> BEWARE: THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF LOYALTY BELOW.
> READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
> ARE YOU SURE? [y/n]
The message Loren got on his comms was short, sweet, and to the point. No sense risking any details over the comms line: it had all been worked out well in advance, and Loren had committed the plan to memory long before.
> today <
Today. It. Loren felt a sick excitement, nausea commingled with adrenaline, the culmination of months of his own planning and years of Cavaran planning coming together in five short letters. Today. The emperor was off world on Braja with Captain Mikanah, the empress and Princess Jutunea were likewise gone, somewhere in the outer middle band. Months of effort had gone into leaving Anutéa the last member of the imperial family on Consecra.
There was the nausea, though, at the thought of what he was going to do to Anutéa. They’d gone over the plans, and the backup plans, and the backup-backup plans in excruciating detail; Loren didn’t shy away from what he would have to do, but he didn’t love it. If—if the first or second plans worked, she would survive, anyway. That was good. If the Alliance could take her alive, they could use her for bargaining, negotiations, as a hostage—whatever was needed to achieve their aims. If she died, well, it might be difficult to wrangle what would certainly be millions upon millions of loyal empire soldiers afterwards.
But even still, he could hardly countenance the idea of plan A or plan B, of what he would have to do—
Loren glanced down at his comms unit again, saw the message still there, unyielding. Today. No more waiting, no more planning. Tomorrow would be an aeon too late, plans already set into motion in other sectors, on other worlds…
He nodded once to himself, a tiny inclination of the head, and felt himself accept it as if he were taking on a heavy burden. He would do it, do whatever he must. It was necessary. As Loren took Anutéa’s hand in his, her skin cool and dry against his, he remembered.
Loren stands in the Llas Dellum alongside a younger Anutéa as a woman is brought in. The great room, open to the ever-rainy skies above them, is quiet now: it is always a sombre place, the Llas Dellum, but today it has the chill of the grave to it. The woman is the High Representative of Rho sector, and she carries herself with the unflinching bearing of someone who expects her orders to be followed exactly.
Until she sees the Emperor Emysos, standing in the very centre of the Llas Dellum, a fine mist sparkling around him. Anutéa stands beside Loren, her face unusually grave; there are too (as always) a few officers of the Imperial Guard. Even now Loren looks for one face in particular and sees it, as grave as the rest, and then he must force his attention back onto the scene unfolding before him. He wishes he hadn’t been invited to this, but it is his place to witness it.
There has been great unrest recently in Rho sector, and the emperor does not countenance unrest. The High Representative stands there, silent and pale, as Emysos raises something between them—a map of sorts, a system map, furnished from nothing but the sparkling mist of air motes in which he is wreathed. It shows a thin band of inhabited planets, a few dozen altogether, clumped around half as many stars. Rho sector.
Loren cannot remember words, though words must have been spoken, as the emperor made his own end to the unrest. He remembers the woman (why cannot he recall her name? It seems a great disrespect) and he remembers Anutéa not raising any protest to her father’s actions, though she is one of the infinitely few people in the universe who could have. He remembers the silence of the sparse crowd and the way the High Representative moves once, just slightly, as ships in her systems are wiped from existence. No more unrest: no more violence, she will get this under control or it will be brought under control for her. He remembers Casilim-la, a few steps behind and to the left of Anutéa, watching her the entire time, his green eyes dark as storm waves. And he remembers the mist, the constancy of it in the Llas Dellum, soft and gentle and everywhere over him.
After it was over Loren had taken a shower, scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, and he had not been able to cleanse his skin of that mist. People had died that day, all over Rho sector, tens of thousands of them, and nobody had said a word. Innocent people, guilty people, children and lovers and families.
People had died last week, there had been incursions by the ever-hostile Union into new settlements outside of the Xi and Psi bands, and nobody had retaliated—in fact there were growing calls to abandon colonists to the Union, since they had left the embracing shelter of the Empire.
People had died last year, three new inhabited worlds added to the conquering tally, millions upon millions of people killed or lost or self-destructed after the Empire took their homes and families and meaning from them.
