Chapter Five

The raft dipped, and Edgar found the Azoreo River in his face. He gasped as the water rushed over him. It was cold! Almost freezing up here, in the mountains.

He loved it.

"Could you steer a little better, please?" his girlfriend asked acidly. Soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, he decided.

That loss of stature among Aria's nobility would cost her much, he knew. But really, these stuffed shirts needed to loosen up. Too much damn formality. He had much more fun with the commoners (after the guards backed out of sight for a good half hour).

The dirigible dipped deep ahead of him, and he sighed. Someone back home wanted him. Never mind that they were ten minutes away from Lake Primus, and could arrive at the Imperial Court faster than the blimp could get them there. No one dared allow him into the Court dripping water onto their fine green marble floors. Oh, no. Though his uncle would laugh, the assorted generals and barons would be horrified at his royal disrespect.

Ceremony would be the death of the Empire, Edgar groused privately.

He found a calm patch of water at the river's bank, and paddled for it. He leapt out, and with strength born of his mother's line, he pulled the raft ashore. The woman didn't budge until the raft was firmly on solid ground.

Worthless bitch, Edgar thought. Pull your own weight. But he couldn't say that to her. He might be of the royal line, but she was the daughter of one of Aria's better generals this century. It was rumored this general was why Velor hadn't openly declared an alliance with Earth and taken on the Arion Empire again. Too bad for his career that his daughter was such a spoiled girl. He had raised her far too properly.

The Court wouldn't appreciate his assessment of her either, true as it was. More stuffed shirts, the lot of them.

The dirigible landed in a large clearing near the river, and an Imperial Honor Guard marched out, lining up outside the airship's ramp. A Betan colonel saluted him, but without the cordial smile most Betans would have paid the Gammans. Only one Gamman was Imperial, after all. That one didn't have to salute back. Edgar returned the honor anyway. The colonel was relieved. His Lord today was in a good mood.

The colonel also saluted the Duchess (one of the perks of earning flag officer's rank: investiture of nobility among your family), who rained on the ship with all the noble dignity and haughtiness she could summon. The colonel was not impressed. Though none ever said so to her father, they shared Edgar's dislike of her. A few junior Betans privately wished to introduce her to "the real Galaxy", in ways ranging from violent to amorous, but senior officers always quashed such dreams.

The airship lifted off gently, and the colonel went to assist Edgar in changing the latter's clothing for the Court. Edgar chose the purple dress uniform of his family's line, this time, with silver shoulderboards and gold patterns laced throughout. The colonel approved. Fancy as it was, appropriate for the Court, Edgar carried himself like the Gamman he was. Which spoke well of his character, the colonel thought. Better than most of the nobility, possibly better than that of the Emperor himself -- though the colonel didn't dare to think anything more than "possibly better". The T'set'lar might be gone, but they had held a treasured place in the hierarchy for the brief span they had existed.

Edgar leaned out the window, feathered cap on his head, at the capital city of Arnahx, with a heaviness weighing him down. The heaviness of duty to the people, to the Empire. Skietra (or as his late father had taught him, God) only knew what his uncle, the Emperor of Aria and Her Allies and... what D'ra'yan would have for him this time.

Edgar didn't want to find out.

In Velor's capital of Velaria, the Minister of State was having a very unpleasant guest. The Ambassador from Aria was a smarmy bastard. Unfortunately, he could afford to be. The Arion Empire was still the dominant force in galactic politics. The Velorian Enlightenment, as enlightened as it was, ranked in the bottom third.

There were a few reasons that prevented another war from breaking out. First among them was that the Empire was not well liked, and the Enlightenment was. If Aria did decide to invade, Velor could persuade -- in one fashion or another -- many, many allies to come to her defense. Velor had mutual defense treaties with at least six major forces, and their combined strength was enough to give the Empire pause. Given Velor's number one living export -- Protectors, Scribes, and the like -- there were numerous other ways, some quite pleasant to the parties involved, with which Velor could call upon help.

Another was Skietra. There had been repeated sightings of her within the last few centuries, written down and confirmed. Neither of them wished to antagonize the Goddess. So, for the most part, they stayed out of each other's way, aside from the "skirmishes" between "private citizens". The hard reality was that the two parties waged a cold war, one which could easily turn hot if Velor misstepped, or if Aria got irritated.

Here, the Ambassador was explaining another such reason Aria might get irritated.

"Minister Hurma, perhaps I have not made myself clear. The Empire will not tolerate any interference from the Velorian Enlightenment in what is clearly an internal affair. The planet Terra is under our jurisdiction, and is entirely our responsibility. Your meddling in Arion affairs will bring about the gravest consequences imaginable."

