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Chapter 2


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THE LAST HEIR

by Shannon McDermott

CHAPTER 2

 

IT was said of the first emperor, Alexander Alheenan, that he had a terrible temper kept under stern control. Loss of that control was rare and spectacular. One contemporary of the great man wrote that Alexander the Mighty defeated the Augustii, but to the end of his days he struggled to master himself.
    Centuries had passed, but there was still fire in the Alheenan blood. Emperor Issach—who reigned only fifty years ago—had a legendary temper. The stories of it were still told in Telnaria. Among the most infamous were the times when Emperor Issach, in a rage, fired subordinates and when he was calm again—either repenting or forgetting what he'd done—acted as if nothing had happened. Telnarian lore held out (though how accurately was a matter for the historians) that one Chief was thrown off the Council three times in the same afternoon. It was said that during Emperor Issach's rages sparrows did not dare to fly, and after them they could eat from his hand.
    The next emperor, Rikon, plumbed neither the heights nor the depths of his father's mercurial temperament. He experienced neither Issach's fierce anger nor the sympathy and even gentleness he was capable of in his better moments. Rikon was willful, obstinate, and proud. He stored up his anger in grudges and long memories.
    These were the immediate predecessors of Judah Zebulun III, in the emperorship and in ancestry. If genetics did not decree, at least it suggested that Emperor Judah would follow as another able, difficult ruler, with anger either hot and brief or cold and enduring. Able Judah had been, but of such a controlled and gentle temper that few guessed, until experience showed, that he quietly held something of his father's resolute strength.
    Kinlol had pondered these things through the morning, with remote regret. The Empire had lost years of wise rule when the emperor died, and now the Empire had entered into uncertainty. Kinlol disliked uncertainty; he intuitively saw in it the seeds of both weakness and disorder.
    To Kinlol, action was not called for; it was vital. The Council of Chiefs was meeting that morning and Kinlol had arranged a brief (he had promised) meeting with the empress beforehand. He thought it would be appropriate to speak with Mareah, considering how much the following events would concern her son. But more than that he had an instinct that meeting the empress was a wise preface to his efforts against the Assembly. His reason could not prove the instinct false, and so he went.
    A servant led him into a parlor and asked him to wait. And Kinlol did, his mind turning to Emperor Judah's marriage. He had watched it come about with great interest ten years before.
    The unmarried heir to the throne was always the most eligible man in the Empire, but Judah had been even more so than usual. In everything he recommended himself, in personality and character and even in the small things that so pleased women—looks and charming ways. The whole Empire watched intently for the woman who would be their next empress and the mother of their future emperor. Telnarian society watched anxiously, because they expected her to be chosen from among their own. They all thought the heir would marry soon, as they knew (who did not?) that Emperor Rikon wanted his son to marry early.
    But Judah did not marry early. He didn't even marry at the usual age. Considering he had the finest women of his own nation (and of several other nations, if he'd ask) to choose from, this inability to find a wife was strange, and becoming insulting and therefore, intolerable.
    The wrong impression, the Empire's higher class assured each other, should not be drawn. They were not like those people in Cythe or Regial, who married mostly in their teens or early twenties and were puzzled and skeptical of delay. No, they were tolerant of late marriages. They understood that people—and especially men—might spend a few years in gainful pursuits before settling down to married life.  But Judah was a special case. He was the heir to the throne, he had no brothers and his father had no brothers; it was his duty to marry and produce heirs for the house of Alheenan. And he was not like the other young men who must establish themselves. He had all the wealth and all the position—and the greatest prospects—anyone could desire. And, well, what of his father?
    Yes, what of Emperor Rikon? That was the point that concerned Kinlol. Rikon dealt no gentler with his son than with anyone else. As his son, his subject and his heir, Rikon was even more domineering with Judah. And so it was greatly interesting to Kinlol that Judah managed to resist his father's will. One year after another passed, and as the festivities for Judah's twenty-eighth birthday commenced, Telnaria gathered to loudly wish him many happy returns and whisper to one another, “Twenty-eight and still not married.”
    Perhaps it was coincidental, perhaps not, that at this time Judah departed from Telnaria, though he didn't go far. Outside the city were the farms—the maize-fields they were called in Telnaria, though fruits and vegetables were grown there also. The Royal Family bought all its produce from one man, and Judah went to visit him. When Judah came there was already a family staying at the house. Its head was one of the host's closest friends, and a considerably less successful man. Mareah was his oldest daughter.
    Kinlol didn't know—and did not consider it his business to know—why Judah rejected all the refined, educated beauties and gave his heart to a sweet, simple, pretty girl from the maize-fields. He was not a romantic, and he considered all notions of destined or inevitable love unfortunate nonsense. But there it was, and Kinlol knew that Emperor Rikon would not be pleased. He would attempt to change his son's mind, or at least his decision, and Judah would resist. Kinlol did not miss his guess. Rikon and Judah did quarrel, but so discreetly that nothing certain ever escaped into general knowledge except the result. Judah and Mareah were married before his twenty-ninth birthday.  
    The whole affair had interested Kinlol as a way of judging the man he expected to serve as his emperor. He now wished he had spent more time studying Mareah. He would be dealing with her often from this time until Alexander reached the age of majority. That would be ten years—ten years of dealing with a woman he didn't know about her only child, beginning this day. Kinlol did not feel prepared.
    As he thought this, he glanced up and saw Mareah Alheenan standing in the doorway. Kinlol came to his feet and bowed. “My Lady.”
    “Chief Kinlol,” she returned, her voice carefully detached. She didn't smile, nor did she look as if she were going to for the length of their meeting.
    Kinlol didn't expect her to. He chiefly hoped she wouldn't cry.
    Mareah came and sat down opposite him. She had schooled her face into a calm expression that hid much. But Kinlol noticed the tenseness of her hands as they lay clasped together in her lap, and no one could miss the sorrow that hooded her mild gray eyes.
    Kinlol sat also and, mustering his tact, began, “Lady Mareah, I have expressed my condolences to you already, for what little they are worth. I have come to speak with you of something else—your son.” Kinlol paused, but Mareah sat like a statue. So Kinlol continued, filling the silence. “You know that he is emperor, but he is not old enough to govern the nation. He will become able to assume his duties, and until that time comes the Council is able ...”

If you were to trace the Council of Chiefs to its oldest roots, you would find those dug further back in time than the Empire itself. You would come to the Great War, when war sprawled across the galaxy and Alexander the Mighty led thirty-three protectorates against the Augustii of Vothnia. He had many followers and allies, and led a vast army, but his closest circle was no more than a dozen select men. After victory was theirs and they had moved from waging war to building a nation, Alexander formalized his chief officials and advisors into part of the government, calling the group the Emperor's Council. The formalization would continue, and in due time it was fully transformed from the unofficial coterie of its origin. In the beginning positions were added to the Council because there were men to fill them; soon men were added to the Council because there were positions to be filled. And so the Council became an institution.
