It was in November of the prior year that Arthur Lynch had been summoned to appear before Reinhard von Lohengramm, supreme commander of the Galactic Imperial Navy. This was shortly after Reinhard had crushed the Free Planets Alliance’s invading military forces in the Amritsar Stellar Region.
Lynch had been living in a correctional block on the empire’s frontier ever since his ignominious capture in the El Facil Stellar Region.
POW internment camps as such did not exist within the Galactic Empire. Rather, captured members of “rebel forces” were—for malicious thoughtcrimes against imperial rule—remanded to facilities such as this one, which sought to instill “correct thinking and morals.”
Within these vast facilities, the inmates somehow managed to grow just enough food to live on. The imperial military kept their borders under surveillance, and every four weeks delivered clothing and medical supplies. They interfered little in these POW colonies. This did not bespeak the generosity of the imperial military so much as it did its shortages of funding and manpower. Despite the fact that a conscription system was in place, human resources were not infinite, and it was a fact that the military’s reach did not extend into every corner of the frontier. The situation was such that whenever these “thought criminals” were kind enough to kill one another in their internal disputes, the military was grateful for the trouble saved.
In the Free Planets Alliance, prisoners from the empire had at first been treated warmly as guests. This had been a sort of psyop, designed to educate them through direct experience about how good a free society could be. After the war had dragged on for a century and a half, however, the FPA could no longer afford to put on airs. Nowadays, those taken captive were treated as something midway between ordinary citizens and prisoners.
Lynch and his old subordinates had been living together in the same colony for some time when word of his ignominious actions at El Facil had spread from the mouths of other soldiers sent to the same correctional block, placing Lynch at the end of cold stares from his fellow inmates.
Unable to defend himself even in the face of the bitterest invective, Lynch had fled to alcohol for escape. He had also learned from newly arrived captives that his wife had had her name stricken from his family register and had returned to her parents’ house with both of the children. As he sank ever deeper into the bottle, he dragged his reputation ever further into the gutter, until even those who had been his direct subordinates had begun to look at him with open hatred and contempt.
Into these circumstances there had appeared a single Imperial Navy destroyer, which had carried him away to the empire’s capital of Odin.
Unlike Yang Wen-li, Reinhard von Lohengramm’s appearance had been exceptionalism distilled.
His age at that time had been twenty, and in his slender figure could be seen an exquisite balance of grace, strength, and courage. His gently curling, brilliantly golden hair was longer than it had been the previous year and was now worn in a style that resembled a lion’s mane. There was not a blemish to be found on his porcelain skin, and there was an exquisite grace to his features. In his person was monopolized all the favor of creation’s goddess. Only the flashes of light in his ice-blue eyes made them too sharp, too intense, to liken to an angel’s—unless perhaps one meant the eyes of the fallen angel Lucifer, who had longed to surpass God himself.
“Rear Admiral Lynch.”
With these words, a single chair had been set out in front of Marquis von Lohengramm’s desk, in which the guards had forced their solitary prisoner to sit. Reinhard had been well aware that his voice lacked warmth, yet he had no intention of starting over for the shameless and detestable wretch who sat before him.
After a moment’s hesitation, Lynch had said to him, “Who’re you?”
“Reinhard von Lohengramm,” he had answered.
Lynch’s reddish, cloudy eyes had snapped open wide. “Seriously? You look awful … young, don’t you? You know El Facil? How many years ago was it? You must’ve been just a kid when that happened … I was a rear admiral …”
To Reinhard’s left, there had stood a tall, redheaded young officer, whose blue eyes had harbored both pity and disgust. “Lord Reinhard, can any man of his ilk really be of use to us?”
“I’ll make him useful, Kircheis. Otherwise, his life is worthless.” The young, golden-haired marshal had turned his eyes toward Lynch with a gaze that pierced him like a sword of ice.
