Domition was sitting next to Lucius, but he wasn’t really there. Instead of cold marble, his feet were immersed in the ocean, warm water lapping at his ankles and wet sand squeezed between his toes. Hera’s perfume filled his nostrils. She pressed her face to his chest and he planted kisses on her cheek and neck before resting his head on top of hers. Never had he been so content. He felt totally at peace. The three weeks they’d spent in Maebella after the wedding were the best of his life. He could have spent an eternity there, ankle-deep in the ocean at the white beaches of Genanius, his love in his arms.
Domition remembered the day perfectly. Hera’s parents had insisted they be married in her hometown, at the local Domum, as is the tradition. He waited in the courtyard in his white toga, over two hundred guests seated before him in their finest wears. They were all friends and relatives of Hera and her parents. He had no one to invite, or rather no one he wanted to invite. Mother and father were already gone, not that they would have approved of the union. Father would probably have had a fit if he heard the kind of family his son was marrying into. Domition tried not to look at the crowd, feeling the cold and slimy touch of their eyes upon his skin. They made him feel naked. Half of his life had been spent in the shadows, trying to avoid attention, and then he was expected to be calm and grandiose with two hundred strangers staring up at him. He would have taken sneaking into an enemy camp over that any day. The only sounds were the trickling of the fountains, the singing of the birds, and the whispering of the guests. Then the music began. The excitement in the gardens grew with the plucks and strokes of harp and violin strings. Then he saw her. First came the procession of bridesmaids in pretty pink stola, tossing handfuls of flower petals in their wake. Hera followed, dressed all in white with a headdress of roses and joined at the arm to her father. The pudgy, middle-aged man gave Domition a look that seemed like it was intended to kill as he led his daughter to him. They’d never gotten along, and it took Hera much time and effort to convince him to give his blessing to the joining. Weddings in the Imperium didn’t go ahead unless the bride’s father gave his approval.
Domition never took his eye off her, from the moment she entered the courtyard to when they began the walk up the aisle. The nearer she got, the faster his heart beat. He’d never seen her so beautiful. The sight of her in her white stola and headdress reminded him that there was beauty left in the galaxy despite what seemed like the Imperium’s best efforts to stamp it out. They caught each other’s eye and she smiled that smile of hers. The ceremony was practically all she could talk about in the weeks before. She’d spent so long planning it. Everything needed to be perfect, and it was. They reached the altar, her father releasing her before taking his seat with the others. The act was symbolic. It signified she was no longer his, but someone else’s. They stood opposite one another before the smiling crowd, then the orator began the joining sacrament.
Despite it being the happiest day of his life, Domition couldn’t help but feel a little sad and sickened as he listened to the old man recite the sacrament, listing the vows he and his wife-to-be were expected to make and keep. Hera was more than happy to repeat the words, the love for the Imperium having been drilled into her from birth. As she stared into her lover’s eyes, she promised to submit to him fully and obey him in all matters, to always be truthful to him, to never have lustful thoughts for anyone but him and never look at another man in a lustful way and to accept his discipline whenever she dishonoured him, herself or the Imperium. The longer Domition listened, the more he worried he would throw up all over his bride’s lovely white stola, each vow more stomach-churning than the last. Then it was his turn. He would promise to always love and care for her, to protect her and their children at all costs, to provide for her and their family, and keep her on the path of purity and honour through his guidance and discipline. Mercifully, he managed to get through the vows without causing any embarrassments for himself and his betrothed. The ceremony ended with her kneeling before him and accepting a kiss on the forehead to symbolize her everlasting devotion and submission to him and his unending love and unbending authority over her.
She rose as his wife and threw herself into his arms, tears of happiness streaming down her red cheeks. The crashes of applause rang in Domition’s ears. They would be joined together as one for the rest of time, the true beginning of their lives together as far as the Imperium was concerned. He was about to press his lips to hers when he was snapped back to the present by the familiar sounds of coughing and tapping of cane. Domition was sitting at the golden table again, surrounded by the old men who made up the Imperial High Council. Tacitus stood by the entrance, surveying them with his unnerving gaze. No one said a word. Regulus seemed to have learnt his lesson. There would be no complaints or grumblings this time. The Imperator came lurching in with his Praetorians at his heels though there was no sign of his other lapdog, the High Inquisitor. That was strange. Domition had never been to a meeting where the Imperator didn’t have his crazy, evil witch in tow. Something big had to be going on for her not to be present.
