"Marked" Chapter - 3iv

The group finally stopped in the centre circle, the fanfare dying out as Trenos was seated before the officers before him. The precession was a sight to behold and one that made Harren’s head spin: the difference between the tacticians and the Emperor and Grand General was so blatant that it was almost trivial. It was hard to believe that such grand splendour and such simple humbleness could belong so close to each other.

As Trenos sat upright, the two tacticians split with the Grand General to flank the Emperor’s right whilst he flanked his left. All four gazed out across the expectantly waiting soldiers. All their eyes stared directly back at Trenos and his trusted advisors.

As the tension began to rise in relation to the drawn-out silence, Harren started to feel a bit nervous. Finally, the Emperor addressed his audience: “Thank you for coming here on such short notice, but there is a matter a great importance that has been brought to my attention. The matter greatly distresses me…” Although Harren knew the pause to be for affect, he couldn’t help but want to cry out to his brother and tell him to hurry. But instead, he shared the nerve-racking wait with the rest of those gathered. Stopping his awkward shuffling, Trenos’ gaze finally rested on Harren when he had finished pretending to look at his nails. The two brothers locked eyes, holding the contact as the Emperor slowly got to his feet. Harren could see in his eyes that the news he intended to release could be devastating; should anything happen he was ready.

As he continued his speech, Trenos broke contact with the Captain and addressed all of his most trusted officers. “Treachery”.

The reaction was suppressed at first by sudden shock, then, just as Trenos’ glare had warned Harren, one man after another started to proclaim the accusation false. Muffled whispering turned to heated debate as the word of treachery rang about the hall. It was a very dangerous thing to say, the very notion threatened to tear away the sturdy iron foundation of trust from the Empire. Trust was what held not only the Empire, but the army together. Without it, there was chaos.

Continuing to declare him wrong, high-ranking generals made their views rather explicitly clear. They cried out in disbelief: incredulity at their loyal men being called traitors. The men present were very protective of their soldiers, for any misgivings would directly reflect their leadership, and could result in their title being stripped from them. In the Karan Empire, treachery was by far the most serious of crimes; unparalleled in its severity.

As the outrage continued, others walked a far more dangerous line and chose to simply shout abuse – questioning his rule, and comparing the Emperor in a bad light to his father.

Yet, Trenos stood unflinching at the centre of it all, about him his uneasy-looking advisors not sure as to what they should now. Like his brother, Harren hadn’t moved. He assumed that, by his brother’s action, he had been expecting all that he received and was consequently able to stand unmoving against such anger-fuelled hatred. Verging on rioting, Harren wondered how the Emperor, successful so far, would escape this one without and kind of lasting damage – whether it be to his reputation or health. For the latter, Harren gripped tightly his sword’s hilt.

Harren just prayed his brother had a way of getting out of this. If he couldn’t explain himself now, then all the trust of his army could disintegrate in a matter of days. He needed good, solid proof – and now.

Extending an arm, Trenos stopped the Grand General dead in his tracks as he tried to make a stand. For him, the growing anger and panic harboured in the men before him made his blood boil. Should his Emperor command it, he would happily lay down his life; he would also fight every man in this room to protect the Emperor, and the danger of that happening was increasing by the second. The old Emperor could have announced such a thing, without causing a single sound to stir from the men gathered here… but Trenos was but a child when compared to the officers before him.  To them, he had just claimed the throne before his time, and then gone on to accuse the very people driving his war effort for him of being incompetent in their tasks. Karans were a very proud people, and Trenos had just managed to attack everything that these men held dear, by using only one word.

But the problem now was that, having started the commotion, the Emperor would need to be strong and resolve it himself. Anything else would be but cowardly inexperience; certain to destroy the vital bonds that had been forged of cast iron with the army over time. Years of careful construction were at risk of being mercilessly obliterated in an instant.

Through a revealing glass window situated above the centre circle, the sun’s futile few remaining rays dwindled. They weakened continually until the room itself seem to be fading from life. As the last strip of light was cut away and the vague warmth on Trenos’ back turned to icy shadow, he sighed – would even the elements abandon him? He tried to be firm and resolute, yet kind and merciful… it didn’t matter if what lay ahead was shrouded by darkness because, like the night, the sun would rise again. The Emperor felt less and less like a leader and more like a bystander with each passing day, but if that is what it would take for his people to wake again – to have to act for themselves – then so be it. Now, he knew what had to be done.

Another sacrifice for the greater good. Sometimes good was a hard word to define.

Right hand cutting through the noise and up towards hateful glares, an open palm challenged them to continue – daring someone to speak. A fierce demeanour gripped his suddenly more mature features as his hot glower replaced the sun, melting away the will to argue. Even from where he sat, Harren could see his brother’s strong jaw flexing. The corner of his mouth stole a smile, now he just needed to pick his words carefully.

But the warning was not fully understood.

“You think that you can get away with such accusations?” cried a man from the back.

“Yeah!” agreed a man in the front row, his next words changing the tone considerably. “Your father picked a bad time to fall, Trenos.”

The words scythed violently through the room and into Trenos’ soul. His mind seemed to be contemplating a thousand different options at once. There was outrage again, this time accompanied by the banshee scream of steel being drawn. Guards stood ready, able to kill at a word. Nervous eyes glanced about. Harren noticed he was now standing, shaking with rage. The Emperor’s head dropped. His shoulders sagged. Shuffling over towards the Grand General, the whole crowd watched as their leader gripped the old man’s shoulder. Slowly, their eyes met; the meaningful look was held for only a second, but the haunting silence drew it out into agony.