“Listen well, Mister Lynch—I will not repeat myself. I will delegate a certain mission to you, and I expect you to execute it. Should you succeed, I will grant you the rank of rear admiral in the Imperial Navy.”
Lynch’s reaction had come slowly but surely. Flames had seemed to blaze up in the backs of his cloudy, bloodshot eyes, and Lynch had shaken his head repeatedly as if driving away the toxic fog of alcohol that lay upon his brain.
“Rear admiral … ha ha ha … a rear admiral, is it … ?” His tongue had emerged to lick his upper and lower lips. “That doesn’t sound like a bad deal at all. So what do I do?”
“You infiltrate your homeland, enflame discontented elements within their military, and convince them to stage a coup d’état.”
For a long while after, the air had been roiled by the sound of Lynch’s unhinged laughter.
“Heh heh heh, that ain’t gonna happen, man. Something like that … it’s utterly impossible. I mean, you’re sober here, right?”
“It’s possible, and I have the operational plan right here in my hand. Follow it to the letter and you will succeed.”
That dull light had begun to shine again in Lynch’s eyes.
“But … if that plan were to fail, I’d be a dead man. I would be absolutely, positively dead. They’d kill me …”
“Then if it comes to that, die!” Reinhard’s voice had split the air like the crack of a whip. “You think your life is worth anything in your present state? You are a coward. You shamelessly fled like a frightened hare, abandoning both the civilians you were to protect and the men you were to lead. There’s not a man alive who would plead on your behalf. Yet even so, you still cling to life above all else?”
His voice overpowered Lynch’s dulled, alcohol-ravaged spirit, stirring something in the man. The quality and quantity of Lynch’s mental energy was nothing compared to Reinhard’s. As he had sat there, his whole body had begun to tremble, and drops of sweat had even begun to roll off of his body.
“It’s true. I’m a coward,” he had murmured in a weak but distinct voice. “It’s too late now to ever salvage my name. So why not just take it all the way? The cowardice, the shamelessness … ?”
He had lifted up his face. The cloudiness in his eyes had not dispersed, but already there writhed in them flames like those of a smelting furnace.
“All right, I’ll do it. The rear admiralship’s a sure thing, right?”
In that voice had been the faintest trace of the spirit he had possessed more than a decade ago.
After Lynch had departed, Reinhard had looked up at his redheaded friend. “If this succeeds, Yang will be far too busy with domestic concerns to interfere with us here.”
“I agree … and with their domestic peace disrupted, the rebel military as well will abandon any plans they might have made against us.”
“Peace. You know what peace is, Kircheis?” Reinhard’s tongue had dripped acid. “It refers to a blessed age when incompetence is not held to be the greatest vice. Just look at those aristocrats.”
The empire was, on its surface, in an ongoing state of war with the Free Planets Alliance, yet in the midst of all that, those who held rank within the aristocracy were alone enjoying “peace within the fortress walls.” While in the blackest void thousands of light-years away wounded soldiers fell trembling with the fear of death, decadent balls were being held under the crystal chandeliers of the royal palace—with the finest champagne, with roast venison steeped in red wine, with chocolate bavarois … There were Persian cats of purest white, blue pearl hairpins, amber wall ornaments, vases of white porcelain handed down through the centuries, black sable furs, long dresses adorned with splashes of countless gemstones, stained glass windows rich in color and light …
Is this … this tragically absurd disparity the true reality?
That was what a boy with ice-blue eyes had thought the first time he had appeared at a ball.
Yes, he had thought. This is reality.
So reality must be changed.
Those thoughts had developed quickly into firm conviction, and ever since, ballrooms and parties had to him been places for observing the enemies whom he must someday destroy. After many a night of such observations, Reinhard had arrived at a conclusion: there was no one he need fear among these highborn in their showy costumes.
That opinion he had revealed to Kircheis and no other.
“I don’t believe we need fear any noble, either,” Kircheis had replied. It was around this time that Kircheis began to assume a more humble demeanor toward Reinhard. “But we should be wary of the nobility.”
