The series of battles that had come to be called the Battle of Amritsar—based upon the name of the stellar region in which the final encounter took place—had concluded with utter defeat for the military of the Free Planets Alliance. The alliance’s expeditionary force completely abandoned the more than two hundred frontier star systems that, thanks to the Galactic Empire’s strategic pullback, they had temporarily occupied, and just barely managed to secure their first prize of the conflict: Iserlohn Fortress.
The alliance had mobilized a force over thirty million strong, but the survivors returning home by way of Iserlohn numbered less than ten million, and the percentage of those not returning at all was just shy of a disastrous 70 percent.
This defeat naturally cast an immense shadow over every facet of the alliance’s politics, economy, society, and military. The financial authorities turned a ghastly pale as they calculated the expenses so far and the expenses yet to come—including lump-sum payments to bereaved families, as well as pensions. The losses incurred at Astarte had been nothing compared to this.
Blistering criticism and censure rained down on the government and military from bereaved families and the antiwar faction for having launched such a reckless campaign. The rage of citizens who had lost fathers and sons because of a trivial election strategy and a hysterical staff officer’s lust for advancement hammered the government and the military down to the ground.
Among the prowar faction, even now there were apologists who defended the invasion, saying, “You speak of the great cost in lives and treasure, but there are things worthy of even greater regard than these. We mustn’t fall into war-weary ideologies based on emotion.”
However, they could do nothing but fall silent as the responses drove them into their corners:
“Never mind the money! What exactly are you talking about that’s worth more than human lives? Protecting those in power? Military ambition? So you’re saying that while twenty million soldiers were shedding their blood for nothing—while many times that number were shedding tears for them back home—human life wasn’t something that deserved your respect?”
The prowar faction could not answer, because aside from a very small number of people not furnished with consciences, everyone felt somehow ashamed of the simple fact that they were living in safety.
The members of the alliance’s High Council submitted their resignations en masse.
The popularity of the prowar faction plummeted, which meant that the antiwar faction entered the limelight to a similar degree. The three councilmen who had cast their votes against the invasion were lauded for their insight, and Defense Committee chairman Trünicht was named interim head of the ruling administration and would occupy that seat until the following year’s elections.
In the study at his home, Trünicht raised a glass in celebration of his own foresight. He wouldn’t have much longer to wait before the word “interim” vanished from his title.
In the military, Marshal Sitolet, director of Joint Operational Headquarters, and Marshal Lobos, commander in chief of the space armada, resigned together. Scuttlebutt had it that Lobos had, through his own failures, ruined his rival Sitolet.
Vice Admiral Urannf and Vice Admiral Borodin, the two fleet commanders who had died courageously on the battlefield, received special double promotions and were posthumously granted ranks of marshal. In the alliance military, there was no rank of senior admiral, and marshal was next in the hierarchy above full admiral.
Admiral Greenhill was shuffled off to the Defense Committee secretariat-general, where as director of field investigations he was removed from the front lines of the effort to counter the empire’s military activities.
Rear Admiral Caselnes was transferred as well and departed the capital of Heinessen to become commander of Supply Base 14, located inside the alliance’s territory. Somebody had to take responsibility for the failure of the supply effort in the Battle of Amritsar. Leaving his family behind in the capital, he departed for a frontier land five hundred light-years distant. His wife took their two young daughters and moved back in with her parents.
After recuperating, Rear Admiral Fork was ordered to join the reserve, and there it seemed his ambition had met its end.
All of this caused an alarming shortage of human resources in the leadership of the Alliance Armed Forces. Who was there who could fill those seats?
Assuming the seat of director at Joint Operational Headquarters—and in the process being promoted from vice admiral to full admiral—was Cubresly, who had served until that time as the First Fleet’s commander.
As he had not participated in the battles at Astarte or Amritsar, he accordingly bore no responsibility for the defeats there. He had built a sound record of solid results in providing security for the capital and defending public order domestically, as well as in his traditional role of suppressing the space pirate cartels and maintaining the safety of the shipping lanes. He had graduated with excellent marks from Officers’ Academy, where it had been viewed as a given that he would one day rise to the highest pinnacle of the military. That prediction had now come true with a speed that the man himself had never dreamed of.
