Beyond a gracefully curving wall made of specialized glass, a dense profusion of strangely shaped boulders jutted upward, resembling nothing so much as temple bells. Twilight was unfolding her wings without a sound across the backdrop of sky, and to those looking on, particles of arid atmosphere seemed to have tinted the whole field of view with unplumbed depths of blue.
The man standing motionless by the wall, hands folded casually behind his waist, turned only his head as he looked back into the room. At the end of his line of sight was a large, chalk-white console, beside which was a man in late middle age was standing with impeccable posture.
“So what you’re telling me, Boltec,” the man by the wall rumbled solemnly in a deep, masculine voice, “is that the empire won but didn’t win to excess.”
“That is correct, Landesherr. The alliance was defeated, but it did not result in a total collapse of their military force.”
“So they recovered their footing?”
“They recovered their footing, they fought back, and they even managed to bloody the empire’s nose just a little. All in all, it made little difference to the empire’s victory, but since the alliance didn’t just lie there and take it, either … I believe I can say it was a satisfactory outcome for we of Phezzan. But what say you, Landesherr?”
The man by the wall—Adrian Rubinsky, fifth to hold the title of landesherr in Phezzan—now turned fully around to face the room’s interior.
He was an unusual-looking man. Though he appeared to be around forty years of age, he had not a single hair on his head. His skin was dark. His eyebrows, eyes, nose, and mouth were all large, and though he could hardly be called handsome, he had a look that couldn’t help leaving a vivid, powerful impression on others. His body brimmed with overwhelming spirit and vitality, and was blessed not only in stature, but also in its wide shoulders and sturdy ribs.
Five years in office, scorned by empire and alliance alike as the “Black Fox of Phezzan,” he was ruler for life of this middleman trading state.
“I can’t be all that satisfied, Boltec.” There was irony in both the glance and the tone with which the odd-looking landesherr responded to his trusted aide. “This result was brought about by chance, not because we worked for it. We can’t rely on good luck always being there in the future. We need to step up our data collection and analysis, and fill our hand with more trump cards for the future.”
Rubinsky, dressed casually in a black turtleneck and light-green suit, was hardly the picture of a nation’s ruler as he approached a console at a leisurely stroll.
Boltec’s hands danced across the board, and in the console’s central display, a chart appeared. “This is the distribution of both militaries, shown from directly overhead. Have a look, please.” It was the exact chart Kircheis had shown Reinhard three days prior. Imperial forces were red and alliance forces green. From fore, port, and starboard, three green arrows were closing in on a red one. If the arrows were changed to points, it would look like a single dot of red within a triangle whose vertices were green.
“In terms of numbers, the empire had twenty thousand, and the alliance forty thousand altogether. Numerically, the alliance had an overwhelming advantage.”
“They did in terms of positioning as well. They were poised to encircle the imperial force from three different angles. Except … wait a minute. Isn’t this—” Rubinsky pressed a thick finger against the side of his forehead. “Isn’t this the same formation the alliance used in the Dagon Annihilation over a hundred years ago? So that’s it—they wanted to live that dream one more time, did they? Those people never evolve.”
“Though from a tactical standpoint, the plan made sense.”
“Hah! On paper, every plan is perfect. But in a real fight, the opponent is what matters. The empire’s fleet commander—it was that ‘golden brat’ I’ve been hearing about, right?”
“Yes, sir. Count von Lohengramm.”
Rubinsky gave a smug laugh. Five years ago, when his predecessor Walenkov had died suddenly, and Rubinsky, then thirty-six, had first taken over the reins of power, the opposition had backed a seasoned candidate in his fifties, raising a loud ruckus about how a man in his thirties was too young to be head of state. And now here was Count von Lohengramm, sixteen years younger than he had been at that time. For old soldiers who could do nothing but speak of precedent and custom, it seemed a most unpleasant age had begun.
“Can the landesherr guess how Count von Lohengramm got himself out of this trap?”
Something in Boltec’s tone said he was enjoying this.
The landesherr glanced at his aide and stared into the display. Then, as though it were the simplest thing in the world, he stated his conclusion: “He took advantage of their divided forces and took them out one by one. It’s the only way.”
The landesherr’s aide gazed back at the object of his political fidelity, looking like he’d just been slapped across the face. “It was just as you say. Your keen insight amazes me, sir.”
Rubinsky, with a relaxed—even brazen—little smile, accepted the compliment.
