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THE LAST HEIR
by Shannon McDermott
ADON KERETH, as commander of the Emperor's Guard, occupied a unique position in the Empire's military. A general had been assigned to him as a superior officer, but they had little contact and Kereth carried out his duties with significant autonomy. But even he, sometimes, was required to go to his superior officer. Kereth had come upon just such a time, and so he left the Palace for the Avidon—the headquarters of the entire military. Typical of Telnaria's most prestigious buildings, the Avidon was huge. Atypically, it was ugly.
At least Kereth had always thought so. Humility suggested he call it one man's opinion; frankness forbade it, because it really was ugly. The heavy masonry, the weathered granite, the huge square columns—maybe it had all aged badly, and in the beginning was not so offensive to the human eye. Maybe. Kereth placed no confidence in the idea. Militaries had often been renowned, but never for a sense of aesthetics.
In the Avidon Kereth reported to his superior, a second-tier general. After they were through with the routine matters, Kereth said, “General Ikron, I told you there was something I wanted to discuss with you today. It concerns Regent Vonran. I believe he should receive full protection.”
“We have concluded the same,” Ikron said. “General Avvon has already been tasked with creating a guard.”
If Kereth remembered correctly, Avvon was a fourth-tier general. “General, I think the Emperor's Guard should be given the job. We are already an existing command; we have developed structure, methods, and procedure. We have men with experience and knowledge.
“Additionally, sir, I'm sure you will understand my concerns at having security teams always in the Palace but not under my command. You know, sir, the troubles that arise when all the forces in an area are not unified under one commander.”
“You haven't given me the impression, Colonel, that you have resources equal to taking on such a task.”
“Allocate them to me, sir. I will manage it. The Palace is already fully under our control. We will have to assign guards to the regent—”
“I don't think you understand the situation,” Ikron interrupted. “You would have to guard the regent's house as well. He is not moving to the Palace. He is commuting.”
Kereth let out a short, involuntary laugh. “It will never last.” Ikron continued to stare at him. “Sir,” Kereth said, “allocate the proper resources, and I will create a division of the Guard to handle this task.”
“That would complicate your command, Colonel. It would mean a great deal of work for you.”
“I am capable, sir.”
“I would not want your family life to suffer.”
If Ikron knew anything about his family life he wouldn't have said that. Or maybe he did, and the comment was a low blow rather than an ignorant brush-off. Kereth couldn't tell. He managed to mostly quell his instinctive sarcasm, saying only, “Is that a no, then, sir?”
“Very well, sir. But I maintain that Regent Vonran will move to the Palace, and I request in advance that when he does, you will put his protection beneath my authority.”
“You would then have a more compelling case, Colonel.”
Kereth stood and saluted. Receiving the general's salute in return, he turned and left. When he returned to the Palace's command center, Major Daven came to meet him. “Vonran arrived just a few minutes ago. There was a major with him.”
Kereth thought he knew what to make of that. “Probably Avvon's pet officer.”
“Avvon's creating the Regent's Guard. My name,” Kereth added. “The major may be the officer he intends to put in charge. He's certainly been assigned to protect Vonran. Didn't he tell you?”
“No. All he told me was that his rank was equal to mine and he was under orders from a general.”
“Why didn't you ask him what his orders were?”
“I did. That was his answer.”
“Let's go have a talk with the good major.”
“This way.” Daven led the way to the Ambassadors Room—a receiving room for foreign visitors—and the two men stepped in. Elymas Vonran stood at the front of the room, opposite a prominent judge of the high courts. A handful of men from the Council and the Assembly, and General Gaelin, looked on. Kereth's eyes searched out a man in a major's uniform, standing against the wall. He glanced at Daven, who nodded.
But this was no time or place for a scene. Kereth took a place at the back of the room, and Daven joined him. They stood, discreetly watching as the judge administered the oath, then said something Kereth couldn't hear. And then it was over. The quiet men disbanded; the conferring of power was complete.