Replacing Cubresly as commander of the First Fleet was Vice Admiral Paetta, who had been recuperating from his wounds in the Battle of Astarte.
Bucock was installed as commander in chief of the space armada and, naturally, promoted to full admiral in the process. This seasoned admiral had at last taken up a post worthy of his experience, and his appointment was highly praised both inside and outside the military. No matter how famous Bucock might have been, he had worked his way up from an ordinary soldier, and without circumstances being what they were, he likely never would have made commander in chief of the space armada. In that sense, something ironically positive had come out of the misfortune of their miserable defeat.
How Yang Wen-li was to be rewarded was not decided upon right away.
He had brought over 70 percent of those in the Thirteenth Fleet back home alive—a survival rate vastly higher than that of any other regiment in the expeditionary force. No one had been able to accuse him of having hidden elsewhere in safety. The Thirteenth Fleet had been right in the midst of intense combat all along and had stayed on the battlefield to the very last, giving its all so that allies could escape.
Cubresly was hoping to make Yang his staff commissioner at Joint Operational Headquarters. Bucock had told Yang directly and with certainty that he would ready the seat of general chief of staff of the space armada for him.
On the other hand, the crew of the ships in the Thirteenth Fleet could no longer imagine having any commander but Yang over them. As von Schönkopf aptly put it, “Soldiers want a commander who comes with both ability and luck. To them, that’s the best way to survive.”
While things were still up in the air about his next assignment, Yang took a long vacation and went to the planet Mithra. Things were now such that if he stayed at his official residence in Heinessen, he wouldn’t be able to set foot outside his door without being thronged by civilians and journalists wanting to meet the undefeated hero, and with his visiphone constantly ringing as well, it was impossible to get any rest.
His text transmitter began spitting out letters that came only seconds apart. One of these was a brief note from the headquarters of the Patriotic Knight Corps—“We extend our praises to a great admiral of our beloved homeland”—at which Yang burst out laughing, while one from the mother of a Thirteenth Fleet soldier who had been killed in action—”You’re just a friend and ally of murderers, too”—left him deeply discouraged. It really was just six of one and half a dozen of the other. Honor and glory were things built only atop the piled corpses of unknown soldiers …
Julian had proposed the vacation getaway because he felt like he had to do something. In addition to feeling depressed, Yang had increased his drinking dramatically. Yang wasn’t the type to get drunk and do bad things, like disturbing the peace or getting in fights, but he wasn’t drinking for enjoyment either, and there was no way his level of consumption could be good for his health.
Yang, perhaps with some degree of self-awareness about this, meekly accepted Julian’s suggestion. Yang spent three weeks surrounded by lush, green natural beauty, lost his interest in alcohol, and returned to the capital to find his letter of appointment waiting.
Iserlohn Fortress Commander / Iserlohn Patrol Fleet Commander / Alliance Armed Forces Supreme Staff Council Councilman.
That was the new status that Yang Wen-li had been given. He was also promoted to full admiral. There were a number of past examples of people who had made full admiral in their twenties, but this was the first time anyone had been promoted through three ranks of the admiralty in the space of one year.
Because the Iserlohn Patrol Fleet had been created by combining the old Tenth and Thirteenth fleets, the commonplace term for it, “the Yang Fleet,” came to be recognized officially.
It was fair to say that the Alliance Armed Forces had displayed its utmost affection for the young national hero. However, every last bit of it was the opposite of what Yang really wanted. He had been hoping for retirement rather than promotions, and a peaceful life as a civilian rather than honor as a warrior.
And yet Yang departed for Iserlohn, where he took full command of his homeland’s front line of defense.
Naturally, this put an end to his life on Heinessen, and the question of what to do with young Julian gave Yang a lot to think about. He even thought about getting Mrs. Caselnes’s family to take him in, but Julian had absolutely no intention of leaving Yang’s side.