“There are often situations where the pros can’t keep up with the amateurs. They see the minuses more than the pluses, and the dangers more than the opportunities. A specialist will look at this formation and think defeat is inevitable for the encircled imperial force. But the net hasn’t been pulled shut yet, and you can see how it’s actually the scattered alliance forces that are vulnerable.”
“It’s just as you say.”
“In short, what happened is that the alliance underestimated Reinhard von Lohengramm’s ability as commander. Not that I can say I really blame them. Anyway, can you give me a detailed rundown of how things developed?”
The image on the display, obeying Boltec’s commands, came to life and began to change. The red arrow turned toward one of the green arrows and made a beeline for it at high speed, then after crushing it, turned to another green arrow and destroyed it in turn. The landesherr narrowed his eyes and watched intently as it turned yet again to face the third green arrow. He ordered Boltec to stop and, still staring at the display, gave a sigh.
“A perfect one-two punch. An active, dynamic strategy. It’s splendidly executed, but …” He trailed off and tilted his head. “But if things got to this point, the empire should have had a near-perfect win. To get back in the game after things had gone this far south wouldn’t be easy for the alliance. The obvious end of this is the alliance force completely falling apart and being set to flight. Who was commanding that third alliance formation?”
“Vice Admiral Paetta, at the start. But after the battle began, he was seriously injured when his flagship took a hit. Afterward, Commodore Yang Wen-li, a staff officer who was next in line, took over for him.”
“Yang Wen-li? I’ve heard that name somewhere …”
“He was in charge of evacuating El Facil eight years ago.”
“Oh yeah, that fellow,” Rubinski acknowledged. “I remember thinking at the time that the alliance had a pretty interesting man in its ranks, too. So, how did the hero of El Facil move his forces?”
In response, Rubinsky’s top aide manipulated the display to show his superior the final stage of the Battle of Astarte.
The green arrow divided to the right and left. As if trying to preempt that, the red arrow charged forward, attempting a frontal breakthrough. The green arrow, looking as though it had been split in half, raced backward along both sides of the red arrow, merged back together behind it, and launched an attack from its rear …
Rubinsky made a low tone in the back of his throat. He had not expected to see an alliance commander using tactics this refined.
Moreover, the fact that he could grasp the situation and handle it so composedly, even while facing the prospect of his force completely crumbling, meant he was no more an ordinary commander than Count von Lohengramm was.
The fifth landesherr of Phezzan had had his gaze riveted to the display for some time. “That was some pretty exciting magic I just saw.”
At last, Rubinsky motioned to have the display turned off. After doing so, Boltec took a step back and awaited his next instructions.
“Yang Wen-li, was it? Get in touch with the office of our high commissioner on Heinnessen, and tell them to gather data on that commodore ASAP. What happened on El Facil was no fluke—that I can see very clearly now.”
“I’ll see to it, sir.”
“No matter what the organization, no matter what the machine, what runs it, ultimately, is the personnel. The skill and competence of the ones in charge can turn a tiger into a cat, and can even do the opposite. And what the tiger sinks his fangs into is up to the tamer as well. It’s vital we get a profile on this man.”
And in so doing, Rubinsky was thinking as he sent his aide from the room, we find a way to use him.
The star known as Phezzan was attended by four planets. Three were gas giants, with the second planet alone possessing a hard planetary crust. The composition of its atmosphere—nearly 80 percent nitrogen and almost 20 percent oxygen—differed little from that of humanity’s birthplace. The biggest difference was that it had originally lacked carbon dioxide, so plant life had never existed there.
There wasn’t much water, either. Even the terragreening, having advanced from blue-green algae to disseminating the seeds of higher plants, had not yet turned the whole of the landscape into fertile, verdant fields. Only the well-irrigated regions of the planet’s surface were adorned in colorful belts of green. The red regions were wastelands of boulders and sand, where weathered landscapes boasted spectacular vistas of bizarre geographical features.
Phezzan was the name of the star as well as the name of the second planet. It was also the name of the system as a whole and the name of its autonomous governing body, established in year 373 of the empire, which held it as its territory. Its military force consisted of only a small fleet of patrol vessels, and its two billion Phezzanese, their passions ever bent on increasing profits, had long dominated the trade routes between the Galactic Empire and the alliance. While subordinate to the empire as a formality, it retained a de facto political independence that was nearly complete, and in terms of economic power, displayed a vigor surpassing that of the two great powers.
