If one sacred guiding principle could be said to reside in every heart, then for Siegfried Kircheis’s heart, the principle surely embodied in it took the form of the words a beautiful young girl had spoken eleven years ago:
“Sieg, please be a good friend to my brother.”
The redheaded boy had felt so proud to have Annerose, fifteen at the time, speak to him like that. Kircheis had almost never had trouble getting to sleep at night, but just that once, he had tossed and turned late for hours and, somewhere in the darkness, had made a private vow to become a loyal knight to those siblings.
Reinhard, with his golden curls and ivory complexion, had been a beautiful boy—like an angel whose wings were hidden. If he had only been nicer to people, he would have certainly been popular with the children his own age. Ill-suited to his looks, however, was the insolent, aggressive attitude he carried around, and in no time at all, Reinhard had managed to make a large number of enemies. Before long, it was never certain he could even walk down the street unless Kircheis, who had influence and popularity among the boys in the city, walked by his side.
There was one boy, a year older than Reinhard and Kircheis, who was taller and stronger than the other kids in the neighborhood. Only Kircheis—a natural brawler—could outfight him one-on-one, and one day when Kircheis was not around, that boy caught Reinhard in the park and endeavored to teach him a lesson. Maybe he was trying to break the handsome boy’s spirit and make him his stooge.
As the boy unleashed a cascade of threats and epithets, Reinhard stared at his face with eyes like frozen gemstones—and suddenly delivered a kick to the boy’s crotch. As the boy fell forward, Reinhard grabbed a rock and struck him with it mercilessly. Even when his opponent was covered in blood, screaming for help, and no longer even thinking about fighting, Reinhard didn’t stop. Another boy ran and told Kircheis what was happening; Kircheis came running right away and finally pulled Reinhard off of the bully.
Reinhard didn’t suffer a single scratch. He acted as if nothing at all had happened and showed not a trace of remorse. It was only when Kircheis pointed out the blood on his clothes that Reinhard suddenly lost his composure. He would get in trouble if Annerose found out. Although his sister wasn’t the type to scold her brother harshly, she would look at him with such a sense of disappointment at times like this. Nothing else worked on Reinhard the way that look did.
The two boys held an impromptu strategy session, and, after talking it over, leapt into the park’s fountain with their clothes still on. That would rinse the blood from Reinhard’s clothing—it would be much easier to tell Annerose they had fallen in the fountain than to try to explain that terrible fight.
When Kircheis thought about it, he realized there had been no need at all to get soaking wet himself. Yet even so, it felt so comfortable that evening—wrapped up with Reinhard in the same blanket, drinking hot chocolate that Annerose had made for them, listening to the von Müsels’ secondhand laundrobot loudly asserting its right to exist in the background.
What worried Kircheis was what would happen if the victim told his parents about what Reinhard had done to him. Nothing ever came of it, though. The boy in question was always finding ways to show off how strong he was, and evidently his pride wouldn’t allow him to get his parents involved. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to take revenge, though, so from that point forward, Kircheis hardly left Reinhard’s side. If the boy brought his lackeys, they would be more than Reinhard could handle alone. In the end, however, even that worry proved to have been baseless. Although Reinhard alone might make a tempting target, none of those ruffians were so foolish as to make Kircheis their enemy as well.
Not long after, Annerose was taken away to the inner court of Emperor Friedrich IV. Reinhard entered military school, then later came back to bring Kircheis along. That had been the end of the old days.
Since that time, Reinhard had run straight up the staircase of ambition, dragging his redheaded friend along just one step behind.
Kircheis had reciprocated. Those golden-haired siblings were his home, his very life. In that, he felt the joy of deep satisfaction. After all, who else was there who could have followed in Reinhard’s footsteps when he was all but leaping across the sky?
“Excellent work, Kircheis,” Reinhard said, greeting him with an incandescent smile upon his return from the frontier.
Commanding a powerful secondary force, Kircheis had been fighting isolated battles all over the empire, executing his mission so flawlessly that Reinhard himself almost seemed to have been in two places at once. Marquis von Littenheim, second in command of the aristocrats’ confederated military, was now nothing but space dust, and Kircheis had incorporated those brigand forces that had been willing to surrender into his own fleet. Once he had put down the last of the frontier rebellions, he had made for Gaiesburg Fortress to rendezvous with Reinhard’s main fleet.
“Admiral Kircheis’s accomplishments are simply too marvelous.”
In Reinhard’s command center, such whispers had lately become commonplace. They were words of praise—but at the same time words of envy, and even of caution.
One important reason Reinhard had been able to focus on fighting Duke von Braunschweig’s main fleet was that Kircheis had conquered and stabilized all the surrounding regions. That fact was acknowledged by all, and Reinhard himself was even saying so to others. After all, Reinhard knew that no matter how great Kircheis’s accomplishments might be, they were all made on his behalf.
“You must be exhausted. Come, sit down. I have wine and coffee—what will it be? I wish I had some of Annerose’s apfeltorte to offer, but we can’t be picky on the front lines. Consider it something to look forward to when we return.”
“Lord Reinhard, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Though Kircheis appreciated Reinhard’s warm welcome, he couldn’t wait another moment to have a report confirmed or denied.
“What is it?”
“It’s about the twenty million people who were slaughtered on Westerland.”
