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Vacation was officially over.

“Papa, there’s a ‘bout in the driveway.” A young girl peered out the kitchen window as she handed a plate dripping with suds and water to the girl next to her.

“And it has the Imperial Guard emblem on the doors,” the second girl added, drying the plate with a towel before placing it in the cupboard next to her. She was identical to the first girl: the same soft brown hair and thick eyebrows that furrowed over sky-blue eyes. They both looked distressed over the rideabout’s appearance outside.

Tolman Bootka emitted a raspy sigh through his nose. A twelve-week leave of absence apparently didn’t entail a full ninety days of being left alone. One of the few benefits of serving in the Imperial Guards was that it allowed Tolman to take extended periods of leave to spend with his children on Dometia Lesser while earning a full-time salary.  His career choice didn’t make him rich, but it provided a good, modest life on the vacation continent for his family.  He planned to retire here after the obligatory twenty years of service to run a water glider shack on the beach and chase grandkids around on the black sand shores. If guard service remained the uneventful career it proved to be thus far, only eight more lackluster years lay ahead of him.

On a good day, the Guards might be tasked with escorting a Visitor of Importance to The Anaktoron. On a truly eventful day, they’d receive a request from one of the Municipal Peace Patrols for security reinforcement, like the infamous wedding riot of Baydar. The families of the bride and groom got uproariously drunk and challenged each other to a boating race. A dispute over tactics used by the groom’s family sent several wedding party members into the water, including the bride.

The Baydar MPPs were ill-equipped to handle the mess, so the Imperial Guards were summoned to assist. Unfortunately, most of the fighting ended before the Guards arrived. That was six years ago, but his men still laughed about it and told stories they increasingly embellished with each telling. Tolman just found it frustrating. Genuine excitement in the Imperial Guard was elusive.

“Papa, are you going back to Prime now?” A young boy tugged on Tolman’s pant leg. He was thin and pale for a Lesseran, but his face was a miniature replica of his father’s.

“I don’t know, Gael.” Tolman ruffled the boy’s hair and gave him a shallow smile. He grabbed the shirt draped on a nearby chair and yanked his arms through it. Tolman didn’t normally bother with shirts during the endless warm days on Lesser. He banded his collar-length black hair as he waited for the visitor to make his way to the door.

Tolman double-checked the calendar on his ambula tablet for any Imperial celebrations he may have overlooked. It seemed Domis Elementia commemorated something every week: the death of an ancient revolutionary, the birth of an honored Empress, the birth and death of an ancient honored revolutionary Empress.  The joke around the resort towns that dotted the coasts of Lesser was that the Domis calendar contained more celebratory days than regular ones. That would bode well for business on Lesser if it weren’t an exaggeration.  As expected, nothing was listed on the calendar in the next half quatra. It was one of the reasons he took leave during this time. The Imperial Guard could function without him.

After several minutes, the door alert finally chimed. “Gennuva, Genice, take your brother outside to play.”

The girls glanced at each other – unspoken concern ushering back and forth between them. “Yes, papa,” they answered in unison. They each took one of the boy’s hands and led him out through the rear door.

Once the door slid shut behind them, Tolman crossed the short distance from the dining table to the kitchen at a leisurely pace. He wasn’t inclined to hustle for a visitor he didn’t particularly want. He placed the tablet on the kitchen counter near the sink and poured himself a glass of water.

The chimes trilled two more times before he finally strolled to the front door and pressed the latch to open it. The metal hatch slid into the wall and revealed a short man dressed in an Imperial Guard uniform. The Guards only had the one uniform – a black mule-beast hair tailored jacket and grey pants that were not designed for the warmer climates of Dometia Lesser. The man was pulling at the collar of his jacket, stretching it away from his throat for ventilation, when the door slid open.  He quickly dropped his hand to his chest in the Dometian Imperial Guard salute, but not before Tolman saw the fidgeting. He might have felt sorry for the man, if it were any other man.

“Fair morning to you, Captain Bootka. I must speak with you,” the short officer said briskly, his right fist fixed mid-chest in the salute.

“Fair morning to you, Major Akriyos. I’m on leave.” Tolman offered it as an excuse both for his casual attire and for the absence of a reciprocal salute to his commanding officer. Saluting out of uniform wasn’t required, but in truth, Tolman was hard-pressed to salute the Major in any capacity.