Kereth did not make history, but he saw it and he read it. He knew that the turning points—the great events—often came without fanfare, without even a word in passing.
As the officials began to leave, Kereth made for the major, Daven at his heels. The man was beginning to leave himself, but he wasn't quick enough and his way was blocked. The major looked Kereth and Daven up and down and then tried to bypass them.
Kereth stepped in his way. “May we have a moment, Major?”
“I must follow the regent.”
“I have my orders.”
The major looked at Kereth. “Colonel, these are orders. The regent must be protected at all times.”
“He is very protected here in the Palace. If it worries you so, Daven can follow him. After all, he has been doing such work much longer than you, and he is of equal rank.” Kereth let that sink in, and then said, “But I am not. I am of superior rank, and I am in command here. I demand an explanation of your business and orders.”
The major's expression was hard. “I am protecting the regent by General Avvon's orders. You can't countermand them, and you can't keep me from obeying them. If you tried you could bring down bad consequences on yourself.”
It was not a good thing to say. Kereth's hand jerked, but he held it still. “There is something I would like you to understand, Major. A certain fact, generally kept from the public, is that the Palace is a military installation. If you knew the sort of defenses the Palace has, you would understand that's not only a technicality. I am in command of this installation, and my superior is General Ikron. Neither you—nor General Avvon—has the authority to interfere with my command. Is that well understood?”
“I hear,” the Major said shortly. “Is that all, Colonel?” As soon as Kereth nodded, he passed around the men and was on his way.
“Avvon outranks you,” Daven reminded Kereth.
“And Ikron outranks him.”
“So he'll support us against Avvon's intrusion?”
“Maybe. I've had no guarantee from him.” Kereth turned away and strode out of the room. He began to pass by Chief Kinlol in the corridor, but the man lifted a hand and said, “Colonel Kereth.”
Kereth stopped and turned to him. “Yes?”
“I have heard that you ordered a review of the Guard.”
“Are you worried?”
Kereth regarded the Chief, annoyed by the questioning and feeling as if he'd already been annoyed quite enough for one day. “Chief Kinlol, it is my business to be worried.”
Kinlol nodded and smiled. “Very good.”
Even that was a little annoying. Kereth inclined his head and marched on.
Vonran arrived at the Palace in the morning to take his oath. The oath had been proposed by Kinlol—a modified version of the emperor's oath, and a badly modified one at that. Vonran didn't squabble over it—or over the judge and location Kinlol proposed.
It was a short and plain ceremony, with only witnesses from the Council, the Assembly, and the military in attendance. Vonran took the oath, the judge congratulated him and admonished him to serve well. And it was done. Vonran was regent.
He didn't know quite what to do, but he knew the Ambassadors Room was not where he was to do it. Vonran joined the exodus out, but before he reached the door a voice called to him, “Regent!” Vonran turned and saw Trey Uman approaching him. “Congratulations on your appointment,” Uman said, “and my best wishes. Chief Kinlol—” Uman glanced over at Kinlol. He was standing a few feet away, but paying no attention. His gaze was focused on something across the room. Vonran looked that way and saw two men in military uniforms approaching each other—
Uman's voice brought his attention back: “—discussed it. The second floor has wholly been given over to the Lady Mareah and Emperor Alexander. However, all the emperor's rooms on the first floor have been given to you—except the Judgment Hall.”
Vonran nodded. That was reasonable, and he had no use for the throne room anyway. “And my staff?”
“They will have offices to use as well,” Uman assured him. “Come, I will show you your office.”
Vonran followed him out. Uman led him to a large office that was impressive without being gaudy. Vonran had been there before, meeting with Emperor Judah. He walked up to the desk and stopped by one of the visitor's chairs. He suddenly felt that Uman was going to sit down in the other chair, and after a few minutes Emperor Judah was going to walk in, and they would stand ...