At those words, Reinhard had stared at his friend in surprise.
The unified will of a group—even when it amounted to nothing more than a collection of personal grudges against a common foe—was nothing to take lightly. While crossing swords with the enemy in front of you, someone else just might stick a dagger in your back.
“Oh,” Reinhard had said. “In that case, I’ll be on my guard.”
That sharp-edged part of his soul—which like the blade of a narrow sword was too sharp for its own good—was kept sheathed and restrained by his dear friend.
One other had long smoothed his sharper edges and cooled the raging emotions inside him: his elder sister by five years, Annerose.
Locked away at age fifteen in the inner palace of prior emperor Freidrich IV, she had seemed at that time to have relinquished all future prospects of her own. Dubbed Gräfin—or Countess—von Grünewald by the emperor, she had taken Reinhard in from the unstable husk of their father and provided backing and support for Kircheis, the boy who was like a brother to him, becoming primary benefactress to them both.
Now her former dependents, having greatly surpassed her in stature, wore titles of admiralty and went racing through the war zones of the galaxy. Yet whenever they appeared before her, the pair could revert in no time at all to the days of their boyhood—to those bright, shining days of long ago, suffused with sweet, clear light.
Ever since previous emperor Friedrich IV’s utterly disarrayed life had come to a sudden end, the Galactic Empire’s governing authorities had been visited by the political equivalent of intermittent geological upheavals.
First, the five-year-old child Erwin Josef had become the new emperor. Although he was the grandchild of the late Friedrich IV, his succession had invited the anger and jealousy of two highborn aristocrats—Duke Otto von Braunschweig and Marquis Wilhem von Littenheim. Both were married to daughters of the late Friedrich IV, and their wives had both given birth to daughters of their own. These men harbored ambitions of making their own daughters empress and of ruling the empire themselves as regent.
With the crumbling of those ambitions, they had joined hands against their common enemies and vowed revenge. Those enemies were the child emperor Erwin Josef II and the two powerful vassals who supported him—the seventy-six-year-old acting imperial prime minister, Duke Klaus Lichtenlade, and a twenty-year-old marquis named Reinhard von Lohengramm.
In this way, the splitting of the Galactic Empire’s ruling class into two factions became unavoidable. There was the emperor’s faction, the Lichtenlade-Lohengramm axis, and the anti-emperor faction, the Braunschweig-Littenheim confederation.
Many concerned for the empire’s future, or for their own personal security, sought to remain neutral, but the worsening tensions would not allow them to just sit on the sidelines indefinitely.
Which side should I ally myself with if I want to live? Which side is the right one to follow as a subject of the empire, and has a chance of winning? In these matters, their judgment and insight came to be tested.
Emotions leaned from the start toward von Braunschweig and von Littenheim, but it was widely known that Reinhard was a military genius. Unable to easily decide, they were caught in the vale between their hearts and their heads, desperately trying to guess which way the winds would blow.
“The nobles are all running about like mice, racking their brains over which side will be more advantageous to align with. It’s made for great comedy of late.”
The one to whom Reinhard made that remark one day was the Imperial Space Armada chief of staff, Vice Admiral Paul von Oberstein.
“Unless it comes to a happy ending, it can’t really be called comedy.”
Von Oberstein was a man utterly devoid of frivolity, so he was widely believed to lack a sense of humor altogether. Although still in his midthirties, half his hair had already gone white, and cold light brimmed in his artificial eyes, which housed internal photon computers. His lips were thin and tightly drawn, and his facial expressions contained nothing whatsoever that could be called endearing. The man himself also feigned ignorance of his reputation, no matter what might be said of him.
“In any case, Your Excellency should remain patient while watching your enemies squirm, of course.”
“Certainly. I’ll take my own good time.”