The Imperator slumped into the seat at the head of the table, and the Praetorians took up their positions. His coughing seemed worse than usual. “What have you to tell me”? he managed between painful-sounding splutters. Domition wouldn’t have been surprised (or saddened) if he dropped dead right there.
The usual silence followed, everyone waiting for someone else to speak first. Then Trajan opened his mouth. “The video taken aboard the freighter has been received by the Confederacy, My Imperator. There has been significant outcry from both Freedom for All and the general public”.
“The Executive Council has issued a statement, My Imperator”, Councillor Antonius added. “They condemn the actions of our soldiers, quite vehemently”.
Domition had heard about the video. A freighter full of frightened and defenceless men, women, and children slaughtered by brutes with guns because they didn’t want to live a life of fear and oppression. It must have made for riveting entertainment. There was a time when he would have been horrified to hear of such a thing but, after spending so much time around the psychopaths responsible, there was little left to shock him.
“I care not for their condemnations”, the Imperator spluttered. “Now that they know the consequences of testing me, they will bow to my demands”. The council was quiet as he launched into a fit so violent Domition was certain that, were it not for his mask, they might have been staring at the Imperator’s lungs lying on the table top.
“My Imperator”, Lucius began, hesitantly. “Might I ask, have you heard the statement made by the Executive Council”?
The Imperator glared. “I have no interest in what they have to say, only what they have to give me”.
Lucius took a breath. “My Imperator, in their statement, the Executive Council has vowed not to give in to our demands and has promised that the Imperium will face consequences in response to this incident”.
The Imperator snorted. “Just lies to keep their ignorant public in line. What consequences could they possibly threaten my Imperium with? You watch, Lucius. They will give me what I want”.
“And if they don’t”? Domition couldn’t resist, despite the memory of the previous meeting still fresh in his mind. He’d had all he could take of the Imperator’s arrogance.
The Imperator’s glare left Lucius and landed on him. “I suggest you think about what almost happened the last time you tried to undermine me, boy. And about the advice that I gave you”.
“I’m only asking a question. What happens if they don’t give you what you want”? He wouldn’t be intimidated, although Domition did feel a flutter when he noticed Tactius clenching his fists.
“Domition”, Lucius growled under his breath. It was a wonder he was still bringing him to the meetings.
The Imperator leant forward, eyes narrowing. “Then they will face the full wrath of the Imperium and they will suffer and die in the most horrific of manners. Their cities will burn and they will watch as their wives are violated and their children are slaughtered. Now, is there anything else you would like to question me about, or can we return to discussing important matters”?
It crossed Domition’s mind to ask about the whereabouts of the High Inquisitor but he was pushing his luck as it was. “No, My Imperator”. He was certain he heard Lucius give a relieved sigh.
The Imperator’s eyes lingered on him a few moments longer. “Good”. He turned his attention back to the council. “Now that I have young Domition’s blessing, let us return to the matter at the hand. I want the video taken aboard the freighter made public for everybody to see, especially the non-humans”.
“Are you sure, My Imperator”? asked Councillor Horatius. “It would certainly incite significant unrest, among the Iringroat in particular”.
“I am aware of that, Horatious. But this is what I command. I want them all to see the consequences that will befall those who involve themselves with this group. That should discourage anyone who thinks of doing the same. Any rebellions that arise as a result will be dealt with, as always”. The Imperator looked about the chamber. He fixed briefly on Domition, as if waiting for him to question him, perhaps even daring him. “Furthermore, there will be an increased naval presence along the border with the Neutral Expanse. Any unidentified vessel spotted crossing the border is to be destroyed on sight. Divert ships from the non-human worlds if need be”.