Hurma blinked. That was a lot stronger language than Ambassador Potta had used until now. Apparently he had run out of patience, and smarminess. Just as tartly, Hurma replied, "Thank you. I will convey your opinion to the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, I do have another appointment which I am already late for, so I'll have my assistant escort you out. Good day."

The two men stood, and shook hands. After Potta left, Hurma realized his hand wasn't the only thing shaking. He walked towards the motor pool, and his aide signaled for a transport. Hurma was going to the Prime Minister, to report what Potta had said, and to advise.

Velor had carefully let it leak that they were interested in sending Protectors and Viragoes to assist their own ambassador-at-large on Earth, one Shara'Lynn Besta. The Arion Empire had reacted furiously, as much at the idea of more Velorians on Earth as the fact that there was an ambassador there already. That told Hurma one thing of great value: Aria didn't have that good of an intelligence network on Earth. If they'd known about Shara'Lynn Besta, Potta would have been there much sooner.

Not only that, but they hadn't even remarked that Shara'Lynn Besta had been to Earth before -- for quite a long time. Hurma knew about "Lynn" of course; as a minor official in the Ministry of State, he had recommended Shara'Lynn Besta in an internal memo to the Earth assignment. That was centuries ago; he was glad to see his primary school classmate doing so well after all these years.

Hurma blinked, and smiled. Potta hadn't explicitly asked them to remove their ambassador from Earth. Once again, Hurma's foresight had paid off. Shara'Lynn Besta was an ambassador-at-large, meaning she could represent Velor anywhere she went to anyone. If Shara'Lynn didn't have that at-large status, then Potta might've had them there. But then, Hurma had an excuse ready. Shara'Lynn was on Earth to interact with the Arion provincial government on Earth, and see about re-establishing trade relations with the province. It wasn't her fault if the provincial government wasn't there anymore...

Also, Potta hadn't mentioned Co'ra'na Ky'zel. She had no such at-large status as Lynn. She was still a citizen of the Velorian Enlightenment, and if discovered on Earth, might indeed be the excuse Aria needed for war. Potta had mentioned Xara Kor'El, repeatedly, but all Hurma could do there was to claim (correctly) that Xara had no legal status with the Velorian Enlightenment and was not recognized as a citizen of Velor.

In short, for all the Empire's bluster, Velor had everything they could ask for before Potta walked in the door. After Potta had left, though, Hurma realized one thing: he simply couldn't keep the written promise he'd made to Co'ra'na Ky'zel in her last set of orders.

He would recommend to the Prime Minister that the team of Protectors and Viragoes they'd assembled over the last few months disassemble. War with Aria, now, just wasn't worth the risk. The two Vels and Xara were on their own.

If only they knew where the Terran Military Colonies were going to strike next. The Colonies had not been successful yet, and Velor could easily lend them a hand, perhaps...

"The Crown Prince of the Empire of Aria!"

The Emperor's Guards turned and saluted; the Emperor himself held a report in his hand. After Edgar had prostrated himself, the Emperor cried out, "Clear the chamber! No listening devices!" The order was loudly and frequently repeated by the Guards, who carried it out. The doors slammed shut, loud enough to make it clear the Emperor was not to be disturbed by anyone in the Court.

Still, their ears went on alert; if the Emperor died while they were out there, the streets would be covered in blood. Others' blood -- those of the Emperor's assassins and their sponsors -- and then their own.

Edgar stood and dusted himself off. "What is it this time, uncle?"

"Another victory, at Euryce. That makes three times we've defeated them away from Terra. And zero victories for the Terrans."

Edgar looked to the window facing Lake Primus and the Great Mountains. He paced towards it, in an arc, for a few steps, then stopped and turned to look at his uncle. "Is that all?" He was considerably annoyed.

"It's a pattern."

That brought the Crown Prince up short. "What?"

"Tsio, Icroka, Euryce. Three provinces, three locations where our Primes and Betas go -- but no colonists. The Terrans have only attacked our military forces, and not the locals."

Edgar grinned. "Not the easy targets. Why, D'ra'yan?"

D'ra'yan handed the transcript to Edgar. "The Admiral's speech," he said with a smile.

"Anything interesting?"

"Your usual blathering on," the Emperor replied. "Except near the end..."

Edgar skimmed it, and then chuckled. "Velorian Intelligence strikes again, eh?"

D'ra'yan nodded ruefully. "They've drawn blood on this one. Now the Admiral himself is convinced there's a gene bomb, and he told it to all of Terra as well. Tsk, tsk, tsk. One Arion word mistaken for two English ones about three of their centuries ago, deliberately."

Edgar sighed, and said dryly, "Well, if they want our recipe for spicy jenebom fruit salad, all they have to do is ask." His uncle chuckled, but let Edgar continue. "I still don't see the point. Why not go after a colony?"

