A Smoke-Filled Room

They had all risen when he had stepped into the room, past the two guards posted at the double-doors. It was a famous manor, or at least it should have been–the location of a treaty that ended a civil war eras ago. Little remained of that history beyond the nameless figures portrayed in paintings that lined the dining room he had just stepped into. Without even glancing towards those arrayed before him, he walked to the far end of the table, to his reserved seat.

They had been waiting for him, of course, at least an hour before he had arrived at Ohrota Hall. Though “punctuality was the politeness of princes,” being late served as a mirror, upon which the reflections of true feelings and loyalties could be better ascertained. Though never quite foolproof, those who stayed were often more loyal than the ones who left. He walked at a deliberately slow pace, silently reminding those present that he was indeed still the Holder and, if his intentional tardiness was not a clear enough message to that effect, he hoped to once again impress upon them that in matters of governance, he was the Holding’s ultimate authority. At the same time, his stately procession offered him observation to the assigned seating labels left on the fine china plates, his implants focusing on the empty seats: Justice, Faith, Public Affairs–offices that he would have to address in turn at a later time.

In many ways, he was surprised at how many remained out of the eleven or so that had been summoned. Eight to work with. Eight good men and women. Or one good man and eight spies. The good man, of course, was the head of his personal security and what remained of the intelligence institution that had once been the backbone of his power in Myyhera–Kerr Azor. The older capsuleer’s expression was gaunt, serious, continually working to preserve Reginald’s place in the hierarchy of the planet. His loyalty was unquestioned. And yet unquestioned loyalty was hardly sufficient for the task at hand–his personal security, formerly DENT, was in such tatters that he had resorted to outsourcing to protect Rebecca while he was seeing to duties in Myyhera–the mercenary Sahriah BloodStone and the Templar Thal Vadam.

He stood in front of the chair that had been left out for him. The words emblazoned upon the seating arrangement were a simple three: Lord Reginald Sakakibara. There was much to be said of people–mannerisms, dispositions, personalities, diction, all served as indicators, as windows into how that person thought and how they perceived the world. Writing, on the other hand, concealed hidden depths and meanings.

Lord Reginald Sakakibara.

It was accurate, yes, but it was also the bare minimum. They didn’t see him as the head of an institution. They didn’t refer to him as “Holder.” He was simply a man, more a boy, playing at being a noble. That perception was going to end immediately.

“Please,” He smiled to those attending, “Sit. We have much to discuss, tonight.”

There was a shuffling of chairs, wood scraping against wood, the settling of the elderly, and the uncertain glances of the more youthful. He had no counterpart on the other end of the table, a blank spot left for Faith. Undaunted, he continued his review of the rest of the table while the occupants situated themselves, briefcases and papers fluttering while pens were uncapped and neocoms booted up.

Starting clockwise, at his right hand, sat Kerr Azor, his head of personal security. Next to him sat the Lady Mayor of the Holding’s capital city, a minor Holder named Utaka Sakakibara, two or three branches away from Reginald’s in the lineage, and who somehow managed to keep herself above the turmoil that ravaged the heart of the Holding. By remaining unaligned to Naomi or Reginald during the internal struggles of the past winter, she had preserved most of the capital’s nobility from being ravaged by kameira. Her loyalty was dubious at best, but even maintaining her neutrality would ultimately be a victory.

Next to her was the empty seat reserved for Justice.

The next seat over housed a rather heavy man, fat from his throat forming a solid second chin. His name was Atair Chaktaren, representing unified working societies and guilds–it was ironic considering that would imply he actually worked, though by his girth, it was evident that that wasn’t the case. He was one of the few commoners on the Old Council, by virtue of how many skilled laborers were employed in the Holding’s factories. Their concerns were the concern of industry and therefore the utter backbone of the Holding. As if to expound upon this fact, he was bedecked in finery normally reserved for the nobility–the very buttons on his coat made of pearls.

Next to Atair was the empty seat reserved for Faith.

