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Chapter 3


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THE LAST HEIR

by Shannon McDermott

CHAPTER 3

 

THE Assembly's opening ceremony did not manage to be short enough. That was Elymas Vonran's opinion.
    Of course, he had to endure it. As Premier of the Assembly, he had to participate. And so he did, convincingly pretending that it was not the tedious affair it was. After it was through, it was time for the part he really did like.
    Vonran had arranged to give a speech directly after the Assembly's opening. If the numbers Garin Dorjan had given him were right, billions from all over the Empire were watching. It sent a tremor, a small and pleasant thrill, through him.
    Vonran had written his speech carefully. He had even dressed carefully, choosing a dark tunic with a pattern woven into the collar and cuffs, and slashed across the chest. The thread looked like silver, but the discerning eye could tell that it was platted azor. It was expensive enough to impress those who cared for such things, plain enough not to offend those who did not. Vonran expected both to watch his speech, and he meant to bring them all to his side.
    After the ceremony was over, Vonran climbed the steps of the podium. It was so high it was almost bizarre—like a small tower—but it allowed a speaker to address everyone in the Hall. The podium was at the front of the Hall, not far from the presiding officer's rostrum. It was reserved for occasions such as this; the delegates most often spoke and debated from the floor.
    Vonran took his place and swept his eyes over the delegates seated in the Hall. There were galleries descending down to the floor, each projecting further than the one before. Shevyn was seated high up with the delegation of Tremain and Vonran looked up and saw him. He wondered if his imagination or the lights deceived him, but he thought Shevyn's eyes glittered as he looked down at him.
    No matter. Vonran knew Shevyn was watching him with eyes like an eagle's—Shevyn, and other men, too, not least among them Gerog Kinlol.
    And what Vonran felt then was not anger or even hostility, but something that was almost joy. Here's to you, he thought to Shevyn. And here's to all the other eagles. I wouldn't ask for lesser opponents.
    They made the battle all the more challenging, victory all the sweeter. Vonran was ready to join the battle with them, and he would with this very speech. Standing at the podium, he felt on him the eyes of the delegates and the people, and the eyes of the eagles. And he began, “Delegates and fellow citizens, we are gathered here today in the wake of a tragedy that has left the Empire leaderless. And so I address not only the Assembly, not only the Council of Chiefs and the officials, but all the people of the Empire ... ”

The Chiefs, along with Gawin Gaelin, had gathered to watch Vonran's speech. Gaelin was hosting the men at his home, and they were physically comfortable, even if their mental state was more tense. After opening, Vonran reviewed their present situation. His words on the late emperor were moving, his summation of their situation eloquent and persuasive. He went on to the Assembly's special session, and a general feeling of depression spread through the Chiefs' gathering.
    “We were fools,” said Trey Uman.
    “We were hasty,” corrected Kinlol.
    “We were fools to be hasty,” Uman said. “Why didn't we think more carefully? Why weren't we more skeptical?” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he looked sharply at Kavin Gyas.
    Gyas was gracious enough to say nothing, but he did rap his chair's wooden armrest twice. Several of the Chiefs became irritated guessing what had gone through his mind.
    They grew quiet, listening to Vonran again. “And so,” he was saying, “the Council of Chiefs and the Assembly agreed on this course, and now we are all gathered. Assured of the unity between these two bodies, we go forward together ... ”
    “At least we got our foot in,” said Gyas.
    “It is known as salvaging disaster,” said Uman.
    “Listen,” said Kinlol.
    “Our task is clear,” Vonran continued. “We must provide leadership for the Empire. Until Alexander can arise to take his own, someone must fulfill his duty, and go in and out before the       people ... ”
    The gathering seemed to take in a collective breath. “We have it,” said Uman. “He wants a regent.”
    “Just as I said,” said Kinlol. He turned to Dheval. “Once you asked me, Dheval, what Elymas Vonran wanted. Now we know. Now everyone knows.”

One man stood up at the table. He held a small device, the remote by which he was controlling the holo-projector. It was projecting a three-dimensional floor plan of the Palace. A green circle was in the image, crossing through the blue lines of the Palace. “And that,” he said, “is our review of the last security perimeter. It is difficult because it is fluid, always moving with the emperor. But we have found it secure.”
    Adon Kereth nodded to his subordinate. “Thank you, Major,” he said. “And the old servants' stairwell?”
    “Sir, we closed and sealed the doors and then we disabled the circuitry. After that, we set up a bookcase at the exit into the emperor's chambers, and built a false wall over the entrance in the command center. That should do it, sir. Even if anyone should break through, they would find the doors inoperable.”
    “Very good,” Kereth said. “Anything else?”
    “Yes, sir,” a captain spoke up. “Will there be any changes from the review you ordered?”
    “I haven't decided on any,” Kereth answered. “Anyone else?” Nobody spoke. “Dismissed.”
