In reality, in the beginning he had been absolutely frothing with rage, and had only slowly cooled down on the long trip back to Medradi. Cooled down being a relative term. He had held it all in, of course. He had no intention of sitting back and allowing Emelien Fanas to sit on the Imperial Throne, and if he wanted to be the Emperor, he needed to act like the Emperor, and the Emperor did not go around throwing temper tantrums. But, oh, how he wanted to!

He’d had a small army with him on Trisitania, to block any attempts by Fanas to arrest him, and it had taken all of his self-control to not just unleash them on the Senate once the result was announced. It had been so very tempting, but he was wise enough to know that murdering the entire Senate was not the way to endear himself to the population of the Empire. Not to mention the attempt would likely have failed. It wasn’t as if his troops were the only soldiers in that theater.

Storming into the main entryway of his manor, he stopped short when he realized his wife was standing midway up the grand staircase, with her arms folded, obviously waiting for him. He glared at her coldly, but she just gazed back at him calmly. “I heard the news,” she said.

“And?” he snarled.

“And I’m sorry,” she replied, still perfectly calm. He stared at her for a moment, a sneer on his lips.

“It doesn’t matter,” he finally said, in a cold voice. “I will be Emperor. Fanas will fall.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Shala replied, unfazed by his harsh tone. “You shouldn’t do this. You swore an oath to Valador that you would accept the will of the Senate if they elected Fanas to replace him.”

“VALADOR IS DEAD!” Belfamor roared. “I don’t care what that crazy old man wanted me to do! Emelien Fanas cannot rule the Empire! I won’t allow it!” There was a fevered light in his eyes now, and he was breathing heavily. Despite these signs of derangement, Shala was unfazed, still eyeing him coolly and calmly. For a long time, they stood like that, staring at each other, one looking like a wild beast, the other looking like a marble statue. Finally, Shala turned away and began walking up the staircase.

“Very well,” she said over her shoulder. “If you are committed to this course of action, then so be it. House Votalin pledges you its support.” And then she reached the top of the stairs, turned a corner, and was gone, leaving Belfamor standing by himself in the entryway, looking slightly stunned. As he stood there, he couldn’t quite explain the feeling that had bloomed in his heart when Shala had told him that she would support his bid for the Throne. After a few minutes of pondering, he realized what the feeling was. Relief. He couldn’t quite explain why Shala supporting him would cause him to feel relief. Of course House Votalin would support House Hemetal! Why would it even be in question? And yet, for a moment, standing there with his wife looking down at him, he had thought that she would refuse to support him, and even stranger, he had the strange feeling that losing her support would cost him any chance of winning the Throne. Why that would be, Belfamor couldn’t say. Votalin was a much smaller and weaker house than Hemetal. He didn’t need Votalin’s support to win the Throne. But for some reason, he felt like he did. He couldn’t explain it.

***

Shala managed to maintain her composure until she returned to her study, but as soon as the door slid shut behind her, she slumped down into a chair and let out a long, slow breath. She felt like she was going to cry, but she refused to allow her composure to deteriorate that greatly. There was no question the man she had married was gone. Something had broken between them just now, maybe the last thread that connected them, and whatever had happened to Belfamor, whatever was wrong with him, he was no longer the hopeful, brave, idealistic man she had fallen in love with. That man had been replaced with a spiteful, suspicious, and cruel man who, frankly, scared her. There was no good reason for her to support his bid for the Throne, and so many reasons for her to stop him. And she could stop him. One message, and almost all of House Hemetal’s wealth would belong to House Votalin. Without his house’s vast wealth, there was no way that Belfamor would be able to sustain the forces needed to wage war against Emelien Fanas.

She just couldn’t do it, though. She didn’t even have a reason, but when it came down to it, she just couldn’t betray him. The fact that he was willing to throw away the oath he had sworn to Emperor Valador was proof that he was beyond redemption, but it still wasn’t enough for her to pull the trigger. What did she have to live for if her husband was no longer her husband? She had reconciled with her father at the very end of his life, but that was cold comfort now that he was dead. She had a son, but ever since he had betrayed her, she had been unable to make herself feel anything but indifference toward him. If Belfamor was lost to her, then she had nothing left.

Maybe it was foolish. She didn’t want to rely on another person for her happiness, but what else was there? She’d fought so hard to escape the hell her father had created for her, and now it seemed like all of that fighting had been for nothing. Why even bother fighting, when life was just going to destroy everything you were fighting for in the end? But even though she didn’t know what to do, she wasn’t ready to give up. She would keep fighting, because it was all she knew how to do.