Vonran looked around the office, the solid reality of the colors and the furniture, and the sunlight laying across the floor beneath the window—but the vision lingered just beyond it. His new life was overtaking his old reality, and the two brushed for just a moment in passing. Vonran let go of the old, reached for the new, reminded himself that this was his office now and there was no emperor to walk in. He would not have to rise ... would they rise for him?
Suddenly it came crashing down on Vonran that he was not alone, and he looked quickly at Uman. Uman was watching him, his head slightly cocked, his eyes bright.
He understood. Vonran knew that then, and he was surprised by it. For just a moment they looked at each other, and then a harsh buzzing sounded in the room. Vonran looked around; Uman didn't. “Someone to see you,” he explained. He stopped, but something had come to him, and after a moment he went on, “We always wondered why it didn't bother him. I cringed every time I heard it. But the emperor never minded at all ... ” Uman trailed off, looking a little distant and a little sad. Then he snapped back. “Do you wonder who your first visitor is?”
“Enter,” Vonran commanded, by way of reply.
Theseus Declan did. He came to a stop, looking between the two men. “I didn't mean to intrude ... ”
“I was on my way out,” Uman said. He looked at Vonran and bowed his head. “My best wishes to you again.” He strode out, and as the door closed behind him Vonran turned to Declan.
“I came here to congratulate you,” Declan said.
Vonran smiled. “Thank you. And thank you for nominating me. It was an expression of esteem I value.”
“I knew you wanted it, and I knew you were worthy. Elymas, I know you will do well. You have much to be proud of. Only remember—remember, Elymas—that you have much to be humble about also. God has given you many good gifts, but they are only gifts. We are only creatures, and we all have one Creator.”
Vonran listened and wondered what the point of all this was. It may have shown in his face, because Declan went on, “Beware of pride, Elymas. It goes before destruction.”
Ah. A warning. Pride was ... destructive. Vonran took note and dismissed it from mind. He smiled at Declan. “Are you worried so soon? I have been regent ten minutes—and that ceremony was nothing to go to my head.”
Declan didn't allow himself to be drawn into Vonran's good humor. He looked at Vonran solemnly. “I have been worried from the very beginning.”
Vonran's smile faded away and he looked at Declan in perplexity. “Then why ... ?”
“There was a best solution, but not a perfect one.”
Vonran turned away, anger bubbling up inside him at hearing Kinlol's doubts coming from Declan's lips. Was this what they all thought of him?
Behind Vonran Declan sighed. “I'm sorry, Elymas. I don't want to take away your joy, but you should be on your guard. You must be ... careful.”
Vonran didn't respond or turn back. After a long moment he felt Declan's hand rest gently on his shoulder. “I will leave you to your work. Do good, and God go with you.” And he left, his footsteps lost beyond the closing of the door.
Vonran was alone in the emperor's office—his office—for the first time. He slowly turned around and went and sat at the desk. He leaned back in the chair and looked at the room from this new perspective. It felt good, and restored some of his happiness. Trying to retake all of it, Vonran put his whole conversation with Declan out of mind and began his work—an emperor's work.
In another part of the Palace the Chiefs met together. And they were not happy.
They completed their business, but no one left, and Kinlol did not dismiss them. “It seems,” Trey Uman said, “that we ought to say something.”
Javor Khiv, Chief of the Provinces, turned off his compad. “I knew you weren't listening to my report.”
“No, I mean something about Vonran taking power this morning.”
“What's to say?” Khiv asked. “We lost. He's regent. It's over.”
“And now we live in a changed Empire,” Kinlol said. “At our next meeting, we won't be alone.”
“What do you mean?” Dheval asked.
“Vonran will probably be joining us.”
“Is that necessary?” Uman asked.
“A regent is a temporary emperor. Every emperor meets with the Council. It is an essential part of ruling the Empire.”
“It is necessary.” Uman sighed. “He's been regent two hours and already I'm not liking it.”
