Continued from 12. The Diner.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Romik met Director Ais on the flat roof of Central Command, an enormous building looming up above the rest of the skyline like a great black cliff. He had received a brief report from Frenz that they were returning to Central with prisoners. Plural. He wondered who besides Julin had fallen into the net?
The VIP sky car perches were arranged around a central square with extensive gardens stretching off above either wing of the immense building. The skies were heavily clouded, and rain was moving in from the north, but the square was protected by an immense shield.
Romik saw the Director emerge from his sky car, alone. Immediately he knew something was wrong. As chief armsman, he had learned to read his charge’s moods quite closely. He had rarely seen the Director in a mood so black. A cut on his cheek had bled and not been cleaned.
“Romik,” the Director acknowledged when he saw him. “Good. Walk with me.” As they headed across the square, Romik fell into step at the Director’s right hand, slightly behind him, the proper place for a chief armsman.
The Director was very quiet, and Romik let him be. Rather than walking to the lifthouse, the Director turned towards the gardens. He often walked up here when something troubled him.
Five years ago, Romik would have shrugged his shoulders and played the part of a shadow, minding his own business and letting his charge mind his. Now, as chief armsman, he couldn’t; protecting his boss’s security was his business. To manage the tactical environment, he had to understand the strategic environment.
Overcoming his natural reticence, he cleared his throat and willed his voice to speak. “Frenz gave me a brief report. He said you took prisoners?”
The Director nodded absent-mindedly. “They went in a separate car.”
“And an accomplice?”
Silence. They walked quietly among the gardens for several minutes.
Finally, Director Ais stopped in front of a tree by a small babbling stream.
“Have you ever lived in dread of something, Romik?”
Odd question. “Yes, sir.”
“And then, when it was nearly upon you, did you ever wonder if it might not be as bad as you’d expected?”
Romik smiled, on familiar ground now. “My first firefight, back when I was a rookie. There came a point where I knew it was coming, and I just wanted to get it over with, whatever might come.”
The Director looked at him for the first time. A strange smile spread across his face. “You’re right, it was the same for me. I’d forgotten about that.” He looked back at the tree. “That seems like a very long time ago now.”
Romik looked at the tree as well. It was a tree. They stood like that in silence for another minute.
Again, Director Ais spoke. “For ten years I’ve lived in fear of this day, when Julin might come back. I prepared for every eventuality. Now, here he is, in my power at last, and I realize there’s one possibility I didn’t prepare for.”
Familiar ground lost. Romik had no idea where this was going. He watched the tree.
The Director continued. “You know, I don’t even blame him. I would’ve done the same thing, had our roles been reversed.”
“You mean Mr. Terch?”
Romik nodded. “Undoubtedly, sir. He was in a tough spot.”
“Yes,” agreed the Director. “And I wonder: what if he had succeeded? Where would I be right now?”
Romik had no desire to speculate, so he kept quiet.
“Could it be any worse?”
Romik smirked. “It can always be worse, sir.”
The Director chuckled. “You are a faithful realist, Romik.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I suppose I would either be dead, shot or hung for treason, or I would be in exile.
“Don’t forget escaped and hunted like an animal, sir.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s an option.”
Another long silence. The tree was still there.
The Director sighed. “Why is it that none of those sound so bad after all?”
The Director looked at him with a grave expression. “Romik, you’re a good man, and I know you’ll keep everything you’ve seen and heard the past few days to yourself.”
Romik nodded. “Of course, sir.”
“I realized something today, Romik, on the way back. I’ve been trying to stay the course, keep things from changing too much, too fast. I’ve been trying to escape from the past and live in it at the same time. You follow me?”
Romik looked at him blankly.
The Director’s lip twitched in a faint smile. “Alright, let me try again. The Emperor was cruel and cunning. He ruled by deception, fear, and terror. He left his mark on the galaxy, and it couldn’t change overnight. Release control too quickly, and you would have war and all the horrors that come with it. Release control slowly, and you simply have more deception, fear, and terror. Just a little less of it.”
Romik nodded. He understood deception, fear, and terror. They were the tools of the Enforcer, things to be used when necessary, then cleaned, oiled, and packed away.
“Well,” said Director Ais, “that’s been my life these past ten years: fighting to stay on top of the pile, hating what I have to do, afraid to change anything too fast. And I looked into the eyes of my wife today, and I saw what I would have to do to stay in control.”
Now Romik was truly lost in space. The tree was still there, but the world was spinning too fast.
“I can’t do it, Romik. I can’t hurt her like that. I’m afraid it’s already too late.”
“Sir, maybe I missed something. What does Mrs. Ais have to do with this?”
“Frenz didn’t tell you? She was the accomplice. I arrested her along with Julin.”
Oh. He took a deep breath. “So what does it mean, boss? What are you going to do now?”
The Director shrugged and held his palms up, a helpless gesture. “If I let Julin go, my secret will be out. Maybe I was foolish to think I could keep it hidden forever. I probably was. So, I can stay and be executed for treason sooner or later, or I can go into exile.”