A coy smile started to leak onto the triumphant general’s lips. Harren wanted to cry out – this man could not win. Leaning forward to take a step, Harren was just about to start striding down the stairs barring him from what he wanted most – justice – when a pitched cry seemed to shake the very walls, a scream of pure fury; a release of pent-up irritation; the realisation of justice so close to slipping off the end of his tongue.

The Emperor’s arm arched as his body bent into a powerful stance, his legs driving into the effort. Emotions shot through his body – wilful destruction let loose, as everything from his grinding teeth to his curled toes tensed in the moment. Previous notions vanished, as Harren stood mute and rigid. The bloodcurdling cry made him shiver as he watched the next events unfolding in slow motion. He felt every breeze on his skin, felt each bead of sweat as his breathing grew heavier. The wait made him feel sick.

There were muffled shouts of surprise followed by a loud clattering as the helmet struck the marble benches. The Grand General still stood with his arms out as if trying to beckon the helmet back to his lonely hands, a look of shear shock on his startled face. Hiding surprise after such an act surpassed even his experience; everyone stared, slightly taken aback. The provocative general held not only his tongue, but his arms up in self defence. The solid metal object had hurtled only centimetres past his head, whistling beyond into the row behind.

Ever since he had been a child, glimpses of magnetic charisma and steely fortitude, of unfaltering loyalty and endless generosity had been shattered quickly by bouts of his fiery temper threatening to overshadow valued traits held dear by not only their father, but all men who regarded themselves as important. Anger never solved anything, but in this case, it seemed to have more than the desired effect.

Now, still panting slightly, Trenos started to speak. Teeth still grinding as his mind began to clear, he tried to speak as calmly as possible. But, instead of reassuring their fear, and helping to relieve their confusion, the men representing the suddenly exposed Empire turned away slightly at his low growling voice, though their eyes never left his – how could they?

It wasn’t just his fiery temper, few Emperors tolerated being ignored and he was no exception. In times gone by, such blatant disrespect could easily end in execution – if you were lucky. However, Harren could start to see his brother’s features relax as he hastily regained his depleted composure.

“You choose to disagree, do you?” Trenos started, the counter argument already forming in his sharp mind. You could see it working; see his expression twitch just a fraction as he fitted a new piece into the puzzle, expanding his understanding of what was needed to be done, and what would be said so very soon.

“Then how do you explain my brother – Captain of the 2nd Company’s – latest discovery?” Of course whispers, more hesitant in starting this time, rose as a steady hum around the room: the Company was very specific about who knew there whereabouts before or during a big operation; tonight was more crucial than ever. With the Emperor’s last accusation, Harren hoped his brother didn’t forget himself and let slip any details of the forthcoming attack. If treachery really was a threat, then someone in this room could leak information; if the enemy knew of the attack, many very valuable men could die tonight.

As Trenos started out again, he let a slight increase in volume quieten out the hushed conversation as opposed to having to wait. It had the desired effect and everyone listened eagerly to his next words. “He, and the 2nd Company, have found a forward base behind the front line – in our territory-” Gasps sounded out for not the first time this morning, however they were only a slight hindrance to the Emperor who refused to lose momentum: “Yes, the Zarians are drawing nearer by the day,” his charisma was beginning to take hold, gripping everyone by the scruff of the neck and forcing them to listen; to take in information that they would want to refute but no longer felt as though they could. “They are able to penetrate through our well-formed defences – never penetrated before – without us even knowing. They are dangerous now – but may I ask why? Could I inquire as to how they have managed to last as long as they have with inferior training, equipment and numbers? I think, gentlemen, the answer is simple, for only we possess the knowledge that they seem to possess; only we are aware of the surprise that they seem to anticipate and only they can defend against the strength and planning we have. Men, the odds are in our favour yet we make no ground… I think the solution simple and easy to grasp – how can you deny it when the evidence is out there killing your men and endangering the innocent? How can-?”

“I refuse to listen to your flagrant disregard for the loyalty of my men! I know each soldier and love them all like sons – yet you would tell me of their betrayal before even a whiff of such a vile stench had passed under my nostrils? You speak of protecting the innocent, only to accuse innocent, hard-working men who would lay down their lives for you and do willingly every day. I say, I shall hear no more!”

No one moved, as the malcontent of the general was made very clear. His second outburst had made him jump to his feet and now he headed for the exit, striding purposefully and not looking back. Harren was also standing, the gripping events unfolding before him taking a tight hold on his muscles and refusing to let go. Trenos’ mouth still hung slightly ajar from where he had been deprived of finishing his last sentence.

The situation had crumpled back to rubble as the Emperor’s emotional speech sat unfinished on the end of his dry lips. He tried to work up some spit by moving his tongue against his mouth but to no avail. The flat-out display of clear-cut disapproval could easily be called treason as the meeting unremittingly escalated towards the inevitable climax building in force in the not too distant future. No one left the hall without being dismissed; such a lack of love for your Emperor was beyond dangerous: it was plain stupid.

But Trenos had expected such a display from the old man. Trenos had been on to him since day one. Even Harren didn’t know of some of the scouts that the Emperor had placed through the camp. It was sad to have to spy on your own men… but the Zarian Empire seemed to offer something that the Karans did not.

He wished he knew what that was.

The End

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