The Chief Provost Marshall was a severe-looking woman, her dark grey eyes those of piercing winter. Her name was Esala Arenit. Ostensibly in charge of the regular police in the Holding and their derivative reserves, Esala had begun expanding her powers once the refugee situation had escalated into the tens of thousands mark. Citing the need for greater local security measures, she had begun to form volunteer and civilian auxiliaries to the police forces. Combined with Kerr’s tactical support, she had transformed the peacetime police departments into entities that were more synergistic to a military police state in light of the extraordinary circumstances and recent open skirmish warfare with Sani cultists. Regardless, exhaustion was obvious in the bags beneath her eyes.

Doctor Sahnindem Pasru was an older, thin gentleman. He had served in his position for the duration of Reginald’s father’s tenure as Holder, and nearly half of the tenure of his long-lived grandfather. He had taken up the mantle as the chief of public health services, immediately enacting the housing and employment plans that Katerina had promulgated in the early days of the refugee crisis. While she funded his efforts, his organization had proved paramount in arranging resources in timely, effective manners. Now, however, many of those resources were being diverted away from the refugees who truly needed them. In all honesty, Reginald was surprised Pasru had not joined the other three absentees in boycotting the meeting.

Next to the doctor sat the seat for Public Affairs.

Finally, sitting next to Reginald was, besides Faith, the only person who could truly interfere with how he ran his Holding. His name was Colonel Hamen Yaddi, the commander of Imperial forces within the Holding. As a member of the Imperial army, Colonel Yaddi’s allegiances rose far beyond that of Reginald’s Holding, past his mother Eliana, and into the byzantine command structures of the Imperial military. As complex as it was, it was impossible to know or understand his true motivations or who pulled the strings, but it was nonetheless evident that Colonel Yaddi needed to remain unfettered in internal matters at all costs. The military, after all, was meant to defend the populace, not police it.

“I trust that you have all reviewed the most recent casualty reports regarding the festival?”

The Chief Provost Marshall, Lady Mayor, Chief of Public Health, and Colonel Yaddi all nodded silently. Kerr remained motionless, while Atair Chaktaren seemed more interested in what sort of tea was being served.

“To preempt any concerns regarding my mental state, I assure all of you now, that the situation is well in hand and entirely resolved.”

Impassivity. Now that was impressive. He was of course, referring to the rumors that Relena Mahyisti had attempted to re-write his brain neurology with nanites, creating a series of selves that would have sacrificed his own son in a Sani Sabik ritual. He knew it wouldn’t be easy regaining their trust, that he himself was not being influenced by external forces. But then again, if there were Sani sympathizers on the Old Council, perhaps it would seem reassuring.

“Very well,” He nodded after a few moments, “I want order.”

Esala Aranit, the Chief Provost Marshall turned towards him, “Order, my lord?”

“Quite,” He tapped on his neocom for a few moments, darkening the room and projecting a series of images above the table in holographic form, “It doesn’t matter where you are in the holding. The western port cities, the heartland, the border with District III. Everywhere you go, there is suffering, death, destruction, crime, and heresy.”

“My lord,” Doctor Pasru interjected, “It is to be expected with such a large influx of refugees. We’ve reached a tally of over one hundred thousand.”

“What it is, doctor,” He narrowed his gaze on the old man, “Is intolerable.”

He let a moment of tense silence linger over the room before continuing, “And as such, our intolerable circumstances therefore require a means to correct them.”

He turns his head back to Esala, “Provost Marshall, the situation on the ground?”

She sat up, ramrod straight, “My lord, civilian security forces are currently overwhelmed. Police casualties are at an astonishing five percent average, with ninety percent of our current forces working double shifts. Even if we were authorized to put every cadet at the police academies onto the street, at the current refugee intake rate relative to the levels of crime both petty and organized, we would be short on personnel. The bottom line? We need twice as many officers to police the streets as is–we’ll need even more should the refugee situation intensify.”

He turned to Doctor Pasru, “Doctor, the refugee situation?”