    The officers stirred and began to collect their compads. “I had thought,” the major said as he closed down the holo-projector, “that the Assembly might do something by now.”
    “They've been in session less than a week,” said Kereth.
    “I know. And still—you know what they said. This Assembly was going to be like the Great Council. The Chiefs and the delegates had agreed. All would be settled. They would resolve the crisis!” He shook his head. “They're doing nothing, and life goes on.”
    “They've been holding those forums and debating the matter. They're deciding, Daven. Have you ever tried to get a thousand men to move quickly?”
    “Certainly. I sent them all deployment notifications.”
    “All right. Have you ever tried to make a thousand politicians move quickly?” Kereth amended.
    “No, but you said 'men'.”
    “Aren't politicians human?”
    “It's a theory, anyway.”
    “They did make a great noise over their convening,” inserted Dilv. “My parents in Neven watched Vonran's speech—and so did everyone they know.”
    “I heard the same from my brother in Byzal,” said another officer.
    Kereth strode out of the room, the officers' voices fading behind. But one—a lieutenant—followed. “Sir,” he said, hurrying to catch up. “Sir, I wanted to talk about the schedule.”
    “Yes?” Kereth asked, not breaking stride.
    “Sir, I was told I would be off-duty Friday. But now I'm on.”
    “You heard the announcement of the changes, Carlon. There is an unexpected increase in activity that day. We need more security and so we are calling you back.”
    “What about Lieutenant Miyl?”
    “He is on special assignment.”
    “The evaluation.”
    Kereth stopped and turned at Carlon's tone. “And if so?”
    “Sir, it isn't urgent. He could take my post, no harm done. It's very important for me to be off-duty.”
    “Why? Your wedding day?”
    “No, sir, the anniversary of it. Colonel, you've had us working harder lately and I haven't had the time to be the husband I ought to be.” Kereth went completely still, and Carlon didn't notice. “Sir,” he continued, “I need to give this day to my wife. She's been very good to me and she deserves it. I have my duty to her, too.”
    Kereth's discomfort with Carlon's words turned to a sour feeling, burgeoning guilt and regret, and the loneliness he had tried to hide from himself. “Your duty to your country is first,” Kereth responded with a harshness that surprised himself. Scrambling for a recovery, he went on, “Lieutenant, our work is important. I work as hard as any man and probably hardest of all. I allow nothing to supersede the carrying out of my duty. Do you know what that means?”
    The lieutenant looked at him, slightly perplexed, like a schoolboy called to answer a question that had not been in the lesson. “Sir?”
    “You are in the military, Lieutenant. I expect a devotion appropriate to your calling. You should have known going in that there would be sacrifices for you and your whole family.”
    “I know, but, sir ... one day?”
    Kereth looked at him wordlessly for a long minute. “You are dismissed, Lieutenant.”
    “Yes, sir.” Carlon saluted and hurried away.
    Kereth turned away, but the episode was unpleasant to him and he sighed a little. He walked through the command center, into the Palace proper. He was in the outer corridors, near the entrance to the gardens, when he saw the Lady Mareah and her son, accompanied by a guard. The time for wearing widow's reeds had passed, but she still dressed plainly, even by her standards.
    Kereth stopped, and so did Mareah. She stood a short distance from him, her right hand on her son's shoulder.
    Kereth bowed. “Hail, Empress,” he greeted her. “And hail, Emperor,” he added, kneeling to be at eye-level with Alexander.
    The child, his liege, looked at him with a kind of solemn puzzlement, as if he were deciphering Kereth's words. Kereth looked at him, his serious gray eyes, only a moment before glancing up at Mareah. Her left hand had come to Alexander's other shoulder, and Kereth was surprised by the disapproval he saw in her eyes. He stood up, and Mareah nodded to him, polite but not warm. “Good day, Colonel.”
    “Good day, Lady Mareah,” he answered.
    Mareah guided Alexander onward and they walked past Kereth, the guard following in their wake. Kereth watched them go, puzzled. What did I do​? he wondered, and walked on. He returned to his office and settled behind his desk, calm and feeling like a man who had failed. His emotions were still and his mind was clear, and after a little thought he keyed a frequency into his comm. “Major Daven?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “I want you to re-order the guards' schedule for Friday. Lieutenant Carlon had that day free originally and I want him to have it again.”
    “Have you re-evaluated the security needs?”
    “No. Keep security as tight as planned. And if you can't spare one man ... there's Lieutenant Miyl. You can take him off that CR evaluation for a day. It isn't urgent.”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Thank you, Major.” Kereth switched off the comm.  

“Some of the delegates still want more forums, Elymas,” Garin Dorjan said.
    Vonran glanced at him. “We have had a week of forums,” he said mildly.
    “Many think it's not enough.”