However, the long road that had led to this day had not been a smooth one, and every landesherr since Leopold Raap—the first landesherr—had struggled with the political maneuvering necessary to secure Phezzan’s position. Phezzan’s national policy could be summed up in the phrase, “Not so weak as to be taken lightly, and not so strong as to be feared,” and it was because the numerical balance of power—Empire, forty-eight; Alliance, forty; Phezzan, twelve—had not changed at all in the last half century that the hard work of Phezzan’s political authorities had been most vividly realized.
If the power of the empire and Phezzan were combined, they would be in an advantageous position over the alliance, but even so, destroying the alliance would be no easy task. On the other hand, if the alliance and Phezzan were to form a coalition, it would be possible to thwart the empire, though not to the point of overwhelming it.
It was in the upkeep of this precarious, even artistic, balance that Phezzan’s politico-military strategy showed its true worth. Phezzan mustn’t become too strong. That could arouse opposition from both the empire and the alliance, putting both on their guard, causing them to eye an alliance with one another to wipe Phezzan from the face of the universe. If the empire and alliance were to join forces, they would command 88 percent of the power balance and could destroy Phezzan in a single battle. On the other hand, if Phezzan were too weak, its continued existence would lose its value, and it would become unable to compel either the empire or the alliance to respect its independence.
When the empire plotted to rob it of its autonomy, Phezzan would display intent to go over to the alliance. When the alliance conceived ambitions against it, Phezzan would turn with flirtatious eyes toward the empire. Providing both sides with needed supplies, pushing into the imperial and alliance interiors, and ensnaring those in power, Phezzan had long survived by its wits.
It was he, Adrian Rubinski, who was the fifth ruler of this shrewd and cunning people.
It would mean trouble if either the empire or the alliance were to succeed in conquering the other. Both powers needed to exist, maintaining their balance; if one were to fall, Phezzan would need to have the other fall at the same time—and without dragging Phezzan down with it.
Phezzan charted the course of history, and without the exercise of military power; instead it used strategy and the power of its wealth. Building gigantic warships and huge cannons, through bloodshed ultimately inviting the exhaustion of national power and the ruin of society—that sort of foolishness they could leave to the two great powers. Lacking any means of protecting themselves save through slaughter and destruction, were not the Galactic Empire, with its absolute monarchy, and the Free Planets Alliance, with its democratic republic, both in essence imbeciles driven by hidebound custom? Then let them both dance in the palm of Phezzan’s hand, intoxicated by the legitimacy of their respective orthodoxies.
Even so, there was something about Count von Lohengramm and about Yang, about their respective ascents to the galactic stage, that seemed to augur the coming of a new age. Phezzan would need to watch both of them carefully from now on. Though he might be overestimating them, it was always best to keep one’s nose to the ground and one’s hand full of trumps.
Night was enfolding the western hemisphere of Hauptplanet Odin in soft and gentle hands.
Whether imperial territory or alliance, the revolving worlds could never escape the changing guard of night and day. Not even the great Emperor Rudolf, who had sought to dominate galactic space and all that was in it, could stop the revolution of heavenly bodies. Moreover, the motion of these heavenly bodies had no uniform periods; while one planet might rotate once every eighteen and a half hours, the rotational period of another might be forty hours, each asserting its own precious individuality.
On the other hand, even when humanity had dwelt on its original birthplace of Sol III, the internal body clocks of humans had been running on a twenty-five-hour cycle—one hour longer than that world’s rotational period. Each individual adjusted this for a life lived in twenty-four-hour increments. It was as a custom that the twenty-four-hour clock had been established. When humanity achieved interstellar flight, that had meant facing the difficult problem of adjusting psychologically to days and nights of widely varying length.
Inside spaceships, in cities in floating in space, on planets that for any number of reasons required an artificial environment, this was not much of a problem. They simply synchronized the environment to the twenty-four-hour lifestyle. Artificial lighting made the daytime bright and the night dark. In these kinds of places, they could adjust the temperature to be lowest just before dawn, and between summer and winter change not only the temperature, but also the length of the nights.
Furthermore, on worlds where the periods of rotation were extremely long or short, a twenty-four-hour day could be enforced by regulation. People would start to say, “It’ll be night all day today. I hear the sun comes up tomorrow,” or “On this planet, you can see sunsets twice a day.”
The trouble occurred rather on planets with near-Earthlike rotational periods of 21.5 hours or 27 hours, where after much trial and error, the population would divide into one faction in favor of splitting the orbital period into twenty-four equal divisions and using the planetary local time, and another in favor of enduring the various inconveniences of using the standard twenty-four-hour system. Whatever they settled on, there would be nothing else to do but steel one’s nerves and get used to it.