“What about them?”
For just an instant, a shade of irritation flitted across Reinhard’s handsome face. Kircheis didn’t miss it. He felt something cold dripping on his heart.
“Lord Reinhard, I’ve received a report from someone who claims you knew about the plan to attack Westerland and, for reasons of political expediency, allowed it to happen.”
Reinhard said nothing.
“Is that true?”
“… It is.” Annerose and Kircheis were the only two people that Reinhard had never been able to lie to.
Kircheis’s gaze grew deadly serious—angry, even—and it was plain to see he wasn’t going to let go of this. He breathed out a sigh that put his whole body in motion.
“Lord Reinhard, under the empire as it is today … under the Goldenbaum Dynasty … it is impossible for true justice to exist. That was why I believed it would mean something if you supplanted it.”
“I don’t need to hear this from you.”
Reinhard knew he was at a disadvantage. Maybe he shouldn’t have this discussion with Kircheis. Facing Kircheis alone, he would slip back into boyhood days—back to days when they were equals. Usually, that was what Reinhard wanted—it was second nature to him. Yet now, it was a vertical relationship he craved—one where he could simply dismiss a subordinate by barking out an order. It was, of course, shame over the Westerland massacre that was making him want that.
“The boyar nobility is going to be destroyed. That’s a historical inevitability—the settling of a five hundred–year debt—so I understand that bloodshed is unavoidable. But you must not sacrifice the people. Your new system is to be built on the foundation of a freed people. If you sacrifice them for political ends, you’re undermining the very ground you’ll have to stand on.”
“I know that!”
Reinhard drained his wineglass in a single swallow and scowled at his red-haired friend.
Kircheis’s voice carried a slight ring of anger and a great peal of sadness.
“The power struggle that’s playing out between you and the highborn is one fought on equal footing. You can use any tactic you like and feel no regrets. But when you sacrifice the people, it stains your hands with blood that no amount of flowery words or rhetoric can wash away. Why would someone of your stature lower himself to that, for just a temporary benefit?”
The face of the golden-haired youth had turned a sickly pale by this point. Kircheis was right; he was wrong, and facing defeat. That realization, absurdly, gave birth to all the more intense resistance. He glared at his red-haired friend with eyes like those of some rebellious child.
“Enough of your sermonizing!” Reinhard shouted. He felt shame at that moment, and trying to wipe it away made him all the more furious. “In the first place, Kircheis, when did I request your opinion?”
Kircheis said nothing.
“I’m asking you: when did I request your opinion?”
“You did not.”
“That’s right. You may share your opinions when I ask for them. What’s done is done. Don’t speak of it again.”
“Lord Reinhard, the nobles have done something they never should have done, but you … you’ve failed to do something you should have. I wonder whose sin is greater.”
“What are you to me?” The pale face and ferocious glare bespoke Reinhard’s fury. Kircheis had struck right where it hurt the most. To keep Kircheis from realizing it, Reinhard had to make a show of even greater anger.
Since it had come to that, Kircheis, too, had no choice but to push back. “I am Your Excellency’s loyal underling, Marquis von Lohengramm.”
With that question, and with that answer, both men felt something invisible, something precious, cracking without a sound.
“Good. So you do understand,” Reinhard said, pretending not to notice. “There are rooms prepared for you. Go and rest there until I have orders for you.”
Kircheis bowed silently and left the room.
The truth was that Reinhard did know what he should do. He should go to Kircheis and apologize for what he had done. He should say, “It was only this once. I’ll never do anything like this again.” There was no need to say that with others looking on; just the two of them would be fine. That alone would melt away all the ill feelings. That alone …
But that was the one thing Reinhard simply could not do.
Reinhard was also thinking that Kircheis should understand how he felt. Unconsciously, he was depending on Kircheis’s support.
How many times had the two of them quarreled as boys? Reinhard had always been the cause; Kircheis had always been the one to smile and forgive him.
But would things go that way this time as well? Unusually for him, Reinhard was not feeling confident.
Gaiesburg Fortress, that man-made island in the heavens, was isolated and under siege.
The people inside could hardly believe what was happening. Had not several thousand nobles come here with their military forces just half a year ago? Had the air not buzzed with energy and activity as though the imperial capital itself had been relocated here? At present, the ongoing cascade of citizens’ uprisings, troop desertions, and military defeats was about to turn it into a gargantuan necropolis for aristocrats.
“Why did this happen?” the aristocrats asked one another, dumbstruck. “What happens now? What does Duke von Braunschweig think?”
“He hasn’t said a word. It’s not clear he thinks anything at all.”
Von Braunschweig had suffered a severe loss of authority and the confidence placed in him by others. Numerous faults that had previously either gone unnoticed or been considered petty enough to ignore were now amplified in people’s minds. Bad decision making, poor insight, lack of leadership ability. Any one of these was more than enough to warrant criticism.
Of course, those who berated von Braunschweig too much were simultaneously berating themselves by extension, since it was they who had made him their leader and they who had jumped into a civil war under his direction. Ultimately, the aristocrats had to stop blaming their leader, curse themselves for the decisions they had made, and from their dwindling set of options select the smallest disaster they could.
Death in battle. Suicide. Flight. Surrender.
Out of these four, which should they choose?