From the very start, Julian had made up his mind to accompany his guardian. Yang saw him getting ready, and despite some hesitation, ultimately decided to take him along. Eventually, an orderly would be assigned to Yang to look after his personal needs, and if that was the case, then leaving that job to Julian felt somehow more comfortable. Although he didn’t want to make the boy walk the same path that he did, Yang didn’t want to part with Julian either. Julian was made a civilian worker for the military and treated as the equivalent of a lance corporal. He was paid a salary as well.
Naturally, however, it wasn’t just Julian who followed Yang to Iserlohn.
His personal aide was Frederica Greenhill. Vice commander of the Iserlohn Patrol Fleet was Fischer. And von Schönkopf was there as well, as commander of fortress defenses. Murai and Patrichev came with him as staff officers, as did Lao, who had assisted Yang at the battle of Astarte. The captain of the First Fortress Spaceborne Division was Poplin. In addition, staff officers from the old Tenth Fleet came with him. The lineup of the Yang Fleet was steadily taking shape.
Now if I can just get Caselnes to take over the clerical duties, Yang thought, deciding to call him on over as soon as he was able.
What bothered him, though, were the movements of the Imperial Navy. Count Reinhard von Lohengramm aside, there were other admirals—scions of great noble houses—who had been inspired by his military exploits; might they not be plotting incursions even now, aiming to strike at a time when the Alliance Armed Forces’ ability to fight back was weakened?
Fortunately, however, that unease never manifested in reality, for a pressing situation had arisen within the Galactic Empire which left them with no leeway for launching distant campaigns.
Emperor Friedrich IV had died suddenly.
Having won a spectacular victory at Amritsar, Reinhard returned to the imperial capital of Odin to find its surface practically buried under forests of mourning flags.
The passing of the emperor!
The cause of death was said to be acute heart disease. Not only had the emperor’s body been weakened by debauchery and neglect for his health, the bloodline of the von Goldenbaum imperial family itself had grown dark and muddy, and he had died all too suddenly, as if to demonstrate what weak and inferior life-forms the family had become.
Friedrich is dead? Reinhard murmured in his heart, with as stunned an expression as might be expected as he stared at the assembled admirals under his command. Heart disease … a natural death? Wasted on that man. If he could have lived another five—no—two years longer, then I would have showed him a death befitting his many sins.
He turned his gaze toward Kircheis and met eyes filled with similar emotions—not as intense as Reinhard’s, but running possibly even deeper. The man who ten years ago had robbed them of their kind and beautiful Annerose was dead. Viewed through the light of recollection, all those years that had gone by shone dazzlingly bright and seemed to be dancing wildly all around them …
“Excellency,” said an exceedingly cold voice that yanked Reinhard up onto reality’s shore. There was no need to confirm it was von Oberstein. “Friedrich is dead and there is no successor named.”
All of the admirals save Reinhard and Kircheis drew in their breaths for an instant, shocked at how brazenly he had just dropped His Highness’s titles.
“Why so shocked?” the staff officer said as he looked around at all of them, artificial eyes flashing with inorganic light. “The only man to whom I swear loyalty is His Excellency, Imperial Marshal von Lohengramm. Emperor though he may have been, Friedrich wasn’t worthy of flowery titles.”
After this declaration, von Oberstein turned to face Reinhard.
“Excellency, Friedrich has died without naming his successor. Clearly, a struggle for succession will erupt among his three grandchildren. Whatever is decided in the short term will only be temporary. It may come early or it may come late, but this is not going to be settled without blood.”
“You have the right of it,” Reinhard said after a moment.
The young imperial marshal nodded toward him with the look of a fierce and intelligent schemer. “And my fate as well will be determined by which of the three I support. So tell me, then, which of those men who lurk behind the three grandchildren will come forward and extend his hand to me?”
“Marquis Lichtenlade, most likely. The other two have military forces of their own, but the marquis does not. He must be craving Your Excellency’s forces most earnestly.”
“I see.” Reinhard’s attractive features seemed to glow as he flashed a different kind of smile from the one reserved for Kircheis. “In that case, let’s see just how much we can lease them for.”
