Joseph Marsh is an emerging gay writer who studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln and is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing. He has been published in Ghost Heart Literary Journal, Stone of Madness Press, Tealight Press and several other places. He is a Senior Fiction Editor for the literary journal The Lincoln Review and former Vice President of the University of Lincoln Spoken Word and Creative Arts society.
Princes of a Fractured Empire
My reflection stares at me through the fine polished leather of my black boots. A strand of gold hair falls from its place and I raise a hand to fix it. My swinging legs tap the leg of my father sitting next to me and I look up. He doesn’t glance at me, merely stares forward with his hard brow, frowning at the carved oak wall. I want to be lifted and held like when I was young. When I was five I tried to throw myself into his arms so he slapped me across my face and said that “it’s unbecoming for a Prince of the Galactic Empire to be carried by his father.” My grip tightens around the edge of the chair until my knuckles go white as I recall the memory. My spine’s rigidly straight, the picture of a perfect Prince. The slightest incline of my head indicates the effort I’m making to hear what’s going on in the room behind me. The walls are soundproofed but this doesn’t stop me trying. I cough and my father glares at me which makes me blush. “Excuse me,” I mumble and stare at the floor. Sighing I reach into my pocket and draw a wooden chess piece. For three months I’ve been carving a set based on the Great Galactic Crusade. The first major conflict of humanity’s space faring age, it saw the rise of my eleven times great grandfather as the first Emperor. The pieces resemble ships of the two opposing sides. Deep blue for the Imperial navy and a crimson wine red for the rebel forces. Of course things weren’t as clear cut then but it makes for a good chess set. This is the final piece, a rebel flagship for the rebel’s king. It’s my best piece yet and I’m particularly proud of the paint job. The doors swing open and out steps a tall slender faced man with black spectacles that magnify his eyes and a white coat that reaches his ankles. My father and the man share a dower look. With a sigh, my father wipes the sweat from his face, momentarily wiping away his composure and showing genuine fear before he resets himself and stands to walk into the room. A medical bot floats sombrely over my head and down the corridor. Emotions are impossible for robots yet in the way it hovers I think I can see an element of shame. A shiver crawls up my spine and I follow behind my father. I step toward the shrouded bed while my father speaks with his advisor, Minister Kharkov. My mother lays, her gold hair sprawls around her head on the soft white pillow like a puddle spilling from her. When compared to her pale skin it looks as if her life force is seeping out from her scalp. Reaching out to hold her upturned hand I shiver at the cold, clammy texture. I frown, glancing at my father before trying to wake her up. There comes a cry like a pig’s squeal from behind me and I turn toward it. The conversation between my father and Minister Kharkov ceases. On the other side of the room there’s a crib shrouded in white sheets, I can see movement in the ripples of the sheets. My father storms out of the room and I stare after him in confusion before turning back to stare at the crib. I take a deep breath to calm the urge to cry. Removing my hand from my mother’s and balling it by my side, I stride across the room. Peering into the crib I see a small bundle swaddled in blankets. When the writhing thing inside sees me it ceases squealing and stares up at me with glistening green eyes like mine. It reaches for me with its tiny hands and I instinctively reach in. The bundle wraps its stubby fingers around my index finger and I can’t help but laugh. “Hello,” I coo before Minister Kharkov places a hand on my shoulder. I raise my head, unable to control my smile. “Prince Gregor,” the Minister begins, “say hello to your baby brother.” I return my gaze to the smiling baby and am awash with adoration. This tiny thing staring up at me is my baby brother. Mine to look after, to protect, to guide. The responsibility thrills and terrifies me and the next words to come out of my mouth are spoken with a laugh. “What’s his name?” “Prince Anatole, your Radiance.” “Anatole,” I say, testing how it sounds on my lips and liking it. “I’m going to take care of you Anatole. We’ll be best friends.” Realising that such an occasion as this deserves commemoration I take the chess piece out of my hand and roll it between my fingers. My lip curls upward. Smiling I place it in Anatole’s hand who immediately places it between his toothless gums with a smile meant just for me. I don’t care that it will probably be ruined, I have a baby brother and I can’t feel anything but happiness.
Rubbing my eyes in false exasperation I move my knight across the board. “Check,” I say in desolation, hoping that Anatole will fall for my ruse. I gaze at my brother, twelve years old with golden hair springing from his scalp in two shimmering curtains, framing his face as he frowns at the chess board. His finger taps nervously on the table. Anatole looks up as I sigh and a smirk comes to his lips which I know to mean that he’s taken the bate. Now all he has to do is move his king just right. Slender fingers grasp the piece, a dark blue SF-3818 Flagship and moves it forward. I allow myself the briefest quirk of my lips as my plan falls into place. For six moves my bishops have been strategically placed to trap his king on either side as soon as it moves into place. One of my rooks stands firm in the row behind, blocking retreat. My queen’s been sacrificed in a move to get his king onto the field. All that’s left is for me to move my final rook six squares forward and complete my entrapment. Allowing myself a moment of smugness, I make the killing blow and utter the words “Check Mate.” Anatole parts his lips in shock, his eyebrows furrows as he searches for a way out, confusion turns to anger. “Shit,” he says, before he slamming his fist on the table and sweeping the chess board and all its pieces off and onto the floor. My own eyebrows raise as I shoot from my chair. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I say, remembering the work I had put into carving the pieces. Kneeling down to pick them up I make sure they’re all right. “This game is bullshit!” Anatole hisses, crossing his arms in indignation. He refuses to offer me a hand in tidying his mess. “You always win and are so smug about it.” “Don’t be a sore loser Anatole.” “Shut up, Gregor,” Anatole snaps. The legs of his chair scrape on the floor as he pushes it back and storms to the window. “You always act so superior. Just because one day you’ll be Emperor.” “What?” “Don’t act innocent, I can see you loving it. Lauding over the fact that when father dies everything goes to you. The power, the riches, everything. It’s not fair.” Blinking blankly, I reply, “No, it’s not Anatole. I’ve raised that point to father on multiple occasions. No one’s fighting to change that more than me, you know that.” I gather the pieces and place them in their velvet lined box. The final piece is the rebel king who’d just won another victory at my hand. There are tooth marks all over it from Anatole’s teething phase. Unlike the other pieces, it’s never been repaired. Those teeth marks represent too much for me to do that. My hand closes around the piece and I stand up to walk toward Anatole. Taking Anatole by the shoulders I wait for eye contact and say, “I promise, Anatole, when I’m emperor, things will be better. You will be my right hand man. I’ll tear these traditions from the ground up and I’ll do it with you by my side. All we have to do is wait.” Pulling Anatole into a hug, I smile before he places his hands on my chest and pushes me away. Looking away, Anatole mumbles, “I don’t need you to fight my battles.” I shrug. “No, but I’m going to anyway.” Anatole looks me in the eye for a long time. Sighing he says, “It’d just be nice to win once in a while, Gregor.” I smile, “Anatole, I’m not playing to win. I’m playing to spend time with my brother. If I knew it’d make you happy I’d have lost. Besides if you’re going to command the Home Fleet you need to learn how to lose as well as how to win.”