Those who decided on either of the first two had the least to worry about. They were all preparing in their individual ways for courageous but futile deaths. It was those who had decided to choose life who were launching out into great seas of doubt.
“Even if we announce our surrender,” someone said, “will the golden brat—will Marquis von Lohengramm—accept it? We’re in completely uncharted waters now.”
“You’re right,” said another. “It’s doubtful he will if we go to him empty-handed. But if we bring him a gift …”
“I mean von Braunschweig’s head.”
The speakers fell silent, and their eyes darted all around. Their guilty consciences naturally had them half-expecting to find guards listening nearby.
Already, the suicides were beginning. The first were the elderly aristocrats and those who had already lost their sons in this civil war. Some of them simply gave up on everything and drank poison, while others did as the ancient Romans and slit their wrists while spewing hatred and epithets against Reinhard.
With each new suicide, the survivors’ feeling of being in free fall intensified.
Duke von Braunschweig was drowning in liquor. Though he had no way of knowing it, this was remarkably similar to how Marquis von Littenheim had spent his final day. Duke von Braunschweig had stirred up his fighting spirit, however, shouting that he would kill “that upstart golden brat and make a goblet from his skull.” Sensible people frowned worriedly and grew all the more pessimistic about where this all was headed.
It was the young aristocrats, Baron Flegel chief among them, who had still not given up on fighting their way out of this. In particular, one segment of this group remained outrageously optimistic.
“All we need to do is fight one battle and take the golden brat’s head,” Flegel argued. “Do that, and we change history—and at the same time make amends for all our past defeats. We have to take the battle to them one last time. There’s no other way.”
With these words, Baron Flegel persuaded Duke von Braunschweig over drinks, then set about having their remaining vessels repaired and readied for a decisive charge that would breathe new life into the aristocracy.
When Reinhard saw the first of the secured messages delivered to him on his flagship, the young imperial marshal smiled just a little.
“Oh? A letter from Fräulein von Mariendorf?”
Hilda—Hildegard von Mariendorf. Reinhard recalled with pleasure the sparkle of her eyes, rich with intellect and life. After placing the chip in the player, he was addressed by the crisp, clear image of Count von Mariendorf’s daughter.
Hilda’s letter, or most of it anyway, concerned the activity or lack thereof of various pro-Reinhard nobles and bureaucrats on Odin. It was not unlike a report document in that regard. What caught Reinhard’s attention, however, was the part where she spoke of Duke Lichtenlade, the acting imperial prime minister.
“His Excellency is conducting a review of the government as a whole right now. At the same time, he’s been very busy running back and forth between aristocrats in the capital. It would appear he has some grand scheme in mind.”
There was a hint of sarcasm to Hilda’s words—to the tilt of her smile—and there was also something deadly serious there as well. She was sending Reinhard a warning.
“That old fox,” Reinhard muttered. “It sounds like he’s getting ready to stab me in the back.”
Reinhard smiled coldly as the face of that seventy-six-year-old elder statesman appeared in the back of his mind: the harsh gaze, the sharply pointed nose, the hair like new-fallen snow. Reinhard had readied plans of his own for the scheming minister, though now those might need to be accelerated. The old man had both the emperor and the imperial seal under his thumb. A scrap of paper was all he would need to legally rob Reinhard of his position.
Reinhard shuffled through the rest of his letters, ignoring the second through the sixth and at last selecting the seventh. It was from his sister Annerose.
After asking about his health and offering words of concern and admonition, Annerose ended her letter in this way:
“Please don’t ever forget what’s most important for you. Sometimes you might think it’s a bother, but it’s much better to recognize and appreciate something while you still have it than live with regrets when it’s gone. Talk everything over with Sieg, and listen to what he tells you. Anyway, that’s all for now. I’m looking forward to your coming home. Auf wiedersehen.”
Lost in thought, Reinhard touched his finely shaped chin with supple fingers. He played the chip a second time.
Was it just his imagination, or had a shade of gloom crept into his sweet sister’s lovely face? Even so, in the state he was in, Reinhard felt more irritated than appreciative at being told to consult Siegfried Kircheis about everything. Does she think he makes better decisions than I do? Unbidden, the slaughter on Westerland flashed through his mind, further souring Reinhard’s mood. Maybe Kircheis does make better choices. But it wasn’t like I did that because I wanted to. There was sufficient reason. Ever since Westerland, Duke von Braunschweig had completely lost the hearts of the people. And with all the uprisings and troop defections taking place in the wake of the massacre, the war was now shaping up to end much sooner than initial projections. If you totaled all the numbers, wasn’t this a boon to the citizenry at large? Kircheis was too narrowly focused on ideals that didn’t work in the real world; it was making him slip into a kind of formulaic moralism.
One other thing was bothering Reinhard, though—nowhere in that message had Annerose said anything along the lines of “give my best to Sieg.” Did that mean she had sent a separate letter to Kircheis? If so, what had she said to him? Reinhard wanted to know, but given his strangely awkward feelings about Kircheis right now, he just couldn’t broach the matter.
Reinhard could criticize Kircheis until he was blue in the face, but let von Oberstein try it, and Reinhard would take up for his redheaded friend every time.
“Even if the whole universe turned against me, Kircheis would stand by my side. He always has. And that’s why I’ve always rewarded him. What’s wrong with that?”