“We can't change anything,” Gyas said—warned, maybe. “For ten years, this is the way it is.”
“It's what happens at the end of those ten years that concerns me,” Kinlol said.
“We know,” Ithran said. “And what can we do? We are not autonomous. We serve at the pleasure—and under the authority—of the emperor.”
“Vonran rules us,” said Uman—and he said it as if the words were bitter in his mouth.
They were bitter to Kinlol. “You are right—both of you. The Council cannot oppose Vonran as it did before he became regent. He is over us now.”
The other Chiefs stared at him. “You give up the battle?” Gyas asked.
Kinlol wasn't about to, but he was not going to explain his new method at a Council meeting. “How can the Council fight? Vonran is regent by law, and until he violates the law, we must abide by his rule. I do not approve of the law; I do not like the situation. You all know that. But I will not tear the government apart. Vonran has done no harm ... yet.”
No one disagreed, and there was a brief silence. “It's strange,” Uman said. “I feel as if we are at the end of something.”
“We are,” Kinlol said. “We are at the end of our battle against Vonran.”
Uman looked at him, long and intently, but he said nothing. “And you have nothing to say?” Ithran asked. “No 'Farewell' or 'Well-fought'?”
“I'll not say good-bye, Ithran,” Kinlol answered. “We will serve Vonran together—and we will serve Alexander, too. We must keep him and his rule always before us—all these ten years. But for the second ... ” Kinlol was not a man given to praising others, but he could give his fellow Chiefs this, “ ... the Council did all it could, and I thank the Chiefs for giving their best.” Kinlol allowed them a moment of silence, and then said, “The Council is dismissed.”
The Chiefs rose and began to leave. Uman intercepted Kinlol and drew him to the side. “A word, Kinlol,” he said.
Kinlol lifted his eyebrows. “Yes?”
“I want to know what plot is brewing in your mind now. I know you well, Kinlol; the Council may have ended its battle against Vonran, but you have not.”
“You do know me, Uman. I am still fighting for Alexander—and if that means opposing any move of Vonran's, I will be ready.”
“What are you doing?”
“Do you want to be included?”
Uman was silent a moment, in thought. “The Council will not be fighting with us.”
“Until Vonran breaks the law, the Council cannot plot against him.”
“But a Chief—or Chiefs—can. So you must think. Have you exchanged open opposition for a conspiracy?”
Kinlol considered that. “You might say so. But it is a loyal conspiracy; it is a conspiracy to hand power over to Emperor Alexander—forcibly, if necessary.”
“I pray God that it is not necessary.” Uman thought a long minute, then glanced around the now-empty room. “I will have part in your conspiracy, Kinlol. For Alexander. Not against Vonran—not unless he refuses to yield to Alexander.”
Kinlol smiled. “So be it. I am glad to have you. We will not be alone, Uman. We must soon meet with Gawin Gaelin.”
“And Kavin Gyas,” Uman said. Kinlol raised an eyebrow, and Uman held his gaze. “You bring your friends, I bring my own.”
Kinlol almost smiled, nodded. “So be it.”
The intercom buzzed loudly, and Kereth was really too busy for it. He kept on typing, and when it buzzed again he answered distractedly, “Colonel Kereth.”
“Colonel,” Major Daven's voice came, “I took a message from General Ikron for you.”
Kereth stopped typing then. “Ikron? Aren't you at the CC?”
“Why did he call the CC instead of my office?” Kereth wondered—aloud, before he thought better.
“I don't know, sir. I offered to transfer the call, but he only wanted me to take a message.”
“What is it, Major?”
“He wants you to come over for after-dinner drinks, sir.”
“Come over ... ?”
“To his house, sir.”
Kereth pondered that. “Thank you, Major.” He switched off the intercom and sat back in his chair, puzzled. He and Ikron had never socialized before. Even their professional relationship, though it worked, was not particularly comfortable. Maybe that was the reason Ikron called the command center; he didn't want to answer any questions. It gave Kereth a bad feeling, but he would go anyway. Though it sounded like a social invitation, Kereth had a clear idea his professional life would suffer if he didn't comply.