Twenty-four hours is a day, and 365 days is a year. This so-called standard calendar was used both in the empire and in the alliance. January 1 in the Galactic Empire was January 1 in the Free Planets Alliance as well.
“There’s no need to remain shackled by the bonds of Earth forever,” was a common refrain. “Humanity doesn’t revolve around Earth any longer, and the Space Era calendar is already in force. Shouldn’t we set up new standards for keeping time?”
There were those among the “old equals bad” set that made such arguments, but when asked what these new standards should be, there was never any answer that everyone could agree on. Ultimately, the age-old custom received the greatest—if not necessarily the most enthusiastic—amount of support, and continued even to this day.
The “bonds of Earth” extended to weights and measures as well. One gram was equal to one cubic centimeter of water, weighed under Earth’s gravity at 4 degrees centigrade. In like manner, one centimeter was roughly equal to one four-billionth the length of the Earth’s circumference. These units as well were in common use by the entire star-spanning society of humanity.
Emperor Rudolf had made an effort to change the units of weights and measurement. Seeking to standardize all the units, he had defined the height of his own body as one kaiser-faden and his own body weight as one kaiser-centner. However, this system was never put into action.
Not because it was altogether illogical, though. Kläfe, who was lord of the treasury at the time, was granted an audience with the emperor, at which time he respectfully submitted a single datum. It was a trial calculation of the expenditure that would be necessary to change the units of weights and measures, based on the assumption that doing so would necessitate swapping out every computer chip and measuring device throughout the whole of the settled galaxy. At that time, the unit of currency had only just been changed from credits to imperial marks, and the story goes that the number of zeros lined up on that paper had been sufficient to daunt even the ever-obstinate Rudolf.
In this way, the meter and the gram were suffered their continued existence, though the current prevailing theory was that Kläfe’s estimate had been an obviously inflated figure and that Kläfe, whose meekness had been considered his only saving grace, had in fact dared a subtle show of resistance to Rudolf’s boundless self-deification.
Buildings large and small, freestanding and interconnected, innumerable fountains, natural and artificial forests, sunken rose gardens, sculptures, flower beds, gazebos, and an endless successions of lawns were enveloped in pale silver light by ingenious illumination effects designed with care not to irritate the optic nerve.
This palace was the political crossroads of a government that ruled more than a thousand star systems. Government offices were laid out around its perimeter, but there was not a tall building among them to be found. Their main offices were underground, for it was an unforgivable act of disrespect for a subject to look down from a high position upon the emperor’s palace. Even the many satellites that orbited Odin’s skies never, ever passed directly over the palace.
Over fifty thousand chamberlains and ladies-in-waiting worked at the palace. It was an age when the use of people to perform easily automated tasks proved the height of one’s position and the greatness of one’s authority. Cooking, cleaning, guiding visitors, maintaining the gardens, caring for the free-roaming deer—all of these were accomplished by human hands. This was the luxury of a king.
There were no beltways or escalators at the palace. You had to use your own legs to walk its corridors and ascend or descend its staircases. This was true even for the emperor himself.
“Rudolf the Great” had believed that physical strength, too, was a requisite of rulership. How could one shoulder the burden of this vast empire if he couldn’t even walk on his own two feet?
Within the palace were several audience chambers, and that evening the Black Pearl Room was packed with high officials beyond counting. A ceremony would be held tonight to bestow the scepter of an imperial marshal upon Count Reinhard von Lohengramm, who had smitten the brutish rebel forces at the Battle of Astarte and there caused the light of the emperor’s authority to shine gloriously.
An imperial marshal was not merely one rank above senior admiral, nor did the rank come only with a lifelong pension of 2.5 million imperial marks per year. An imperial marshal was also not punishable under criminal law for any offense save high treason and could establish an admiralität, or bureau, in which he was free to hire or dismiss staff at will.
At present, there were only four imperial marshals who enjoyed these privileges, though tonight they would become five when Count Reinhard von Lohengramm was added to their number. Moreover, it was going around that Count von Lohengramm would also be made vice commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada, placing half of its eighteen fleets under his command.
“Next he’ll be made one of the peerage. From count to marquis,” some were whispering thus to one other off in the recesses of the vast Black Pearl Room. Along with fire, humanity’s great friend down through the ages had been gossip. Those who adored this friend existed in every era under every circumstance, ceasing neither in luxurious palace nor in homely ghetto.