The air whistles as I parry Anatole’s strike and use the lightness of my feet to spin around him, placing myself in the centre of the ring and putting Anatole on the back foot. I flash a smile and the tip of my sword goes to the side, opening my chest to attack in an attempt to provoke him. Anatole grimaces and puts his strength in a quick charge toward me which I swipe easily to the side. I laugh as Anatole finds himself flung to the other side of the ring and nearly thrown over the chalk line by his own momentum. My hair’s sodden with sweat so I peer between fallen strands which have turned a dirty yellow with the moisture. Pushing my hair back with my free hand, I smile and say, “Come on Anatole. Don’t tell me you’re tired already.” The bristles rise at this jibe and there’s a moment of satisfaction knowing I can get a rise out of him like this. Anatole straightens his back and faces me, his cheeks are pink with embarrassment but otherwise he’s composed. He holds his sword forward, the tip of the blade pointing at me as his feet slide into position. This duel’s only just started. My smile widens as I fix my stance and we size each other up once more, looking for weakness. It strikes me how grown up Anatole looks. At sixteen he’s practically a man, with broad shoulders, high cheeks and piercing blue eyes that already are beginning to turn the gazes of the royal court. There’s a rush of pride to think that I may be partly responsible for the way he’ll turn out. I hope I’ve been a good role model. Someone ought to have been. A bird flies overhead, the shadow of its wings passes over Anatole’s face then mine as it searches for prey. The ring’s surrounded by high hedges abundant in sweet smelling flowers so that we may have some privacy despite the fact the security bots overseeing the duel. My father hardly ever shows his face to us yet he still manages to overbear. I laugh and set my focus back on Anatole, his face set in determination. There’s a sneeze to the edge of the ring and I allow myself a glance toward the onlookers. There stands our fencing instructor, Anatole’s aide, a few servants carrying dry clothes and water, and the source of the sneeze my own aide and Captain of the guard Victor Dolokhov. A rush of euphoria hits me as our eyes lock. With an adorably ashamed expression he mutters something about hay fever and bites his lip in mortification. My smile widens and my gaze lingers on him long enough for Anatole to press his advantage. With a swipe he knocks my sword out of the way, opening me for attack, and thrusts at the centre of my chest. I dodge it by a hairs breadth and stumble to create some distance between us. “Good one Anatole,” I say, raising my sword once more and resetting my stance. “Don’t patronise me Gregor.” “Come on little brother,” I say, goading him. “Let’s play nice.” Anatole spits on the floor, wipes his face and sneers at me. An inkling of nervousness comes to me before I’m thrown under a torrent of wild attacks which take me by surprise and it’s all I can do to parry them. Anatole’s face is red with rage and I realise that something was wrong. “An—” I splutter but am cut off with the effort of preventing his strikes. He’s really trying to hurt me. In my periphery, I see Victor dropping the bundle of towels in his arms and stepping forward to rush to my aid. The instructor stops him but I now realise that if I didn’t do anything something bad could happen. Gritting my teeth, I parry Anatole’s next thrust and step into his body, bringing us close and rendering his sword useless. With a shoulder barge I knock him to the ground and kick the sword away from him. It was a cheap trick but necessary. Hoping that our relationship hasn’t been damaged I offer a hand to pull him back to his feet which he slaps away. Aghast, I watch him storm to his aide and press a towel to his face. Our fencing instructor goes to chastise Anatole but my younger brother ignores him. Victor reaches me and my worries dissipate. When I hand him my sword, our fingers touch and it’s the most electrifying sensation. Victor’s face is vibrant with concern as he hands me a towel. Acting like he’s checking my wounds, he holds my hand and rubs the top of it with his thumbs. “Are you alright?” he whispers. My smile turns into a sad one. “I’m fine.” “What happened?” I look over to my brother, he’s still angry. “I don’t know, but I have to talk to him.” Sighing, I wipe my face and walk over to Anatole. Slapping a hand on his shoulder with affected joviality, I say, “That was a good fight Anatole. You had me on the ropes for a second.” Anatole frowns. “You cheated.” That stings. Laughing, I reply, “Yes well, you were going a bit too hard for me.” Anatole spins on his heels to face me. “Why didn’t you just lose? Are you that obsessed with winning that you’ll stoop to blatant cheating?” “Anatole, it had nothing to do with winning. You could have really hurt me.” “Perhaps you could do with a bloodied nose every once in a while. Bruise that monstrous ego,” he spits. My jaw hangs loose. Is this really what he thinks of me? I always thought I’d done a good job helping him grow up but now a doubt sets in. Minister Kharkov storms in and whatever response I was devising dies. “What the hell are your playing at Prince Anatole?” I turn to step in but with a glance Kharkov silences me. I’m not getting off scot free. Anatole looks away, bitter. “I’m sorry Minister, I got carried away.” Kharkov grabs Anatole’s shoulder and spins him around to face him. “No Anatole. You don’t get to get carried away, not when it comes to your brother. He’s too important.” My cheeks redden. “Can you imagine what would have happened if you’d hurt Gregor? If you had killed him? The political ramifications would be immense. Your father saw your little breakdown, do you know what he said?” “I can imagine.” “He said that the way you acted was disgraceful. If you were heir to the throne he’d worry