    The Council was changed over the years. It was not until the reign of Alexander II, the great-grandson of Alexander the Mighty, that its final structure was achieved. The number of men was reduced to eight, and their titles were uniformed to the same pattern, the name of Chief. In time the Council itself came to be called the Council of Chiefs, which gave it an air of autonomy it did not actually possess.
    And still Alexander the Mighty had managed to give his descendants what he had had. For all the changes the Council was remarkably true in character to those first twelve men. The Chiefs were all powerful men, with authority throughout the Empire. But their power was derivative and their authority came from the emperor. He had complete authority over the Council, to remove and appoint whomever he pleased. If a man wished to have any independence the Assembly was his place, not the Council. The Chiefs were chosen to be wise in counsel, competent in discharging the emperor's business, trustworthy, and intensely loyal.
    Another thing that was unchanged was the eclectic duties of the Chiefs. Only five of them were truly administrative—the commander-in-chief of the military, the Chief of Intelligence, the Chief of Commerce, the Chief of the Treasury, and the Chief of State. The Chief of the Provinces was a kind of liaison between the emperor and the prefects. The Chief of Justice and the Chief Counselor were the emperor's most esteemed advisors.
    The Chief Counselor's sphere was unlimited, and so, in theory, was that of the Chief of Justice. But it was his special trust to advise the emperor on all matters of law and justice, and those chosen for the position were presumed to be experts in the law. Chief of Justice was often considered to be the most honored position on the Council, and Gerog Kinlol had only enhanced its reputation. He had long been the most powerful Chief on the Council, a voice that spoke close in the ears of Emperor Rikon and Emperor Judah Zebulun. Now that no emperor was listening to him, his power was diminished, and he knew it. But Kinlol was still confident of his ability to lead the Council to do what needed to be done. The Chiefs would not challenge him, at least not now. The commander-in-chief, Fionn Dheval, probably wanted to, but he would never do it alone.
    Kinlol did not dislike Fionn Dheval, however low his opinion of him was. He considered Dheval to be, at best, a merely competent maintainer of the status quo; he lacked not only vision, but adaptability. If something terrible happened and everything changed, then, when he was needed most, Dheval would fail.
    Kinlol had advised Emperor Judah to replace him. He had explained Dheval's failings; he had suggested to the emperor's imagination the Empire being struck with the worst calamity of all—full war with Vothnia. Even Emperor Judah wasn't untroubled by the thought of Dheval, hand on the helm, in such perilous waters. But he still didn't remove Dheval. If war with Vothnia was a terrible prospect, it was also an unlikely one. The strength of the two nations was just on the balance, and everyone knew that a war would devastate winner and loser both.
    Still, if the fear grew faint, it never entirely disappeared. For, like their strength, their enmity also was on the balance. The Empire and Vothnia were both proud and unyielding with each other. And the Vothnians were haunted by a specter of the glory so long destroyed, a dream of the shattered kingdom. And the Empire, ruled by the dynasty of Alexander the Mighty, lived beside them and prospered.
    Kinlol had appealed to this risk and fear, but he didn't end there. He also spun out the advantages of a change. Kinlol presented several candidates, but most of them he gave only enough praise to convince Emperor Judah that they were better men than Dheval. It was Gawin Gaelin he wanted to become commander-in-chief. He was a superior leader and strategist, and he was respected by all the military and had standing in Telnaria. And he was a Gaelin, and that was nothing small; the Gaelin clan was strong and united, and they had intermarried with the Royal Family. Gawin Gaelin's marriage to the emperor's older sister, Layne, was only the most recent example.
    Somehow, Dheval learned or guessed Kinlol's campaign to have him removed, and he never spoke a word to Kinlol he didn't have to. Kinlol was aware of Dheval's animosity, and he did not resent it or consider it unfounded. And it did not give him pause.
    But for the first time it was something to be taken into account. Fionn Dheval might repay Kinlol's attempts to undermine him with Emperor Judah by attempting to undermine Kinlol with the Chiefs. Kinlol would watch for any sign from Dheval, beginning with that morning's Council meeting.
    That was the Council's first meeting since Emperor Judah died, and the Chiefs gathered grimly. The seriousness could be felt in that room, and became almost a law of conduct for those who came there. The Chiefs greeted each other without smiles, and conferred together in low voices until the meeting was called to order.
    That duty was Kinlol's; as the Chief of Justice he presided over Council meetings in the emperor's absence. He opened with a brief speech that was in part stating the obvious, mostly politesse, and then moved the Council to business: “As you have all learned, the Assembly has declared a special session. They are convening as soon as quorum is achieved.”
    “What will they do?” asked Dheval.
    “All that they can. They want control over the situation,” said Kinlol. It was an obvious answer, and therefore good as a first, small test of Dheval.
    He passed. Showing no irritation, Dheval said mildly, “I know. But how will they do it?”
    Kinlol noted the reaction and replied, “We can't know for certain. Probably they don't, not yet. But I believe they will try to appoint a regent.”
    At that Kavin Gyas, the Chief Counselor, rapped the table softly with his knuckles, staring past Kinlol to the wall. He said nothing.
    Kavin Gyas couldn't hide it when he was thinking, not for all the Empire. The rapping and the stare always gave him away. But Kinlol never could tell what or how much he knew, so he continued, “If they appointed a regent, he would have complete authority over the Council. All the power would go out of our hands.”
    “And out of theirs,” said Trey Uman, Chief of the Treasury.
    All eyes turned to him, but Gyas' fairly shot. Kinlol sat right across from him, but took only quick notice. His attention also was drawn to Uman, and he frowned. “What do you mean?”
    Uman was in no hurry to give his answer. He looked at Kinlol musingly. His eyes were cloudy blue, his features marked by a youthfulness that belied the shocks of white scattered through his blond hair. “Don't you see it? We would lose control, but so would they. It would go from our hands to theirs to the regent's.”
    “The Assembly would appoint him.”
    “And there their power would end. A regent is as uncontrollable as an emperor.”
    Kinlol had not considered this, but still ... “Then tell me,” he said, sweeping the table with a stern gaze that encompassed all seven Chiefs. “If they will not appoint a regent, then what will they do? They do not want us ruling the Empire!”
    The silence that followed this challenge spoke in Kinlol's favor. Perhaps that was why Dheval broke it. “What about Elymas Vonran?” he asked. “He is the Premier of the Assembly. Everyone knows that he wanted this session. What does he want?”
    There was a murmur of acknowledged ignorance around the table, and Kinlol had to join in. “Elymas Vonran is deep,” he said. “He can keep his own counsel and his own purposes. I don't know what's in his mind.”
    “I know what's in Colten Shevyn's,” said Chief Gyas.
    And now we have it. Kinlol turned to Gyas. “The head of the delegation from Tremain,” he said, his even voice concealing his interest. “What does he want?”
    “No regent,” Gyas said. “He wants a council made, or a commission, with members appointed by both the Assembly and the Council. As Shevyn envisions it, the Council and the Assembly will carry out their duties, with this commission supervising in place of the emperor.”