    “Yes,” Vonran acknowledged, hardly even trying to keep his apathy from bleeding into his voice. “A speedy decision is important: We must strike while the iron is hot. But it's not an argument worth making, not when we are on our way to the meeting of the leaders.”
    Dorjan sighed. “No, not now. But I have had to make it again and again— None of the leaders are entering this fray. A mild 'It might be better to wait' is the most any of them will say in favor of delay. They will not argue their own point of view. But the other delegates! They keep coming to me, stopping me in the halls, calling me!”
    Vonran's lips twitched, but he succeeded in keeping his amusement off his face. “I, too, have had to deal with them. They do not want a resolution so soon.”
    Dorjan shook his head. “No, they don't. And that Nemin Ziphernan! For being so new he should be more silent!”
    “Indeed.” Vonran took his compad off his desk and made his way to the door, Dorjan following. The two men took a lift for the floor beneath, and they went through the halls and came to a large, long room. There was a large table in its center, shaped like a rectangle with its corners cut off. Vonran took his seat in the middle of the table, and Dorjan sat beside him. He spotted Theseus Declan and leaned over to Vonran, speaking low even though no one was near them. “It's good you persuaded him, Elymas. He has been persuading others, and they have all been arguing for a regent in the forums, convincing other delegates and advocating the regency to their prefects and legislators.”
    Vonran thought of the other half of the clinch, how their work in the media had been turning popular opinion in their favor. That put pressure on the legislatures to support a regent also, and the legislatures in turn put pressure on the delegates. Vonran never assumed victory; he moved and watched carefully. But things seemed to be going the right way.
    Seemed. Nothing was done until it was done. As Vonran looked towards the room's entrance, he saw Colten Shevyn enter the room. He looked at Vonran and their eyes met, but only briefly. Shevyn turned away and went to greet the other men.
    Vonran felt Dorjan's gaze and looked over at him. “No more proxies,” he murmured to him. Dorjan looked as if he understood.
    Vonran watched the rest of the men filter in, trying to tamp down his impatience to begin. The meeting of the leaders was the beginning of the end of debating in the Assembly; everyone knew to expect the vote within days. In addition to the delegation heads, there were the other leaders in the Assembly—caucus and party leaders and the elders. Declan was an elder, and the exemplar of the elders; they were wise and respected men who had achieved no formal position of leadership. They were chosen by vote, and there were not many of them.  It was an irrevocable privilege, and that limited the number of men who were given it. But the delegates enjoyed elevating men to become elders; it was like laymen sending a few of their own into a conference of theologians.
    When everyone was gathered at the table, Vonran called the meeting to order. He rose and addressed them, “Gentlemen, leaders of the Assembly, we are gathered today to debate the matter currently before the Assembly. For seven days now it has been in the forums, and everyone has said what they wished. Now may we come to a resolution. And as you seek it, gentlemen, I ask you to remember that you are here not only in your own right, but also in the place of your provinces and fellow delegates. They have the right to demand an accounting.
    “As you all know, the matter before us is how the Empire should proceed in the face of Emperor Judah's death and his son's incapacity. The delegates have debated two proposals. One”—Vonran turned towards Shevyn—“has been proposed by the head of the delegation of Tremain, Colten Shevyn. If you would sum up your proposal for us, Shevyn, we would be pleased to begin.” Vonran sat down, having thrown the conversation to Shevyn like a brick with no warning.
    Shevyn caught it. Rising to his feet, he explained, “I proposed a commission, with members appointed by the Council of Chiefs and the Assembly. This commission would maintain harmony between the Assembly and the Council. Should the need for an emperor become absolute, it would also provide a mechanism by which the two bodies may settle the matter.” Shevyn took his seat again and turned to Vonran. “Now perhaps you, Premier Vonran, may explain your view.”
    Shevyn probably enjoyed turning the question back on him, but Vonran had steeled himself for harder things than that. He smiled at Shevyn and didn't bother to rise. “It needs no explanation. I advocate a regent—nothing so new or complicated as a reigning commission.”
    “If the commission is more complicated, it is because it shares the duties and powers, rather than concentrating them all in one man.”
    “It pleased the founders of this nation to concentrate it all in one man.” Vonran turned to the rest of the men. “And what has pleased the delegates and the provinces?” he asked.
    “As for what has pleased the provinces,” one of the delegation heads said, “I have been consulting with the prefect and legislators of my province. But no final decision has been reached, and I hold those discussions in confidence.”
    Other delegates nodded at his words. Vonran knew that they were either undecided, or they hadn't brought their legislatures to their own point of view. The delegates were required to consult with their province's prefect and legislature, but they voted as they pleased. And yet they were not entirely free, for they were appointed by the legislatures. It was a complex relationship, fed on tensions between the delegates' freedom and their dependency, the power of the legislators to appoint and the shrewdness of delegates who understood their own advantages.