Positioned nearest the emperor’s throne, those who held the highest positions in the empire stood motionless—highborn aristocrats, high-ranking civilian and military officials, and those holding multiple titles. Separated by a red carpet six meters wide—two hundred craftsmen had woven it over the course of 450 years—they had formed two ranks. On one side was a row of civil officials, with Marquis Lichtenlade occupying the highest position.
Marquis Lichtenlade, the imperial government’s minister of state, was presiding over cabinet meetings as acting imperial prime minister. He was an old man of seventy-five, with a pointed nose and silver hair like newfallen snow, possessed of a glint in his eye more stern than penetrating.
Moving downstream from him were Minister of Finance Gerlach, Minister of the Interior Flegel, Minister of Justice Lump, Minister of Science Wilhelmj, Minister of the Palace Interior Neuköln, Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Kielmansek—they and others like them were sitting in rows.
On the opposite side were rows of military officials: Imperial Marshal Ehrenberg, who was minister of military affairs; Imperial Marshal Steinhof, the secretary-general of Imperial Military Command Headquarters; Imperial Marshal Krasen, the commissioner of staff; Imperial Marshal Mückenberger, commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada; Senior Admiral Ofresser, commissioner of Armored Grenadier Corps; Senior Admiral Ramusdorf, commissioner of the Imperial Guard; Admiral Klammer, commissioner of military police; the commanding officers of the eighteen fleets …
At the clear, resounding blare of an old-fashioned trumpet, the whole assembly began to straighten their posture. There was a rustling as of leaves in the wind, and then it quieted. The coordinator of ceremonies’ voice pounded the attendees’ eardrums, announcing the entrance of the Highest Honored.
“Ruler of all humanity, sovereign of all the universe, defender of the order and laws that govern the heavenly realm, kaiser of the sacred and inviolable Galactic Empire, His Highness, Friedrich IV!”
The solemn melody of the empire’s national anthem swelled up on the heels of his last word. All present bowed their heads deeply, as though something were pressing down on their necks.
Perhaps some of them were counting under their breaths. When they slowly raised their heads, their emperor was sitting in his gilded, luxurious seat.
Friedrich IV, thirty-sixth emperor of the Galactic Empire. At age sixty-three, he was a man who gave an impression of being oddly worn out. Though he wasn’t quite elderly, there was something about him that made people want to call him “old.” He had almost no interest in the affairs of state. Nor did he seem to have the ability or will to actively use the absolute power that he had. Emperor Friedrich IV: a feeble man who bore the twilight gleam of his mighty ancestor Rudolf, his polar opposite.
The emperor had lost his empress ten years prior. It had not been some intractable disease—just a cold that had gotten worse and developed into pneumonia. Cancer had been conquered in distant antiquity, but driving the common cold from the list of maladies had, as one historian of the alliance so maliciously put it, been impossible “even for the glory and power of Rudolf the Great.”
Since then, the emperor had bestowed on one of his mistresses the title of Countess—or Gräfin—Grünewald, making her his de facto wife, although he refrained from making her empress. But because that mistress was not highborn, she refrained from attending official state functions and as usual did not show her lovely face before the court that night. Countess von Grünewald’s real name was Annerose.
In a sonorous voice, the coordinator of ceremonies called for the man of the hour to come forth.
“Lord Reinhard, Count von Lohengramm!”
This time there was no need to bow deeply, so all those assembled turned their eyes toward the young military officer walking across the carpet toward them.
There were sighs of admiration from among the noble ladies. Even those who harbored hostility toward Reinhard—to wit, the greater part of the attendees—couldn’t help acknowledging his incomparable good looks.
His face was like that of a doll crafted from the finest baici porcelain, though his eyes were too piercing for a doll’s, his expression too intense and strong. If not for the emperor’s indulgence with Reinhard’s elder sister Annerose and the expression Reinhard wore at that moment, backbiting gossip of sovereign-subject sodomy would likely have been inevitable.
With a brisk step befitting an officer of the military, Reinhard passed through the jumble of onlookers’ varied emotions, coming at last to stand before the throne, where with a reverence felt nowhere in his heart, he bowed to one knee.
In that posture, he waited to be graced by the words of his sovereign. At official functions, subjects were not allowed to address the emperor.
“Count von Lohengramm, your recent military exploits have been truly splendid,” the emperor said, speaking in a voice devoid of originality or character.
“If I may be so bold, it was done wholly through the grace of Your Majesty’s authority.”
Reinhard’s answer had also been lacking in originality, but that was due to calculation and self-restraint. Even if he were to say something clever, he was not talking to someone capable of understanding cleverness, and doing so would only stoke the hostilities of those in attendance. To Reinhard, that one piece of paper that the emperor took from the conductor of ceremonies and began reading aloud was far more important.