The End

The Darkest Heart, Part 28

Considering how much was at stake amidst the Senate’s deliberations, the actual proceedings were remarkably dull. The reality was that the Senate’s decisions were usually made behind the scenes, in back room deals. There were forms that needed to be followed, but every senator had already decided which way he or she was going to vote. The speeches by the candidates and by each candidate’s supporters were just a formality.

It was actually somewhat ironic that there were so many formalities around the Senate’s election of a new Emperor, considering that in the thousand-plus year history of the Empire, it had only happened twice. When the Empire was first founded, after an Emperor died, the Throne passed to his or her closest living relative. It was only when the Empress Trillinia I lost all of her children in a terrible battle that a deal was made whereby the Senate would choose her successor. Trillinia hadn’t had any siblings either, and there had been no precedent around who would inherit the Throne in such a situation. Rather than allow the Empire to fall into civil war after her death, Trillinia had preferred that the Senate make the decision. From then on, if an Emperor or Empress died without any surviving direct descendants, the Senate chose a successor. It was a plan that had worked well after Trillinia’s death, but several hundred years later it had led to civil war, when there had been so many candidates that none of them had been able to gain a majority of the votes. Unlike the current situation, that war only lasted for five years. Things used to be so much simpler.

This would be the third time in history the Senate elected someone to sit on the Imperial Throne, assuming that nothing tragic happened before the decision was made. There were no worries that one candidate would be unable to secure a majority, considering there were only two candidates this time, but Kryla still wasn’t convinced that Belfamor would happily accept the will of the Senate, even if Emelien won a sizable majority. No, if Emelien won here tonight, the result would almost certainly be a further splintering of what was left of the Empire. And Kryla couldn’t get Emelien to see it! For the first time, Kryla wondered what would have happened if she had submitted herself as a candidate for the Throne. If she hadn’t just suffered a pretty spectacular defeat at the hands of the Hadramorans, she might have thought of it earlier, but it was unlikely that the Senate would elect somebody who’d just lost a major battle. Belfamor and Emelien could both rightfully claim that they’d had nothing to do with that debacle.

Something jarred Kryla out of her thoughts, and she looked around the theater for a few moments, trying to figure out what it was. As soon as she realized what had happened, a small rueful smile appeared on her face. There was silence in the theater. Nobody was giving speeches anymore. The senators were voting for their pick to sit on the Imperial Throne. A candidate needed to receive two-thirds of the available votes in order to become the new Emperor. If Emelien or Belfamor won two-thirds of the vote right now, then the process would be over, and the Empire would have a ruler once more. If not, there would more speeches, more deliberation, and more back room deals, and then another vote would be held.

It only took a few minutes for all of the votes to be tallied, as each senator voted on their tablet, and the votes were counted by computer. It was not a secret ballot. The votes would be a matter of public record, but they were tallied this way to save time. And so, Kryla watched and listened as Senator Merdogan stood on the stage in front of the all assembled senators and other dignitaries, and announced that Emelien Fanas had been elected the new Emperor.

The reaction was immediate and intense. Nearly everyone in the room leaped to their feet and started cheering. Everyone, that is, except for Belfamor Hemetal and his retainers. His face a stormcloud, Lord Hemetal sat in his box and glowered at the celebrating senators, as if planning out how each and every one of them was going to die. Kryla watched him for a moment, tempted to go ahead and order his arrest, regardless of what Emelien thought. She was still convinced that there was no way Belfamor was going to accept serving Emelien as SCIAF, or in any other capacity, for that matter. There was going to be trouble if Belfamor was allowed to walk out of the Ilumaza Theater tonight, but Kryla just couldn’t bring herself to disobey a direct order, especially when she couldn’t be a hundred percent convinced that Emelien was wrong. Belfamor would never agree to be Emelien’s SCIAF, but that didn’t mean he would start a civil war.

Emelien had already left the box and was strutting onto the stage, waving and smiling his broadest smile. The man was definitely in his element, confident and proud. He approached the podium and continued waving, acknowledging the continuing applause from the senators and other dignitaries. For a few moments, nothing happened except for Emelien waving and smiling and the senators continuing to clap and cheer. Finally, the applause began to die down, and Emelien began his speech.

“I cannot tell you what an honor it is to be selected to serve our great Empire in this capacity,” he said. “I can assure you I will do whatever it takes to restore the Empire to its ancient greatness, and end this pointless war that is tearing the galaxy apart. Today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of greatness. We will reunite the Empire, and put an end to the so-called nations that have carved out pieces of our territory. I will not rest until the Empire is whole again!” As soon as he finished speaking, an eruption of jubilation burst forth that made the earlier applause sound like someone clapping alone in their living room.