    Vonran looked around to see if anyone would speak. The leader of the delegation of Teari—whom Vonran had always respected, even though he often didn't like him—spoke up. “The legislature of Teari is divided, and I am not surprised. There is wisdom and peril on both sides.”
    “The question, then,” Vonran said, “is which side has the greater wisdom or peril.”
    “To be sure,” Theseus Declan said. “And I find them both to be on the same side. A single man can rule far better than a commission, but if he is not a good man, how much worse he would be!”
    “Then it is incumbent on us to choose him wisely,” Vonran answered.
    “That is what Norphatt desires—a good regent,” said a delegation head.
    “I, too, am in agreement,” said Declan.
    One man—the leader of the Builders Party, of which Vonran was nominally a member—was looking around the table, at the men's faces. Finally he turned to Vonran. “Premier Vonran,” he said, “you favor a regent. All of the delegates have heard you speak of it. But not often. You have presided at some of the forums, but you have debated little. But now, Premier, state your case to us and defend it. Are you not a leader among us?”
    All eyes were on Vonran, and he was struck by their intentness. Vonran's gaze landed on Shevyn, and then he understood. These were all politicians, practical men who chose their battles. They were keen to discern who had power, and now they wanted to know. The Assembly was divided between two ideas, and they wanted to see the leader of each side go against the other. They wanted to know which was the stronger, which would come out the better man.
    And, whoever he was, they would feel a powerful urge to join him. All politicians had an almost overwhelming instinct to side with the stronger, even those who did not succumb. It was a weakness and a strength, wise in its time and short-sighted in its way. It had been an obstacle and a help to Vonran in the past. And now, whether he approved or not, he was faced with it again. So he would have to make it a help.
    “I thank you for the invitation to make my case to you,” Vonran said. “I will be brief, gentlemen. I have no need to be long. I will speak to the peril of it, and the prudence. First, for the peril: You feel it is great, but think! Do you see how much we are at the mercy of fate, being ruled by those who gain the throne by ancestry? We don't choose our emperors, but we will choose our regent, and we know his time is limited. We face much less danger here than we will on the day of Alexander's coronation.
    “For the prudence: My friends, this is plain and clear before you. Our government is centered around an emperor; without him, we have no leader. Who here would have a body without a head? Who would have an empire without an emperor? If we cannot have an emperor, we must have a regent.”
    “ 'Must' is a strong word, Premier,” Shevyn said. “Do you see no other alternative?”
    Well, the delegates wanted a confrontation. A confrontation Vonran would give them. He turned to Shevyn and asked, “Such as your commission?”
    “Yes,” said Shevyn. “Such as that.”
    “I do not say it has no merits. But it is not our system of government, and it would not be wise to have the Council and the Assembly assuming the emperorship.”
    “You mischaracterize my proposal, Premier.”
    Vonran raised an eyebrow. “And how is that?”
    “The commission would ensure harmony between the Council and the Assembly. If there were a matter beyond their spheres, it would be settled through the commission. I do not intend the commission to rule.”
    “A passive emperor is still the emperor. A passive commission reigning in the emperor's place still reigns.” Vonran turned his gaze from Shevyn to all the men at the table. “We have lost an emperor. We will have a substitute to stand in his place. The only question is: Which will we put on the throne—a man, or a committee?”
    Vonran didn't even look at Shevyn; he looked at all the other delegates, judging their expressions to see if they accepted his wisdom.
    And, as he had said, it was plain and clear before them.

Kinlol looked down at the summary of the Assembly's law, and he hated it. It was just what he had expected, just what he had feared, and he hated it.
    Kinlol looked back up at Elymas Vonran and thrust the compad to him. “I knew all this.”
    Vonran nodded, accepting the compad with more grace than Kinlol had given it. It was easier to be gracious when you were winning.
    The two men were outside the Palace, walking along a stone path. Vonran had suggested that they, as leaders of the Council and the Assembly, meet for a few minutes before the other Chiefs and the Assembly's representatives did. Kinlol accepted, though Vonran's graciousness in making the suggestion—like his graciousness in agreeing to the meeting with the Council and its location at the Palace—irritated him. The Assembly was ready to vote, and they expected the law authorizing the establishment of a regent to pass. Kinlol doubted the Council's opposition would have any effect at all. But he didn't tell that to Vonran as they walked.
    “The Assembly,” Vonran said, “has agreed to this meeting to hear the Council's view on the proposed law. We have no agenda beyond that. Has the Council any other issues it will raise?”
    “No,” Kinlol said. “It, too, is focused solely on this law. And there will be eleven men, besides yourself?”
    “Yes.”
    “And you will preside over them, to have an orderly and relevant discussion?”
    “As you will preside over the Chiefs, Chief Kinlol.”