“In recognition of thy success in the subjugation of rebel forces in the Astarte star system, I hereby appoint thee, Count Reinhard von Lohengramm, to the office of imperial marshal. Furthermore, I do name thee vice commander of the Imperial Space Armada and place half its vessels under thy command. March 19, Year 487 of the Imperial Calendar, Friedrich IV, Emperor of the Galactic Empire.”
Reinhard rose, ascended the steps, and, bowing deeply, received his letter of appointment. At the same time, the scepter of an imperial marshal was given him. In that instant, Count Reinhard von Lohengramm became an imperial marshal.
Even as a brilliant smile surfaced on his face, Reinhard felt no satisfaction at all inside. This was nothing more than the first step on the long road he had to travel—the road toward taking the place of that bumbling fool who had used his power to steal away his sister.
“Hmph. A twenty-year-old imperial marshal?”
That low murmur had come from Senior Admiral Ofresser, commissioner of the Armored Grenadier Corps. He was a large, well-built man in his late forties; a scar carved into his left cheekbone by an alliance soldier’s laser was a vivid purple. Deliberately left partially unhealed, it announced to the world that he was a fierce and battle-hardened general.
“Since when was the glorious Imperial Space Armada reduced to being a toddler’s toy, Excellency?”
The man to whom he so provocatively whispered was the one who had just had half the men under his command stolen from him by Reinhard.
Imperial Marshal Mückenberger, commander in chief of the Imperial Space Armada, arched a graying eyebrow just slightly.
“So you say, milord, but you can’t deny that the golden brat is a talented tactician. It’s a fact he destroyed rebel forces despite being outnumbered, and his talents have even silenced battle-hardened veterans like Merkatz.”
“Indeed, the man does look like he’s had his fangs pulled.” Casting a glance toward Admiral Merkatz, standing silent amid a row of military officers, Offresser gave a merciless critique. “While it’s true the brat did defeat them, one victory by itself might just be a fluke. If you ask me, all I can think is that the enemy just didn’t know what they were doing. Victory and defeat are ultimately relative, after all.”
“You’re speaking rather loudly.”
Though he spoke reprovingly, the imperial marshal had not denied the content of what the senior admiral had said. Reinhard’s achievement was not an easy thing for highborn nobles and old guard admirals to accept.
The time and place being what it was, however, the imperial marshal apparently felt a need to change the subject. “About that particular enemy, by the way, have you ever heard of a commander by the name of Yang?”
“Let me think … I don’t remember anyone by that name. What about him?”
“In the recent battle, he was the man who stopped the rebel force from completely disintegrating and brought about the death of Rear Admiral Erlach.”
“He seems to possess quite an aptitude for the work of a general. I have information that even our blond-haired whelp had his nose tweaked by the man.”
“And you’re not glad to hear it?”
“I would be if this were only about Reinhard. But do you think they pick and choose who to fight when they go to battle?”
As might be expected, there was a note of disgust in the imperial marshal’s voice, at which Ofresser awkwardly shrugged his thick shoulders.
In the Black Pearl Room, music was beginning to play again. It was “Thy Courage Doth Walküren Adore,” a piece composed in praise of the military officers who gave their all in service of king and country.
The curtain was now beginning to fall on what for the highborn nobles had been a most unpleasant ceremony.
Kircheis, as he was neither a noble nor an admiral, lacked the qualifications needed for entrance into the Black Pearl Room. It had been decided over the past two days, however, that he would be promoted to rear admiral, skipping over commodore to a position in which he would be called “Excellency.” When that happened, he would be excluded no longer from elegant ceremonies.
Every time Reinhard climbs a rung in the hierarchy, I get pulled up behind him … Kircheis trembled just slightly. Although he didn’t think of himself as lacking in talent, the speed of his rise was certainly extraordinary, and it would be disastrous to think it due entirely to his own ability.
“Captain Sigfried Kircheis, correct?” said a soft voice from his side.
An officer who looked to be in is early thirties was standing in Kircheis’s line of sight. He wore a captain’s insignia. He was a tall man, though not so tall as Kircheis, with pale-brown eyes, a sickly white complexion, and lots of early gray in his dark head of hair.
“That’s right, and who might you be?”
“Captain Paul von Oberstein. This is my first time meeting you.”
Just as he spoke these words, Kircheis was startled to see a strange light well up in his eyes.