    “The emperor?” Trey Uman rubbed his neck. “A corporate regent instead of an individual?”
    “No,” said Gyas. “Not quite like that. I think he envisions the commission as—passive. A remote superintendent, not an active leader. The main function, I suppose, is to maintain unity between the Council and the Assembly—and have a mechanism in place should an emperor's decision be absolutely needed.”
    Kinlol's first, faint reaction was pleasure at the thought that perhaps the Assembly would not be fighting for a regent after all. This was overwhelmed by pure appall. “Rule by a commission! Rule by a committee! A regent might be dangerous, but at least he could be competent!”
    “Perhaps we should hear your ideas,” suggested Chief of Intelligence David Ithran.
    That was a popular sentiment. “What would you have instead?” asked Uman. “The regent?”
    “And why not?” challenged Dheval. “A regent—”
    “Would not be safe,” Kinlol cut in. “We can't give the emperorship to anyone—not while a son of Alheenan's dynasty still lives. How could we get it back? We have a duty to the house of Alheenan.”
    “We also have a duty to the Empire,” said Kavin Gyas.
    Dheval nodded to Gyas as if he'd found an ally. “We must think of both.”
    “I do think of both,” said Kinlol. Of all the arts of speech, brevity was the hardest for Kinlol to master; he had more well-crafted sentences to follow his protestation, but Dheval took back the floor.
    “We know how you have thought of Alheenan's dynasty,” he said. “But what of the Empire? You would leave it leaderless. That is to say, in chaos, in anarchy, in disarray.”
    Through a supreme effort, Kinlol did not interrupt this offensive litany. He did see Gyas' thoughtful expression, and knew by the others' look that some of them were edging towards agreement. Dheval paused, maybe for flair, but Kinlol had no respect for the man's rhetorical efforts. He seized the silence, his voice even and masterful: “Chaos, Dheval? Disarray? Anarchy? You deal with reality, Chief Dheval. Don't substitute it with abstracts.
    “Is there a man at this table who is not tending to his work? What in the Empire is going to anarchy? Are the taxes not collected? Do the prefects no longer govern? Are the people rioting? Chief Dheval, the Council would know if there is rebellion among the officers or enlisted men.”
    Trusting that his point was made, Kinlol fixed the Chiefs with a stern gaze. “We are the stewards of the Empire. We can manage its affairs. The Assembly will deal with us and we will deal with them. Together we can conduct all the Empire's business. When Emperor Alexander reaches his majority, he will take the throne left empty for him.
    “What else have we heard? Subjugate the whole Empire to a committee? That would be anarchy. What then? Put a regent on Emperor Alexander's throne? The Ancient Code forbids that, and all prudence is against it.”
    Gyas sharply rapped the table. “I don't know, Chief Kinlol, that the Ancient Code forbids it.”
    “He is right about the danger, though,” said Uman. “What if we gave the emperorship to another man and he wouldn't yield to Alexander? We couldn't get it back for him—except through war.”
    That solemn truth brought a moment of silence to the table. Uman lifted his eyes to Kinlol, then moved them to the other Chiefs. “Committees are good for developing ideas—or killing them. I wouldn't leave one in charge of a confectioners' booth—let alone a nation.”
    No one looked about to argue, so Kinlol said, “All the Chiefs know my proposal. I set it before them, and I request the judgment of the Council.” Kinlol stopped there. He let a few moments of silence pass, to allow the Chiefs time to think, and then Kinlol said, “Let the Chiefs pronounce their judgment.” And then—because there was a order in which the Chiefs pronounced—he said, “I am in favor.”
    “I see the flaws all too well,” Gyas said, “but I have heard nothing better. I am in favor.”
    Dheval hesitated a long moment. “I abstain from judgment,” he said at last.
    And, one by one, the Chiefs spoke:
    “I favor the proposal.”
    “I am in favor.”
    “I favor it.”
    “I favor it.”
    “I am in favor.”
    “Seven in favor and one abstaining,” said Kinlol. “The Council's policy is set.”
    “Now what?” asked Dheval, sounding a little suspicious.
    Before Kinlol could launch his careful reply, Uman spoke. “Our policy, Dheval, is that everything remain as it is at this moment. The only thing we have to do is make sure no one else does anything. We have to wait. We can't stop the Assembly until they do something.”
    Uman had a habit of such colloquial excursions, and he delivered them with an undercurrent of merriness Kinlol distrusted. He tried to restore seriousness to the discussion: “You prepare for the battle long before it is joined. Prepare weapons, cultivate allies—”
    “Of whom are you thinking?” Gyas interrupted to inquire.
    Respect—and annoyance—flickered through Kinlol as he turned to Gyas. He was aware of all eyes locking on both of them. “Of General Gawin Gaelin. He is respected by the military and all the Empire, and he has standing in Telnaria. His support is valuable. I wish to have him as an ally. If the Chiefs are not agreeable, I would hear their concerns.”
    No one took up the opportunity, but that is not to say that no one wanted to. Dheval looked at Kinlol—long, silently, and darkly.

Vonran's days began early. He had already been awake and at his work for two and more hours before his family had their breakfast. After the meal, Vonran kissed his daughters good-bye and promised to be home for dinner. He was leaving for the Hall of Assembly, and he did not expect a busy day.
    The Hall was deep into the city. It was a notable building, and in Telnaria that was not an easy thing. The Empire's capital city was filled with the buildings where the nation's most powerful men conducted their business, with monuments, memorials, mansions, and the Royal Palace looking out over all. Architects rivaled in designing buildings of magnificence and originality. In all this, the Hall drew attention at least. It was enormous and, in an eccentricity, actually shaped like a hall. Two-thirds of the building was given over to the Assembly Room, and the rest of it to the delegates' use. When the space had become insufficient, they had built a complex to the north of the hall, connecting the two by an enclosed colonnade and an underground passageway. It was not efficient, but it had the virtue of preserving the Hall's structural integrity.
    That was like Telnaria. Vonran knew it as well as any native, although he himself was not one. His native city was Traelys, on Vaz in the Lorda Province. It was not the place where he'd been born or raised. That he had left long ago, without looking back. Traelys was where he had settled as a young man first starting out; he made it his own, his home. Traelys was to the Empire's economy what Telnaria was to its government: It was the capital.
    And it was ruled by a different ethos. The very architecture of the cities was different. Telnaria had borrowed much from the architecture of the ancient pagan cities, as they had borrowed other things. Traelys was a modern city, built of synthesized metal and not stone. There the buildings soared into the sky and their long spirals pierced the clouds, sharpening to a lethal, invisible point. It made for different skylines, and both were forged in Vonran's memory.