That evening Kereth had dinner at a restaurant, for no other reason than he was tired of ordering into his office and didn't want to go home. Afterward he went to the general's house. The general's wife let him in and led him to a lounge. There General Ikron and General Avvon sat together, drinks in hand.
Kereth came to a halt, but only for a second. He strode in, faced Ikron, and brought his hand up in a very sharp salute.
“At ease, Colonel,” Ikron said, not saluting in return. “None of us are on duty. Avvon and I aren't even in uniform.”
Kereth considered saying that he was, but that was self-evident. “Yes, sir,” he said, lowering his hand.
“Sit down, Kereth. What can I get for you?”
Kereth glanced at the generals' cups and guessed what strong drinks they were drinking. He considered asking for berry juice, had enough consideration for Ikron—and his own career—to modify the request. “An ale, sir. Takari root ale.” Ikron hesitated just a beat, continued on. Kereth noted where Ikron had been sitting and took a seat as far away from the generals as he could without being rude—or obvious. Ikron came and gave him a clear glass cup without a handle, filled with dark liquid. Kereth had always used a large mug; he wondered if this was the high-class way of drinking ale. “Thank you, General,” he said. “You have a nice home. I've never been here before.”
If Ikron thought that comment was pointed beneath its innocuous irrelevancy, he didn't let on. “Thank you, Colonel. Now you must be wondering why I invited you here tonight—”
“Yes, sir,” Kereth interrupted, and immediately regretted his tone. It was, maybe, just a little too enthusiastic.
Ikron ignored it. “I thought, Colonel Kereth, that you and General Avvon should become acquainted.”
“Why? I mean, sir, you have shown no interest in facilitating friendships for me.”
“Quite true.” Ikron nodded to Avvon. “You are going to be working together closely to ensure harmony between your commands. You should work smoothly.”
“Major Skarti informed me of your discussion,” Avvon said. “I think you should know, Colonel, that I have no intention of interfering with your command. But my orders make it necessary for my men to work within it.”
Ikron nodded. “So you must work together, to see that both of you carry out your duties without hindering the other.”
Kereth sat listening, looking between the two men, and he had a bad, bad feeling. His raised cup was still full, and finally he took a drink of the ale. Too sweet. “General, I brought up this problem ... ”
“And we have agreed, Kereth,” Ikron interrupted. “That is why I have invited you two. Things must be clear from the very beginning, so there will be no conflict.”
“Yes,” said Avvon. “If any issue should arise with how my men conduct themselves in the Palace, I will be available to you at any time.”
The bad feeling turned to anger. Kereth couldn't say thank you; sarcasm wouldn't just bleed into the remark, it would overflow. “I will take advantage of your offer whenever I find it necessary.” Kereth looked down at his ale and suddenly wished he had asked for something he could throw down and be done with, so he could be done with the whole meeting. He looked at Ikron. “And you, sir?”
The general's eyebrows went up. “Me, Colonel?”
“Where are you in this arrangement?”
Ikron smiled. “I'm not. At least, I hope not to be. You are both adults—mature, intelligent men—and soldiers of the emperor. You should not need me to referee you.”
“So, Colonel,” Avvon interjected, “how long have you commanded the Emperor's Guard?”
“That's quite a while. Do most commanders stay that long?”
“It's about right.” Kereth took a long drink, letting the ale flow down his throat.
“What were you doing before you were given command of the Guard?”
“I was earning deep-selection for general.” It wasn't really what Avvon had asked, but suddenly it seemed to Kereth to be a highly relevant answer. He placed his cup down on the table; he would leave without finishing it. Kereth stood to his feet. “By your leave, generals, I will be heading home. It isn't very late, but I am tired.” That was the truth, though Kereth hadn't realized it until it passed his lips. “Perhaps we could do this ... some other time.” Kereth was certain they never would.