It was widely expected that the standing of Count Reinhard von Lohengramm would be not a little shaken by the sudden death of the emperor.
However, the outcome turned out to be just the opposite. This was because Erwin Josef, the emperor’s five-year-old grandson, had been made the next emperor by the hand of Minister of State Lichtenlade.
The child was a direct descendent of Friedrich IV, so there was nothing unusual about his succession in and of itself. Even so, he was far too young to rule, and above all had no backing from the powerful highborn nobles. For these reasons, he had been thought to be at a disadvantage.
In a case like this, it would not have been unusual for either Elisabeth, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Duke and Duchess von Braunschweig, or Sabine, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Marquis and Marchioness von Littenheim, to become empress with the backing of her father’s family and power. There were a number of precedents. Were that to happen, the father of the all-too-young empress would likely assist her as regent.
Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim had both confidence and ambition, and so predicting such a situation initiated unofficial—but very energetic—maneuvers at court intended to make their predictions come true.
In particular, powerful aristocratic families with young unmarried children were courted by these machinations. “If you’ll support my daughter for accession to the throne,” they were saying, “I’ll consider making your son the husband of the new empress.”
If spoken promises were strictly honored, the emperor’s two granddaughters would have both been forced to marry dozens of husbands. Even if the girls had already had boyfriends, their wishes would have doubtless been ignored.
However, it was the Marquis Lichtenlade who administered both the imperial seal and the issuance of imperial decrees, and he had no intention of letting powerful maternal relatives turn the empire into their private property.
Lichtenlade was concerned about where the empire was headed, and more than that, he loved his own position and power. He made up his mind to put forward Erwin Josef, heir of the late emperor Friedrich’s heir, but the thought of the great power wielded by those who would be opposed to his plan left him feeling a pressing need to strengthen his own camp. His guard dog would need to be strong and, moreover, easy to manage.
After giving the matter much thought, Marquis Lichtenlade settled on one man, although it was hard to say this individual would be easy to manage. In fact, he was a rather dangerous man. But in terms of raw strength, he had no room for objection.
That was how Count Reinhard von Lohengramm was advanced to the rank of marquis by Lichtenlade, who himself became a duke. It was also how he came to occupy the seat of commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada. When the accession of Erwin Josef was announced publicly, the highborn nobles—starting with Duke von Braunschweig—were at first aghast, then disappointed, then infuriated.
But the axis of power created by a handshake that had for mutually selfish reasons been exchanged between Duke Lichtenlade and Marquis von Lohengramm turned out to be a surprisingly firm one. This was because the former needed the latter’s military forces and popularity with the commoners, the latter desired the former’s authority in national governance and influence at court, and both of them needed to utilize the new emperor’s authority to its utmost to cement their respective positions and power.
When Erwin Josef II’s coronation ceremony was held, the two representatives of his chief vassals respectfully swore their allegiance to the child emperor, who was held sitting in his nurse’s lap. Representing the civil authorities was Duke Lichtenlade, who took up the job of regent, while the representative for the military authorities was Reinhard. Though it pained them to do so, the assembled aristocrats, bureaucrats, and military officers had no choice but to acknowledge the two of them as twin pillars of this new order.
The highborn nobles who had been excluded from the new order were quite literally grinding their teeth. Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim were bound together by their shared hatred toward it.
Duke Lichtenlade, they thought, was a worn-out old man who should have ended his role in national affairs and exited the stage with the death of Emperor Friedrich IV. On the other hand, who was this Marquis von Lohengramm? A shining service record he may have, but what was he really but an upstart whelp from a poor family of nobility in name only, who had used the emperor’s favor toward his sister in order to rise to prominence? Should we just stand by and let people like that monopolize our national government? The highborn nobles turned their private outrage into public outrage and longed for the overthrow of this new order.
So long as they shared such powerful, common enemies, the Lichtenlade-Lohengramm axis would likely remain firm as a steel fortress and strong as an iron wall. There was simply no other option.
Reinhard, now Marquis von Lohengramm, immediately promoted Siegfried Kircheis to the rank of senior admiral and named him vice commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada.