    Telnaria's power was built on covenants their ancestors had entered into, an enshrined constitution. Traelys owed its power to the living, not the dead. Its power was in meeting the shifting needs and desires of billions of people. Vonran had spent his first years of adulthood in apprenticeship of that art, and he had taken it with him when he moved into the profession of politics. True, delegates were not popularly elected. They were appointed by the legislatures of their provinces—and legislators were popularly elected. Many a legislator had risen and fallen because of a delegate. Vonran had learned—far better than most of his colleagues—the value in appealing to the people. While he didn't neglect the men who appointed him, he was more concerned with the people. He cultivated their favor with active courting and lasting vigilance. It mattered less what the legislators thought, when the people were on his side. Lorda's legislature gave him his position, and the people's favor gave him independence.
    When Vonran arrived at the Hall, he found it mostly empty. He stood alone in the anteroom, letting his gaze travel along the carved entranceways, the off-white marble floor mottled with blue-gray, and each province's commemorative seal hanging on the cool, pale brown walls. He envisioned the anteroom as it would soon be, filled with hurrying people, the murmur of their voices and movements. Vonran crossed over to the lifts—his office was in the Hall itself, because of his position—and found one waiting, empty. It stopped on the second floor to pick up a peevish-looking secretary and a bright young aide, who greeted Vonran by name. He returned the wishes for a good morning; the secretary said nothing and Vonran returned that, too. They got off at the next floor; Vonran went on to the fourth. He strode down the hall, soon espying a small knot of men near an open door. It was a regular occurrence, in and out of session, but there was no intensity to these men now. They were standing and talking in the easy informality that reigned until the Assembly convened. Vonran slowed as he came to them—Garin Dorjan, Colten Shevyn, Nemin Ziphernan, and Theseus Declan.
    Theseus Declan, one hundred and one, was the oldest man in the Assembly, and one of the most respected. He was venerable in his old age, and his mind was still keen. No emperor had lasted as long, no delegate had known the Assembly without him, and he was almost an institution in himself. Declan enjoyed a deep and widespread affection, though not all the delegates who felt so knew it. But many did, for it was not only the enduring, comfortable familiarity of Declan that inspired affection. He was well-liked also because he was kind, unpretentious, respected the divine image in every man, and harbored no ambitions beyond what he already had.
    Vonran at least fully understood his sentiments regarding the old man, and they were not exactly like those most commonly felt. He respected Declan's age and experience, but even more his skill in dealing with others. Declan always gave an impression of opposing policy rather than people, so that even those he had opposed again and again were rarely inspired to enmity. Vonran, not easy to surprise, was surprised anew at how a man in Declan's position could give so little offense to others' pride and so little threat to their ambition. Not least of all, Vonran trusted Declan, personally as well as professionally, and that, too, did not come easily to him.
    As Vonran came near the four men, Garin Dorjan stepped forward and met him, drawing him a little to the side of the other three.
    “Verz and Charim have sent their confirmations,” he said in a low voice. “I am told to expect Anarett's any time now. All are moving along ... except Regial.”
    “I thought as much.” Vonran also kept his voice down. They were standing near the other men, and it was quiet in the halls. “I have had my staff arrange calls with Regial's prefect and the leader of their delegation. I will do what I can. And the delegates in Telnaria ... ”
    “Many didn't come to the Hall today. But some did.” Dorjan gestured behind him, and Vonran glanced at the men.
    “Anything interesting?”
    Dorjan shook his head. “Nothing worth reporting.”
    Vonran took another glance, noticing that Declan was listening more than talking, and Shevyn and Ziphernan were standing closer to each other than either was to Declan. “Do they get along?” he asked. “I mean, the two.”
    “Shevyn and Ziphernan? Oh, famously, Elymas, famously.”
    Vonran added Shevyn to a mental list of Ziphernan's possible mentors. Then, sharing a look with Dorjan, he turned towards the men, Dorjan following his lead. They spoke cordially together for a few minutes, and then Vonran excused himself.
    He went to his office, where his first order of business was to speak with Regial's prefect and lead delegate. He brought all his persuasive powers to bear, but with what effect he couldn't tell. Later he learned that the Council was meeting that same morning, but no word came from it. Vonran was not surprised. He expected the Chiefs to act, but he did not expect them to be hasty.
    The hours passed and work lagged. A few hours after noon Vonran took out his compad—the special one—and activated it. It was programmed to launch his file immediately after it had been activated and the password entered. He was writing when his intercom came alive: “Delegate Shevyn requesting an interview, sir.”
    “Granted. Send him in.” Vonran didn't really listen to his secretary's acknowledgment as he put the compad into sleeper mode and slid it into a drawer. He rose as the door opened and greeted Shevyn. Shevyn answered very properly and both men were seated.
    “Our situation is urgent,” Shevyn began, “and I believe we should move to resolve this trouble as quickly as possible. We can begin seeking a resolution even before the Assembly convenes. The delegates will reach consensus faster if they have already begun to propose and consider ideas.”
    “Doubtless that's all true,” said Vonran. “But haven't they already begun?”
    “Informally, they have. I believe we should carry on the process officially. If you would issue an executive order authorizing a forum, we could begin immediately.”
    “It is unusual to begin the forums before the Assembly has convened.”
    “But not unheard-of. It has been done before—and on things less weighty than the ruling of the Empire.”
    “So it has,” Vonran agreed. It had been done—sometimes for the sake of speedy action, a few times as a political weapon. He considered for a long moment and then turned back to Shevyn. “Your point,” he said, “is well-made. But for the time too few delegates have gathered to hold forums. However, I will keep your recommendation in mind. If, as things develop, it seems a good idea, I will act on it.”
    Shevyn pondered this and nodded. “That is reasonable.” He rose. “Thank you for your consideration and your time.”    
    “It is my pleasure,” Vonran responded. He watched Shevyn go, and as the door shut he took his compad from the drawer. He had only gotten so far as to write “Shevyn” when his secretary's voice cut in again: “Delegate Declan, sir.”
    “Send him in.” Vonran tilted the compad, looking at the face of its screen with a twinge of disappointment, then put it away as he had with Shevyn's arrival.
    Theseus Declan came in, wearing a friendly expression. “Are you occupied, Elymas?”
    “I'm not busy,” Vonran answered.
    Declan nodded. “It is slow—but not for long. In a few days we will have quorum and this quiet building will be swarming. People and bustle and hurry and much too much noise.” Then Declan laughed. “Nemin Ziphernan is anxious for it to begin. But he is young, and I am old, and I am no longer impatient for the calm to end and the storm to begin.” Declan regarded Vonran thoughtfully, as if gauging his own eagerness. “It will be an important session. Even I, who have been in the Assembly sixty years, would call it so. We are entering history.”
    “I know.”
    “You are not excited?”
    “Are you?” Vonran parried.
    “Ah, Elymas, at my age excitement is a threat to my health. The doctors advise against it. But you are not old; you should not be tired.”
    “I,” Vonran said, “am not quite old, but I am not quite young, either. Why should I share Nemin Ziphernan's anxiousness?”
    “You are young,” reprimanded Declan. “If you think you are not it's only because you are ignorant of old age. I am old. I know.”
    Vonran looked at Declan, amused. “Might it be, Theseus, that your perspective is skewed? You are old enough to be my father.”
    “That is not quite true,” Declan answered. “I am old enough to be your grandfather. I have great-grandchildren the age of your own children. You are young.”