Today. Anutéa smiled up at him, quite cheerful, full of their plans—Lady w’Ellaun was hosting a costume dress party, and they’d already planned to attend as two other friends, switching identities for the night simply for the fun of it. Silly fun, weighed against an infinite tally of death skipping out from here—AA-olea, the home world, Consecra—and into the vast reaches of the cosmos.
The thought lifted Loren, made possible again for the hundredth or thousandth time the way he smiled at her, reassuring, true, false. He hated to betray her, hated to give up on this life, hated to bear this falseness.
But if nobody else would fight for the people of the galaxy, then he would.
An alarm chimed gently in the corridor as they made their way to Ellaun’s suite of rooms. So many security incidents had been misreported the past few months, ranging from waylaid tourists to kids stealing shuttlecraft, that nobody was particularly worried: instead of immediately taking Anutéa to the safe rooms, as they might have done this time last year, there was a general groan and then Captain Casilim-la redirected them the back way, through the staff corridors instead of the main hallways which were full of people and open spaces.
Check, Loren couldn’t help but think, though he kept any expression on his face under control. Now that Antares had raised the incident, it was up to Loren to get Anutéa on their shuttlecraft—which already lay waiting for them, and this path would take them right by it. Check and check.
Of course this meant that he had to rely on the plan to take Emysos out, had to have faith that Emysos would be killed in ten minutes, not this moment. If an alarm was raised properly—as it certainly would be, the moment the news leaked about the emperor—there’d be no more fucking around, and no second chances. Loren had his ten minutes. He had to use them.
Casilim-la was speaking quietly to the woman who walked beside him—Loren wasn’t sure of her name, but she was a familiar face in Anutéa’s guard. Elva-something, he thought. The two of them looked purposeful, but not particularly serious, and he would never have imagined that fourteen months of false security incidents could have relaxed their guard so much. Their little party was approaching the bay doors. He could see it up ahead: the family’s private bay, with one large set of doors open to the small corridor. Anutéa’s hand was steady and dry in his; of course she was not anxious, why should she be?
Loren’s voice was entirely level as he spoke to her, whispered really, into the shell of her ear so that the others might not hear. “Anutéa, don’t you remember the time we skipped out to Starfall?”
She smiled up at him, easy delight in her wide purple eyes. “Of course I do. Oh, and Casilim-la was there too!” The captain turned back at the sound of his name, for Anutéa had not bothered to whisper.
“I was where, your highness?”
“On Starfall that time,” she said rather wistfully. “Wouldn’t it be fun to do that again?”
Loren saw Casilim-la glance at the woman—Elvareon, that was her name, from the third tier of families. It could never be that easy, could it? If he could only maneuver her a bit closer to the pod—
There were others with them too, though: at least one he knew to be a secret ally, but the others were indistinguishable. He’d never known many of the other Alliance members undercover on Consecra—for all their safety. Their little group approached the shuttle bay doors.
“Why don’t we?” Loren asked easily. There was nothing of tension or adrenaline or anxiety in his tone, nothing whatsoever, the same relaxed pleasure he always showed around her. Indifferent to security incidents; less than indifferent to Captain Casilim-la, who had gone rather tight about the lips. He hadn’t wanted to go to Starfall last time, either, Loren recalled.
“I really shouldn’t,” she said, but he didn’t have to imagine the way she looked longingly at the pod bay. She wanted to go: he would convince her, Loren felt with a sudden leap in his throat like searing fire. He could and he would.
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. We can all go again.” He glanced at Elvareon. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure to meet you properly? We’ll get drinks.”
“I…” for an instant Anutéa teetered between what she ought to do and wanted to do, between duty and desire, but the Alliance plan had been too well thought out. She’d done this before, she’d gone to Starfall with Casilim-la and Loren and it had been fine, and after all (he could almost hear her convincing herself) it wasn’t really a security alert, anyway. Just some report of an incident somewhere. It would be fine. “Alright! Let’s. And this time,” she smiled at Casilim-la, the difference in their heights almost imperceptible, “I won’t let anyone mess up our evening.”