Major Akriyos was the Imperial Guard liaison to the Advisory Council, selected by the council members – and approved by the Empress Elected – to serve as the Guard’s representative. He neither completed the quatra-long training course, nor did he rise up through the ranks with time served. Rather, his current rank, title, and sense of self-importance were appointed to him. Tolman would just as soon punch the man in the gut, right below his ham-handed Guard salute, than return the proper courtesy. Protocol required his respect, however, so he was glad of the excuse not to reciprocate.  “That’s twelve weeks of leave, approved by you. I’m only on the sixth week,” Tolman added.

“Yes, I know. A rather abrupt leave request, if I recall,” the Major answered dryly, “Believe me, I don’t come to places like this because I enjoy it.” He pushed past Tolman and looked around the modest home with a sneer for the size and simplicity of the place. He approached the chair Tolman occupied before his arrival and wiped it down with a yellow cloth he pulled from one of his pockets. Deeming it usable, he dropped into the chair and unhooked his collar.

“You don’t like beach resorts, Major?” Tolman asked. He depressed the latch again and watched the door slide back into place. The mid-day heat drove coast flies to look for cooler areas to inhabit. As much as he enjoyed the idea of watching Major Akriyos furiously swat at tiny insects buzzing around his face, Tolman didn’t want to spend the rest of the evening chasing them out of his home. He’d instead settle for the pleasure of watching Major Akriyos wipe away beads of sweat that dripped from his face with his now dirty yellow cloth. It was coming. Their uniforms were incredibly stuffy.

“On the contrary, Captain, I greatly enjoy a true beach resort. It might surprise you to know that I happen to own a villa in the Northern Coast spa region of Lesser,” Major Akriyos said.

It wasn’t surprising. Most Advisory Council members owned vacation properties on the posh Northern Coast. The official Imperial Manor of Domis Lesser was also located on an island off the white sand beaches of that region. Its cooler climates and stylish villages were popular destinations for the more affluent members of Dometian society. Everyone else made do with the beach towns along the western and southern coasts of Lesser, towns like his own Black Star Cove.

“But it’s these awful black sand beaches,” Major Akriyos continued. “They trap in so much heat and dirt, and they breed those wretched coast flies. I don’t know how people can relax in such conditions.”

“I see,” Tolman responded, “Water?” He strolled to the sink and grabbed a glass from the shelf overhead to fill for the Major. His fingers swiped across the nearby tablet and pulled up the home’s environment controls. He increased the temperature setting two marks.

“Yes, thank you. Oh, don’t get me wrong, this type of place is nice for people like you, but you’ve grown accustomed it,” Major Akriyos said.

Tolman bumped the temperature up two more marks. He strolled back to the table and set the glass in front of the swarthy man.  He then sat directly across from the Major, leaned over the table and stared straight into his eyes.

“So let’s make this quick, Major. Why are you here? Does the Empress need a marching complement for a parade or uniformed door openers for another ball?  My men can handle that without me.” Tolman’s attitude was bitter and bordered on insubordination. The last half quatra spent here in Black Star Cove didn’t remedy his distaste for the current Elected Empress or her tedious Imperial social functions.  However, he suspected the Major wasn’t to be bothered with Code of Conduct violations. It involved too much paperwork.

“Tsk, tsk, Captain. Such rudeness is hardly befitting an Imperial officer,” Major Akriyos said. His words of reprimand were coated with pretension but no true concern for Tolman’s comments. “However, given your apparent views of the Elected Empress, I come with news I think you’ll appreciate. She is to be removed from the throne immediately.” He pulled the yellow cloth from his pocket, inspected it with a sour look on his face and shook it out several times before mopping his brow with it.

Tolman wasn’t sure how long he stared blankly at the smug and sweaty face of the Major as he tried to wrap his mind around those words: removed from the throne. The ousting of an Elected Empress from her position as Imperial Ruler was nearly unprecedented. Something must have gone seriously wrong at The Anaktoron since he left Saris for Dometia Lesser.

“So I take it you haven’t been tracking the news since you left Saris?” Major Akriyos wiped his brow again.

“No,” Tolman responded flatly.