Reinhard, of course, wasn’t just passively waiting. Employing a host of clever tactics, he had incited the highborn nobles to blind wrath while they still hadn’t a prayer of victory. Their hysterical explosions of outrage were exactly what Reinhard wanted. Their own plots against him he swatted aside with the purehearted passion of a young boy chasing beautiful butterflies.
“There’s really no need to drive the nobles into a corner,” Reinhard said, as his supple fingertips toyed with his friend’s red hair. “It’s enough just to make them think they’re going to be cornered.”
In point of fact, the wealth and military power of the nobility would have far outstripped that of Reinhard alone had they stood united against him. Nevertheless, the responses of those harried nobles—At this rate, we’ll be destroyed! We’ve got to fight back somehow!—were lacking in reason and seemed to Reinhard simply absurd.
Reinhard’s mind was no longer that of a boy, but something of boyhood yet remained in his heart. Those who opposed him he hated with earnest, yet whenever he noticed some unique quality in the words or deeds of his opponents—even if it were a quality that could hardly be called attractive—it would arouse in him a certain curiosity. At present, however, he could see no such qualities among the aristocrats, and in that, he felt just slightly disappointed.
Count Franz von Mariendorf, a mild-mannered and conscientious man, enjoyed the confidence of not only the aristocrats but his own people as well.
Undecided as to how best to deal with present circumstances, he was feeling every day like holding his head in his hands. He wanted to maintain neutrality if at all possible, but was that going to be an option?
It was on one such day that his eldest daughter Hilda made a brief return home from university on Odin.
Hilda—the count’s daughter Hildegard von Mariendorf—had only just turned twenty.
Her darkly shaded blond hair was cut short for ease of movement. There was a hard sort of beauty to her features, yet she didn’t give a cold or harsh impression, a fact likely due to the lively sparkle in her blue-green eyes. Those eyes were practically bursting with life and vibrant intellect, giving more the impression of an adventurous young boy.
An old man with shiny pink cheeks met her in the mansion’s hall and bent his corpulent body forward in a bow.
“Milady, it’s so good to see that you’re well.”
“You’re looking well yourself, Hans. Where’s father?”
“He’s in the sunroom. Shall I go and tell him you’re here?”
“No need—I’ll go myself. Oh, can you bring coffee, please?”
Aside from a pink scarf tied around her collar, the count’s daughter was attired no differently from a man, and she walked through the hallway with a rhythmic step.
A pair of sofas had been placed by the wide sunroom’s window, and there in the sunlight, Count von Mariendorf sat with his back hunched forward, lost in thought. Looking up at the sound of his daughter’s voice, he forced a smile and beckoned her near.
“What were you thinking of just now, Father?”
“Oh, ah, nothing of any great import.”
“That’s reassuring—to say the fate of the Galactic Empire and the future of House Mariendorf are of no great import.”
Count Franz von Mariendorf gave a great involuntary shudder.
His face went rigid, and he looked toward his daughter. With an expression that was impish—but not merely impish—Hilda returned her father’s gaze.
Hans the butler came round with a coffee set on a silver tray. A long silence stretched out until he withdrew; it was the daughter who broke it.
“So then, have you decided what you’re going to do, Father?”
“I am hoping to remain neutral. However, should I be left with no choice but to take one side or the other, I will support von Braunschweig. As a nobleman of the empire, that is my—”
With a sharp cry and a harsh look, the daughter had cut off her father’s words.
Hilda’s father stared in surprise at his daughter. Her blue-green eyes shone intensely. They harbored a strange beauty, like flames that danced within jewels.
“There is a fact from which most of the aristocracy is averting its eyes. It is that as surely as every human born will someday die, death comes for nations as well. There hasn’t been a single nation to escape ultimate destruction since civilization first emerged on an itty-bitty planet called Earth. How can the Galactic Empire—the Goldenbaum Dynasty—alone be an exception to that?”
“Hilda! Stop it, Hilda!”