    “Indeed.” Kinlol looked ahead; an offshoot of the path traveled to the Palace and led the way to a door. “Come, Premier. Let's go inside. It's nearly time.” Kinlol led the way into the Palace, to one of the council rooms at the officials' disposal. It was empty, and the two men stood beside each other at the table. Then the door slid open, and Trey Uman stepped in. As he greeted Vonran, Kinlol crossed over to the other side of the table, sitting in the middle. Uman soon joined him.
    The rest of the men gathered quickly, dividing themselves onto each side of the table, Kinlol with his Chiefs facing Vonran with his delegates. Kinlol began by offering a politic statement he did not enjoy delivering, and then he said, “The Council has considered the very course you have now proposed. And we have seen one great danger—that the regent you appoint, having gained the power of the emperorship, may refuse to relinquish it. The Empire would then likely descend into civil war. Even if it does not—if the usurper is not opposed—it would do great destruction to our law and our honor.”
    “We have also considered that danger,” Vonran answered. “But we have concluded that it is not so great as to outweigh the wisdom of a regency.”
    “We must choose wisely, Chief Kinlol,” Garin Dorjan added. “You may trust that we will be careful.”
    Trey Uman responded to that, but Kinlol knew it was pointless. He let the conversation go for a few minutes, and then he intervened. “Premier,” he said, looking at Vonran, “there is a strange oversight in the law you have proposed. It has not set the time at which the regent will step down.”
    “Is it not in the language of the law that the regent shall yield to Alexander when he is ready to rule?”
    “It is. But I believe we should name a time.” Kinlol nodded at his fellow Chiefs. “You have heard us express our concerns. You have acknowledged that you share them. It would allay our fears to know that there is a set time at which the regent would be compelled to yield.”
    Colten Shevyn spoke before Vonran could. “And what time do you have in mind?” he asked.
    “The day after Alexander reaches his majority.”
    Vonran registered a response—at least as much of a response as he ever did. He raised his head and looked at Kinlol, and the light glinted off his eyes. “He would be only seventeen.”
    Kinlol nodded. “Young to bear the emperorship, I know. But still an adult. Do we have cause to withhold the emperorship from the son of the emperor, once he is a man?”
    “I would have the emperorship in the hands of a wiser, more experienced man,” Vonran said.
    “As would I,” said Theseus Declan. “But the law places it in the hands of the son of the emperor, whether he is a young man or not, whether he is wise or foolish. We must yield to the law.”
    There was assent on both sides of the table. Vonran's expression revealed nothing to Kinlol, and neither did his voice. “I will have language providing that written and submitted to the proper committee. Once it passes through there, the Assembly will vote on its inclusion.”
    Kinlol bowed his head. “That is all we expect.” And it was, unfortunately, the most he could hope to get.
    The meeting had no real purpose after that. Kinlol—and, he could tell, Vonran—saw it. Kinlol announced that all the Council's advice had been presented, and Vonran took leave for himself and all the delegates. The Chiefs rose from their seats, but it was their territory if it was anyone's, and the delegates were quicker to leave.
    Kinlol crossed to the other side of the room, moving in the general direction of the door. He watched for an opportunity, and surely enough it came. Some of the delegates had already left, and others were following—Colten Shevyn among them. He started to pass by Kinlol, who stepped forward. “I had guessed you would be among Vonran's delegates,” he said.
    Shevyn looked at Kinlol, stepping closer, out of the way of those passing towards the door. “I believe I can take that as a compliment, Chief Kinlol.”
    “So you can,” Kinlol assured him. “I heard of your proposed commission, Shevyn. An innovative idea—though I see the Assembly did not accept it.”
    “Enough of them didn't,” Shevyn answered. “But you would not have approved, Kinlol. Any more than you approve of the regent.”
    “So we have both lost,” Kinlol declared. “And we know who it is who has won.”
    Shevyn said nothing, gave no indication he knew who Kinlol was speaking about. His expression was guarded but not hostile, and he waited for Kinlol to go on.
    “Elymas Vonran has achieved the regency he desired.” Kinlol paused, and his expression turned serious. “Speak honestly, Shevyn. Do you have any doubt that Vonran intends the regent to be himself?”
    Shevyn's expression only barely hardened. “We have not come so far, Chief Kinlol. If you will excuse me, I must be going.” He turned and strode out. No delegates now remained, and the Chiefs stood together in silence. Slowly they disbanded, returning to tend to their usual business.

True to his word, Vonran had the language written and submitted to the committee for revisions. That afternoon they assembled to consider it. Vonran had, at the beginning of the session, declared it urgent, and he put the Assembly under constraints so that it could not recess or consider any other issue until the matter before them was resolved. The committee members, therefore, had nothing to do other than consider the proposed language. That evening they approved it, and sent notice to Vonran.
    Vonran had his staffers draw up a summary of the amendment and its history. Once he approved it, the summary and a copy of the language were sent to every delegate. Vonran officially put the amendment before the Assembly, and a copy of it was placed on the presiding officer's desk.