He let himself out. Kereth went home. He had a large apartment with spacious rooms. He was forty years old and he still saw no reason to own a house. He didn't need a yard; he certainly had no time to take care of one.
Kereth went first to his computer; the communications system, like everything else that could be controlled technologically, had been networked to it. He checked to see if anyone had tried to contact him from the Guard. It was habit; Kereth was not feeling attentive. He was angry; yes, angry, and it burned dully through his fatigue. He had warned of the danger of conflicting commands, and what solution had they come up with? To make him consult Avvon. That was the solution. That was the plan. Avvon's people would be scurrying through his facility and if he ever had a problem, he could just call Avvon.
Ikron's words ran through Kereth's mind again: You should not need me to referee you. It was all Ikron's way of excusing himself from the whole affair. He wasn't going to back Kereth up. It was Kereth alone against Avvon—a colonel against a general. Well, Avvon wasn't in Kereth's chain of command, and Kereth wasn't going to forget it. The Palace was his command and he wasn't going to lose his dominance to some fourth-tier general, even if his superior officer wouldn't help him. He knew his authority, and if they thought—
His fury finally outran his energy, and Kereth sighed and scrubbed his hand through his hair. He could maintain his hold if he fought, and he was good at fighting. He had the stomach for it, and most times he had the heart, too.
Not this time. It was running away from him, all of it was running away from him, and he couldn't summon the passion to run also. Kereth would not allow his authority to be compromised to make his superiors' stupid ideas work, but he didn't want to fight for it, either. Maybe, then, it was time to step aside.
I was earning deep-selection for general. But commanders of the Emperor's Guard were not generals. Worse yet, they were rarely made into generals. If Kereth was to become a general, it was best that he apply for a transfer to a conventional military command. He'd already been in the Guard too long. And was there any reason for him to continue? He had always wanted to go as high as first-tier general. And why not? He was as good as any of them. He was very good. He had proved it his whole career, had worked hard every day. He had paid his dues, by day and night.
Kereth suddenly became aware of the screen he was staring at. No messages to read, but he had one to write.
A small triangle at the upper-left corner of the screen caught his eye. It was a file he had never read and would not close. He knew what it was and had not yet chosen to make use of it. But now Kereth hesitated, his eyes fixed on that small triangle. The thought ran through his head ... and he dismissed it. This was a decision to be made alone, because he was alone. He had come to realize that he didn't like it, but that was okay. People who couldn't treat others right deserved to be alone.
Trey Uman seemed to regard the contents of his cup and then swirled them around. He looked around at the men with him and raised his cup. “A toast, gentlemen.” They—Gyas, Gaelin, and Kinlol—regarded him suspiciously. “Gentlemen, to defeat and a new battle!”
“I drink to a new battle,” said Gawin Gaelin, and drank from his cup.
Gyas also drank; Kinlol simply ignored the toast. “What truly disturbs me is that Vonran controls the military,” he said. “You are with us, Gaelin, but we must have more. We must bring another into this loyal subversion of ours.”
“Dheval?” Gyas asked.
“No. I don't trust him, and he doesn't like me. I'm thinking of Adon Kereth.”
Gyas' eyebrows shot up. “Kereth?”
“You know him,” Uman said. “Colonel, commands the Emperor's Guard. Sharp uniform, ramrod bearing, dark hair with a bit of white, huge chip on his shoulder.”
“I know who he is,” Gyas said. “But why him? He's only a colonel.”
“He commands the Emperor's Guard,” said Kinlol.
“Which is small considering what generals command.”
“It's more than size. Kereth is in charge of protecting Alexander; he operates with considerable autonomy; he knows all the strengths and weaknesses of the Palace. And ... ” Kinlol paused and looked at the others. “He's strong. I think that in a fight he would be a fierce and unrelenting opponent.”
“He scraps,” Uman said.