    Vonran laughed. “I concede. I won't argue.”
    Declan took the concession in the good humor it had been given. He smiled and shook his head, and changed the subject. “I was wondering, Elymas, if you would come over to my house for dinner tonight.”
    Vonran shook his head. “I promised my girls I would be home tonight. But you could come over and have dinner with us—you and your wife.”
    “My wife is in Carsyt. I was intending to join her there after the emperor's funeral, but now that the Assembly is convening ... ” He shrugged. “But I would be glad to come—if you don't mind.”
    “If I did, I wouldn't have asked.” Vonran quickly collected what he needed from his office and they went to his home. It was a large house, built broadly and handsomely, of a fine and enduring gray stone. It was by no means a palace, and the grounds were more impressive than the house itself. It was not that there was anything exotic or unusually fine about that very fine land. But it was extensive, and cut off from the rest of the city by a tall wall that ringed the whole estate. In a city—and especially Telnaria—land was an expensive commodity. To anyone who knew this, cutting out a large parcel of land in the middle of Telnaria and then contentedly planting flowers gave a definite—and to no politician unwanted—impression.
    Both men disembarked from their hovcars in front of the house, and began to go up the stairs as the drivers swung the hovcars around. But Vonran stopped abruptly, catching a faint noise. He listened closely, and this time he heard it again and was certain: a little girl's laugh. He looked over at Declan and motioned to him to follow.
    Retracing his way down the steps, Vonran led Declan around the house and onto the lawn. The grass grew thick and green, and ahead, beginning at the back of the house, was a stone wall. They had already passed the first, looming wall, and this waist-high one was probably aesthetic in purpose. Agvihn bush-trees of the finest breed were planted near it; Declan had never seen the dark green leaves so deep and vibrant.
    They came to a gate which was about broad enough for two to walk through abreast. Vonran quietly slipped the handsomely wrought latch, and the gate opened with remarkable quietness. Vonran shut and latched the gate again after both men had gone through, and they went forward. They were so close now that even Declan's old ears could clearly hear the sounds of children playing. The Agvihn bush-trees grew close together, and their many, leafy boughs obscured the lawn beyond. But soon they had come to the trees and could see Vonran's four daughters playing near a tall fountain.
    There Vonran came to a stop, apparently content to watch. Declan stopped also, but after watching the children for a few moments he looked at Vonran—a long and careful look. Then he spoke. “Elymas, I have been curious, since the session was called ...” Declan let that sentence trail to its end, and Vonran looked at him, but without shifting his posture; he barely turned his head. Declan met his eyes. “Elymas, what do you want?”
    Vonran's gaze returned to his daughters. “Want?” he repeated.
    “From the Assembly. What do you wish us to do?”
    Vonran looked back at Declan, but his expression was inscrutable. “The best thing.”
    Declan began to speak and stopped. Then he nodded, slowly. “What do you believe that is?”
    “Whatever will provide the Empire with the leadership it needs. The child cannot even begin to learn how to rule; someone must.”
    “Or someones.”
    “What do you mean by that?”
    “Haven't you heard?” Declan's voice was odd, as if his question was about half-rhetorical.
    “Do I seem to have?” Vonran asked, more sharply than he had intended.
    “Obviously not.” Declan clasped his hands together, as if meditating on some thought. “Elymas, Colten Shevyn wants the Assembly and the Council of Chiefs to appoint a commission in the emperor's place.”
    Vonran said nothing. He was looking towards his daughters but no longer really watching them. His mind had flown to his other world; it was taking this information, sizing it up, fitting it in. So Shevyn had hatched some ingenuous—though not necessarily wise—idea, sprung it on Telnaria and then came into Vonran's office to ask for forums to advance it. He probably guessed that the idea hadn't reached Vonran's ears yet; doubtless he also guessed that Vonran wouldn't like it. Typical of Shevyn.
    Vonran grasped all this quickly, and it cost him only a short pause before asking, “Is there much support in the Assembly?”
    “I can't say. No one has had time to think yet, and many haven't even heard. What do you think?”
    “It sounds impractical,” Vonran muttered. “A commission?”
    “It intrigues me—and makes me leery,” Declan said. “But we may hear nothing better.”
    “I doubt that.”
    “So you are not in favor?”
    Vonran shook his head. “I think not.”
    “What do you want?”
    Want. Again. Irritation surged through Vonran, and he didn't know whether it was at Declan for pressing the point or at himself for not having already decided when and how to reveal his desires. It was as easy for Vonran to deflect a question as it was to answer it, but now he didn't know which he wanted to do. He looked back at his girls, buying himself that second to grasp for the wisest response. “Impractical, did I not say of Shevyn's commission?” Vonran allowed a short pause, for Declan to nod and himself to order his next words. “If practical is to be our watchword, we would appoint a regent. An empire without an emperor is a very awkward thing.”
    “Well said,” praised Declan. “And I agree. But there are other ideas. And many motivations.”
    A feeling of discomfort suddenly came over Vonran, and he knew without looking that Declan was gazing at him intently. The old man was insightful, could draw the truth from a man's soul like water from a deep well. But what disquieted Vonran was that, somehow, Declan's steady gaze could make him also peer into his own soul. And so it occurred to him to consider his motivations, and not only wonder what Declan thought or guessed of them.
    Vonran turned his gaze back to Declan—and suddenly caught sight of Cala leaning far over the fountain's basin, stretching out a small hand into the cascading water. She looked on the verge of pitching in headfirst, and while the water was not very deep, the stone floor of the basin was very, very hard.
    “Cala!” he yelled. “Get down!”
    The shout startled the girls, who hadn't even known that he was home. It startled Declan, who was quite focused on another matter. Even Vonran hadn't been expecting it; it was pure parental reflex.
    Zelrynn moved quickly to retrieve Cala from the fountain, but Vera and Lydia paid attention to their father rather than their little sister. Vonran left the trees' shadows to go to them, his discussion with Declan effectively ended.    
    No opportunity came to revive it. While they were still with the girls dinner was called, and shortly after they finished Declan announced that he must be going. Vonran had the summons sent to his driver and then walked with Declan to the door. They didn't speak, and Vonran wondered if Declan was planning to return to the evening's earlier topic. Declan halted in the foyer, looking around it and to the staircase before and the rooms flanking it. But he continued without comment. They stepped outside and Declan looked behind and upward, getting a very limited view of the house's front. “It's a fine house, Elymas,” he said. “It stood empty so many years before you and Dianthe moved in. I used to wonder why. I was surprised when I learned you had bought it, Elymas. Of course, I barely knew you then, but you were still a new delegate ... ”
    Vonran nodded, to show that he understood and Declan didn't have to finish the sentence. Declan's hovcar drew up before the house. Declan was shivering a little in the cold wind, and when he saw the vehicle he nodded to Vonran. “A fair night to you, Elymas,” he said. “And God's favor on your family.”