    By then it was after dinnertime, yet the delegates debated the amendment hours into the night. The Council of Chiefs sent a memorandum explaining and advocating the amendment, and that stirred the delegates up all the more. So the delegates stayed late that night, and gathered again early the next morning. That night they called for a vote, and the amendment was added to the proposed law.
    But their night's work was not over. Vonran called on the Assembly to vote on the amended law, and they did. It passed and a regency was established for the next ten years.
    The delegates abandoned the Hall—tired for the most part, but buoyed with a sense of the significance of what they had just done. But, even as his colleagues streamed home, Colten Shevyn remained.
    He was not a happy man. At this point, it was not really the death of his commission that bothered him. He had fought for the amendment—not that he had any enthusiasm for it, but he intuited that Vonran didn't like it and that was enough. What he wondered was why Vonran hadn't fought against it. Shevyn had come up with two reasons: Either Vonran didn't consider success likely enough, or he had perceived that if you wanted to become regent, you should not be seen fighting to make the regent's rule unlimited.
    Shevyn thought it was the latter. Because he had no doubt at all that Vonran intended the regent to be himself.
    He couldn't admit that to Kinlol. Shevyn couldn't tell him that his words had crystallized an unease, a suspicion that had lurked beneath Shevyn's thoughts. Shevyn was certain of Vonran's ambition, and it deeply bothered him. It didn't fade with time; it grew.
    And, walking down a wide, deserted corridor, passing ornate doorways to dark rooms, he could stand it no more. Shevyn stopped abruptly, spun around, and marched to Vonran's office. It was the dead of night and he was likely to be gone, but that didn't stop Shevyn. In his mood, he might follow the man home.
    Shevyn found Vonran's secretary gone, but he tried to enter Vonran's office anyway. The doors slid open to reveal a dark room, and Shevyn went in, too hurried to be surprised. He called for the lights and looked around. The room was empty, and in the far corner he spotted a discreet door—a nice study was adjacent to the premier's office.
    Shevyn made for the door. It was hinged, and Shevyn gripped the gilded doorknob and threw the door open. He strode in—to darkness.
    Shevyn came to a stop, finally calm enough to think. The rooms were dark; Vonran was gone; it was curious that the unoccupied rooms weren't locked; he wouldn't follow Vonran home; probably.  He began to turn to the door, and a voice came out of the shadows: “A man of your rank may easily make an appointment.”
    Shevyn jumped in an all-too literal way; his heels actually left the floor. Then he despised himself, because of course he recognized Vonran's voice. Shevyn turned towards the left side of the room, beyond the door. It was all darkness there; Shevyn was standing in the little light that spilled into the study. “Why are you in the dark?” he asked.
    “I think I have more of a right to ask why you are here.”
    That was true. Shevyn wasn't about to say so. “May we talk in the light?” Shevyn expected Vonran to turn on the overhead lights, but he didn't speak. Shevyn could sense movement in the darkness, then there was light in the room.
    But not enough. Vonran had turned on a lamp. It was on an end table beside the easy chair Vonran sat in. “You may speak now,” he said. “And you may sit, if you desire.”
    Shevyn stood near a chair; he pulled it closer to Vonran and sat. “The law has passed.”
    Vonran met Shevyn's eyes with his insufferable calm. “I know.”
    “Now we have to appoint a regent.”
    Vonran raised his hands in front of himself and pressed his fingertips together. His fingers were long and his skin was fair, but there was strength in those hands. “I know,” he said, with a mildness only a fool would take for weakness.
    Shevyn was burning with anger, but he didn't speak quickly. “Tell me, Vonran,” he said when he trusted his voice and words. “Don't you want to be regent? From the very beginning, hasn't that been in your mind?”
    Shevyn had half-hoped Vonran would be disturbed by the direct question. He wasn't. He looked at Shevyn long and intently, and though he seemed tired his eyes had not lost their intensity. At last he spoke. “Let us dispense with politics, you and I. Let us forget we ever learned to speak neither truth nor lies. Above all, let us dispense with false modesty.
    “Lesser men than we have been emperor. But because of our ancestry, we are disqualified from the prize. Now we have a chance to sit on that high seat—only for a few years, but even that is glory beyond anything we might have dreamed.
    “Is it not so, Shevyn? I desire that high seat; I know I can discharge its duties as well as any man. Do you condemn me?”
    Shevyn stared at Vonran, who met his eyes unwaveringly. And no lie, no politic answer would come to Shevyn's lips. He couldn't speak any objection to Vonran's words. A few hours ago—even in private—he would have guarded himself against admission of such truths, but the world seemed different now. The light the lamp threw didn't travel far, and the men were surrounded by shadows, overhung by darkness. They were alone in an edifice—and there is no place so lonely as one made for humanity and then deserted by it. In the middle of the darkness and emptiness, pretense and guile fell away, and only the truth remained.
    There was a long silence. Finally Shevyn rose to his feet and left without a word.