To Reinhard’s heated words, the chief of staff replied coolly, “Your Excellency, by no means am I suggesting you purge or exile Admiral Kircheis. I’m simply offering a word of caution—that you should treat him the same as you do von Reuentahl, Mittermeier, and the others. Treat him as a subordinate. The organization does not need a number two. Such a person is sure to prove harmful—the competent in his own way, and the fool in his. There should not be anyone who can function as a substitute for the men’s loyalty to the number one.”
“I understand,” Reinhard spat back. “That’s enough. Stop badgering me about this.” What irritated Reinhard the most was that von Oberstein’s argument, as a piece of logic, was sound. Be that as it may, why did that man’s words, in spite of their correctness, fail so thoroughly to make an impression?
Mittermeier had come to von Reuentahl’s cabin, and the two of them were enjoying a game of poker. A pot of coffee had been set out on the table in preparation for the long war ahead.
“I get the feeling something isn’t right between Marquis von Lohengramm and Kircheis,” said Mittermeier, at which there appeared a bright gleam in von Reuentahl’s mismatched eyes. “You don’t think that story is—”
“It’s still a rumor,” said von Reuentahl, “at least for now.”
“Even if it is, that’s a dangerous thing to have circulating.”
“Extremely dangerous. I wonder if there’s anything we can do about it.”
“It’s a delicate problem. If there’s nothing to it, it could be the work of some enemy trying to discredit His Excellency. But if it does check out, that’s when things get incredibly rough. Either way, we’re not going to be able to stay out of this one.”
“That said,” von Reuentahl responded, “if we act rashly, we could end up turning a little brush fire into a raging inferno.”
The two of them looked at their cards. Both discarded three apiece, then drew. Next to speak was von Reuentahl.
“This has been bothering me for some time now, but our chief of staff seems worried about Marquis von Lohengramm being so close to Kircheis—in his personal as well as public life. It’s that idea of his that a number two is harmful. Theoretically, he has a point, but …”
“Von Oberstein?” There was little affection in Mittermeier’s voice. “He’s a clever man. I’ll give him that. But he’s got a bad habit of stirring up trouble when there wasn’t any before. Things have gone well so far, so why force a change just because something doesn’t fit a theory? Especially when it’s human relationships we’re talking about.”
Mittermeier looked at his cards, and the tense line of his mouth softened.
“Four jacks. Looks like tomorrow’s wine is on you.”
“I’ve got four of a kind myself,” the heterochromiac replied with a mean little smile. “Three queens and a joker. Too bad, Mister Gale Wolf.”
“Crap,” Mittermeier said, tossing his cards down on the table. Just then, an alarm began to sound. An enemy sortie had just launched from Gaiesburg Fortress.
Young extremist nobles, led by Baron Flegel, had convinced Duke von Braunschweig to attempt this half-cocked sortie.
This didn’t mean, however, that all of the aristocracy’s allied forces were participating. Merkatz followed his orders without comment, but one influential figure, Admiral Adalbert Fahrenheit, refused to go out at all.
“What’s the point of a sortie now?” Fahrenheit shot back at von Braunschweig, anger and scorn brimming in his light-aqua eyes. “We should be using the fortress to our advantage—forcing the enemy to spill as much of their own blood as possible, while we dig in for a long fight and wait for the situation to change. All this sortie is going to accomplish is to make us lose sooner.”
He didn’t stop there, either. All at once, Fahrenheit unleashed a laundry list of complaints that had been building up for quite some time.
“First of all, Duke von Braunschweig, you and I are comrades in arms—not master and servant. The status of our births may be different, but we are both of us court vassals of the Galactic Empire, and we have both fought to protect the Goldenbaum Dynasty from Marquis von Lohengramm. That should be the objective that binds us together. As a specialist in military affairs, I’ve given you this warning to help you avoid the worst possible outcome. And yet still you take that imperious tone and force your will on all of us. What is it that you’ve misunderstood?”
Duke von Braunschweig turned white with fury at Fahrenheit’s biting criticism. At no time in his life before now had he ever let such insolence pass unanswered. When anger had taken hold of him in the past, a common reaction of his had been to throw wine bottles or glasses from the dinner table at his servants. His mass murder of Westerland’s inhabitants had, in fact, been an extension of that very tendency.
Now as the attack was looming, however, von Braunschwieg could feel it in his skin that his support was peeling away. Above all else, he was no longer certain of victory. The duke took a ragged breath, and then, as if mocking his own weak-kneed hesitation, he left Fahrenheit with the words, “I’ve no use for cowards.”
He went and ordered the sortie, ignoring Fahrenheit’s advice.
The nobles’ fleet emerged from the fortress, lay down a blistering volley of cannon fire, then charged forward, the noses of their vessels lined up in a row. They were trying to overwhelm the enemy through sheer force.
Reinhard countered with three ranks of gunships equipped with high-output, high-caliber beam cannons, which launched continuous volleys at the oncoming enemy vessels.
The aristocrat forces had no lack of fighting spirit. They launched persistent attacks in waves, pulling back each time they took damage, reforming their ranks, then charging ahead once again. As the number of these assaults and ensuing failures mounted, as the nobles’ backs were driven up against the wall—that fighting spirit seemed somehow even admirable.