    “A fair night to you also,” returned Vonran. He watched Declan leave and then turned back to his home. He stopped as soon as he crossed over the threshold, looking around. Declan didn't know why the house had stood empty all those years, but he did. After all, the owner for all that time had been his father-in-law.
    Gazing around the foyer, Vonran's mind stepped back into another time, when he had first stood there with his father-in-law, his wife, and his only child, a little girl just beginning to walk. He and Dianthe looked around, trying to see into the darkened rooms and up the stairs, while Garis Sejen extolled the house's qualities. The memory of it was vague but quickly grew sharp, as if the words were traveling to Vonran from thirteen years before.
    And Vonran remembered the pause and all its expectancy, and then the tone, so immensely pleased, as his father-in-law went  on ...
    “It's yours, Dianthe. You and Elymas and Zelrynn and the little ones to follow.”
    “Father!”
    Dianthe's voice was startled and a little reproving, but Vonran said nothing. He had learned one thing about his father-in-law: Dianthe dealt with him like no one else could. And he had learned one thing about life: hasty reactions were often uninformed reactions, which were often bad reactions.
    “Now what's wrong? You and Elymas have been looking for a house; this one is the best in Telnaria—not for holding banquets, maybe, but for raising children. You said it yourself about the grounds—a place for children to play. Now, with these little ones ...”
    “I know. It is true. But Elymas hasn't said he wants it, and even if he does, we can pay for this house.”
    “You will not. It's a gift, little girl. Can't a father give his daughter a gift?”
    “When it's a house!”
    “Dianthe, I haven't even given you your inheritance—and here you are, a grown, married woman! Can't I give you something?”
    “Father, I didn't want the inheritance. I said I would never take it. Oh, Father, you know I did; you know why.”
    “I do. And now you have him.” Garis Sejen thrust a thick, brown finger towards his son-in-law. “So now you can take it.”
    “Father, I said I wouldn't accept the inheritance and I will not. I gave my word.”
    “Then keep it. This isn't your inheritance. It's a gift—and for my grandchildren, too.”
    Vonran drifted away from the conversation, after Zelrynn who was toddling towards the stairway. He felt a sympathy with his father-in-law. Dianthe was his only daughter, the child of his old age, and he adored her. And this man, at one time the wealthiest man in the Empire, expressed his love in giving. Often it was very extravagant giving, but he didn't know it. He thought of it only as giving his daughter things that she would enjoy, only as making her happy. He wanted—it was a deep and unfailing desire—to do both.
    And well Vonran understood, for, like Garis Sejen, Dianthe was the apple of his eye ...
    “Father?”
    For a moment, the voice was Dianthe's and it was Zelrynn's, too, and then Vonran was back in the present. He blinked quickly twice, feeling an unusual wetness in his eyes, and turned to Zelrynn. “Yes?”
    “Is Delegate Declan gone?”
    “Yes.”
    Zelrynn looked curiously up at her father. “Will you be busy now?”
    Vonran nodded, looking at his daughter thoughtfully. She was an intelligent girl, and at fourteen was beginning to let go of childhood. She knew what was going on. Maybe she was his only child who did. Lydia and Cala were too young. Did Vera understand? “I will be very busy for a while, Zelrynn. But I am not tonight. Come. Let's go to your sisters.”

“You're the first to arrive, Kinlol,” said Trey Uman, by way of greeting. “I hadn't expected anyone yet.”
    Kinlol nodded, and wondered if that was why Uman was not wearing shoes. This meeting had been Kinlol's idea; he had proposed to Uman that they meet together with Gawin Gaelin—knowing even as he did so that Kavin Gyas, too, would come. The friendship between Gyas and Uman made it inevitable.
    Kinlol looked around the living room. “Will we be meeting in here?”
    “I was planning on the patio. The weather is finally pleasant and nature is in full bloom. The flowers are even better than last  year ... Have you seen the epiphyllum?”
    Kinlol allowed that he had not.
    “They are our newest experiment. I wasn't sure how well they would do—look, I mean—but it's turning out well. Annora has claimed the victory in another debate.”
    Annora was Uman's wife of thirty years and more, and Uman did not mind announcing his loss to her in this question of landscaping. Kinlol nodded politely to Uman's comment and hoped the others would arrive and save him from further discussion of flowers. Or rather, further commentary. Kinlol had nothing intelligent to say on flowers or landscaping, and had hardly even a compliment to give.
    Fortunately for him, Kavin Gyas arrived then. Not bothering with the most perfunctory greetings, Gyas, smiling broadly, said, “I would like to announce the arrival of another Gyas. My grandson was born early this morning.”
    “Congratulations,” said Kinlol.
    “Don't think,” said Uman to Kinlol, “that we are the first to know. He probably told the servant who let him in. Annora and I were dining with him and his wife in a restaurant when they got word of their granddaughter's birth, and he told the server.” Uman turned back to Gyas. “All right. Let's have the name, weight, length—everything. And he knows it, too.” This last was another aside to Kinlol.
    Kinlol stood there, but he tuned out the conversation. This was something he had gotten used to. He had watched his friends and the men he knew marry and have children; over the years this passed to their children marrying, and they became grandfathers. Kinlol stood apart, never married and childless. He had filled his life with other things.
    Gawin Gaelin arrived a few minutes into Uman's and Gyas' conversation, and the round of greetings and news was repeated. Finally Uman led his guests out to what he called the patio. A fine brownstone pavement adjoined the back of Uman's home; it was not very broad as patios went, and it was not roofed. It was, however, terraced, for the house had been built on a ridge. A balustrade lined the patio, with a flight of broad steps leading down to the lawn and the gardens.
    One of the tables had been set for the sort of meal that was eaten with small plates and no utensils. As his guests settled around the table, Uman poured the drinks and began the conversation. “It has been three days since the Council met,” he said. “Since then, Elymas Vonran has issued an executive order that permits the delegates to hold forums before the Assembly's convening—today, in fact, they begin. The leaders in the Assembly and of the delegations are meeting this afternoon, and this morning the Assembly announced it will convene tomorrow. And while the Assembly has done all this, the Council achieved ... nothing.” Uman illustrated this with a gesture that sent dark liquid sloshing from the cup in his right hand. “Which is why we are here, is it not, Kinlol?”
    “It is,” Kinlol said. “The Council must act—but I can't call the Chiefs together without anything to put before them.”
    “It is a matter of strategy,” asserted Gaelin. “And the first question is, what is the objective?”
    “You know,” said Kinlol.
    “Then you won't disagree with my summary,” said Gaelin, a little irritated at Kinlol's lack of cooperation. “To wit: To keep the Assembly from wresting control of the Empire from the Council. Even more simply, to keep the state of affairs static.”
    “And the Assembly is meeting with the precise intention of changing it,” said Gyas.
    “That,” Gaelin said, “is why I call it an 'objective'. Now, if that is our objective, what is the best way of achieving it?”
    “We must thwart the Assembly,” said Kinlol. “But if the Assembly changes anything, it will be by instituting a new power in the Empire—a regent or Shevyn's commission. That is what we have to prevent.”