To be continued…

The Darkest Heart, Part 27

The tension in the Senate Hall was palpable as Kryla watched the senators file into the large chamber and take their seats. There was an enormous sense of being on uncertain ground, and understandably so. The Senate was still in the process of being rebuilt from scratch after the devastating attack by Fangalin 20 years ago. So slow had the process been, that the building the Senate was meeting in was not the actual Senate Hall. The real Hall was still a massive crater in the ground, because no Emperor in the past 20 years had made rebuilding it a priority. Therefore, the Senate had commandeered the Ilumaza Theater, several blocks from the Imperial Palace, to serve as a temporary meeting place until the Senate Hall could be rebuilt.

If any of the senators present had been senators before the war began, they might have been offended at having to meet in such a place. Not that the Ilumaza Theater was inadequate in any way. It was a huge space, with all of the modern amenities, one of the newest and fanciest theaters in Selorin. Even so, there was something undignified about having to meet in a temporary space, no matter how fancy and new it was. Fortunately, none of the senators had been senators long enough to be overly concerned about the dignity and gravitas of the body to which they belonged.

“I hereby call this meeting of the Imperial Senate to order,” announced the chairman of the Senate, Losvic Merdogan, Senator from Cortaris, as the last few senators entered the hall and took their seats. “We are gathered here today to carry out the most important and most sacred duty of the Imperial Senate, choosing a new Emperor to govern and serve the Trisitanian Empire. We, the gathered representatives of the people of the Empire, are here to use our wisdom and our knowledge to choose the one who will best uphold the sacred task of ruling our great Empire.”

Kryla tuned out as Senator Merdogan droned on and on about duty and wisdom and whatnot. It was important for senators to make long-winded speeches, because otherwise they might feel like they didn’t serve any purpose. There certainly was no reason for her to bother listening to the whole thing. She had too much on her mind to pay attention anyway. She had done what she could in the past few weeks, contacting senators and making the case for why they should vote for Emelien Fanas. She had done what she could, and it was all in the Senate’s hands now.

In a way, it would almost be better if the Senate elected Belfamor Hemetal instead. Not that Belfamor would be a good Emperor in his current mental state, but at least his election wouldn’t plunge the Empire into civil war. Fanas would certainly lose his position as SCIAF, and possibly even be arrested. Kryla herself might be arrested as well. There was certainly no way she would remain in her position within the Imperial Fleet. Belfamor would not be forgiving if he did succeed in sitting on the Imperial Throne. But that was a price that Kryla was almost willing to pay if it would keep what was left of the Empire whole.

As if thinking about him was a summons, Belfamor Hemetal himself entered the theater as Senator Merdogan continued his interminable speech. Even though the theater was large, and Belfamor and Kryla were on opposite sides of it, Belfamor’s eyes met hers almost immediately, and Kryla could feel the murder in his eyes even over that distance. She gazed back at him impassively. Even though she wasn’t willing to start a civil war if he was elected Emperor, she had no intention of sitting around and waiting for him to extract vengeance. She had a plan to deal with him.

Kryla looked around as Emelien Fanas entered the box she was sitting in. He looked impressive, decked out in his best military uniform, from head to toe a picture of command. He certainly looked the part of an Emperor.

“Well?” he said as he took his seat.

“I spoke to as many senators as I could, nearly half,” she replied, handing him a tablet. “Most of them committed themselves to voting for you, and the rest seemed at least favorably disposed.”

“Good, good,” Fanas murmured as he looked over the list she had given him. “Assuming they all keep their word, this combined with the senators my other allies have spoken to should give me a commanding majority.”

“I’ve also thought some more about the other matter we spoke of,” Kryla said, lowering her voice, even though there was no one around to hear.

“Oh?” Fanas said, still looking over the list.

“Assuming you win the vote here tonight, and that seems like a distinct possibility at least, I think you should order the arrest of Lord Hemetal as your first action,” Kryla said. “I have loyal troops placed all throughout the building. If we place him in custody and keep him out of the way, it will give you a chance to consolidate your rule before he has an opportunity to gather his allies and retaliate.” Fanas frowned at her for a moment, and then shook his head.

“No, I don’t believe that would be wise,” he said. “If I do win by as wide a margin as I’m projected to, Belfamor will have no choice but to accept my rule. It would be better if I could win him over and make him an ally. After all, the wealth of House Hemetal would be very useful in the days to come. I suspect that if I offer to make him SCIAF, that will be too tempting for him to refuse.”

“You can’t be serious,” Kryla said, disbelief painted on her face. “The man hates you! Completely and utterly irrationally! There’s no way he will agree to become SCIAF!”

“I have made my decision, Admiral,” Fanas replied, in tones of finality. “I do not want to hear any more discussion about it.”

To be continued…