for the Empire.” “Well it’s not like you ever gave me a chance to be any better to begin with. Why doesn’t father tell me himself instead of sending his lackey to punish me.” “You know why.” “Because he’s sick? Like his wellness would make a different?” Kharkov crosses his arms. “You’re acting like a child.” “He is a child,” I interject and the look that Anatole gives me is venomous. “Cut him some slack, I’m fine.” “I’m not a child,” Anatole snaps, stabbing his sword into the dirt. Kharkov fixes Anatole with a stare and sighs. “Don’t embarrass yourself Anatole. You’ve done that enough today.” Kharkov turns to return to the palace and Anatole storms away with his aide behind him. Before long the clearing is empty except for Victor and I. In different circumstances we would snatch this moment of solitude like a gold coin but right now my stomach is sick. I look to the sky and see the glistening dome of a securitybot, father must have been watching through that. I reach for Victor’s hand and pull him close, then with anger and relief, I kiss him on his lips and am filled with ecstasy.
The crowd stretches as far as the eye can see. Four thousand Imperial citizens comprising merchants, dignitaries, generals, politicians, priests, actresses, actors, businessmen, and anyone else who could cobble the money together to see what the news stations were calling the event of the decade sat were amassed in these halls. The immense halls of the gilded Grand Cathedral are bedecked in garlands and decorations in colours vibrant and extravagant. The decorator wanted to capture the kaleidoscopic madness of the gateways to represent the new era of unity and connectedness which I am to bring forth. When Anatole and I were children, and my father well enough to move, we went on a tour of the empire. I don’t remember the purpose of the tour, probably some public relations stunt to demonstrate how humble the royal family are, but I will always remember looking through the porthole of the royal flagship and staring for hours at the ever changing inner gate. When I close my eyes I still see that cacophony of light like celestial fireworks that is the inner gate. Looking to the high ceiling of the cathedral and the decorations inside, I am filled with awe and make a mental note to congratulate the decorator on his skills. My hands tighten around the armrest of the gilded throne that seemed so much larger when my father had sat on it. I search the crowd for Anatole but can’t see him. The bishop enters through a door which leads directly to the altar, the crown jewels in hand and my breath hitches. Where is he? I begin to perspire and purse my lips to stifle the whimper aching to escape my lips. Victor comes to my side and offers me a handkerchief, the concern in his face comforts me and I manage a smile. Wiping my brow I say in a hushed tone, “Thank you, Captain. Tell me, where is my brother?” Victor frowns and I watch his Adam’s apple bob. How I long to kiss that neck of his. “I don’t know Your Radiance. He hasn’t arrived.” I close my eyes, the words hit me harder than I was expecting and I have to force my breathing. A part of me already knew this would be the answer. “Perhaps he’s running late,” Victor suggests, trying to give me hope. “Gateway traffic must be immense.” I doubt it. “Perhaps, Captain,” I say with a sad smile. “You may return to your seat.” I watch Victor retreat, pain filling my body. Victor nods at the bishop on his way. Why won’t this bloody ceremony just end? The band starts the droning tune of the imperial anthem, it’s supposed to sound triumphant but to me it only seems arrogant. The bishop stops beside the throne and places the crown jewels on a plinth before stepping forward and speaking in a booming voice which, amplified through the dozens of speakers allowing the farthest reaches of the cathedral to hear him, commands the crowd to be silent. “Distinguished guests, we gather here in the eyes of God, the Empire and the souls of all the Imperial Rulers that have come before this day since the glorious ascendancy of Emperor Nicholas the First to the death of our beloved Emperor Gregor the Third to crown his son, Prince Gregor who will usher us into an age of prosperity and happiness.” The bishop continues his sermon, speaking for several hours as he recounts the history of the empire. These stories have been drilled into me since birth and so instead of listening to his drawl, I retreat, maintaining composure as I fret over why Anatole had not arrived. I need him here. The bishop finishes his speech and returns to the plinth with the crown jewels. With the orb and sceptre in my hands, he raises the crown to the crowd and says in a voice unaffected by the hours of strain, “in the name of the legacy set forth by these Emperors and Empresses, in the name of God who makes all things possible, and in the name of the future may it be forever peaceful and prosperous, I name this man Gregor, Fourth of his name, King of the core realms, Defender of the faith and the crown, Commander in Chief of all forces, and Emperor of all systems that are known and ever will be known to man. Long may he rein.” The crown rests on my head and the crowd erupts into thunderous applause, the grand dome of the cathedral is filled with lights which come together to form an image of my face made of a constellation of stars. All throughout the empire celebration are preparing to begin, waiting only for me to stand up and address for the first time, my subjects. I stand and walk slowly forward, the heavy crown weighs on my head, threatening to topple. Before I speak, I look to the door that the bishop had arrived through, hoping to see Anatole there, if he’d just show up I’d forgive him, but he wasn’t there. I can’t allow my sorrow to show, not while trillions of Imperial citizens are watching. The prompt droid buzzes into action and flashes the words of the speech that my advisors and I