In the wake of Shevyn's departure Vonran sat alone again, with his quiet thoughts. It had been a strange visit, like he'd never had before. But now was not the time to think about it. Now it was time for Vonran to go home. He'd been putting it off too long. He had soothed his conscience earlier with reminders that his children were already asleep anyway, but he knew he ought to be home. It was an act of will to go; Vonran so wanted to tell Dianthe that he had won so far and he was glad, but she wouldn't be there. There was no one at home for him to tell anything to. But there were his daughters.
    When Vonran arrived home he went upstairs and checked on Cala first. He was relieved to find her safe in bed, and went on to the room that Vera and Lydia still shared. He had considered giving Vera her own room and moving Cala in with Lydia—it might do Cala good to share a room, but the other girls probably wouldn't like it. They were only two years apart and had always been close. All three girls could share a room for a few years. Of course, there was no bedroom big enough, but that was easy to solve. He would call in an architect and have him ...
    Vonran let the thought go. It could be the problem of another day. Tonight he would only check on his girls and then go to bed. It was a late night, after many late nights, and he was tired, and not only in body.
    Vera and Lydia were sound asleep. Vonran looked at each one, standing between their beds. Zelrynn took after him, and Cala after Dianthe, but in the middle two there was a fair mix of them both. Dianthe was already in Vonran's thoughts and he could see her in his daughters' faces, and that, likely, was the reason he thought of it.
    Vonran knelt down by Lydia's bed, resting a hand lightly on her head. He tried to pray, but the words didn't come as easily to him as they once had. Dianthe and he used to pray regularly for the children. It was easy then, but that changed, and Vonran knew when.
    In the wake of Dianthe's death, Vonran had tried turning to God in prayer, and it left him feeling cold. He felt like he was standing outside a house, shuttered and bolted against him, and he came to wonder if the reason it seemed so silent was that it was empty.
    He stopped praying for himself, though he occasionally prayed for his children. He didn't know why. Maybe it was because he hoped that even if God wasn't concerned with him, He might care about the girls. But then—how much could He? He had left them motherless. Perhaps it was all merely for Dianthe, since the ritual of prayer had meant so much to her. Or maybe it was some last scrap of faith, turning him insensibly back.
    Vonran didn't know. He hadn't realized how much his faith had depended on Dianthe's until he lost her. Then he learned. He had built his house on sand and it collapsed. And yet, maybe, beneath the sand, there was rock, or at least a place where a true foundation could be laid. He never swept the sand away to find out. He had no heart for such a laborious task, no heart to knock on the bolted door.
    No heart, hardly, to pray anymore. He hardly knew what to ask, even for his daughters, from One who had stood aside when Dianthe died, and their happiness with her.
    Vonran stood on his feet and quietly left the room, closing the door behind him.

“And now, the first order of business,” Kinlol announced to the Chiefs. “How many men will we recommend to the Assembly? Shall we make up a list, or recommend only one man?”
    “For me,” said Gyas, “the answer would depend largely on how many men I think are truly qualified to be regent.”
    “As a matter of strategy ... ” Kinlol began.
    “Oh, strategy, strategy,” interrupted Trey Uman. “What has all our brilliant strategy gotten us? Everything Vonran wanted on a silver platter.”
    “Not everything,” Kinlol said. “I don't believe he wanted that term limit.”
    “Probably not. I don't care much. Let's go back and consider what Gyas said. Who's qualified to be regent?”
    “Well, we can't recommend anyone on the Council,” Gyas said.
    “I guarantee the Assembly is going to nominate a delegate,” Kinlol said.
    “I don't doubt it. But I believe we should all stay on the Council, to ensure that it will remain an undivided advocate for Alexander until he becomes emperor. We are all loyal to Emperor Judah and to his son. And is there any one among us with a serious desire to become emperor? I at least have never envied the task.”
    The Chiefs looked around at each other, watching their colleagues' reactions, waiting to see who would deny or not deny such ambition. No one spoke.
    Chief of Intelligence David Ithran cleared his throat in the awkward silence. “We are Chiefs,” he said.
    Kinlol glanced at him and then the other Chiefs. “My friends,” he said, “you know that I have not lacked ambition. But I never wanted to be the emperor, only to serve him.”
    “So then,” said Uman. “Whom shall we consider? Are there any prefects you would vest with the duty?”
    There was a moment of silence. “Alec Niktos is an impressive man,” said one of the Chiefs.
    “And Armana is a large province,” said Kinlol. “Populous as well.”
    “Of course, the largest and most populous province is Regial,” said Uman. “Therefore I propose we nominate Yorik Bemus. For laughs alone it would be worth it.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
    “Be serious,” said Dheval, with a crossness Kinlol suspected he'd arrived with.
    “One can't always be serious,” Uman replied. “It would be unpatriotic. How could we destroy an industry so large as entertainment?” Dheval didn't reply; he just kept looking cross.