    “The Council could challenge the legality of the Assembly's actions,” said Gaelin, looking at Gyas and especially Kinlol.
    “Better yet,” said Uman, “we could rally the people against them. The delegates are not like us. They have to fear the legislators, and the legislators have to fear the people. If the people do not want them to change anything ...”
    “Can they be so convinced of the merits of the Council ruling the Empire?” Gyas asked—and not without a satiric edge.
    “They don't need to love it, Kavin,” said Uman. “They need to feel secure in it. They need to know that all will be well if ... ” He trailed off, as if his own words had started something in his mind.
    “Well?” asked Kinlol, a little puzzled and a little eager. “How can we convince them of that?”
    “Maybe it wouldn't be effective to tell them,” said Uman, staring hard at nothing and speaking a little distantly. “Maybe we could show them ... That is what we have that the Assembly does not!”
    The puzzlement could be heard in the silence. Uman looked impatiently from face to face. “Do you not see it? The regency, the commission—ideas, merely ideas. The Council as caretaker—that is reality. It is what is happening right now. The emperor is dead and buried, and the Empire—”
    “Still runs,” finished Gaelin. “That's magnificent.”
    “So our proposal has been tested and found true—thus far,” said Gyas. “But it has not been far at all.”
    “The Assembly does nothing quickly,” said Kinlol.
    “True,” said Uman. “And as more and more time passes, and it slowly dawns on everyone that we have no crisis ... Why such radical change?”
    “Is there any way to get more time?” asked Gaelin.
    “We could turn obstructionist,” said Gyas, but he spoke as if the word tasted bad.
    “It isn't always bad,” said Gaelin.
    “At any rate,” Uman said, “what can we do? The Assembly convenes tomorrow. Other than contesting their proposals—which we would do anyway, happy side benefit or not, as the Chiefs agreed—other than that, what can we do?”
    Kinlol's mind was turning furiously, and he spoke with uncharacteristic slowness. “The Assembly has not convened. We may be able to keep them from it yet.”
    “How?” demanded Gyas.
    “They have quorum,” said Uman.
    “But is it enough?”
    “It always has been,” said Gyas sarcastically.
    “Do you know your government's history no better than that? Only once before has an assembly of representatives met to determine the governing of the Empire. That was the Great Council, when they ratified the Code and made Alexander the Mighty emperor, and his heirs ever after.”
    “The Assembly is not establishing a government,” Uman pointed out.
    “They're establishing a new governing authority, at least,” said Kinlol. “And they are much closer to the Great Council than to their normal sessions—with their inter-provincial squabbling. For those sessions, quorum is sufficient. For the Great Council, they waited two fortnight past the set time of beginning, waiting for all to arrive.”
    “It may be true,” said Gyas, doubtfully. “But—”
    “I will call the Council together at once,” continued Kinlol. “We must agree and send them a message in the name of the whole Council. And we must be quick!” Kinlol got up from the table and left in a hurry, Uman and Gaelin following after.
    Gyas was alone in the calm that followed their hasty departure from the patio. He picked up his cup and took a long drink. It was a good cordial—blackberry, his favorite—and he savored its taste and its smooth way down his throat. His contemplative gaze drifted to the sky in the distance, and the trees that stood up straight into it.

It was not at all uncommon for the leaders of the Assembly to meet together apart from the rest of the delegates. In most times there was a certain level of cheerfulness to the meetings, owing in part to their lesser degree of formality, and even more to their exclusivity. All who attended knew they had a seat of power.
    Elymas Vonran held the highest seat, that of Premier of the Assembly. He was young as political leaders went, but no one despised or resented that; it seemed a negligible point. There was something about him that surpassed the years, and age was not a measurement. He was a striking man, in more ways than one. He was tall, and though his eyes were black and his hair was quite a dark brown, his skin was unusually fair. By all measures he was a handsome man, and by no measure the most handsome in the Assembly. But his looks were of the kind that bears age graciously, refined by maturity and unmarred by gray hairs.
    But it was more than this, and more than the charm that was his natural gift, and whose uses he had so well learned. There was something commanding in his demeanor, and deep in his eyes there was an intensity, a still burning. No one who ever met him doubted that he was a man of considerable will and intelligence.   
    Elymas Vonran presided over the leaders at their meeting, and it was a happy, necessary, thoroughly predictable affair, until the end.
    That was when they had their first sign of the surprise about to be visited on them—the entrance of one of the Assembly's auxiliaries. The young man made his way to Vonran, attracting the looks of men wondering if he had a good enough reason to enter their gathering. “Premier Vonran,” he said, “the Council of Chiefs has sent a message for the whole Assembly. They requested that I tell you that it is urgent and deserves your immediate consideration. They also want me to relay your reply, or at least your estimate of when you will have one.” There was, in this last sentence, a sudden, slight trace of doubt.
    Vonran nodded and held out a hand. The young man placed a compad in it, and Vonran dismissed him. “We will call you when we have an answer for the Council.” Vonran read the message, unhurried despite the eyes on him and the complete silence that had fallen. He looked up, his face calm and unreadable, and handed the compad to Garin Dorjan, who sat beside him. “You can all study the message for yourselves, but simply put, the Council wants—no, insists—that the Assembly does not convene tomorrow.” An angry murmur swept down the table, but Vonran spoke over it. “They want us to wait until all the delegates have arrived.”
    “Why?”
    “What right is it of theirs?”
    “What—”
    Vonran's impatience with the rising voices and mounting wave of questions—useless, all of them, since no one waited for a reply—was immediate. He thrust both hands outward, and made it a commanding gesture.
    They obeyed. There was quiet again, and Vonran spoke. “The Council believes that we should wait. There is some talk of a precedent. But there is no law and they cannot compel us. No one can. It is our decision only: Will we defer convening?”
    “Why should we?”
    Vonran glanced at the delegate who asked this, but it garnered approval from many of the others.
    “If the Council wants us to defer, it must strengthen their position somehow,” said Colten Shevyn.
    “If they want us to defer,” said Dorjan. “It could be that they want us to fight with them about deferring.”
    “It takes two for a fight, and the Council doesn't qualify. What would they do? Send a sternly worded memo?” scoffed Shevyn.
    “An endless stream of memos that we can't ignore might be problematic.”
    “Only irritating, Dorjan,” said Shevyn. “Don't grasp at straws. You don't have to defend your comment.”
    Dorjan only looked at him, perhaps grasping now for a sufficiently insulting comeback. Declan spoke up. “How would the Assembly deferring strengthen their position? Maybe it's an honest concern.”
    There was a brief silence at this suggestion; then the delegates were recovered enough to dissent.
    “Maybe the Council wants to establish their legitimacy,” said Shevyn. “Insert themselves into the Assembly's internal affairs. If we accede we legitimize their interference. It's a test run of the debate they truly want to be in. If we let them interfere now we'll only strengthen them against us when they want to interfere with our business. The Assembly will not have a forum or a meeting that we won't be getting Kinlol's legal opinion on afterward.”
