Reginald was flipping through another after action report as the vehicle coasted down one of his Holding’s country roads. The story never seemed to change: Casualty lists, potential ringleaders and masterminds, evidence obtained by the police that had become dead ends. There was no end to the chaos beneath the surface.
On the outside, the Holding was rebounding, the population slowly recovering from the short but devastating series of skirmishes led by Relena Mahyisti and Katerina’s brother Michael. Pin-pricks in the grand scheme of things–assassinations, kidnappings, acts of coercion. The mess left in their wake was that of a nobility paralyzed by fear of whom to swear allegiance. Many chose to proclaim their public support for the neutral option: Eliana Zateki. Largely exonerated for her role in the Sani Sabik insurrection and therefore ostensibly the choice of the Sakakibara Family, she was nevertheless an icon of lingering Sani Sabik influence–an influence that many were waiting on bated breath to emerge. The extent to which the nobility had sunk into acceptance of Sani Sabik agents in their midst was difficult to gauge, especially as the remainder of the DENT security network had been so completely disorganized in recent months. First, reeling from its near destruction at the hands of Alexa de’Crux’s kameiras, then, from serving as little more than public riot control during the early days of the refugee crisis, and, finally, as the silent and invisible victims of an underground war involving DENT agents, local security forces, Sani Sabik extremists–the rearguard of Relena Mahyisti and Michael Tzestu’s fanatics, dissatisfied refugees–of noble and common birth alike, and a mobilized network of slaves demanding freedom.
Cells of the Sani Sabik cult had rippled throughout the Holding, obtaining local dominance in areas where the refugee population had already stretched security forces to breaking point. Their cacophony lent itself to populations and townships already besieged by a growing criminal underworld created by gangs looking to seize opportunity on the backs of the helpless. As the sleek gray vehicle, driving in a caravan that included heavier armored transport, sped into the Myyheran countryside, the scenery changed from smaller, quaint, suburban dwellings, to the grander and older estates–estates Reginald knew their caretakers would swear dated back to Myyhera’s Reclaiming.
He turned his attention back to another series of reports: The border crossings were requesting additional troops as usual, local police forces continued to rely on officers working double shifts, the justice system was overwhelmed by freedom petitions, and somewhere in all of that, his spy network was still licking its wounds after the debacle in the winter. Nearly one year later and with his son almost born, his Holding couldn’t have possibly been in a weaker state.
“What kind of father are you going to be?
You can’t even keep yourself safe, how can you protect her?
And really, what kind of mother is Katerina?
She doesn’t even want to be one!”
He adjusted his collar to distract him from the sudden onslaught of raw emotion that shot through his spine. It was the cold twinge of shame mixed with the regret of guilt, feelings that snaked through him as Lady Lianne’s words echoed like a harpy’s wail into his soul. He clenched his fists. He was angry, of course, angry that she had hit so close to him in a situation that had largely been out of his control. But what hurt more than her words themselves was that they were true. He tried to bury the welling emotions by seeking out a memory of happiness, though he had none that were recent, and those that were from the past were tempered by the outcomes of his present.
He took a deep breath, pulled out a handkerchief and clenched it tight in his fist, raising it to his face lest his inner turmoil overcome him. He was thankful that no one else was in the compartment with him. Weakness begot weakness.
Two options remained once the situation was boiled down into its component parts. The first was to allow himself be paralyzed by external and internal pressures, to abandon his Holding, to take up Lady Lianne’s offer to serve as one of her Holders. To leave behind the family heritage. To deny his son his birth right.
The second option was to take action. For too long he had allowed Katerina to shape the Holding’s policies, and while her approach was not a bad one, her even hand and just mentality had created an atmosphere of rule by love. At first, it had been a welcome change–the creation of a benevolent state enamored by his wife had offered opportunities and privileges that would otherwise have been non-existent. But the world is cruel, and those that benefited from kindness had soon chose to grab onto the fruits of Katerina’s generosity and hoard them for themselves, reselling equipment, food, medicine, and supplies at premiums upon which they grew wealthy. Estimates put Lady Katerina’s humanitarian aid at less than fifteen percent effective due to corruption in distribution, to the point that media broadcasts exalting her policies were beginning to ring hollow with the population.
What kind of father are you going to be?
It was no longer an attack as it was a question of progress. Sacrifices were necessary. Even for the nobility. Lady Lianne certainly knew of that. As the car came to a halt in front of an ivy-walled mansion deep in the country, he could only laugh at himself. Even now, after so many months away from serving as one of her CEOs, her lessons resounded within him. Her expectations driving him ever forward in a life and marriage where Katerina was growing increasingly distant. He stopped laughing long enough to place a hand over his solar plexus–the memory of Katerina’s strike fresh.
It had been a mistake, he surmised, to expect that they would live happily ever after. That he could shower her with gifts, dote upon her, and leave the Holding to delegation. He wondered if history would judge him as the culprit in the death of their marriage, allowing crisis after crisis to wreak havoc on their young marriage. At any rate, he hated himself for it. She would tell him not to fret, but the anger was real. The wish to turn back the clock. The heartbeat of time, anchored by its taunting metronome of forward motion, had etched itself into every organ, every fiber, every cell.
He stepped out into the cool twilight air, the mansion’s windows illuminated by soft yellow glows, contrasting against the pale blues and grays of dying natural light. Other cars were already arrayed in front of it–their doors bearing the insignia of the powerful. The Old Council–the men and women who ran the Holding on their fingertips.
He adjusted his collar for the final time, then pulled down on his coat, smoothing out the wrinkles of travel. Time was of the essence.
Revenge was on the horizon.