“The Goldenbaum Dynasty survived nearly five hundred years,” said the count’s bold daughter. “They ruled the entire human race for more than two hundred of those years, doing whatever they pleased with their wealth and power. They killed people, they stole the daughters of other houses, they created laws for their own convenience …”
She was all but pounding the table in her fervor.
“They’ve done however they pleased for so long. If the curtain were to finally fall, who could you blame? Then again, it’s only natural to be grateful for five hundred years of continued prosperity. But even the laws of nature say that it can’t go on forever.”
It was a lambasting worthy of a revolutionary, and her mild-mannered father was at first left speechless. At last, however, he gathered up spirit enough for a counterattack.
“Even so, Hilda, that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to throw in with Marquis von Lohengramm.”
“Oh, but there is a reason.”
“What kind of reason?” His voice was filled with doubt when he asked that question, and at the same time contained a hint of pleading.
“There are four reasons. Will you hear me out?”
Her father nodded. His daughter’s explanation was as follows:
First: Marquis von Lohengramm had sided with the new emperor, and by order of that emperor, had just cause to subdue those who opposed him. Compared with that, the Braunschweig-Littenheim camp was preparing to wage nothing more than a private war of naked ambition.
Second: The military power of Duke von Braunschweig and the others was great, and sooner or later most of the aristocrats would consolidate behind it. Therefore, even if House Mariendorf participated, it would not be viewed as a particularly important ally and would receive no special treatment. The Lohengramm camp, on the other hand, was the weaker force, and if House Mariendorf aligned with it, its forces would not only be strengthened, there would also be a political impact—which meant it was certain that House Mariendorf would receive a warm welcome.
Third: Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim were only joining forces for the time being; they lacked the will to cooperate over the long term. Most importantly, the chain of command in their military forces was not unified, and that could be fatal. On the other hand, the Lohengramm camp was operating with both purpose and a unified command structure. Regardless of what might happen en route to the finale, it was self-evident who would come out on top in the end.
Fourth: Neither Reinhard von Lohengramm nor any of his chief subordinates were of highborn lineage, and he was thus very popular among the common class. It was impossible to fight a war with only officers, and the ordinary soldiers of both camps were all commoners. Among the rank-and-file soldiers of the Duke von Braunschweig camp, riots and mutinies had broken out as a result of accumulated hostility toward officers of high birth. There was even the danger of collapse from within …
“What do you think, Father?”
After Hilda had thus concluded, Count von Mariendorf remained silent, simply wiping his brow. He couldn’t argue with his daughter’s logic.
“I believe House Mariendorf should align with the winner—that is to say, with Marquis von Lohengramm. As proof of our loyalty, we should also offer him land and a hostage.”
“Land is not a problem—by all means, give him some. But I won’t furnish hostages. That’s out of the—”
“Not even if the hostage wishes it?”
“But who would ever—”
In midsentence, a fearful look appeared on Count von Mariendorf’s face. “No, not you …”
“Yes. I’ll go.”
“Hilda!” her father gasped, but she just kept calmly adding sugar and cream to her coffee. She was confident her body was not predisposed toward weight gain.
“I’m grateful to you, Father. You brought me into the world on the eve of some very interesting times.”
Count von Mariendorf looked on in stunned silence.
“I can’t propel history by myself, but I can observe with my own eyes how history moves and how the people caught up in it live and die.”
After drinking her coffee, Hilda stood and hugged her father’s head, rubbing her cheek against his brown, lusterless hair.
“Don’t worry about me, Father. Come what may, I’m going to protect House Mariendorf. No matter what I have to do.”
“Then I leave it in your hands.” Calm was starting to return to the elder von Mariendorf’s voice. “Whatever the end result, I’ll have no regrets. But you need not sacrifice yourself for the sake of House Mariendorf. Instead, think on how you can use House Mariendorf as a tool, to open up a path for your own survival. Will you do that?”
“Take good care of yourself.”