“I beg your pardon …” murmured the man calling himself von Oberstein. He had read from Kircheis’s expression what had happened. “Something must be wrong with my artificial eyes. I’m sorry if I startled you. I’ll make it a point to have them replaced, tomorrow maybe.”
“They’re artificial? I’m sorry, then—I’m the one who should beg your pardon.”
“No, not at all. Thank to these things, with their integrated photonic computers, I can get along without any disability whatsoever. They just don’t seem to last very long, do they?”
“Were you wounded in battle?”
“No, I’ve been like this since birth. Had I been born in Rudolf the Great’s generation, I’d have been caught and disposed of by that Genetic Inferiority Elimination Act.”
Vibrations of air became sound that just barely reached the lower limits of human hearing, and yet that was enough to make Kircheis gasp. It went without saying that comments sounding critical of Rudolf the Great were grounds for charges of lèse-majesté.
“You have a fine commander, Captain Kircheis,” von Oberstein added in a slightly louder voice, yet it was still nothing more than a whisper. “And by a fine commander, I mean someone who can make the most of the talents of his subordinates. There are so very few of them in the service right now. Count von Lohengramm is different, though. He’s most impressive for one so young. It’s a hard thing for the powerful highborn families to understand, though, caught up in their lineage-obsessed mentality …”
Kircheis’s trap detector was ringing like mad in the back of his mind. How could he be sure this man von Oberstein wasn’t some marionette sent by someone hoping for Reinhard to slip up?
“So tell me, what unit are you serving in?” he said, casually changing the subject.
“Up until now, I’ve been in the Data Processing Department at Command HQ, but just recently I received orders to serve as a staff officer in the fleet stationed at Iserlohn.”
Von Oberstein smiled thinly after his reply. “You seem to be on your guard, Captain.”
At that instant, an embarrassed Kircheis was just about to say something when he caught sight of Reinhard coming into the room. The ceremony was over, it seemed.
“Kircheis, tomorrow …” Reinhard began to say, but then he noticed the pale man standing next to his subordinate.
Von Oberstein saluted and introduced himself, then after brief and conventional words of congratulation, turned and departed.
Reinhard and Kircheis went out into the corridor. Tonight they would be staying in a small guesthouse in an out-of-the-way corner of the palace grounds. It was a fifteen-minute walk through the gardens to get there.
“Kircheis,” Reinhard said as they came out underneath the night sky, “I’m meeting my sister tomorrow. I’m sure you’re coming too?”
“It’s all right for me to come along?”
“Why so reserved at this point? We’re family.” Reinhard smiled like a young boy but then reeled himself back in and lowered his voice just a little. “By the way, who was that man just now? Something about him bothers me a little.”
Kircheis gave a brief overview of the situation and further opined that he was “somehow a mysterious fellow.”
Reinhard’s perfectly formed brows had furrowed slightly as he was listening. “A mysterious fellow indeed,” he agreed. “I don’t know what he has in mind cozying up to you like that, but it would pay to be on your guard. Of course, with as many enemies as we have, being on one’s guard isn’t exactly easy either.”
Both of the men smiled together.
The residence of Countess Annerose von Grünewald was located in another nook of Neue Sans Souci Palace, though visiting it required a ten-minute ride in a flamboyantly decorated landcar used only at court.
For someone like Kircheis, walking would have been easier, but when a landcar was sent round by the Ministry of the Palace Interior as a token of His Imperial Highness’s generosity, there was nothing to do but get in. The mansion they were bound for was by the shore of a lake grown thickly about with lindenbaum trees, built in a simple, clean style of architecture that fit its mistress well.
When he spotted Annerose’s slender, elegant figure standing out on the porch, Reinhard leapt from the still-moving landcar and hurried to her at a trot.
“Annerose! My big sister!”
Annerose greeted her younger brother with a smile that was like sunlight in the spring.
“Reinhard! It’s wonderful you’ve come. And even Sieg is here.”
“The important thing is that you’re looking well, too, Miss Annerose.”
“Thank you. Now come inside, both of you. I’ve been waiting for you for the past few days now.”
Ah, she hasn’t changed a bit since old times, thought Kircheis. That gentle kindness, that unaffected purity … impossible to mar, though all the emperor’s might be brought against it.
“I’ll put on some coffee. Have some kelsey plum cake too. I baked it myself, so I’m not sure if it’ll be to your tastes or not. Try this and tell me.”
“We shall align our tastes to it,” Reinhard answered, laughing. The living room was just the right size, and a relaxed, friendly atmosphere filled its space. The three young people shared equally in the illusion that the spirits of time had moved that room alone back ten years in time.