“I can undercut half of that right now,” Gaelin said.
“What?” Kinlol asked.
Gaelin looked at him and then the others. “Normally I wouldn't share this. But the child is my emperor, and he is my wife's flesh and blood, and so my own. I was at a meeting this morning with the High Command. Ikron—a second-tier general—brought a matter that had not been on the agenda. Last night Kereth put in a request for a transfer. As you know, the High Command is tasked with choosing the commander of the Emperor's Guard. Kereth's request will probably be granted.”
“The situation is complicated. On the one hand, he is a fine officer and has done very well. Choosing a new commander would not be an easy task. As a rule, only colonels are selected. Many military men—however good they are—are not very well suited to bodyguarding.”
“And we demand excellence for the emperor,” Kinlol said.
“Of course. Many officers don't want the job; they view it as a career-killer. For all its glory, the Guard is not a conventional military command and may hurt rather than help an officer's rise.”
“The years spent in the wilderness ... ” Gyas muttered.
Gaelin nodded. “Exactly. Kereth has been exceptional, and the High Command might normally be inclined to keep him a little longer. But there is another issue. As you know, the military has created a guard for Vonran. Kereth wanted to create a new division in the Guard and handle the task himself. He was overruled, and when a major of the new command arrived at the Palace, he asserted himself quite strongly.”
“Asserted ... ?” Uman spoke the rest of the question by waving his hands.
“Asserted his authority. None of Vonran's guards are under his command, but the Palace is. They are not under his authority, but they are operating within his command.”
“Sounds difficult,” said Gyas.
“It is ambiguous. There is room for conflict. It calls for both parties to be accommodating, even compliant ... Kereth will not be.”
“So he resigns,” Uman said. “It solves their problem. And they must add 'compliant' to their list of qualifications.”
“That's the most likely scenario.”
“What will happen to Kereth?” Kinlol asked.
“He will be newly assigned. Quite likely, in a few years, he will become a general.”
“Is he that good?” Kinlol asked.
“He is unusually good. He would be a fine general.”
A silence fell over the group. After a few moments Gaelin turned to Kinlol. “Now whom do you want?”
The other three looked at each other. “Let's think about Dheval,” said Gyas.
Kereth was hard at work when he heard his office door open. He looked up, ready to snap at whoever had entered without permission, and stopped.
Chief Kinlol stood there. Kereth sat back in his chair and looked at him. “May we talk, Colonel Kereth?” Kinlol asked.
“Yes.” Kereth gestured to a chair in front of the desk. “Sit down.” Kereth waited until Kinlol did, and then asked, “What do you want?”
Kinlol regarded him for a long moment. “A favor,” he said. “A big one.”
Kereth felt his eyebrows go up, and he wondered why Kinlol felt they were on terms to be asking each other for any sort of favor at all.
“Colonel,” Kinlol said, “I have come to ask a great deal from you, so I will be entirely frank from the very start. I am a loyalist of the House of Alheenan. I am devoted to supporting and preserving the emperorship as the Ancient Code established it. It is my life's work. I failed to prevent the regency, and now I can only labor—with unceasing vigilance—to ensure that Alexander receives his own.”
Kereth pushed away from his desk and went to stand by the window behind it. He gazed out, his back turned to Kinlol. Such personal testimonies discomfited him at the best of times; coming from a virtual stranger, they made him nervous.
Kinlol was not deterred. “Others have joined me in my quest. I want you to also.”
It took a moment for Kereth to process that and believe it. He turned around. “Me?”
“You command the Emperor's Guard. You can protect Emperor Alexander until he takes the throne.”
“Any commander of the Guard would do that.” Kereth turned back to the window.
“If they could. I have it from General Gaelin himself that you are exceptional. Kereth, aside from the child's mother there is no one closer to him than you. You have great access, great proximity to the child and his mother—and that is power in its own right.”