The tree was still there, upright and strong, even as the rest of Romik’s world turned sideways. He risked a look at the Director. “Not much of a choice,” he said. He looked back at the tree. It was still there.
“No, there is no choice. I must go into exile.”
Well, he’d wanted to understand the strategic environment. There it was.
The Director sighed. “That puts you in an awkward spot, Romik. I’m sorry. Anyone too close to me will be in danger, too. You and Major Mus especially.”
Romik shrugged. As they said back home, in for a pentya, in for a povya. “You’ll need armsmen in exile, too, won’t you? Doubly so.”
The Director smiled, a strange smile. Romik had never seen him like this before. He didn’t like it.
“I’m afraid very soon I won’t have any way to reward your loyalty. But thank you.”
Romik shrugged, and looked at the tree again. Loyalty was its own reward, wasn’t it? That’s what his Da would have said. He grimaced. This was why he’d avoided strategic thinking in the past. It got too… complicated. Romik didn’t like complications.
The Director turned back toward the square. “This has been a very helpful conversation. You’ve helped me clarify some things. Thank you again. My prisoners are waiting for me. I suppose I must face them.”
They left the gardens and headed for the lifthouse at the center of the square. As they neared it, a voice called out, “Director Ais!”
The Director stopped and looked. It was Director Amady Iani, coming along from the other side of the square, accompanied by his own chief armsman, Garsi. Romik knew Garsi by reputation: a good soldier. Director Iani though… he shuddered. He’d heard enough stories. He pitied Garsi. To be assigned to that man…
“Ah, Director Ais, early as always,” said Iani as he approached. “May I have a word with you?”
“Director Iani, good afternoon,” said Director Ais. “Of course.”
Romik and Garsi exchanged glances and fractional nods of mutual respect. Each settled in to watch behind the other and eavesdrop on their charges.
“I took the liberty of following up on that little matter from the other day; the academic prognosticator.”
“Ah, yes.” Director Ais hid it well, but Romik could hear the impatient edge to his voice.
“A small matter, hardly worthy of further attention, but I indulged a moment of idle curiosity. I know you’ve been busy. I’m sure you’ll be distressed to learn that your orders were not followed.”
Iani grinned maliciously. “Oh, no. The Enforcers charged with their disposal released the man and his group instead of executing them.
“Is that so? I’ll have to look into it.”
“I would have intervened on your behalf if I could, but of course I’m outside the chain of command. I don’t have to tell you, Director, that we must maintain order and discipline in the ranks.”
“No,” said Director Ais, cooly. “You don’t have to tell me. If there has been insubordination, I will see that it is dealt with.”
Romik’s lip twitched in a suppressed smile. He loved how Director Ais never cracked, especially in front of slime like Iani.
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Iani. “I always know I can count on you. I hope the matter of the last couple of days has been settled favorably?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. When I came to your office yesterday morning to tell you about this, Major Mus informed me you were occupied with some very important matter. I’ve heard rumor elsewhere that your brother-in-law has surfaced. I’ve even heard that there was a plot against the throne!” Iani narrowed his eyes, watching Director Ais closely.
Romik hated those beady little eyes. Some day, he’d love to help the man wipe that smirk off his face.
Director Ais nodded. “Ah, you mean Pracclen. I took care of him personally, as an example. These gangsters occasionally get pretensions, you know. As you said, we must maintain order and discipline.”
Iani grinned, a hideous leering expression on his gaunt face. “And your brother-in-law? I trust he was not involved? Family can often be the greatest threat to prominent men.”
Romik had heard rumors of what had happened to the Iani family as the man rose to power. He had spared only his wife and son.
“Director Iani,” said Director Ais in a chiding tone, “I appreciate your concern, but I fear this attention to matters of security are distracting you from the commerce of the Empire. I’ve told you many a time, economic security precedes physical security. I have my charge well in hand. Perhaps if you paid closer attention to your own, we would not have to rely on gangsters like Dallebasel Pracclen to keep the wheels of the economy greased.”
Iani flinched, clearly stung by the words. “Some day,” he hissed, “you will not speak so freely with me.” He wheeled and stormed off. Garsi, face blank, turned and followed at a sedate pace.
Romik wondered how Garsi could stand it.
Director Ais watched them go, a dark, sardonic smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “Romik,” he said, “I suddenly have many things to put in order before I take my leave. That one, I think,” he indicated Iani’s retreating back, “must be the first on my list.”
“Yes, sir.” Romik thought a moment, then asked, “Was he part of the plot?”
“Iani?” Director Ais wrinkled his nose. “No, certainly not. He was the Emperor’s lackey through and through. You can still smell the stench.”
Emperor Moldrion had famously smelled of rotten eggs. Infamously, anyone who called attention to it did not live long. The most closely-guarded secret in the galaxy that everyone knew.
The Director was still staring after Iani. A long moment passed. Finally, he said, “Romik, how hard would it be to assassinate Director Iani?”
Continued in: 14. Plotting
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