prepared together. With my speech done, I thank the audience for their time and I thank the empire for allowing me to rule. Across the galaxy millions of celebrations and parties erupt. Most likely celebrating the death of my father rather than my ascendancy. The time has come for me to prepare for my own celebration, perhaps Anatole will grace us with his presence then. Champagne flows as if from a fountain, filling the revellers with glee and loosening their inhibitions. In the few hours since the party begun, the noble representatives of the upper class houses have descended into debauchery. Groups of people have already slipped away into the depths of the palace to find somewhere private to conduct affairs and rendezvous. I catch Victor’s eye who smiles at my bored expression. I made him an Admiral today, a fitting position for as intelligent and devoted a soldier as he. I had to resist the urge to make him a Grand Admiral out of fear for showing favouritism. I nurse the faux champagne in my glass, lamenting the fact that even on my coronation day I have to remain sober. Minister Kharkov approaches his expression is one I haven’t seen on him before and my eyebrow raises. “Congratulations, Your Imperial Majesty, and can I say what a fine ceremony it was?” I smirk, so he wants to grovel. “Do you think so? I don’t think my speech was very good.” “There wasn’t a dry eye in the galaxy.” I smile. “Thank you, Minister. What brings you to me?” Minister Kharkov adopts an astounded look. “Can a man not congratulate his Emperor?” I clearly haven’t swallowed his story so he sighs. “I wish to discuss, my position.” I nod knowingly. “I see.” “I served your father for many years, and I served him well might I add. Naturally, a new Emperor will wish to assign new advisors but I wonder…” “Don’t worry Kharkov, I have no intention of getting rid of you yet.” It’s clear that this isn’t the answer Kharkov wants but he can say nothing. As the Minister debates his response, the doors to the celebration room burst open and in comes Anatole, dishevelled and clearly intoxicated. Surrounding him is a group of strangers in similar disarray. I give Victor a look and he nods before marching to Anatole, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him back through the doors despite his protestations. “Minister, If you’ll excuse me.” The minister turns back to me his mouth still wide in confusion at the scene he’s just witnessed. He collects himself, bows his head low and says, “of course, Your Imperial Majesty.” I stride across the ballroom with purpose, my cape flowing behind me like a sea as I struggle to suppress the anger that threatens to boil to the surface. I push the doors open and look down the corridor where Victor is still restraining Anatole and my brother is yelling in his face. When Anatole sees me he breaks free from Victor’s loosened grip and faces me. “What is the meaning of this?” Anatole demands, “You send your perverted fuck buddy to—” “Where the hell have you been?” I cut him off, ignoring the words he was about to throw at me. At least Anatole has the decency to look sheepish at my question. “I was celebrating your coronation. Congratulations brother.” “The coronation that you should have been present for. Where were you?” Here Anatole sees the genuine anger in my face and seems afraid. I’m filled with guilt seeing this and so, sighing, I place my hands on my brother’s shoulders. “Anatole, I needed you there today. You let me down. Please, tell me where you were.” Anatole swallows, he seems a more sober than when he’d arrived. “I was with my friends. Drinking.” My eyes close and my fists ball into his jacket. “Anatol, I can’t do this alone. I can’t rule alone. I want to take you with me but you have to do better, you have to be more responsible. I was going to put you in command of the expansion region.” Anatole frowns. “You always promised me the Home Fleet.” “I know, and I intend to keep that promise. Just not right now. Can you imagine how it would look if I made my brother commander of the strongest military force in the Empire right after my coronation?” Anatole nods but I can tell he’s disappointed. “I understand.” “But now I don’t know if it’s a good idea to give you even the expansion region.” Anatole’s eyes widen and his breath hitches. “Gregor, please. You don’t know how much this will mean to me.” I look at him and I see in his face the youthful, joyous child that I had known years ago. Before he was broken down by the pressure around him. In that moment my heart melted and I made a decision. “I can’t if you continue to act in this way.” “Then I’ll stop. I won’t drink. I’ll attend all of the royal functions. I’ll… I’ll do anything.” Sighing I look away. “There will be a ceremony announcing your new role in a few weeks’ time.” Anatole practically jumps for joy. “Thank you, Gregor. I’ll make you proud. Long live Emperor Gregor the Fourth!” I sigh, I can already tell it’s going to be a while before I’m used to the title. Then a smile comes to my lips and I reach into my pockets. “Hey, I have something for you.” Anatole eyes me warily, a smirk on his lips. “You do?” I open my hand and inside it is the chess piece that I’d given to him when he was born. Anatole lifts it up and examines the string that I’ve attached to it and I look away sheepishly. Anatole chuckles. “A necklace?” My shoulders shrug. “Well, I figured if i’m going to be forced into all this jewellery you can at least wear a necklace.” Anatole puts it on and slips it under his shirt. “Thank you, brother.” I place my hands on his shoulders and look him in the eyes. “I haven’t forgotten the promises I made you. I still want you at my side, but you need to make that easier for me. Please.” Anatole smiles and nods. Are those tears in his eyes? “I promise. I’m sorry.” With that he turns around and returns to the ball. As I watch his retreating back, an ominous chill runs up my spine.