Duke Lichtenlade actively supported this appointment as well, still not having given up on the idea of putting Kircheis in his debt.
The one who held misgivings about this was von Oberstein. He had been promoted to vice admiral and now doubled as Imperial Space Armada chief of staff and Lohengramm admiralität chief secretary, and one day he met with Reinhard to give him some candid advice.
“It’s well and good to have a childhood friend, and well and good to have a capable second-in-command. But having both in the same person is dangerous. First of all, there was no need to make him vice commander in chief. Don’t you think you should treat Admiral Kircheis the same as you do the others?”
“Know your place, von Oberstein, I’ve made up my mind already.”
The young commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada put the staff officer with artificial eyes to silence with this single displeased remark. It was von Oberstein’s clever scheming that Reinhard was paying for; he did not regard the man with silver-streaked hair as a friend with whom he could share his heart. It did not put him in a pleasant mood to hear vaguely slanderous words spoken against the one who was his other self.
After the emperor’s death, Annerose, the Countess von Grünewald, had removed herself from court and moved into a mansion in Schwarzen that Reinhard had readied for them to share. When he welcomed his sister, Reinhard had spoken like an overeager boy.
“You’re never going to have hard times again, so please, be happy, always.”
Coming from Reinhard, this was a rather unimaginative line, but one suffused with sincere emotion.
However, Reinhard had another face—the face of a heartless, ambitious schemer—that he didn’t want Annerose to see.
He was aware of the alliance that had secretly been formed between Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim, and in his heart of hearts he welcomed it.
Let it explode. I’ll have them executed as rebels against the new emperor and in one fell swoop purge the highborn of their strength and influence.
If he could destroy both of Friedrich IV’s highborn sons-in-law, then all the rest of them would be able to do nothing save yield before Reinhard’s ambition. All of their lordships would bow to the ground and swear obedience to him. And when that happened, he would naturally be able to break his alliance with Duke Lichtenlade. You sly old fox, at least for now, celebrate having risen as high as you can.
By the same token, Duke Lichtenlade was certainly not thinking of making his axial relationship with Reinhard a permanent one, although like Reinhard, he was counting on Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim’s scheming to eventually explode. Using Reinhard’s military might, he would crush them. And once that job was done, he would have no further use for a dangerous individual like Reinhard.
On Reinhard’s orders, Seigfried Kircheis was moving steadily ahead with military preparations against what was expected to be an armed uprising by a federation of highborn nobles, with Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim at its head.
Kircheis was aware of von Oberstein’s cold, dry gaze against his back, but as there seemed to be no cracks in his relationships with either Reinhard or Annerose, he had nothing to be ashamed of and decided to take no greater precautions than necessary.
Kircheis was working hard at performing his duties, while at the same time enjoying opportunities to meet with Annerose that had increased beyond compare with those of years prior. This made the passing of his days fulfilling and blissful.
If only such days could go on forever …
Around the time that the two camps in the empire and the alliance had finally formed new power structures and begun to climb, wheezing, the stairway to the future, Landesherr Rubinsky sat in an inner room at his private residence in the Phezzan Dominion and decided to make a call.
The room had no windows, and sealed tight behind walls of thick lead, the space itself was polarized.
He flipped a pink switch on his console, and a communications device activated. It was hard to pick out that device with the naked eye, the reason being that the room itself was the communications device, created to bridge several thousand light-years of interstellar space, changing Rubinsky’s brain waves into the distinctive wavelengths of FTL transmissions, and sending them to their destination.
“It’s me. Please respond.”
His thoughts would assume the structure of definite language during these periodic, top secret transmissions.
“Which me is ‘me?’ ”
The reply that came to him from beyond the reaches of space could not have been haughtier.
“Landesherr of Phezzan Rubinsky. How is your Holiness, Grand Bishop? Are you in good spirits?”
Rubinsky spoke with a humility that was hard to believe.
“I’ve no reason to be in good spirits … not when my beloved Earth has yet to reclaim its rightful position. Until the day that Earth is worshipped by all mankind, as in our distant past, my heart will not be unclouded.”