She tilted her head and kissed her father’s brow. Then, like a butterfly, she turned and left the sunroom.
After a six-day journey, Hilda arrived on Odin. Or, from her perspective, she returned. She had been living on Odin for a full four years now.
Hilda took a robocar from the spaceport to the Lohengramm admiralität. Perhaps because she was in such elevated spirits, she felt no fatigue whatsoever. In any case, once this was over she could rest as much as she pleased.
“Do you have an appointment, fraülein?” asked the boyish-looking young officer at the window. He wore a name tag that read Lieutenant von Rücke.
“I’m afraid I don’t. But this concerns the lives and the hopes of a great many people. I’m certain that His Excellency the marshal will consent to see me, so could I please ask you to announce me?”
At the sight of the beautiful young woman’s earnest expression—about 30 percent of which was an act—Lieutenant von Rücke seemed overcome with chivalrous spirit. He had her wait briefly in the lobby, but after making several calls, he at last beamed at her, as though he were the one whose request had been granted.
“He says that he’ll see you. Please take elevator 4 up to the tenth floor.”
“Thank you very much. I’m sorry to have put you to such trouble,” Hilda said with complete sincerity, and boarded an elevator that doubled as a weapons detection system.
That day, Reinhard was awaiting the arrival of a particular report, but it didn’t seem to be forthcoming, and he took interest at the news that a lovely young woman was here to see him. For Reinhard, of course, beautiful women were not to be prized too highly. Even so, the sight of Hilda’s beauty—raw and natural, no noticeable makeup—left him just a little impressed at how unlike an aristocrat’s daughter she appeared.
“It’s a pity Kircheis isn’t with us today,” Reinhard said once they were seated in the reception room. “Did you know he has a bit of a history with the von Mariendorfs?”
“Yes, of course. He saved my father’s life during the Kastropf Rebellion last year. I’ve never met him in person, though.”
After a moment’s silence, Reinhard said, “So then, you say you have business with me today?”
Coffee was brought in by a young boy who looked like a cadet from a military preparatory school. Reinhard was picking up the jar of cream when Hilda spoke.
“On the occasion of the coming civil war, House Mariendorf will side with you, Marquis von Lohengramm.”
For a split second, Reinhard’s hand froze, but then he completed the operation in a series of offhanded motions.
“Civil war, you say?”
“The one against Duke von Braunschweig, which could break out tomorrow for all we know.”
“You’re a bold one, aren’t you? Supposing such a thing were to happen, my victory would hardly be assured. Yet even so, you say you’d support me?”
Hilda steadied her breathing and related to the young imperial marshal the points she had explained to her father. Reinhard’s ice-blue eyes shone.
“You have remarkable insight,” he said. “Very well. If that’s how things stand, I could use an ally. Your consideration will certainly be rewarded. I promise to take good care of House Mariendorf—naturally—as well as any other houses with whom you might put in a word for me.”
“Your generous words will make it easier to persuade our acquaintances and relations—as well as ourselves, milord.”
“What’s that? You’ve only just become my ally. I couldn’t possibly treat you with discourtesy. Repaying your efforts and courage is only the natural thing to do. If there’s any way I can be of assistance to you, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“In that case, then, if I may avail myself of your kind words, I do have one request.”
“Certainly,” said Reinhard. “Go ahead.”
“In recognition of our loyalty … I would like an official document of guaranty, recognizing House Mariendorf and guaranteeing its lands and titles.”
“Oh? An official document?”
A certain wariness had crept into Reinhard’s tone. He looked at Hilda with a gaze slightly different from the one he had regarded her with up until now. Count von Mariendorf’s daughter gazed fearlessly back at the young lord.
Reinhard thought it over for a moment, but it didn’t take him long to reach a decision.
“Very well. I’ll put it in writing and get it to you by the end of the day.”
“You have my utmost gratitude.” Respectfully, Hilda bowed her head. “House Mariendorf swears to Your Excellency our absolute loyalty and shall endeavor to be of service to you in matters great and small.”