Doctor Pasru nodded, inputting his own statistics into the holographic image, “Public Health is stretched thin, as are all of the major offices, I would imagine. The good news is that Lady Katerina’s continual financial support has led to a ninety-five percent rate of housing for current refugees. The bad news is that the refugee level is predicted to escalate, mostly from District III’s interior, where the fighting has intensified.”

“Colonel Yaddi, our border control?”

“Yes, my lord. As Colonel, I have mobilized what reserves we have left to control the major passageways into the Holding. That said, one battalion remains at the central Township as our only true military reserve force. I would recommend additional troops from Lady Eliana.”

“Thank you.”

“If I may, my lord,” Utaka chirped, “I wish to address the matter of aid not reaching those in need.”

Reginald nodded, “By all means.”

Utaka turned to the doctor, “Doctor Pasru. Although we applaud Lady Katerina’s commitment to funding the Holding’s humanitarian efforts, we are nonetheless perturbed at the rumors that less than fifteen percent of her contributions are finding their way to the populace.”

Reginald sat back. So, Utaka thought herself a family member, unless “we” had somehow referred to the government she headed as Lady Mayor. All the same, although that word was interesting, the true blow lay in the character of the attack: Doctor Pasru.

The doctor sat up a little, peering at Utaka with an unflinching gaze, “This was the first time I had heard of this. I will commence an investigation immediately.”

“I would be grateful to be provided a copy of your findings,” Utaka nodded.

“As would I,” Reginald added, reasserting his influence.

The conversations continued into the early morning hours, though little was accomplished. They typically followed a pattern of stating a crisis, then calling upon various cabinet members as if they were schoolchildren to elucidate on their particular’s office’s specialties. By the time the meeting was entering its conclusive hours, debates had become fairly heated.

“I’m just trying to do my job, sir. If your workers continue to interfere with police investigations–”

“I’m sorry, Provost Marshall, but this Holding is in serious need of organized skilled labor. Allow us to conduct our own investigations.”

“But–”

“Provost Marshall?” Reginald interjected.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I believe we’ve had enough discussion for tonight.” He rose, signalling that the others should do the same, “I look forward to reading the reports.”

There was a shuffling of chairs, the heads of offices departing through the double doors. They all looked worn, especially the older individuals. Colonel Yaddi was the first to leave, exiting with military briskness. Joining him thereafter was Utaka Sakakibara with her noble glide and then the organized labor boss  Atair Chaktaren, waddling out through the double-doors. Reginald was almost surprised that he hadn’t tried to exit by walking sideways.

He thought for a moment, then requested quietly, “Provost Marshall? Doctor Pasru? And Kerr, if you would mind waiting a moment?”

The guards on the outside closed the double doors, leaving the four of them in the meeting chamber. The Provost Marshall remained tense while Doctor Pasru found his seat at the table though he hadn’t been given leave to sit.

“My lord, if I may extend an apology–”

“No need, Provost Marshall, you were merely advocating for your officers and that is merely a function of your duty,” He raised a hand, then turned to Pasru, “No, this is the meeting after the meeting.”

He nodded silently to Kerr, who had moved to behind the doctor. At the silent command, he unfolded an extending baton and used it as leverage to lock Pasru’s neck. The doctor immediately started gasping, grappling at the sudden action. He struggled uselessly against the cyber knight’s grip.

“What is the meaning of this?!”

“Doctor Pasru, as the Lord Justice is not present, I am hereby invoking my right as Holder,” He folded his arms, glancing to the Provost Marshall who was frozen in place, “I hereby find you guilty for embezzling funds intended for refugees. Your punishment is death.”

He gave another nod to Kerr. There was a crack, followed by the sound of Pasru’s body slumping to the ground. The Provost Marshall remained steadfast, unsure of what to do or say.

He turned to her, “Now then, you were saying something was hampering your investigative efforts?”

He returned to his seat, motioning for her to take her own, “There is much I would like to discuss with you.”

“Please, sit.”

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