“Well, it's a power I'll soon lose. I have already requested a transfer.” Kereth thought this a crushing blow and turned to Kinlol as he spoke it.
Kinlol wasn't fazed. He almost smiled. “I know. That's one of the reasons I'm trying to convince you to stay. The High Command will see to it that the next commander is more compliant than you.”
“Someone's been talking out of school. So you want to have the commander of the Emperor's Guard in your alliance, and you want that commander to be me. You trust my ability. Do you trust my loyalty?”
“Kereth, for years we have stood in the corner of each other's eyes, lived at the edge of each other's lives. I don't know if you have taken my measure, but I have taken yours. You have been faithful; you have been devoted to your emperor and your task. And you are strong. I would have you at my side.”
“At the emperor's side.”
There was a moment of gentle silence. Then Kereth raised his voice. “Do you have any idea what you're asking me to do? Ten more years commanding the Emperor's Guard! It'll ruin my career—even if I don't get court-martialed for joining your merry little band! I could be a general! I'm a soldier! You want me to spend nearly fifteen years of my life being a bodyguard?” Kereth waved his hand vigorously. “No, no, don't answer that. I'll make this simple. I'm already leaving. The decision is made. The High Command is probably getting ready to transfer me right now.”
“Withdraw your request.”
“Brilliant. Now I can be a flip-flopper, too.”
“Tell them you desire to continue serving your emperor in this way.”
“I don't. Let someone else run the Guard. Why me?” Kereth waved his hand again. “Don't answer that. The new commander may be a bit of a—well, a bit of a milksop, but they're not going to choose an incompetent. Go bond with him—and his proximity, access, power.”
“If it were that way, I wouldn't need any alliance at all.”
Kereth jabbed his hand at Kinlol, ordering, “Explain that.” He had been told that the gestures he was prone to make when worked up were aggressive. What he had not been told was why that was bad.
“It's not merely the protecting. You are in the Palace, you have forces under your command here. You know the Palace's defenses. You know where it cannot be infiltrated ... and where it can be. If Vonran tries to usurp the throne, someone may try to kill Alexander. Or we may have to kill Vonran. Either way, you would be vital.”
Kereth stared at Kinlol. “You think it could get as bad as that?”
“It could get as bad as a civil war. In that case, Colonel, you would become a general.”
“And you have a grand conspiracy to keep all of this from happening, and you want me in on it?”
Kereth turned back to the window. “The passion to run,” he said softly.
Kereth looked back at Kinlol. “Private comment. Sorry. Is Vonran so bad?”
“He is an ambitious man.”
“So am I.”
“He is a proud man.”
“So am I. Though not too proud to admit it, and not enough of a fool to be pleased with it.”
“He is alone in his cunning and desire.”
Kereth absorbed that line. “Oh, that sounds good.” But he was thinking seriously. “Without God, we all stand at the edge of a long descent, don't we?”
Kinlol looked at him with mild interest. “You believe in God, then?”
“Yes. I haven't been ... I have believed,” Kereth repeated, turning away from the admission. He looked at Kinlol critically. “Why are you doing all this?”
“Duty, loyalty, honor.”
“Even evil men can cover their actions with virtue.”
Kinlol regarded Kereth, then slowly shook his head. “You want me to prove my sincerity? How? Have you ever been married?”
“I was. I am,” Kereth amended quickly.
Kinlol gave no sign of noticing. “I have never been married. But I feel about the emperorship as a husband feels about the wife he loves—to protect, to cherish, to care for.”
Kereth's throat was tight, as he suddenly felt sad. “Aye.”
Kereth nodded slowly. “Aye.” He didn't look at Kinlol.
Kinlol waited a long minute, and then asked, “What's your decision?”
Kereth was about to ask for time to think about it, but what was he going to weigh? His selfish ambition against the good of his emperor and country? Kereth felt then that he couldn't; he'd sinned enough. “Yes,” Kereth said.
Kinlol's voice registered surprise. “Yes?”