    “That's logical,” said one.
    “Guesswork,” said another.
    Vonran let that debate run until it began going in circles. Finally he interrupted. “Gentleman, here is something you should consider.” Vonran turned to Dorjan. “Garin, read that part of the message about the precedent.”
    Dorjan found the place and read, “No precedent can be found for the Assembly undertaking such proceedings as you now are, in passing decrees for the Empire not according to law, but by fiat. The Ancient Code has not conferred this executive and judicial privilege upon the Assembly, nor has it permitted the Assembly to institute new governing authorities over the entire Empire, not by fiat or even law. However, once a representative body met to consider and rule on such questions, and institute governing authorities for the Empire. This was the Great Council, held ... ”
    Vonran made a shooing motion with one hand. “Skip the history lesson.”
    Dorjan skipped it. “ ... In the end, they waited two fortnight for all the representatives to appear, pursuant to the consensus of all, that to conduct their business without full representation of the people would undermine their legitimacy.
    “The Council harbors a similar concern here, that the Assembly's proceedings on this matter would have no legitimacy if not undertaken with all the people of the Empire represented. According to the historical precedent, to prudence and to good sense, it is the contention of the Council of Chiefs that the Assembly should not convene or hold forums until all the people are fully, equally represented.”
    There was silence; some were thinking, but most couldn't see the point and didn't want to admit it. “Well?” asked Shevyn at last. “Did you have a remark on all that?”
    “I've made it,” Vonran answered. “You should consider it, all of you. Those are their reasons for demanding what they do.”
    Declan repeated his earlier point, talking a little slowly. “Their concerns may well be legitimate. I see their point.”
    “Maybe, Theseus,” one of his colleagues answered. “Probably they are legitimate. But what other motivations do they have?”
    “Say it plainly,” said Shevyn. “Where's their self-interest in those demands?”
    That started the discussion off again, and it promptly returned to the circles it had been running. But not for long. Shevyn ended it, raising his voice over the others'. “Listen to me. Whatever they hope to gain by this, we all agree they hope to gain something. Somehow delaying the Assembly's convening helps them. Does it even matter how? Will we give them any aid? No! We must be strong if we are to win—strong from the very beginning, strong from the first battle. We must not capitulate to the Council.”
    Agreement rose up from all around the table. Shevyn turned to Vonran, triumph only half-concealed glittering his eyes. “You have our advice.”
    Vonran had stoically heard the arguing voices suddenly unite in consensus, and he nodded briefly and wordlessly to Shevyn. “Summon in the aide,” he said, to no one in particular.
    The aide was summoned, and he came before Vonran. “Give the Council our reply,” Vonran said, his voice alone in the silence. “We have considered their assertions ... and we agree.” The silence wasn't broken, but it was suddenly transformed. Vonran felt it as he went on, “The Assembly will not convene until all our delegates have arrived. Relay this message to them at once.”
    The aide bowed and left, and there was brittle silence.
    Colten Shevyn stood up. He stood up slowly and spoke in a quiet voice heavy with anger. “Perhaps you can tell us why you did that.”
    Vonran raised one eyebrow. “The decision was mine, not yours.”
    That was undeniably true, but it only fanned the delegates' anger and rubbed salt into their wounded pride. Another delegate stood. “But we would like,” he said, “to know why.”
    Vonran knew his colleagues had power in their own right; he knew that they could be dangerous foes and treacherous subordinates. Their anger was on the verge of mutinous. But Vonran leaned back in his chair and surveyed their faces with intolerable calm, and his coolness held all their anger in scorn.
    The delegates granted Vonran their silence as they waited for him to speak, but their patience felt predatory, ready to leap. Finally Vonran spoke. “I never took Kinlol for such a fool, and the rest of you disappoint me also.”
    This was no explanation, and far from complimentary, but the delegates were too bewildered to offer an immediate response.
    They didn't have time for anything more. Vonran's own anger suddenly flared, and he stood up, fixing all the men at the table with a hard gaze. “Have you lost all your shrewdness? Do you have no subtlety left at all?
    “Don't you understand? Victory goes to the one who wins the last battle, not the first. What do you gain if you win a battle but lose the war? But you want so badly to win this one tussle with the Council that you have forgotten everything else. You have forgotten where victory lies. You have forgotten the war.”
    Vonran's anger cooled as quickly as it sprang up, but he was still stern as he went on, “You have no strategy. You have forgotten that you can lose to your own gain.
    “So it is here. The Council found our great weakness. We have no right to create a new institution, no right to issue decrees by fiat. The most we can say is that we operate without the law because there is no law to direct us. Kinlol could have challenged us for going beyond the law, and the struggle between the Council and the Assembly could have gone even to the courts.
    “But even the very wise can be very foolish, and so Kinlol said that we lack legitimacy—without full representation. And if this Assembly is illegitimate without it, then it is legitimate with it. So the Council has said.”
    Vonran stopped, looking at his colleagues. “Do you see now? Without realizing what they were doing, the Council has sanctioned our right to fiat and to create a ruling authority over the Empire. I don't know what they hoped to gain by delaying us. But I am willing to gamble that it is not as great as what we are gaining.”
    The pause stretched long. “That is shrewd,” said Dorjan, at last. “You are right.”
    “And so was the Council.”
    “What?” demanded Shevyn.
    Vonran looked at him. “The Council was right. The Assembly should not make a decision like this without all the people being represented.”
    “I never heard that objection from you.”
    “Why should I have made it? You were never going to get that far—not without everyone present.”
    “And how,” inquired Shevyn, “did you come by that prophecy?”
    “It was no prophecy. I never intended to let you go so far as to vote.”
    “Even the Premier doesn't have the power to stop a vote.”
    “But I have other powers, and I know how to use them.” Vonran turned to the rest of the delegates. “We will have a few days' wait at least, as the Regial delegation has not even left Regial and we cannot conduct our business without them. If any of you has any concerns or advice, I would be glad to hear them. You may contact me at my home—as that is where I am going, as soon as I issue the moratorium on the forums and the convention. This meeting is dismissed.” Vonran stepped between his chair and Dorjan's and circled past the table. He didn't look back until he had nearly reached the door, and then he  turned around to all the men watching him and said, “And a fair day to you all.” And so Vonran was gone.
    Shevyn sat down slowly and looked around at the others, to find them doing the same. It seemed like something should be said, but no one could think what it was.
    “They are fine girls,” said Declan.
    “What?” asked Dorjan, for all the delegates.
    Declan nodded towards the door. “His children. They are fine girls, every one of them—lovely like their mother was.”
    They stared at him. Dorjan shrugged. “That's true. It has nothing to do with anything we were talking about, but it's true.”
    Declan explained, “He said he was going home, to his girls. They need him more, now that their mother is gone.”
    Shevyn shook his head. “You live in a different world, Declan, and sometimes I think it is a better one. But one thing I do know.”
    “What is that?”
    “It is well that Elymas Vonran's mind works so well, because it works alone.” And there was bitterness in his voice.