At last, Reinhard instructed a swarm of high-speed cruisers he had been holding in reserve to launch a counterattack at maximum battle speed.
His timing was impeccable. Six times, waves of confederated forces had surged forward, only to break on an unyielding shore and drain back out once again. Physical and mental exhaustion had begun to set in on their crews.
Worse still for the aristocrats, the cruisers had been placed under the command of Senior Admiral Siegfried Kircheis.
Reinhard had given his redheaded friend the most important role in this battle. Ordinarily, he would have given the order directly, but with his tangle of emotions still unresolved, he had relayed it through von Oberstein this time.
At the mere mention of Kircheis’s name, soldiers in the aristocrats’ forces became unable to hide their horror. Such was the terror that the young, undefeated admiral was already beginning to strike in the hearts of his enemies.
“You’ve nothing to fear from that redheaded whelp! This is the perfect chance to avenge Marquis von Littenheim!”
But try though the commanders did to raise morale with such cries, it amounted to nothing more than empty bravado. The high-speed cruisers that Kircheis commanded ripped into the nobles’ forces with overwhelming speed and ferocity, and then Mittermeier, von Reuentahl, Kempf, and Wittenfeld joined the fray as well. Reinhard’s fleet had gone on all-out offense, building rapidly on the advantage won by Kircheis and securing victory almost instantly.
A transmission arrived for von Reuentahl as he was pursuing the fleeing enemy ships. It was from Baron Flegel, one of the enemy commanders. When the baron appeared on-screen, he admitted his defeat but at the same time brought his ship about and issued a challenge to von Reuentahl, requesting a one-on-one duel to the death between their respective battleships.
Von Reuentahl coolly replied, “Don’t be absurd. Bark and growl all you like, but we have nothing to gain by fighting defeated enemy remnants on equal footing.”
He cut the transmission and continued his advance, flying right past the battleship from which Flegel’s gauntlet had been thrown.
After von Reuentahl, Fritz Josef Wittenfeld—leader of the Schwarz Lanzenreiter regiment—was next to appear in front of Baron Flegel. Contrary to his aggressive reputation, though, not even Wittenfeld would respond to Flegel’s insane challenge. The victor had been decided already, and fighting on with enemies already resigned to death would, at this stage, be nothing more than a useless waste of soldiers’ lives.
“That’s enough,” said Captain Schumacher, one of Flegel’s staff officers. “Please stop this.”
Schumacher could hardly bear to watch as his commander ranted madly at the screen. “No one is going to duel with you,” Schumacher said. “It would be meaningless to them. More importantly, we should be grateful to still be alive. We can escape now to some other place and start making plans for our comeback.”
“Silence!” said Baron Flegel, swatting aside his subordinate’s counsel. “What do you mean, ‘grateful to still be alive’? I have no fear of death. There’s nothing for us now but to fight to the last man and die beautiful deaths, as nobles of the empire have throughout our glorious history.”
“Beautiful deaths?” Schumacher laughed, but his smile was bittersweet. “If that’s what you have to say, I can see why we lost. All that does is put a pretty face on your own failures and let you wallow in some kind of tragic-heroic fantasy.”
“W-what did you say … ?!”
“Enough, already. If it’s a beautiful death you want, go right ahead and die one yourself, but leave us out of it. Why should we go along with this and throw away our lives over your self-centered fantasy?”
“Insolent dog!” the baron cried. He tried to draw his blaster but clumsily dropped it to the floor. He scrambled to pick it up, then took aim at his staff officer’s chest.
Before he could fire, however, Baron Flegel’s body was pierced by energy beams fired from multiple sidearms.
His uniform riddled with holes, the baron took three, then four wobbling steps. His wide-open eyes seemed to gaze not on his subordinates but on lost days of glory that would never come again. When he tumbled to the floor, several of those there saw his lips moving, but not one of them could catch his final whisper: “Hail to the empire.” Captain Schumacher knelt down beside him and closed the baron’s eyelids with his hand. The soldiers who had just fragged their commanding officer gathered around him.
“Sir, what will you do now?”
The soldiers trusted in the clearheaded staff officer.
“It’s probably too late for me to join Marquis von Lohengramm’s camp. I’ll go hide out in the Phezzan Land Dominion for a while. Then I’ll think about what to do next.”
“Can we come with you?”
“I certainly don’t mind. But if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to, please let me know. You’re all free to do as you wish, whether it’s allying yourselves with Marquis von Lohengramm or going back to your homeworlds.”
At last, the battleship that was once the property of Baron Flegel departed the battlefield under a new commander, and its battle-worn, battle-scarred hulk disappeared into the depths of space.
On another vessel, a different drama had unfolded. A junior officer had looked on with a cold, hard expression as his ship’s captain had argued for self-destruction and mass suicide. Without a word, he had drawn his blaster and blown the captain’s head off.
“That’s treason!” the first officer had shouted—just moments before being shot to death himself, his hand still on his sidearm. He collapsed atop the captain’s corpse. By that time, crisscrossing flashes of scintillating gunfire were already being exchanged throughout the vessel. The crew had split into two factions—officers and ordinary soldiers—and open battle had broken out between them.
And that was hardly the only vessel where armed clashes had started between soldiers and high-ranking officers. Those of common birth—low-ranking officers, junior officers, and soldiers—refused at the last moment to accompany the boyar nobles on their road to self-destruction.