The clink of coffee cups as they touched one another, the clean tablecloth, the aroma of a slight touch of vanilla essence that was mixed into the kelsey cake … glimpses of a singular joy were reflected in all of these things.
Annerose was wearing a little smile as she sliced and parceled out the cake with deft, fluid movements.
“Every once in a while, someone will tell me the kitchen is no place for a countess, but no matter what they say, I enjoy it so much I just can’t help myself. Though it is a lot of hard work not relying on machines very much.”
The coffee was brewed and the cream poured in. There was homemade cake and conversation without the slightest concern of ulterior motives. For once, their hearts were at ease.
“Reinhard always wants to have his way, Sieg. I can only imagine all the trouble he must put you through.”
“No, not at—”
“You can say what you think.”
“Reinhard, stop teasing him. Oh! I just remembered. I have some delicious vin rosé that Viscountess Schafhausen gave me. It’s in the cellar, so I wonder if I could have you go and get it? Sorry to send His Excellency the Imperial Marshal on errands, though.”
“Now you’re the one teasing me. But yes, milady—whether for errands or whatever else, consider me at your service.”
Reinhard stood and departed, relaxed and at ease.
Annerose and Kircheis stayed behind. Annerose turned her little smile toward her younger brother’s best friend.
“Sieg, thank you for always being there for my brother.”
“It’s nothing at all. I’m the one who’s always being looked out for. Since I’m not an aristocrat, it seems a bit much for me, making captain at my age.”
“You’ll be a rear admiral soon enough. I’ve heard the news. Congratulations.”
“Thank you very much.”
Kircheis’s earlobes started to feel hot.
“My brother never says so, and maybe he doesn’t realize it himself, but Sieg, he really does depend on you. So please, somehow, take good care of him from now on, too.”
“I’m honored … that someone like me—”
“Seig, you should recognize your own talents more. My brother has a talent. Probably a talent that no one else has. But he isn’t as mature as you are. He’s a bit like an antelope that gets so caught up in the speed of his legs that he runs right off a cliff. I’ve known him since he was born, so I can say things like that.”
“Miss Annerose …”
“Please, Sieg, I’m begging you. Watch over Reinhard—don’t let him lose his footing on those cliffs. If you see the signs of it, scold and nag. If the warning comes from you, he’ll listen. The day he stops listening to you is the day my brother is finished. He’ll have proven all by himself that no matter how much raw talent he may have had, he lacked ability to perfect it.”
That little smile had disappeared already from Annerose’s lovely countenance. In her sapphire eyes, a deeper blue than those of her brother, there hovered the shadow of something like sorrow.
An invisible blade glided over Kircheis’s heart. That’s right, things aren’t the same as ten years ago. Reinhard and I aren’t neighborhood boys anymore, and Annerose isn’t that domestic-minded little girl anymore. The emperor’s favored mistress, the imperial marshal, and his top aide. The three of us, standing amid the fragrance and stench of imperial power …
“If it’s within my ability, I’ll do anything, Miss Annerose.”
Somehow, Kircheis’s voice managed to obey the will of its master as he struggled to contain his emotions.
“Please believe in my loyalty toward Reinhard. I will never do anything that would betray your wishes, Miss Annerose.”
“Thank you, Sieg. I’m sorry—I’m always asking too much of you. But other than you, there’s no one I can rely on. Please, find some way to forgive me?”
I want the two of you to rely on me, Kircheis murmured in his heart. Ever since that moment ten years ago when I heard you say, “Please be a good friend to my brother,” it’s what I’ve always wanted …
Ten years ago! Again, Kircheis felt that pain in his heart.
If he had been his present age ten years ago, he would never have handed Annerose over into the emperor’s hands. No matter what the cost, he would have taken those two siblings and fled, probably to the Free Planets Alliance. And by this time, he might even be an officer in the alliance military.
But back then, he hadn’t the ability and had lacked even a clear grasp of his own desires. Now things were different. But ten years or more in the past, there had been nothing he could do. Why couldn’t people be the ages they needed to be at the most important moments in their lives?
“You could’ve put this in an easier place to find.”
Those words announced the return of Reinhard.
“Yes, your hard work is much appreciated. But your efforts in seeking it out bring their own reward. I’ll go get the glasses.”
Times such as these were fleeting, though to have them at all was to be counted a blessing. Kircheis told himself that. The next battle, which would surely be coming, was not something he could allow himself to shrink from.