Their little party turned into the pod bay and chose a pod, but Loren saw the instant the plan started to crash around him. Casilim-la received an alert, chiming at his comms and simultaneously in his temples, and Loren saw his face go slack for an instant with horror. Then the other man was reaching for Anutéa, only a few feet separating them, and Loren would not would not would not squander this most precious opportunity.
Loren shoved Anutéa as hard as he could into the shuttle, saw but didn’t attend to one of the others scrambling in after her, and shot Casilim-la in the same motion of his arm. He hadn’t known if he would be able to do it, not really, not until the last moment of vital truth, and it turned out he could. Loren could betray her, Loren could betray him, because as much as he loved them both the lives of these two must be weighed against the unending tally of horror that her empire represented to every other sapient creature.
Then it was chaos. Elvareon had already been on the pod when he shoved Anutéa aboard: he could only hope the other person who’d scrambled in after her was on the Alliance side. He’d shot Casilim-la with a stunner, the hit glancing off his side, and he had to believe somewhere deep in his hearts that the other man would survive it. Stunners were chancy. Anutéa would survive: this was plan A, and so far it was executing flawlessly. He’d go and complete the—
Something hit him over the back of the head, and Loren would never find out what it was.
It was D’Lorah who shared the video with Loren first, although soon enough it was circulating amongst all the members of the Alliance Council. D’Lorah who was there, of course, D’Lorah who actually orchestrated the events. Loren’s own role in the rebellion was a minor footnote besides D’Lorah’s, but nobody ever published the information, he had to give them the credit for it. Nobody wanted to see the retribution D’Lorah would face for the rest of his life if they did so.
Two days after the events (The Events he named them in his mind, the rebellion or the insurrection or simply justice as the others like to refer to it not capturing the totality of the day) Loren was still a shaky mess, still trying to find what happened to Anutéa, still dealing with the fallout from Consecra, running on stimulants and No-Doz pills. A thousand million problems arose constantly and the imperial forces on dozens of planets wouldn’t stand down; a hundred middle band planets had decided this was their chance to make a fucking break for it, apparently, and were avoiding Cavaran contact; and where in the infinite depths had Anutéa gone? She was supposed to be taken aboard the Weeping Wizard and safely held until they could use her, ideally to make those fucking empire soldiers stop shooting Cavaran craft out of the skies.
Loren held his head in his hands and stared at the comms as it flashed up the message from D’Lorah. It took his addled mind more than a moment to remember—Panaja. Braja. The only thing that actually managed to go right that day.
The Emperor Emysos, the fourth so named, blessed of men. Right. He’d seen the clip already, of course. Everyone, everyone in the Nine Hundred had seen that clip by now. Emysos, his hair shorn and his scalp bloody, dragged lifelessly to a post in a barren plaza—barren but for the people, great massing throngs of people, thousands of them, tens of thousands, crowding every square meter and balcony and roof and step. Cheering and waving and sobbing and—
And Emysos, dead already, or at least Loren so supposed. If he wasn’t dead by that point, he certainly was after what came next. He almost closed the comms message before he realized this wasn’t that same clip again—this was something new. A longer video, shot by D’Lorah himself. Loren popped another No-Doz and opened it, with absolutely no awareness of the sensitivity of the content or those around him, exhausted on the Weeping Wizard.
The scene was a drawing room, rather small but opulently furnished. For a moment the video was shaky, and then resolved itself, the camera held quite low, secretive. It shook slightly as if trembling in the hand of whoever held it. “Your majesty,” someone said loudly, and Emysos strode into view at the exact moment Loren realized what he was watching and switched it off. Nobody around him batted an eye, but—fuck. What was he thinking, reviewing private messages out in the open like this? Anyone might see, and if it got out who’d actually conspired to kill Emysos—
He made his way somewhere private, made sure the door was shut and locked, restarted the video. Again, the shaking hands, and again Emysos strode into view. Loren had known him, of course, Anutéa had loved…
Loren paused the feed for a moment by waving one hand and had to press his hand to his mouth. Just for a moment. He would never, ever regret the actions he’d taken that day. They were for the good of the people, all twelve trillion of them, and it was his own weakness, his own inadequacy, which had caused things to go so wrong. If he were only stronger—the thought bolstered him enough to resume playback.