Rubinsky could sense in his thoughts the heaving of a great sigh that used the whole of the bishop’s rib cage.
The shape of a planet floating in the void three thousand light-years away rose up in the back of Rubinsky’s mind to become a sharp, vivid image.
A backwater planet, abandoned after thorough subjection to humanity’s plunder and destruction. Decrepit and devastated, exhausted and poor. Ruins dotting its deserts, rocky mountains, and sparse forests. A small number of people just barely eking out a living, clinging to polluted soil that had forever lost its fertility. Dregs of glory, and precipitated grudges. A world so powerless that even Rudolf had left it alone. The third planet from its sun, which had no future and nothing but past …
However, it was this forgotten world that was Phezzan’s secret ruler. For it was from the supposedly impoverished Earth that Leopold Raap’s capital had come.
“For a long interval of eight hundred years, Earth has been looked down upon unfairly, but the day of her humiliation’s ending is at hand. It is Earth that is the cradle of humanity and the center from which all the universe is ruled, and sometime during the next two or three years, the day will finally come for those ingrates who abandoned the mother world to know it.”
“Will it be that soon?”
“You doubt me, Landesherr of Phezzan?”
His brain waves played the melody of low and somber laughter. The laughter of Earth’s religious and political ruler, known as the Grand Bishop, terrified Rubinsky and made every hair on his body stand on end.
“The flow of history is a thing that accelerates. Particularly in regard to the respective camps of the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, the convergences of their political authorities and military powers are moving forward. To that, we will presently add a new mass movement among the people. The spiritual movement to return to Earth that has been lurking unseen in both camps will soon appear on the streets. The work of organizing them and raising capital has been left to you Phezzanese, and there must be no mistakes.”
“It was for this purpose that our great master selected the planet Phezzan, sent people loyal to Earth there, and set them the task of amassing wealth. Through force of arms, you cannot stand against either the empire or the alliance. It’s only through economic might attained through careful use of its special position that Phezzan dominates the secular sphere, while it’s through faith that our Earth rules the spiritual … The galaxy shall be recaptured for Earth without a shot being fired. It’s a grand project that has taken centuries to be realized. And now, in our generation, will the wisdom of our master bear fruit … ?”
At that point, the polarity of his thoughts reversed, and he called out sharply:
“Uh … yes?”
“Don’t ever betray me.”
If even one person who had known the Landesherr of Phezzan had been present, his eyes would have snapped wide open at the realization that even this man could break out in a cold sweat.
“Th-that’s something I never dreamed I would hear you say.”
“You’ve both ability and ambition … I was merely warning you so that you do not succumb to temptation. Surely you are sufficiently aware of the reason why the illustrious Manfred II, as well as your own predecessor as landesherr, had to die.”
Manfred II had believed in the ideal of peaceful coexistence between the empire and alliance, and had attempted to implement that as policy. Rubinsky’s predecessor Walenkov had hated being controlled from Earth and had tried to act independently. Both of them had attempted acts disadvantageous for Earth.
“It’s because of Your Grace’s support that I was able to become landesherr. I am no ingrate.”
“If that’s the case, then all is well. That praiseworthiness will protect you.”
Some time later, the transmission came to an end, and Rubinsky went out onto the marble terrace, where, standing still, he looked up into the starry night sky. That he could not see Earth was fortunate. The feeling of relief, as if he had returned to reality from some other dimension, was gradually restoring his usual indomitable confidence.
Had Phezzan belonged to Phezzan alone, it might well have been he himself who was the de facto ruler of the galaxy. Unfortunately, however, the reality was different.
To the monomaniacs who were trying to reverse eight hundred years of history and make Earth capital of all the assembled stars once again, Adrian Rubinsky was nothing but a manservant.
However, would that be true in perpetuity? Nowhere in the universe was there an absolute and just reason why that had to be so.
“Well then, who’s going to be the last one standing? The empire? The alliance? Earth … ?” As Rubinsky was talking to himself, the corners of his mouth turned upward, just like the mouth of the fox that was his other namesake.
“Or will it be me … ?”