The room I’ve selected for the meeting is relatively modest. As modest as I could make it given the extravagance that my forefathers demanded when they commissioned the Imperial palace. Sun shines in behind my head through the half drawn burgundy curtains, causing my silhouette to stretch across the floor. My fingers tap on the hard oak wood desk, it’s a desk that is over a hundred years old cut from oaks directly from earth. There is little decoration as I thought it inappropriate for the conversation that’s about to happen. My eye goes to Victor who is sat in one of the two leather seats before the desk. He’s making an effort to look calm and collected. To most these attempts would be successful but I know how to search for the signs. The downward tick in the right corner of his otherwise straight lips, the slight redness in his eyes from a sleepless night of worrying, a dishevelment in his hair where his nerves have caused him to style it heavier than usual. To most these things are immaterial but to someone who’s mapped out these quirks to the extent that I have it shows the intense worry that he feels on my behalf. It’s just like Victor to let his own health go caring about that of others. He meets my gaze and despite himself smiles. This is why I love him. That smile which he holds only for me. I want to reach over and hold his hand, instead I smile back to him. A cough from behind reminds me of the unfortunate fact that Minister Kharkov is in the room with us. That pernicious weasel seems to always know how to get himself in places he’s not wanted. Despite my best efforts I’ve not been able to shake him yet. My cheeks redden as I look away from Victor. Though it’s hardly a secret, public acknowledgement of my relationship with Victor is strictly forbidden and no one’s as much of a stickler for the rules as Kharkov. A knock comes from the door and my back straightens. With a final furtive glance at Victor, I clear my throat and command them to enter. In steps Anatole dressed in the white trousers and navy tunic of the Imperial navy, a dark green band around the ends of his sleeves and following down the buttons of his tunic denote his position in the Expansion Fleet. He walks into the middle of the room, staring ahead and kneels. I swallow. “You may rise, brother.” Anatole stands up. “Take a seat.” Anatole does not move. “May I remove my cap?” I nod assent and finally Anatole sits in the seat next to Victor. He removes his cap by its leather black brim and smooths a hand over his hair. It isn’t until he’s rested his chin on his fist and gotten comfortable that he meets my eye before looking at Minister Kharkov. “What’s he doing here?” Anatole says, with thinly disguised venom. Before I can collect myself to answer, Kharkov’s raspy voice cuts in from behind. “As the Emperor’s chief advisor and First Minister of the Imperial Parliament. I believe it is important for me to be present for all meetings in matters regarding the Government.” Anatole glares at Kharkov. “That doesn’t answer my question. I wanted to speak with my brother and Admiral Dolokhov. It does not regard the Government.” I can hear Kharkov’s smirk in his voice. “You wish to speak to his excellency regarding the recent political and military appointments, this is a matter which concerns the Government I believe. Also, it’s Grand Admiral Dolokhov.” I wince at the last sentence. It’s a statement meant to hurt and when I look up to Anatole I can see that it fulfilled that goal. When Anatole shoots me an icy accusatory stare it’s all I can do to prevent myself from looking away. “You’ve put Dolokhov in command of the Home Fleet.” “Yes, I—” “You promised me the Home Fleet.” My face goes read. “I know, Anatole. Allow me to explain—” Anatole crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow. “This should be good.” My neck feels hot all of a sudden. “It is my belief that to name my brother commander of the Home Fleet after only three years on the throne would show myself to be unfairly favouring those that I’m close to.” Anatole scoffs. “So instead you named Victor Grand Admiral?” “Grand Admiral Dolokhov has shown himself to be an exceptional strategist in his campaigns against the Sidrath pirates. He’s experienced, loyal, and he will make an excellent Grand Admiral. I couldn’t make any other choice.” Anatole scowls. “He also happens to be sucking your cock.” A gasp escapes my list. Victor stands up from his seat and standing over Anatole with his beet red face says, “Now listen here—” At the same time, Minister Kharkov slams a fist on the desk and shrieks. “Now listen here Prince Anatole. I will not allow you to disrespect his Imperial Majesty like that—” I raise a hand in exasperation. “That’s enough,” I say and Minister Kharkov steps back, bowing his head in deference. Victor returns to his seat and I offer him a grateful smile. Holding my bottom lip between my teeth, I consider my next few words. “I understand, why this would upset you.” I take a moment for Anatole to respond but instead he stays silent with his arms crossed. “But you must understand how delicate this is. I do intend to keep my promise—” “When?” Anatole snaps. I wince. “When the time is right.” “And when will that be? How long must I wait before I’m finally given what I’m due?” “Anatole, please—" Anatole stands up. “No, I’m tired of being told to wait while you play politics. You can either stick to your word or not.” I can’t answer. I want to give Anatole what he wants but it’s far more complicated than making him a Grand Admiral. The ramifications could be immense. Anatole takes my silence as an admittance of guilt, and perhaps he’s right. In any case he stands up and replaces his cap, reaches under his tunic snaps a string and throws what it was attached to on my desk. With a cold stare he says, “Goodbye, your Imperial Majesty, I hope you understand what you’ve done.” When he leaves I look down at what he’s thrown, there attached to the string is that chewed chess piece that I carved for him years ago. I whimper and press my face into my open palms.