On one ship, a captain who had long abused his soldiers was thrown headlong into the fusion reactor while still alive. On another, two high-ranking officers who had never been particularly popular among the rank and file were forced to fight each other bare-handed until one was dead. The winner was then ejected from the air lock into hard vacuum. On still another vessel, a soldier who had acted as a spy, informing the captain of his colleagues’ words and deeds, had a rope tied around his neck and was dragged across multiple decks before being shot and killed.
With the madness of battle acting as a catalyst, the anger, the discontent, and the grudges that had been building up for five hundred years finally boiled over. The aristocrats’ vessels became scenes of mutiny, internal strife, and mass lynchings.
The many ships that were overrun by their soldiers stopped their engines, heaved to, and hailed Reinhard’s fleet, saying, “We lay down our arms and humbly beg your leniency …”
There was one ship, however, where the thirst for revenge was so strong that soldiers forgot to transmit a message of surrender—it exploded in a hail of cannon fire from Reinhard’s fleet. Another opened fire on its fleeing comrades, signaling through action its intent to switch sides.
In the moment that defeat became a certainty for the aristocrats’ forces, the bill came due for five centuries’ worth of uninterrupted decadence under an unjust social system. There was no one else to blame; it was simply the tragic result of their own actions.
“It’s just as Fräulein von Mariendorf predicted,” Reinhard said, watching the screen on the bridge of the flagship Brünhild. “The anger of the rank and file against officers of noble birth will be one factor in my victory. A splendid bull’s-eye, milady.”
“To be honest,” said von Oberstein, “I didn’t think this standoff would end any time this year, but now matters have been settled surprisingly early. At least insofar as these brigands and usurpers are concerned.”
“Brigands and usurpers,” Reinhard murmured coldly. Because of his victory—because of the boyars’ defeat—the empire’s official records would show that the term he had coined for them was just. To judge the defeated was a right naturally granted to the victor, and Reinhard intended to make robust use of it.
Had Reinhard been the one vanquished, they would have given him that notorious appellation, along with an ignominious death. From that perspective, there was no reason to hesitate in using his authority.
“The enemy before us has lost its power already. Presently, you’ll return to Odin to make preparations against the enemy behind us.”
Reinhard’s suggestion was brief, but von Oberstein understood it perfectly. “As you wish.”
The next battle would take place not in space but in the palace, where conspiracy would replace the beam cannon as the weapon of choice. It was going to be a battle no less gruesome than those fought between vast fleets of warships.
A triumphant enemy fleet and utter despair were arrayed in front of Merkatz’s fleet, blocking his way back to Gaiesburg Fortress.
Merkatz stepped into his private room, pulled out his blaster, and stared at it. This would be the last implement that he used in his lifetime. Merkatz tightened his grip on it and was just pressing its barrel up against his temple when the door opened and his aide came running in.
“Stop that, Your Excellency. Do show some respect for your own life.”
“Lieutenant Commander von Schneider …”
“Forgive me, Excellency. I unloaded the energy capsules earlier for fear you might try something like this.” In von Schneider’s hand was the dull sheen of the capsules.
With a wry smile, Merkatz tossed the useless blaster onto his desk. Von Schneider picked it up.
The small screen in his private room was showing vivid scenes of the aristocrat fleet, already defeated and now on its way to destruction.
“This is how I imagined things would probably turn out. Now it’s all come true. All I was able to do was move this day back just a little.” Merkatz turned to look at his aide. “At any rate, when did you pull out those capsules? I never even noticed.”
Saying nothing, von Schneider opened up the barrel and showed it to Merkatz. Capsules were still lodged inside. Merkatz’s lips came apart slightly. “You tricked me. You’d go that far just to tell me to live, Lieutenant Commander?”
“Yes, sir. I would, and I did.”
“Live to do what? I’m the commander of a defeated force, and from the standpoint of the new authorities, an irredeemable brigand. There’s no longer any place in the empire where I can survive. If I were to surrender, Marquis von Lohengramm might forgive me, but even I know what shame is to a warrior.”
“If you’ll pardon my saying so, Your Excellency, Marquis von Lohengramm does not yet rule the entire universe, and narrow though our galaxy may be, there are still places in it where his reach does not extend. Please, leave the empire so you can stay alive, and make plans to strike back against him someday.”
“… You’re telling me to defect?”
“I am, Your Excellency.”
“Since you’re talking about making a comeback, I take it our destination isn’t Phezzan. That means it’s the other option.”
“The Free Planets Alliance …” Merkatz said to himself. That name had an unexpected ring of newness to it. When he had thought about the alliance in times past, he had always ignored the fact of what it was, using by default the traditional term “the rebel entity.”
“I’ve been fighting those people for more than forty years. I’ve seen a lot of my subordinates killed, and killed just as many of theirs. You think they’d accept someone like me?”
“I suggest we rely on the illustrious Admiral Yang Wen-li. I hear he’s a broad-minded person, if a little eccentric. Besides, even if he refuses, we’ll only be back to square one. And if it comes to that, you won’t be dying alone.”
“Idiot. You stay alive. You’re not even thirty yet, are you? With your talent, Marquis von Lohengramm would take you on and treat you well.”