“We aren’t going to be able to avoid a decisive battle with the highborn. It’s a battle that will likely divide the empire.”
At Reinhard’s words, Kircheis nodded. “I’m in consultation with Mittermeier and von Reuentahl,” he said, “and operations planning is coming along nicely. There’s just one thing, though, that worries me.”
“ ‘What will the rebel forces do?’ ”
What would happen if, while the empire’s internal forces were divided between the Lichtenlade-Lohengramm axis and the Braunschweig-Littenheim camp, the alliance’s military were to take advantage of the state of civil war and launch a second incursion? Even Kircheis, who was confident in the planning and execution of his operation, was feeling uneasy about that point.
The golden-haired youth gave his red-haired friend an easy smile.
“Don’t worry about it, Kircheis. I have an idea. No matter how much skill Yang Wen-li may boast as a strategist, this measure will ensure that he won’t be able to leave Iserlohn.”
“And your strategy is … ?”
“In short, it’s this.”
Ice-blue eyes flashing enthusiastically, Reinhard launched into his explanation.
“I can feel the temptation,” Yang murmured. Lost in thought, he had not so much as touched the tea that had been brought in for him. When Julian came in to take away his cup, he stared at Yang wide-eyed, but something in the air prevented him from asking what was wrong. He said nothing.
Although the empire’s political situation appeared to have gotten a brief reprieve because of the swift establishment of the Lichtenlade-Lohengramm axis, there was no way that the present configuration was going to transition into a period of stability. The Braunschweig-Littenheim camp was going to rise up with armed force or, more precisely, be driven into a corner from which it would have to rise up. A civil war was going to break out and divide the empire.
And when that happened, Yang would come up with an ingenious reading of the situation and intervene—for example, suppose he joined forces with von Braunschweig’s people to defeat the Marquis von Lohengramm in a pincer movement and then repaid von Braunschweig’s side with a single blow to slaughter them. The Galactic Empire would likely fall.
Or maybe he could give his plans to von Braunschweig, let him do half the fighting against Reinhard, and then hit them both when both sides had reached the limits of exhaustion—that he could probably do himself. For his part, Yang was actually rather disgusted that he prided himself so on his mind as a tactician. When he had murmured, “I can feel the temptation,” that was what he had been talking about.
If he were a dictator, that was what he would do. But what was he but one soldier of a democratic nation? There were, of course, restrictions on what he could do. To exceed those restrictions would only make him Rudolf’s successor …
When Julian had taken away the cup of cold tea, brewed a fresh pot, and set it on Yang’s desk, Yang noticed at last.
“Oh, thank you,” he said.
“Did you have something on your mind?”
Upon being asked directly, a boyish look of embarrassment appeared on the face of the youngest full admiral in the Alliance Armed Forces.
“It’s not the kind of thing I can talk about with other people. I mean, honestly, if all people think about is winning, there’s no bottom to how low they can go.”
Not quite understanding what Yang was getting at, Julian remained silent and waited for him to continue.
“By the way,” said Yang, “I understand von Schönkopf’s been teaching you how to shoot. How’s that coming along?”
“From what the rear admiral says, I’m apparently ‘a natural talent.’ ”
“Oh, that’s good to hear.”
“But, Commander, you never practice marksmanship at all. Is that really all right?”
Yang laughed. “I don’t seem to have any talent for it. Don’t care to make an effort, either, so at present I just might be the worst marksman in the service.”
“Well, in that case, how do you protect yourself?”
“A fight where a commanding officer has to take up a gun to defend himself is already lost. All I’m thinking about now is how to not end up in that situation.”
“I see. In that case, I’ll be the one to defend you.”
“I’ll be counting on it.” Smiling, Yang picked up the cup of tea.
Watching the young commander, a thought occurred to Julian: He’s fifteen years older than me. In the next fifteen years, can I reach his level?
The boy had the feeling that it was too great a distance.
The galaxy turned, carrying with it thoughts, beliefs, and hopes beyond number.
It was SE 796, IE 487, and neither Marquis Reinhard von Lohengramm nor Yang Wen-li had foreseen any of what still lay ahead for them.