Sat in my throne, I watch with trepidation as Minister Kharkov rushes across the wide throne room to kneel at my feet. Rumours have been floating around but nothing verifiable has come from the expansion region in weeks. There are perfectly reasonable explanations why communications may have ceased. Gateways collapse all the time and it could be months before a replacement’s constructed. I lean forward and rest my chin on my interlocked fingers. Kharkov’s head is lowered in reverence. “Speak, First Minister,” I say, the fear in my voice audible. Kharkov looks up. “Your Imperial Majesty, I bring news of the Expansion Fleet.” My eyes ache, from the pounding in my head. “What is your news?” “Your Imperial Majesty, I regret to report, that on the Sixteenth of July of the Five-Hundred-And-Third Galactic Year, Prince Anatole Dubrovsky, pronounced a claim to your throne. Using ludicrous claims of sexual immorality he argues that you aren’t fit to rule and moves against you in open war. Commanding the Expansion Fleet, the pretender has cut a swathe of destruction through Imperial territory. The fleets he comes across are small and unable to oppose him so many have joined on the pretender’s crusade. Already we have lost Admirals Rezhnov, Hikashimi, and Mbatu in the fighting. My liege, the Empire has entered a state of civil war.” My lip trembles as I take in what this truly means. A claim to my throne I could handle, but that he could use my relationship with Victor against me hurts too much for words. I have to bite on my knuckle to suppress the urge to sob in panic. Victor, who’s been watching my expression like a concerned mother from the far wall steps forward and kneels before me. “Your Imperial Majesty, give me the order to fight the coup. The Home fleet is the only fleet comparable in size to the Expansion Fleet. With it I can strike a decisive blow against Prince Anatole and end this war swiftly.” I look up with furrowed eyebrows. The sorrow that had engulfed me has been washed away and replaced with a righteous anger and sense of purpose. If Anatole wishes to play another game of chess, then fine, the pieces are on the board. I stare at the glistening brooch which denotes him as Grand Admiral of the home fleet. That piece of jewellery which seems to be the cause of all this strife. “That won’t be necessary, Grand Admiral Dolokhov. Prince Anatole may be a rebel but he is still an Imperial Prince and a member of my family. It is only fitting that I should bring him to justice. Prepare the fleet and send out these orders to all loyalist fleets. They are to commence retreating immediately with the aim to regroup with the Home Fleet. Tell them to exchange fire with my brother but not to get embroiled in a pitched battle. We need as many ships as possible to defeat him” Victor follows behind me. “Yes, my liege, I will do it at once,” he says before running ahead of me. Kharkov too tales me. “Don’t you think this is dangerous, my liege. If you were to get killed in combat there’s no clear heir to the throne.” I loosen my cape and it falls onto the red carpeted floor. A smile creeps on my lips. “First Minister, I want it to be clear that I hold you partially responsible for this war. If it had not been for your advice, perhaps we could have avoided all this. You will wait for my return when I will have decided what to do with you. Know now that you are no longer my chief advisor.” With this Kharkov ceases to follow me and I move down the gilded palace corridors to go to my chambers. A smirk comes across my lips as the adrenaline rush of saying the words I should have said years ago fills me. Finally I can strip myself of these ridiculous robes. A month and a half later, the Imperial Fleet under my command emerges from Gateway 64 into the Ganesh system. For a second I believe that we miscalculated the travel time of the gateway before I realise that the crescendo of lights and colours which I had mistaken for the interior of a gateway was in fact the battle between Anatole’s forces and the Ganesh defence force. I stand up from my command chair and toward the viewscreen, we need to act quick. Trying to hide the apprehension in my voice, I say, “Comms, patch me into Admiral Tritz of the Ganesh Fleet.” “Yes, sir,” comes the reply and a few seconds later a haggard and smoke blackened face looks at me through the Commvid. I frown at this. Not because of the sorry state the man is in but because this is not the face of Admiral Tritz. “Where’s your commanding officer?” The man blinks in the few seconds of signal delay. “Admiral Tritz is dead. My name’s Captain Harrison Keele, I’m the ranking officer.” “Alright Captain Keele, I need you to listen to me carefully, you need to—” The screen went black and the background noise of warning sirens and explosions that had peppered Captain Keele’s feedback went silent. My jaw hangs loose for a second. “Captain Keele?” The comms officer looks up from her screen. “My liege, the ship that Captain Keele was on has been destroyed.” I blink. This is a lot more complicated than chess, this is the first time I’ve truly come to terms with the fact that people will do in this war instead of being neatly moved off the board. Swallowing, I set my face like stone. “Get me into contact with the next ranking officer.” The screen lights up again and a new face comes on screen. This time it’s a woman’s face with greying hair at her temples and thick black eyebrows. She spoke in a hoarse voice, “This is Captain Yue Akari of the Destroyer Jotarran. Our visual feed is down, please identify yourself.” “This is Emperor Gregor Dubrovsky,” I see Akari straighten to speak her reverence. “Please, listen we haven’t much time. I need you to order your fleet to retreat and join our lines.” Captain Yue hesitated before swallowing and nodding her head. “Yes, my liege.” With that, the video turns off and the bridge descended into silence. I turn and go to the command table, “Grand Admiral Dolokhov, assist me.” Victor steps forward and a hologram map of the system appears above the table. Blue triangles indicate our ships and red indicates Anatole’s. The pain of Anatole’s betrayal still burns in my heart. Victor clears his throat. “My liege, half our fleet has arrived in the system and the other half is on the way.” I nod. “Grand Admiral, I want you to take a shuttle and meet the rest of the fleet. I’ll assume full command of all ships already in the system.” “My liege, what are you planning?” I take a deep breath. “I’m going to take the fleet and charge it toward Anatole with my flagship in front.” Victor’s head jerks up and he reaches out to grab my hand before remembering where we are and instead leaning in to whisper into my ear. “Gregor, that’s extremely dangerous.” “I know.” “Must you lead from the front?” I nod. “Anatole’s never been able to resist a prize. I’m the biggest prize there is, he won’t give up the opportunity to try and take me out.” “And if he succeeds?” I sigh and reach my hand over, interlocking our little fingers. I look up at Victor and smile. “Victor, trust me.” Victor shakes his head. Then he sighs. “Be careful.” “Thank you, Victor, I will. Now go, your fleet needs you.” With Victor gone I return