“Oh, then you probably don’t know about the pregnancy or the prophecy!” He practically squealed in delight over delivering such juicy news. Tolman again wanted to punch him, but the desire to get to the bottom of this visit was stronger.

“You mean the Four-Born prophecy? That’s just an old child’s skipping rhyme. It’s been around as long as the Elected Empress line and nothing has ever come of it.” He leaned back in his chair and flicked his left hand away at the air.

“Until now.”

Tolman clenched his right hand in his lap to dampen the impulse to smack the officer. That was a conduct violation for which Major Akriyos would definitely file paperwork. He breathed in deeply through his long nose as his mind churned over the meaning of the Major’s statement.  His thick eyebrows scrunched in the middle as the sapphire blue eyes beneath them narrowed. The conclusion he came to was not a welcome one.

“Are you telling me Empress Miterra is pregnant with quadruplets? How? When?” Tolman’s left eyelid twitched rapidly and his jaws clenched tight as his molars ground against each other. His late wife, Marielle, called it his ‘irritated jowl syndrome.’

“It’s true. Four daughters of royal line, and likely winged. The Triune said the wretched things are already giving off a signature unlike any others on Domis, and at only ten weeks gestation, if you can believe that,” Major Akriyos said as he threw his hands in the air.  The twitching eased in Tolman’s eyelid.  “They want to neutralize the threat – now – before the threat of your little skipping rhyme is fulfilled.”

“Ten weeks…” Tolman rubbed the tension out of his jaw. “That sounds like a simple medical matter. It should be handled by the Imperial doctors, not a group of uniformed ceremonial bouncers. What do they want us to do, hold her down through the procedure?” Tolman struggled to keep the bitterness out of his voice. Thankfully, the Major was too absorbed in his role as Imperial chinwag to take notice.

“The Imperial Guard is to be mobilized immediately. You are to seize The Anaktoron and detain the Empress,” he said, “and now for the part you’ll like. The Advisory Council has authorized a full mobilization of the Imperial Guards until this crisis has passed.”

For the second time since the Major’s arrival, Tolman was speechless. The irritation that plagued him earlier evaporated and a spark of purpose took its place as Tolman envisioned the preparations required for full active mobilization of his guards.  “Has the Council announced this to the Dometian public, or to the Empress?”

“My, you have been out of touch in this muggy little town, haven’t you? The populace voted on her removal two days ago. That is our protocol, yes?” It was not a question, but a condescending reminder. “Official results on the referendum haven’t been released. It was apparently close, though I don’t know why,” the Major said, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, the Council concurred on approval of the results and drafted the order for detainment earlier today. This also has not been announced yet.” He scratched his neck as he tugged at the collar of his jacket again.

Whether or not the order was officially published, Tolman suspected the Empress was aware of their decision. Her advisor kept his ear on everything, including closed Council sessions. Discretion, preparation, and surprise were crucial to carrying out any operation with minimal complications. Tolman doubted he was getting any of that. “Okay, so when is this to be done?”

“You are to breach The Anaktoron within three hours,” Major Akriyos responded. “That is why I personally came here to retrieve you, to underline the importance of discretion and haste in this matter.”

Tolman cursed inwardly and leaned forward in his chair again. “So you’re telling me that the Council wants me in uniform, back in Saris, and preparing my men to storm The Anaktoron gates within three hours?” he asked, emphasizing each point with a finger-tap to the table.

Major Akriyos responded with an expression of smug arrogance. “Shall I go tell the Council you can’t carry out this mission?”

It wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t going to be an easy feat, either. The prospect of an armed mission, however, provided sufficient motivation to get it done. He also didn’t want to give the man sitting across from him the pleasure of his failure. “I can be ready to go in ten minutes.” He pushed himself away from the table.

The Major’s smirk dropped from his face. “Can you make it five?  I really cannot stand another minute in this awful place,” Major Akriyos breathed heavily as he took the yellow cloth from his pocket again.

“Sure. More water, Major?” Tolman picked up the sweaty officer’s glass and took it to the sink.

“Yes, and can you turn the room temp down a bit? This place is like an oven!” he said, wiping his brow and neck.

“Certainly.” Tolman tapped the controls and increased the temperature meter three more marks.