“I have no hatred for Marquis von Lohengramm, but I’ve made up my mind that only one admiral will be my commanding officer. Please, Excellency, make up your mind.”
Von Schneider waited, and at last his patience was rewarded. Merkatz nodded and said, “All right. I’m in your hands. Let’s try Yang Wen-li and see what happens.
Gaiesburg Fortress was on the verge of death. Its outer shell was scored by cannon fire. Within, a steady roar of confusion and disorder did not merely reign—it exercised dictatorial powers at its whim.
Duke von Braunschweig, leader of the nobles’ confederated military, was calling out weakly, “Commodore Ansbach … Where is Ansbach?”
Several officers as well as rank-and-file soldiers were moving about nearby, but they all ran away without sparing a glance for the despondent aristocrat. They had been driven to the final option and had no concern left to spare for anyone else.
“I’m here, Your Excellency.”
That duke turned around and saw his loyal confidant standing there. Several subordinates were with him as well.
“Oh, so that’s where you were. I didn’t see you in the prison, so I’d thought you’d escaped already.”
“My men came and let me out.” The commodore bowed deeply, making no mention of any grudge he might have had about being thrown into prison. “I can imagine the regret you must be feeling, Your Excellency.”
“Yes, I never dreamed things would turn out this way, but now that they have, there’s no longer any choice. We have to sue for peace.”
“For peace?” The commodore blinked.
“I’ll offer him most advantageous terms.”
“I’ll recognize his authority. Beginning with myself, the aristocracy will support him fully. Those terms aren’t bad at all.”
“Oh yes, that’s right. I’ll give him my daughter, Elisabeth, too. That will make him the previous emperor’s grandson by marriage. Then he’ll have a just claim as successor to the imperial bloodline. That’s much better for him than being saddled with the notoriety of a usurper.”
Ansbach answered with a heavy sigh. “Your Excellency, that will do no good. There is no way Marquis von Lohengramm will accept such conditions. Maybe he would have six months ago, but now he has no need of your support. He’s acquired his position through his own abilities, and now there’s no one who can stand in his way.”
There was a shade of pity in the commodore’s eyes for his lord’s vain struggling. The duke shuddered, and beads of sweat broke out and covered his forehead.
“I am Duke Otto von Braunschweig, the head of a great house unequaled among the nobles of the empire. Are you saying that the golden brat means to kill me, despite all that?”
Ansbach groaned. “Do you still not understand, Excellency? That’s exactly why Marquis von Lohengramm will never leave you alive!”
The duke looked as if his veins had been pumped full of some heavy, viscous fluid. His skin color was changing by the moment, as though the flow of blood throughout his body were stopping and starting up again at irregular intervals.
“And also, because you’re an enemy of human decency,” the commodore appended, a bit mercilessly.
“I’m talking about Westerland. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”
Marshaling all his strength, von Braunschweig roared back, “You mean to tell me that killing that lowborn rabble was some sin against common decency? As an aristocrat, and as their ruler, I simply made use of rights that are naturally mine. Didn’t I?”
“The commoners don’t think so. Even Marquis von Lohengramm will side with them. Up until now, the Galactic Empire has operated according to the logic of the aristocracy, with Your Excellency foremost among them. But at the current juncture, half of the universe is going to be governed by a new logic. That’s likely another reason why Marquis von Lohengramm will not let Your Excellency live—to make that point clear to everyone. He has to kill you. If he doesn’t, then the cause that he stands for will not be achieved.”
A long, long sigh trailed out from the duke’s mouth.
“Very well, then. I will die. But I will not stand for that golden brat usurping the throne. He must go to hell with me.”
Ansbach didn’t know how to answer.
“Ansbach, somehow, I want you to stop him from usurping the throne. If you’ll swear to me that you will, I won’t begrudge my own life. Kill him for me, please.”
Ansbach gazed steadily at his leader as flames of obsession blazed up in his eyes, and at last he nodded with calm determination. “As you wish, milord. I swear I will do my best to take von Lohengramm’s life. No matter who may become the next emperor, it won’t be him.”
“You swear it … ? Well, good.”
The man who had been greatest among the nobles of the Galactic Empire licked his dry lips. Although his mind was made up, there was a shadow of fear that he hadn’t quite shaken.
“I want as easy … as easy a death as possible.”
“I understand very well. You should use poison. In fact, some has already been prepared.”
They all moved from there to the duke’s luxurious apartments. Although deserting soldiers had ransacked it fairly thoroughly, bottles of wine and cognac yet remained in the wine rack.
From his pocket, the commodore pulled out a tiny capsule no larger than the nail of his little finger. It was a compound of two types of drugs. One blocked brain cells from absorbing oxygen, inviting swift brain death. The other had the effect of paralyzing the nerves through which pain was transmitted.
“You’re going to get sleepy very quickly, and then you’ll die with no pain at all. Please stir it into some wine and drink.”
Ansbach selected a bottle from the wine rack, checked the label, and saw that it was a fine 410 vintage. He poured some into a glass, then broke open the capsule, exposing the granules inside.
Watching this from where he was seated in a high-backed chair, Duke von Braunschweig abruptly began to tremble all over. The light of sanity had vanished from his eyes.