to the command chair. The light show dissipates as the Ganesh fleet is finally engulfed by Anatole’s fleet. They weren’t able to retreat fast enough. I think of Captain Yue and sigh. Using an open frequency I speak to every ship in the system hoping that Anatole is listening. “All rebel ships, this is your Emperor, Gregor the Fourth speaking from the flag ship Jericho, I come with a message. You have committed a crime against your Emperor but I am not merciless. Should anyone wish to renounce my pretender brother and surrender to me, they will receive a full pardon. Anyone who doesn’t… will be destroyed.” I end the frequency and recline into my seat. I know there won’t be any surrenders. The enemy fleet isn’t yet within our range and any ships that do break away will almost certainly be destroyed by Anatole. That’s not why I made the transmission, Anatole knows I’m here now. Anatole’s fleet moves to intercept mine. In a few hours my ship will be in range of the enemy guns. I only hope that the Imperial Engineers were when correct they claimed that the reinforced armour will make it nigh impenetrable. Through the view screen the small blur turns into individual dots and those dots turn into small shapes and those shapes turn into heavily armed ships. “Gunnery, are we in range?” “Sixty seconds, sir.” “Are all armaments aimed and ready to fire?” “Yes sir.” I nod slowly. I can just about see the individual guns on the ships. “Fire at will but be careful of the flagship, we’ll take Anatole alive.” If sound could carry in the vacuum then the space between our fleets would be cacophonous. In the span of a second, three-thousand-and-sixty railguns loose, one-thousand-five-hundred thermonuclear warheads erupt from their docks, twenty-thousand repeating laser cannons commence firing, and every other manner of weapon that can be fixed to a sponson dispatch their deadly payload. A deadly swarm of fighters erupts, filling the space between ships. Crews that only a few months ago were comrades now struggle to kill each other. The cruiser next to my ship erupts into a ball of flame that just as quickly goes out as the oxygen in the ship is sucked into the vacuum of space. With no crew to control it, it veers off into space never to be seen again. Nausea fills. Not just the irritation of the flashing lights or the shuddering of the ship but also the whole idea of it. The deaths that are the fruit of my cowardice. I hope that Victor will arrive soon. After Fifteen hours of deadly battle, Victor’s fleet finishes its circumnavigation of the Ganesh system and emerges behind Anatole’s. Snatching the numerical advantage from Anatole and placing him in a pincer movement, the battle will soon be over. I press the button for the Public Announcement system and say, “all Imperial Marines, this is your Emperor speaking, prepare to board and do me proud.” I wait for the comms officer to inform me that the boarding parties are ready and give the order for Anatole’s ship to be boarded. Through the HUDs of the marines, it feels like I’m there with them as they sweep the desks, shooting and capturing the rebel crew. They reach the command room and burst through the doors and I see for the first time in three months, the face of my brother. Even then he is screaming orders at his fellow turncoats and hurling insults at my name. With a gun in his hand he fires upon the marines killing one. This is the only shot he is able to loose. I gain little pleasure out of seeing my brother tackled to the ground and taken into custody. With Anatole captured, I tell my crew to finish the battle, offer surrender to anyone willing to take it and capture as many as they can. Then I return to my quarters and wait for Anatole to be brought to me.
My flagship zooms through the liminal space that is the gateway. Outside chaos reins but inside my air conditioned bedroom, everything is pristinely ordered. The single bed that I sit in is not the one that my Great Grandfather had originally placed in it. That king sized monstrosity was removed as soon as I could get it out. I don’t see any reason why I should have a larger bed than any of my crew. Despite this, the sheets are still luxurious and expensive. The fruit of a compromise I’d made with the head maid who seemed fit to burst at the impropriety when informed of the fate of the old bed. Instead of a window, a painting depicting the decisive battle of the five gates. I hope to share this bed with Victor soon but at the moment I’m alone with only the guards on the other side of the locked door for company. Through a datapad I speak to Victor, his smiling face warming my heart. The gladness we feel at seeing the other safe is palpable. “How soon until you’re able to return to my ship, Victor?” “A day or two at the most. We need to finish processing our prisoners and then we can celebrate your victory.” I sigh. “I don’t feel very victorious.” There’s a moment of silence as Victor studies. It’s strange, I’m the most powerful man in the world and yet Victor pities me. “Have you spoken to him yet?” Victor asks. With pursed lips I shake my head. “He’s in the brig. I’m not sure he’s in the talkative mood.” “Gregor,” Victor says in a chastising tone. “He’s your brother. You should talk to him.” “My brother who also happens to be a terrorist.” “That’s not—” Victor hesitates and I watch as he looks away from the screen to some unseen person. “Victor?” “Hold on my love,” he says to me before turning back to the mystery person. “What do you mean strange readings?” Did he just slip up and call me “my love” in front of someone. That isn’t like him, he’s always so careful, I know that something’s going on. “Victor, what’s wrong?” “Um, we’re picking up some strange readings from some of the prisoners,” he doesn’t even glance at me, “let me see.” The person Victor was speaking to sends over some data and I watch as Victor scans it with a growing frown. Then his eyes widen in realisation. “Shit,” he says, “isolate those prisoners now—” then the screen goes black. I fear the worst, rushing to the bridge I order the comms officer to give me an update on Victor’s ship, the Onager. After pressing some buttons the officer turns to me and says, “My liege, the Onager has been lost in Gateway space, it appears that it suffered an unexplained internal explosion.” A pause. “There were no escape pods.” “It wouldn’t matter if there was,” I mumble. Anything without a level five shield would be torn apart in the Gateway. Their atoms scattered like seeds from a sowers bag. That’s it then. Victor’s dead. I watched him die with my own eyes and I didn’t even realise. When was the last time I said I loved him? The worst part is I can’t remember. This isn’t how any of this was meant to go. I was supposed to change those archaic laws that kept us in the shadows and we were supposed to grow old together. Now that will never happen. Everything’s been ruined. “My liege, what should we do?” The comms officer asks. I look down at her, she has striking blue eyes. “Salvage what you can from the Onager, I want a list of every soul on board. We’ll hold a service at the end of the week.” With that I turn around and head to the elevator. There’s someone I need to see.