########

The Major adjusted the rideabout’s cooling system as low as possible, even though it was a short ride to the Lesser transport station. The majority of long distance conveyance on Domis was carried out through either rail line or ship. Tolman took a passenger boat from the Dometia Prime continent to Dometia Lesser when he started leave six weeks ago. The trip itself lasted three days. As members of the Imperial Guards on official business, however, they were authorized to use the transport station to travel from Lesser to Saris directly within a minute.

Tolman didn’t understand the new technology behind the transport channels, and he hated the sensation. The pods were suffocating and the trip left him slightly dizzy for hours afterwards. It was hard to argue with the convenience, though, given the rapid turnaround on his mission. Otherwise, he’d prefer the passenger boat again.

“So the Advisory Council doesn’t believe the Empress will comply with the decision of the people?” he asked the Major.

“The real issue isn’t the throne so much as it is the pregnancy. The referendum only concerned her continuance as Elected Empress. Even if she agreed to yield her seat, she won’t agree to the Council’s decision regarding that.” The Major’s eyelids were closed as he soaked up the direct blast of cold air from the vent in front of him.

“So she’ll ignore her responsibilities and put her own wishes ahead of the welfare of the people? Even in light of this threat? Of course.” He sneered at the last two words as he gritted his teeth again. Tolman suffered from chronic pessimism and didn’t believe true selflessness existed in most people. In the three years he’d known Miterra, she’d yet to prove him wrong. “Criping unbelievable.”

Major Akriyos opened one eye and inspected the man sitting beside him. “Why Captain Bootka, I thought you didn’t buy into the prophecy?”

“Whether I personally believe in it is not the issue. In the interests of the people, any possible threat is to be taken seriously. What are the lives of four unborn things, in the face of such potential destructive power?” The muscle above his left eye twitched again. “Surely, the Empress can understand the reason for the Council’s order.”

“It’s that personal advisor of hers, Solus, the strange-looking one,” the Major replied. If he picked up on the hostility in Tolman’s voice, he didn’t show it. “He’s been arguing with the Council regarding the rhyme’s interpretation ever since the Empress took Andrus as royal consort. The fool actually believes the FourBorn are destined to be our protectors, despite the absence of any language in the prophecy to indicate that.”

Tolman didn’t know Solus well. He doubted anyone but Miterra did, but the young man was never far from the Empress. She relied on him for guidance and support and, it was sometimes whispered, for personal comfort. Tolman ignored gossip that swirled around the capitol city regarding the Imperial family and staff.  Whether or not they were involved, he expected Miterra to follow her advisor’s counsel regarding the FourBorn, though not because of an alleged relationship with him.  No, it was because she was a mother now. Her resistance stemmed from a strong maternal instinct to protect her young at any cost.  That was the part that troubled him. At any cost. Even at the possible risk of the future of her people. No, Tolman couldn’t allow that woman to choose the lives of her own children above those of all Dometians, especially his own children.

“Dear gods of Elementia, are we not there yet?” Major Akriyos blustered.

They’d been on the road less than fifteen minutes with another ten to go. Tolman supposed anywhere the Major traveled with himself as company was a long trip, both for him and anyone he was with.  He gazed out the window to gauge where they were and to avoid further conversation with him.

The tropical scenery moved past in a blur as the rideabout traveled quickly along the only major paved road on that part of Lesser. Minor roads veined off of it to take visitors to the beach-front villages lining the southern shores of the continent, but the main thoroughfare connected the southwestern port city of Wardis to Faris, the major eastern port city. That is where the Lesser transport station was located.

The view disappeared as the rideabout passed through the second of three tunnels on the main port road. Only Tolman’s reflection in the window glass remained visible during that brief moment. It was a clean, strong-boned face not acquainted with the stress and scars of battle he hoped to bear by now.  He thought he’d never live to see, much less serve, the honor of Domis upheld through battle. The chance to wield real weapons against a real foe was more than he hoped for when he joined the Imperial Guards. Unfortunately, it proved to serve the prosaic needs of The Anaktoron and the Council, rather than serve the Dometian people at large.  Now, here was a chance to finally fulfill that purpose.