    “I have found Lorda's new prefect to be an effective leader,” said Gyas.
    “Too new,” said Uman. “Little tested.”
    “Elymas Vonran probably runs circles around him,” Kinlol added. “But the prefects—though they are often fine leaders and executives—have no experience with national issues. How many of them understand Telnaria? How many have friends or allies here to help them as they learn?”
    “Well, what of those in Telnaria?” Uman asked. “Besides the Chiefs, what other leaders can we turn to?”
    “The generals,” Kinlol said. “And of them I find Gawin Gaelin the most impressive. He is a leader of men. He knows Telnaria. He has many friends and allies here. He is married to Layne, Emperor Judah's older sister. Alexander is his nephew, and his children are Alexander's blood cousins. He would be competent, as well as safe.”
    There was a pause. “I agree,” said Uman. “We should recommend him, at least. Is there anyone else to consider? What about the Assembly?”
    “Theseus Declan is the best man there,” said Gyas, “but too old. Garin Dorjan—he is not too great a leader. I wouldn't recommend Colten Shevyn.” Gyas stopped and looked around at the other Chiefs, and when none of them spoke his expression became a little angry. “I'll say it. What none of you want to, I will. What of Elymas Vonran for regent? He is a master politician, a man others look to to lead. He would be at least as competent a ruler as any we have mentioned. He is the Premier of the Assembly, and few have his stature.”
    “We don't need to recommend him,” Kinlol answered. “Mark my words, he will recommend himself.”
    “And whom will we recommend?”
    Kinlol looked around the table. “Whom does the Council approve?”

“These are the men the Council approved.” Dorjan scanned the list before handing the compad to Vonran. “You're not on it.”
    Vonran read the names. “Gawin Gaelin and Alec Niktos. Not bad.”
    Dorjan glanced around the corridor to see if anyone they were passing had heard. He noticed nothing. “Are you sure you want to preside over this meeting? You will not be allowed to nominate anyone.”
    “That is fine.”
    “What if your choice is not nominated?”
    Vonran's choice was himself. If no one else would even nominate him, it wasn't likely they would choose him. And if he was nominated, it would be better if it was done by someone other than himself. “I trust the delegates will nominate all good candidates,” Vonran assured Dorjan.
    The two men walked together only a short distance before parting in different directions, going to separate entrances to the Hall. Vonran entered near the front and took his seat up in the presiding officer's chair. The officer's desk was one piece with its rostrum, and a compad was laying on it. Vonran picked the compad up and reviewed its contents briefly, to make sure he was fully apprised of everything before the Assembly.
    He was. Vonran laid the compad down and turned to his computer. There was a computer screen in the surface of the desk, and one operated the computer by touching it; there were no keys or buttons at all. The computer was networked with all the delegates' stations. “Station” was a misnomer in the opinion of many, for something that was little more than a panel. Each delegate had his own station by his seat, with a biological sensory program that allowed only him to use it. The delegates cast their votes through this machine, and registered in the roll-call through it.
    The roll-call was what Vonran was looking up. He checked the number, and even as he looked it went up. It was ten minutes until the Assembly was scheduled to start.
    Vonran leaned back in his chair and waited. When the ten minutes had elapsed he called the session to order and addressed the delegates, his words amplified so that they all heard him: “The business before the Assembly today is to appoint a regent. The Council of Chiefs has recommended two men: The prefect of Armana, Alec Niktos, and General Gawin Gaelin. They are men whose reputations are known to you all. The Council has found them fitting. Do you—or does another man recommend himself to you above these?”
    And so the debate began. Vonran presided and, in what was considered good form, did not enter it. After a while there was a lull, and Theseus Declan immediately stood up. Vonran recognized him, and he nodded to him, and then turned to his colleagues. Declan motioned with his hand and began, “Friends and colleagues, we have considered the Council's recommendations and other men have been nominated. They have all been prefects and generals and officials of the Empire—but now I propose to you a man from our own midst. You have already approved him as a leader, for you have made him your premier—Elymas Vonran.”
    All eyes turned to Vonran; he kept his eyes on Declan. But before Declan could continue—if he intended to continue—Shevyn stood up and did not wait to be recognized. “Your nomination  is noted, Declan. Does the premier accept it? And will he argue on his behalf?”
    “I will answer your questions, Shevyn,” Vonran said, “but since I preside I will speak only shortly. I would be honored to serve as regent over this great nation, and I would willingly accept the position—should you choose to grant it to me. I will not argue on my behalf; I have been among you more than fifteen years. You have known me, how I have acted among you, and how I have led. You may judge for yourselves whether I am worthy.”
    A silence fell on the chamber. Finally a delegate stood up. “I second the nomination,” he said.
    Another man stood. “I second the nomination.”
    And then another stood and proclaimed the same, and another and another ...