The brig of the Jericho is in no way luxurious I’ve seen worse. I walk down the stretching maze of cells all full with captured rebels. Only a few months ago these men were loyal to me. Already admirals who’d turned are expressing their deep regrets at betraying me. None of it matters though, only the traitor at the end of the hall. We reach the end of the corridor where the largest cell is. The cell that holds our most valuable prisoner. The two guards salute me and open the door. Stepping inside I come face to face with my brother Anatole. This is the first time I’ve seen him in person for months. My first instinct is to punch him, then I look at his filthy uniform and his unshaved face, the petulant look of sorrow, and I’m awash with pity. Despite it all I still see him as my little brother. I order one of the guards to bring me a chair then tell them to leave. “My liege,” one of the guards replies, “is that wise?” I breathe deeply to calm myself. In a voice cold as ice I reply, “I don’t need guards to speak to my brother.” The guards get the message and leave. I’m alone with my brother. He looks up to me and his mouth twists into a grin, there are teeth missing, probably from the tackle he took. “Congratulations,” he spits, “You’ve won.” I stay silent for a moment. This is the first time I’ve spoken to him without the pretences of my title in years. “Have i?” “You have me in a cell. The troublesome brother out of the picture. Like you always wanted.” In a tremulous voice I say, “I never wanted that.” “No? Then why’d you send me out to the middle of nowhere? You wanted to get rid of me.” Even in a cell he manages to make me feel helpless. My breathing quickens as my rage intensifies. “Have you no shame?” Anatole seems to notice that something is wrong with me and an edge of concern comes to his face. “What’s wrong?” “Are you really that depraved?” I ask through gritted teeth. Anatole sits up in his bed. “Gregor. What are you talking about?” “You drag my relationship with Victor through the mud, start a coup, cause thousands of deaths including the man I love, and you have the audacity to act entitled?” Anatole frowns. “What are you talking about?” I glare at him. “Victor’s ship’s been destroyed. Blown up from the inside. Your doing, I presume.” Anatole’s eyes widen. “Gregor I have no idea what you’re talking about?” “Before the explosion there were strange readings coming from the prisoners.” Anatole thinks for a moment before sighing and burying his face in his hands. “When I made my claim I ran my mouth a lot. I told my men to take as many enemy ships down as they could even if it meant going down with them. I never thought any of them were mad enough to do it.” “Well they did.” Anatole leans forward and reaches his hand for mine. I pull it away. Ashamed he looks down at the floor and clasps his hands together. “Gregor, I’m sorry. Victor was a good man.” “You think so? Yet you call him “Sexually Immoral” doesn’t seem like respect.” Anatole’s face reddens. “I just wanted what I was owed.” “What you were owed?” I mimic, emphasising every syllable. “You promised—” “Is this about me making Victor Grand Admiral? Seriously?” “Gregor you—” I stand up and the chair falls back with the force of my anger. “That’s the most childish thing I’ve ever heard. All the deaths you caused, all because of a fucking title? A promise? You always do this you you just act and you never even think of the consequences. And then when they catch up to you you just try and palm off the blame to someone else. Did you ever think that that might have been the reason you were never Grand Admiral and not some made up fucking vendetta on my part.” Anatole looks up at me pleading. “Gregor i—” “No Anatole,” I spit, jabbing a finger at him like a sword. My eyes are blurry with tears. “You don’t get to speak. You need to shut up and listen. You’ve never been able to see the big picture, the universe has always revolved around you.” “Nothing’s ever been about me,” Anatole cries, “I’ve always been the one ignored and left behind.” “So, what? This was a cry for attention? Well the attention’s all on you now Anatole, I hope you’re fucking happy.” I gasp out a sob before finishing. “Now you have to face the consequences of your actions.” “What do you mean?” I sigh and shake my head. My whole body feels loose. “You’re a rebel, Anatole. A traitor. Don’t you understand? This is treason we’re talking about.” Anatole’s eyes widen and he looks once more like a child. A terrified, fearful child. “Am I going to be executed?” There’s something in the way he says that, the way his voice cracks that reminds me of when we were young and I promised him the universe. I sigh, the tear still flowing. In that moment a small part of my heart thaws. “No,” I say, “You won’t.” When Anatole looks up at me I go to sit next to him on his bed. “A shuttle will be prepared for you and filled with enough food, water, and money to keep you going for a few months. When we exit the Gateway you will board it and fly as quickly as possible to the edge of Imperial space. We’ll say you died in battle. You’ll be stripped of your titles and privileges and will never contact me again. If you do, I won’t protect you.” Anatole goes to speak. “Don’t say anything. Just prepare yourself.” Anatole swallows. “Thank you, Gregor.” I nod and stand up. Putting my hand in my pocket I feel something inside and pull it out. When I open my hand I can’t help but smirk. It’s the chess piece that I’d turned into a necklace. I hand it to Anatole and say, “I only ever wanted to make you happy.”