The Imperial ridebout slowed as it neared the transport station gate. The posted sentry popped her head out of the guard shack without leaving her seat to determine who they were. She spotted the emblems on the doors and waved them through lazily with one hand as she concealed a yawn with the other. Security apparently was not a major issue at the station.  Although its primary purpose was to facilitate official government business and Imperial passage, it also served as a means of travel for wealthier Dometians. Their monetary willingness to transport between the three Dometian continents within minutes helped fund the transport infrastructure.  And since you don’t relieve yourself in the water you use to make your bread – as Tolman’s grandmother was fond of saying, but with much more colorful language – the guards were trained not to hassle travelers if they appeared either rich or official.

“So, will your men will be ready for this, Captain?” the Major asked through a wide yawn. He didn’t bother to cover his mouth. Tolman watched lines of spit connect his teeth like spans on a bridge.

He wasn’t sure what answer the Major wanted. Were the Guards ready to wage war on The Anaktoron, after years of waging nothing more than bets on race hares at the Saris tracks? They had manpower and, as soon as Tolman returned and supervised the issue of standard battle gear, they’d have weapons. They trained annually on the use of basic Imperial Guard weaponry so his men were able to wield them competently, if somewhat sheepishly. But training and battle-use were two vastly different experiences, and therein lay the catch to the Major’s question: were the guards ready for this?

The rideabout came to a stop. Major Akriyos jumped out and hurried to the main doors of the transport station. He swayed impatiently at the entrance as Tolman paused to take in one last breath of warm Lesser air. It was going to be some time before he returned. He was fortunate his twin sister, Tolynia, was there to take care of the kids. He’d have been lost without her after Marielle died. Tolman cherished the memories of his wife, and the newborn – Gael’s twin – she took with her into death, but he no longer pined for her. She died more than five years ago and much had happened since then. Tolman pushed the memories of the other woman, the one who’d come after Marielle, from his mind.  Those memories were poisonous to the task at hand.

“Captain, they’re waiting for us inside,” Major Akriyos said. His voice conveyed polite patience, but his manner indicated anything but that. He held the door open and motioned for Tolman to enter first.

The station entry hall was overly large for the number of people who passed through there at any given time, another symptom of the water in the bread. Those who funded the transport channel stations liked their surroundings roomy. “There will be some trouble,” Tolman said as they marched down the hallway to the transport room designated for Imperial use.

“What, with the transports? Now, Captain Bootka, I know you don’t like to use them, but honestly, they’re perfectly safe.  We tested them out on the wealthies during the trials and only once did someone –”

“No, at The Anaktoron,” Tolman said. “You asked if my men were prepared. They are trained, of course, but they’ve not used live, lethal weapons against another Dometian before. The Empress’s personal guards will try to protect her, of course. They are her kinfolk. But, they are also Dometian.”

“So you’re worried your men won’t attack her bodyguards if they defend her?” The Major’s face contained a strange mixture of concern and smugness. This was clearly a man who gained delight in the failure of others.

“Her guards will defend her and my men will fight them as ordered. But there’s not been a battle-related death on Domis in well over a hundred years. Any death that occurs during this mission, whether it’s my men or hers, will not sit well with the public.”

“And?” Major Akriyos pushed through the doorway into the transport room. It was more utilitarian than the civilian room, gray and devoid of the colorful pictures and refreshment bar waiting to greet traveling Dometians upon arrival from their one-minute adventure.

“And I do not wish this operation to get out of hand. Inexperience mixed with hesitation and desperation can lead to exactly that. My men and I can carry this out, without fatalities, but only if I have complete authority on the operation.” Tolman approached one of the chambers on the transport platform and waited for the door to slide open. He suspected the pods were purposefully designed to be claustrophobic. He stepped in backward and nodded to the engineer waiting at the control desk across from them.

“But the Triune has asked that I –” Major Akriyos said as he approached the chamber to the left of Tolman’s. The door stuck in a halfway-open position, stopping the Major midsentence. He backed away from the chamber and approached it again, but the door only opened halfway.

“I don’t care what the Triune has asked. I don’t work for them, I work for the people. And they will not want Dometian blood on their hands. I’ll see you at The Anaktoron in about three and a half hours,” Tolman said.

The door slid shut, and the transport chamber powered up. The Major was visible through the glass in the door, his mouth moving and index finger wagging in indignant protest. Tolman was glad the transport pod was soundproof. A faint grin lightened his face as his body faded away from Lesser.