“Ansbach, no. I don’t want to do this.” He spoke in a strangled voice. “I don’t want to die. I’ll surrender. I’ll give up my lands, my titles … everything but my life …”
The commodore took a deep breath and gave a sign to his men on the right and left. Two large, powerfully built men stepped forward and laid hands on Duke von Braunschweig to hold him down in the chair, even though one would have been enough.
“What are you doing! Unhand me, you impertinent—”
“As the final head of Braunschweig Duchy’s ruling family, please do this yourself with grace and dignity.”
Ansbach picked up the wineglass and brought it to the lips of the immobilized duke. Von Braunschweig clenched his teeth tightly, determined not to drink the poison. Ansbach pinched the duke’s nose. Unable to breathe, his face turned red, and in the instant he could hold his breath no longer, he opened his mouth, and the poisoned wine made a crimson waterfall as it poured deep into the boyar’s throat.
Great swells of terror rolled in the duke’s eyes, but they lasted for only a few seconds. As a stone-faced Ansbach stood watching, the duke’s eyelids drooped and his muscles began to go slack. When his head started nodding, the commodore gave orders that the duke be carried to the infirmary. His subordinates hesitated.
“But, sir, he’s already dead …”
“Which is why I want you to do so. Now do as you’re told.”
It was a strange answer the commodore had given. His eyes followed his subordinates as they followed his order, heads cocked sideways, uncomprehending. In a low voice, he muttered to himself, “The Golden Bough is now all but fallen. What comes next will be known as … what? The Green Forest?”
Gräfin von Grünewald—“Countess of Green Forests”—that was the title that Reinhard’s sister Annerose had received from the previous emperor, Friedrich IV …
The old soldier was carrying a tiny palm computer as he walked alone through the corridors, seemingly not knowing what to do with himself. A junior officer driving a hydrogen car pulled over and shouted at him:
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing at a time like this? How about you run for it or make a white flag? Von Lohengramm’s army’s gonna charge in here any minute now!”
The old soldier turned around with his whole body but didn’t move an inch. “What’s your rank?” he said.
“You’d know if you’d look at my insignia. It’s chief petty officer. What about it?”
“Chief petty officer? That would mean 2,840 imperial marks.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, old-timer?”
“Look here—this is a Reichsbank transfer certificate. Walk into any branch on any planet, and if you’ve got one of these, you can trade it for cash.”
The chief petty officer groaned. “Listen, Grandpa, do you have any idea what’s happening right now? The world’s about to change today.”
“Today’s payday,” the old man said in an easygoing voice. “I’m in charge of payroll. You said the world’s changing, but all that means is they’re swapping out the folks at the top. Underlings like us still gotta eat, and you don’t get to eat unless you get paid. At least in that sense, nothing changes no matter who’s in charge.”
“All right, I get it already. Get in the car. I’ll drive you to where the ones who want to surrender are gathering.”
After the car carrying the junior officer and the old soldier has sped off down the corridor, a young nobleman with the rank of captain appeared in the passage, searching for heavy arms. He hadn’t given up on resistance quite yet.
“I think I remember this warehouse being empty,” he mumbled to himself, nevertheless pulling open the door in hopes that there might be something left there anyway. What he saw, however, made his eyes snap open wide in surprise.
Inside the warehouse was a mountain of military supplies. There were rations, medical products, clothing, blankets, and everything from small arms to ammunition. Five or six soldiers and junior officers stood frozen in midstep, staring in surprise at this unexpected intruder.
The captain started shouting. “What is the meaning of this? Where did this materiel come from?!”
The look on the captain’s face frightened the junior officers. Even so, they didn’t drop the portable ration boxes they were carrying in both arms, and this only incensed the captain further.
“Cat got your tongue? Then let me answer for you. You were hiding these supplies to keep for yourself, instead of sending them to the front lines. Weren’t you?”
The answer to the captain’s question was written eloquently all over the junior officers’ faces. The captain’s anger toward those “shrewd common folk” burst through the bounds of reason and boiled over.
“Shameless dogs, don’t you move from that spot. I’m going to teach you lot some discipline!”
Screams and shouts rang out back and forth, but finally a blanket was thrown over the captain’s head, and not ten seconds had elapsed before he was shot dead. As an aristocrat, the young captain had believed that, even under the shadow of total defeat, soldiers would not resist being punished by the officers.
The sporadic resistance drew to a close, and the first of the admirals to step into the fortress once it was completely secured were Mittermeier and von Reuentahl.
To their right and their left, captured nobles were lined up against the walls of a corridor leading to a large reception hall. Frightened by the guns Reinhard’s troops carried, the injured, filthy nobles had sunk to the floor.
Mittermeier shook his head slowly. “I never dreamed the day would come when I’d see boyar nobles looking this miserable. Can we really call this the start of a new era?”
“One thing’s for certain—it’s definitely the end of the old one,” said von Reuentahl. Nobles were looking up at them without a sliver of hostility in their eyes. Only fear and uncertainty were there, as well as a shade of hope to curry favor with the victors. When their eyes met, there were even some who constructed subservient smiles. Mittermeier and von Reuentahl were at first astonished, then disgusted. But when they thought about it, was not this itself clear proof of their victory?
“Their age is over. From now on, it’s our age.”
The two young admirals held their heads up proudly and continued walking, passing between the ranks of the defeated.
(T/L- Note – Chapter 9 will be on Wednesday its the last book of this volume)