“Your majesty,” the voice said, and he recognized it this time, his thoughts clearer. Captain Mikanah, her hair cut short, severe. She had been a severe person, Mikanah: never content to rest, never content with good enough. Her voice was crisp and did not shake. D’Lorah must have been in the room with them; Loren hadn’t known that. “The vice-chancellor’s party is almost ready.”
Emysos stood there, his face to the camera, and Loren had never before seen the man looking so relaxed. He supposed this might be the Emysos Anutéa had known, the one she had loved. She’d told him of such a thing, of course, but he’d never really believed it possible that someone could love Emysos, the unrelenting, unyielding, unmerciful spectre of a man as he seemed to Loren. A murderer times a murderer over and over.
“Alright,” Emysos said, voice casual. He wasn’t speaking High Standard but simply Ala’pr, Loren’s own native tongue, not the language of court but the one used for family. Long indigo hair waved slightly as he shook his head. “I don’t know why they’re insisting on today. I’ll be here tomorrow, too.”
Captain Mikanah moved out of view of the camera, which D’Lorah, Loren supposed, must be hiding in his hand. A stupid risk. How would he have explained it, should Emysos have seen the thing? But then again even if Emysos had raised a concern, the plot was already in motion. Mikanah came back into view holding something—a small box? Loren couldn’t tell exactly.
“If you don’t want to, you can always say no,” she replied, voice a trifle dry, and Emysos smiled at her. Not smirked, not glared, not given her the expression Loren had most usually encountered, a flat inactive hostility. It was merely a smile, a real smile.
“I suppose I could. What have you got?”
Mikanah looked down at the box. Loren didn’t recognize it: it was only the size of her hand, perhaps, and coloured in winking flashes of purple, the imperial colour, the shade of Emysos’ and Anutéa’s colouring both. It had an etched design rather like fish scales, he saw on the small vholos display.
“It’s…” her voice trailed off, and she swallowed. Loren leaned forward. “You gave me this, your majesty. Do you remember?”
Emysos peered at her curiously, then at the box. “Yes, of course. But why—?”
Then D’Lorah moved forward. The camera was set down on a table or something, so that Loren could only see brief winks of the three people in the room: purple hair, D’Lorah’s trailing coat sleeve, mostly the ceiling. But he could still hear.
“It’s time,” D’Lorah said, apropos nothing, and Mikanah replied.
“I’m returning it.”
“You’re returning—the box?” Emysos asked, but there was a sharp tone to his voice, something wary suddenly which had not been there a moment before.
“You know what I’m returning.” Loren shook the vholos emitter slightly as if this might bring the video feed back. “It’s been ten years, Emysos. Ten years and you have done nothing. Oh, don’t bother to try and raise a security alarm. D’Lorah?”
For one brief moment D’Lorah was framed by the video, holding a stunner quite steadily, and then someone—Mikanah?—grabbed the camera and was focusing it on the room again. Emysos was now pale, but standing tall in the centre of the room.
“You destroyed Lexce,” D’Lorah said, and his voice was quiet. It was so eerily calm it might have been read aloud by a computer. “You stood there and you killed the planet, Emysos. Every last one of my people.”
“…you are not Lexcen,” Emysos replied with a hint of a question. D’Lorah swallowed.
“I am. You might not know it to see it, but I am mixed species. Five billion people. Has anyone ever had so much blood on their hands as that? As you?”
Emysos moved suddenly, so quickly Loren couldn’t believe it, but before he could move so much as a foot D’Lorah had shot. It was a stunner blast, and they were unreliable, but this one had been well-calibrated. The emperor lay there on the polished marble floor staring up at them helplessly, and Mikanah set the camera down again—more carefully this time, positioning it so the lens was aimed right at the scene. She crouched down beside him and set the little purple box down by his face with care.
“I was so proud,” she said, and her voice was thick. Loren had never heard Mikanah anything other than sharp, and he wished suddenly that he might have spoken to her once, not in their roles of the prince-consort and the captain of the guard, but simply spoken with her. “I was so proud to serve you. And you took that and—and used it for nothing.” She opened the box: it was lined with what looked like velvet. Carefully, she removed four small blue diamond chips from her left sleeve, and replaced them in the box.