"The staff thinks Admiral Yevgeni has a misguided sense of honor, that he sees our non-military citizens as illegitimate targets." D'ra'yan paused. "What do you do, Edgar, if your girlfriend tries to tell you what to do?"

Edgar smiled again; apparently, D'ra'yan was better informed than he thought. "I get rid of her. I don't take orders from anyone but my Emperor."

"Well said, considering you're next in line for my job."

"And would you expect any less from one of your highest generals? Or from a lowly commoner?" Edgar retorted. "I'm family, D'ra'yan. And I know you miss Mom very much."

D'ra'yan's face fell. "Is it that obvious, even now? How I feel about Di'er'di'ra?"

"Yes, it is, D'ra'yan. I know you never approved of her marriage to Dad. So what if he was a Terran, a Frail? She loved him, and he loved her... or so we thought, when he smuggled that damn nuclear grenade to the retreat." Edgar shook his head. "She just wanted me to have a brother or a sister. He thought she was going to leave him. Such a stupid waste, especially your reprisals against the Terrans and Gammans, Uncle."

D'ra'yan's eyes narrowed. "You've not spoken to me like this before, Edgar."

"I've not been an adult before, D'ra'yan. Now I am, and every noble in this place is trying to get me to pass on my genes and produce a royal heir to myself. Like I need one! You're not going to die anytime soon, D'ra'yan, and neither will I. I'm a Gamman, the son of an Arion and a Terran. Dad would've died of old age before I ever ascended to the throne, and you know that." Edgar paused, considering what he'd just said. "I don't want to be a pawn in some noble family's game to ascend to the throne. Is that why you haven't married, Uncle, or produced an heir of your own?"

"Politics," the Emperor agreed. "Now you know why I cleared the chamber. Our family's held the Imperial line for a long time, Edgar. Between you and me, it's only a matter of time before some baron or duke organizes a rebellion and kicks us out. I've been setting you up with the daughters of our enemies, Edgar. I'm trying to push it off, to stop them from acting by giving them what they want without bloodshed. They want a piece of the throne. I see no reason not to give it to them."

Edgar couldn't answer that. This had never occurred to him.

D'ra'yan went on. "Would you prefer you married a cousin? Oh, I know about the Gamman superstition about incest. I know what your father taught you, and that your mother did nothing to deny your heritage. I may be the Emperor, but I have to respect you a little. So you haven't found a suitable wife yet. You're now an adult, Edgar; you have plenty of time. But if you don't find one soon... you may not be the Crown Prince forever."

Edgar knew all too well what that meant. Di'er'di'ra had been instrumental in importing so many Terrans from Earth -- which didn't sit well with all the nobles. Some of them positively hated the Terrans and the Gammans. Some considered the Gammans an infection to be wiped out. Edgar had done his best to seek justice and protection for his fellow Gammans, those who were descended from both Arion and Terran bloodlines. Some Gammans thought the same about the Betans and Primes; all in all, the Imperial Family had done everything they could to stop the violence for the greater glory of the Empire. They had not been successful, but feared failure and the costs it would bring. If D'ra'yan were to fall from power, Edgar could find himself shot with gold bullets, or worse. "Is it really that bad?"

Shouted voices from the near left door carried into the hall. Edgar recognized the voice of the general, the father of his latest girlfriend, as one of them. Apparently the general wasn't being let in, per the Emperor's orders.

"You tell me, Edgar."

D'ra'yan sat in his chair one more time, obstensibly resuming the formal authority of Emperor. "In any case, I have to give him," -- and he pointed his thumb at the left door -- "some kind of morsel for his trouble. Something to keep him quiet."

"So what are you thinking, Uncle?"

D'ra'yan paused, and regretfully said, "I'm thinking we don't need the planet anymore."

"Dad wouldn't like that, you know," Edgar warned. The meaning was clear: the still-living Terrans and Gammans wouldn't like that either.

"Your father is dead, Edgar, killed when he took his revenge on his wife who was ever faithful to him. His son is a suitable heir to the throne, always thoughtful of others. But this is a rebellion, and it must be dealt with. Besides, they are one planet, and we are dozens. They are, much as I hate to admit it, expendable."

"Just to keep us in power?"

"To keep us alive."

"I'm not sure I want to live like that."

"I'm not sure you have any choice in the matter, nephew!" D'ra'yan's tone changed. He was definitely in his Imperial role again.

"Very well, Uncle, but I warn you, whatever you have in mind may cause more problems than it solves."

Tiredly, the Emperor replied, "It may. I have to take that chance. To save our Empire, to save what honor our family has, I must placate the general. How did your father put it? To kill two birds with one stone?"

Edgar bowed his head to the ground, assuming his own role as Crown Prince and obedient to the Emperor, "Yes, my lord." And so we create an atrocity.