“I’ll be counting on you, then. And Fraülein von Mariendorf?”
“Will such documents of guaranty be necessary for any other houses you may persuade to join us?”
“I would ask that you give them to those who request them of their own accord. For those who do not, I see no need.”
Hilda’s words rolled off her tongue without the slightest hesitation.
“Well, well …” Reinhard said, smiling.
Reinhard’s intention was to thoroughly purge the empire of the old system that served as the Goldenbaum Dynasty’s support structure. For five centuries now, the aristocrats had engorged themselves on privilege, and Reinhard had no intention whatsoever of allowing them to survive into the new regime.
Once his power was absolute, he intended to eliminate all but the most useful of them, or cast them to the multitudes, perhaps, should the people cry out for blood. Let them perish who lack the ability to survive—that had been the belief of Rudolf, whom their ancestors had served. And now on the present generation would the sins of the fathers be visited.
Hilda had seen what was coming and had come to Reinhard seeking an official guaranty written in his own hand. Unlike a spoken promise, one that was set in writing could not easily be broken. Not only would doing so leave a blemish on Reinhard’s honor, it would invite distrust of his own system of authority.
Having taken such a measure on her own family’s behalf, Hilda was saying, “As for the other aristocrats, slay and spare, bestow and confiscate at your own good pleasure.” She wasn’t speaking from a merely self-centered position, though—saying, “If it’s well with me and mine, then to blazes with the rest”—she was in effect declaring that she would not align laterally with the old aristocratic families.
The young lady’s political and diplomatic instincts were incisive—frighteningly so.
From among the empire’s thousands of aristocratic families, a praiseworthy talent had at last appeared—at the tender age of twenty, and a woman, no less. Of course, Reinhard himself was only one year older than she.
It’s a sign of the times, Reinhard thought. The era of rule by the aged was coming to an end. And not just in the empire. In the Free Planets Alliance, Admiral Yang had only just turned thirty, while Landesherr Rubinsky of Phezzan was still in his forties.
Even so, this young woman …
Reinhard stared at Hilda again and started to say something.
Just then, however, there was a commotion outside the door that he barely had time to register before a high-ranking officer burst inside, face flushed with excitement. His hulking frame was so large that he could block the entrance all by himself.
“Excellency! The malcontent nobles have finally started to move!”
His loud voice was a match for his build.
Karl Gustav Kempf, one of the admirals attached to Reinhard’s admiralität as well as a former ace fighter pilot, was well-known these days as a daring and fearless commanding officer.
Reinhard rose to his feet. This was the news he had been waiting for. Hilda’s eyes opened wide in spite of herself—his movements had been startlingly lithe and graceful.
“Fraülein von Mariendorf, I’ve enjoyed the chance to make your acquaintance today. I’d like to have dinner with you sometime.”
As Kempf was following Reinhard out of the room, he seemed for just an instant to turn a curious glance toward Hilda.
The nobles opposing the Lohengramm-Lichtenlade axis had gathered on Odin at Duke von Braunschweig’s villa in Lippstadt Forest. Officially, they had come to attend an auction of paintings by ancient masters, with a garden party to follow. In an underground hall, however, signatures had been collected in a “Roll of Patriots” opposing the tyranny of Marquis von Lohengramm and Duke Lichtenlade.
This was referred to generally as the Lippstadt Agreement, and the aristocratic military organization to which it gave birth was called the Lippstadt Coalition of Lords.
In total, 3,740 nobles participated. The combined strength of their regular and private armies numbered 25,600,000.
The coalition leader was Duke Otto von Braunschweig. The vice coalition leader was Marquis Wilhelm von Littenheim.
The roll that contained nearly four thousand aristocratic names also leveled blistering criticism at Duke Lichtenlade and Marquis von Lohengramm, and in grand and exalted language declared that the sacred duty of protecting the Goldenbaum Dynasty had been given to “the chosen ones” of the traditional aristocratic class.