I’m returning it. He’d never heard of a captain of the Imperial Guard resigning before. That day had been a day for novel experiences the Empire over, it seemed.
Emysos said something, or tried to: the stunner left his lips stuttering. Loren had never himself been stunned before but had been told it was remarkably unpleasant to feel aware and conscious of what was going on but be so incapable of reacting. Mikanah watched him for a moment, then stood. She looked at D’Lorah evenly.
“Which one of us will do it?” he asked.
“You’d better,” she said calmly. “You’ve got a better claim to it than I do.”
“Billions of people have a good claim to it,” he replied, “or trillions, so I’m not concerned about my own rights here. I think you ought to. It’s—symbolic.”
She laughed without mirth. “Alright.”
And like that—with exactly that much ceremony—she raised her own blaster and shot him through the head. Whatever words Emysos was trying so desperately to say died with him on the floor.
“You know, I’ve always particularly hated the symbolism of the Guard,” she replied conversationally. “You got word from Consecra?”
He nodded. “Loren has the princess out. No word about the empress yet.” Loren swallowed convulsively: they still, two days after this conversation, had not found the princess. What a mess, what an unending fucking mess.
He was about to turn the vholos emitter off, assuming the feed was done—why had D’Lorah sent this to him, anyway? He didn’t need to see it, he had enough on his plate—when Mikanah spoke again, her voice so low it was barely audible.
“I wanted to fix it, you know,” she addressed Emysos. Her face was drawn and she would die fighting not an hour from now, Loren knew. Some of her last words ever recorded, and it left him shivering as if her ghost was in the room with him, telling him this herself. “I truly did. I tried for years. I’m… sorry it came to this. Your majesty.”
Then she strode out of the room without a backwards glance, D’Lorah following.
Loren switched off the feed. If it continued, he did not need to see. Did not want to watch as they came for Emysos, as his hair was cut, as his lifeless body was hung from that Panajan lamp-post.
The next day Loren got another video, this one a live feed, and watched in horror as a girl was pushed through an airlock cycle.
A girl. Name her, you fucking coward.
It started off in a ship somewhere else, that was all he knew. The moment the feed came through it was already too late—messages took their sweet time to relay through the jump-gates, and perfect holo feeds like this one took the longest time of all. In truth it was not live at all, but merely the closest thing to. The moment it came through, though, Loren was looking for the source, coaxing it out of the terminals around them, and it was somewhere past OU sector. Too far away to stop. It had probably ended before he’d even gotten the feed and that made it no easier to watch as she—
Anutéa. She had a name; she had lived. She had been his betrothed, his, he was supposed to marry her and become prince consort, and all of this was nothing in the face of the enormity of what he had done. Three days ago he’d stood up against the Empire, finally taken a stand for justice, and Loren told himself it had been worth it when he saw her face, pale, pria flashing in strong strobing distress, behind the sealed door of the airlock.
She had lived. Loren had felt the softness of her hair under his fingers, the long silken strands, stronger than they seemed. Now hers was shorn, jagged at the edges where someone had ungently severed them. Her pria though, her pria were just as he remembered, the perfect shade of them a touch lighter than her hair and the same colour of her eyes, which were wide. Hugely wide, but not crying, no. Anutéa would never cry.
He watched and the ship watched and the system watched and everyone watched, everyone, as the airlock cycled. She mouthed something—he wasn’t sure, it was distorted somewhat by the pane of the airlock—and was gone. Later he would hear that she said these words, and whether it was simply the rumour-mill or something more he could not know: Forgive me.
But in the moment he watched her die and remembered the curve of her hip under his hand, a thick layer of silk separating them.
He remembered vivid green eyes flashing in his direction, the final knowledge of the betrayal he had wrecked upon them emerging in horror.
He remembered standing in the Court, watching as Emysos did something which raised the fine hairs on the back on his neck, a cold wind freezing the blood in his veins as a system somewhere far away went silent.
Loren remembered it all, and that was what finally allowed him to sublimate it, to bury his own distress and horror and grief in the knowledge, a firm bedrock to keep him steady through the next four years of war. He had done it for the people.