“The divine patronage of great Lord Odin is upon us all, and of righteousness’s triumph there can be no doubt.”
Those were the words with which the statement was concluded.
After listening to Kempf’s report, Reinhard uttered those words with a heaping spoonful of sarcasm and looked around at the faces of subordinates who had gathered in the meeting room.
Siegfried Kircheis was present. Von Oberstein was present. The other admirals in attendance as well were all talented commanders, the cream of the armed forces’ crop.
“If they go crying to the gods for help at the outset, even Lord Odin will curl his lip in disgust. It might be different if they offered him a beautiful virgin sacrifice, but knowing Duke von Braunschweig, he might just take her for himself.”
Mittermeier, von Reuentahl, and Wittenfeld raised their voices in laughter.
Wolfgang Mittermeier’s build was a little on the small side, but with his firm, well-proportioned physique, he certainly looked sharp and agile. He had tousled blond hair the color of honey, and lively gray eyes. When it came to high-speed tactical maneuvers, he had no peer. At the Battle of Amritsar last year, he had pursued an enemy fleet that had taken flight and moved so swiftly that his own fleet’s vanguard had gotten mixed up in the tail of the fleeing enemy formation. Since that time, he had been honored with a nickname: Wolf der Sturm—“the Gale Wolf.”
Oskar von Reuentahl was a tall man, with brown hair so dark it was nearly black. He was quite handsome, but what always took people aback was his eyes. Thanks to a genetic fluke called heterochromia, his right eye was brown, and his left eye was blue. He had performed many daring feats, both at Amritsar and in other battles besides, and was highly regarded for his skill as an operations commander.
Fritz Josef Wittenfeld had somewhat longer reddish-orange hair and pale brown eyes. Some likely felt that something was slightly off in the contrast of his narrow face and powerful build. As a tactician, he was a bit lacking in flexibility, which had worked to the detriment of his comrades at Amritsar.
In addition to these, Reinhard’s top executives included Admirals Kornelias Lutz, August Samuel Wahlen, Ernest Mecklinger, Neidhart Müller, and Ulrich Kessler. Each was unique in his own way, and all of them were young. Together, they formed Reinhard’s most prized asset.
Speaking of assets, there were whispers lately of an impending financial crisis due to the prolonged war and the chaos at court. But when Reinhard said, “The fiscal crisis will be resolved in one fell swoop,” he wasn’t simply shooting off his mouth irresponsibly. The imperial family’s assets aside, there remained a vast source of untapped revenue: the assets of the nobles.
Naturally, he would confiscate every last thing that Duke von Braunschweig and Marquis von Littenheim owned; nor would he spare those who had joined themselves to their cause. And once he applied a regime of inheritance taxes, fixed asset taxes, and progressive taxation to those nobles who remained, the treasury would overflow with monies easily exceeding ten trillion reichsmark. The trial calculations had been completed already.
There would be a political necessity for gentler treatment of those nobles who sided with him, so from that perspective, the more nobles who made him their enemy, the better.
Squeezing the nobles dry would do more than simply meet the empire’s fiscal necessities. The common class had amassed a five-century store of anger and hostility toward those who lived immersed in extravagant lifestyles and held vast fortunes on which they paid no taxes.
Reinhard had to calm that anger, and he had to use it as well.
Certainly, he had a desire to reform politics and society. But for Reinhard, that had to come with the side benefit of the Goldenbaum Dynasty’s overthrow. This would all be for nothing if political and societal reform breathed new life into the Goldenbaum Dynasty.
The Goldenbaum Dynasty that Rudolf founded must end in bloodshed and devouring flames of judgment. That was the sacred oath he had taken as a young boy, the day his beloved sister Annerose had been stolen away by a hideous old ruler. It was also a vow that Siegfried Kircheis shared.