“You understand that would leave them open to increased pirate and slaver attacks, My Imperator”? asked Councillor Vitellius . Domition almost laughed; like the Imperator gave a shit about that.
“That is the price they will pay for supporting these heathens. And besides, the defence of the Imperium takes priority over that of primitive beasts and farm animals. They are already ungrateful for the support the navy provides them so let them do without. See that it is done”.
Vitellius nodded. “As you command, My Imperator”.
The chamber was quiet until the Imperator gave a tired sigh. “Now that that is dealt with, I believe there is nothing left to discuss. I now call this meeting to a close”. Of course, he would leave the meeting there, having dealt with the only issue of interest to him. Squabbling with the rest of the galaxy and pushing the Non-Haelqen around, that’s all the Imperator cared about.
“Actually, My Imperator…” said Councillor Servillius as he was rising from his seat, “There is another matter that you will want to hear about”.
The Imperator sighed again and lowered himself back down. “And what might that be”?
“There have been reports from some of our capital ships patrolling the border”. The frail councillor could barely look his ruler in the eye. “They say there have been several confrontations between them and scouting parties from the Confederacy”.
The Imperator’s eyes narrowed. He looked to Tacitus. “What is this about”?
“Several capital ships have reported being approached by Confederate scouting vessels, My Imperator”. The Supreme Commander’s voice contained not a trace of emotion. “It seems the Confederacy is monitoring our activities on the border and gathering intelligence on the positions of our capital ships”.
“Why was I not informed of this”?
“It is of no concern, My Imperator. They pose no threat to even our smallest ships”.
“Do not presume to tell me what I should be concerned about”! The Imperator exploded, striking the table top with the palm of his hand. “Do not presume anything with me”!
“My apologies, My Imperator”, Tacitus replied, still with no hint of feeling.
“This is no small matter. This is a challenge. They are probing for weakness, sending their ships to mock me. They do not think that I will keep my word, that my Imperium is something to be toyed with. There will be consequences for this insult”! The Imperator finished his almost comical rant by hurling his cane across the chamber, forcing Regulus and Lutatinus to duck to avoid a nasty blow to the head. The Imperator was stronger than he looked. He then succumbed to a fit of coughing so fierce Domition thought his heart might give out at any moment. His hopes were dashed when he regained his composure a few moments later. “I will not be insulted by these heathenish infidels. Send word to the fleets. Those ships are to be destroyed on sight, just like the others”.
The silence was chilling. “My Imperator”, Plautius said cautiously. “Surely you understand that the Confederacy will not tolerate direct military action. This will almost certainly result in war”.
“If they want a war then I am more than happy to oblige. Tacitus, relay my orders to the fleets at once. I will not be insulted one moment longer”.
“As you wish, My Imperator”.
Domition hoped that would be the end of the insanity for one day. He wanted to go home; back to Hera. Being with her always helped to forget the madness he witnessed every day. She would never hear a word against the Imperium and its leader, but she always lent a sympathetic ear whenever he wanted to talk about the stresses of work, as long as he didn’t go into the specifics of what ailed him.
“And Tacitus”, he was disappointed to hear. “If the Confederacy wishes to test me then I feel obligated to return the favour. I want ships in the Neutral Expanse at once. And not just scouting parties, but capital ships, carriers, frigates, destroyers. We will show them that there are no weaknesses to be probed”.
“Of course, My Imperator”. Domition knew the Supreme Commander was very much pleased with that order.
Nobody spoke, the council stunned into yet more silence. “Invade the Neutral Expanse, My Imperator”? Vitellius then asked.
“No”! the Imperator snapped. “Not invade! Our forces shall enter the Neutral Expanse but will not engage the Confederacy or the Free States in any way. They will scout the positions of their fleets, monitor their activities and probe their weaknesses but they will do so from a distance. In the coming war, it will be the Confederacy who fires the first shot, not the Imperium. This meeting is over”.
The Imperator pulled himself out of his chair, leaning clumsily against it as one of his Praetorians retrieved his cane from behind Regulus and Lutatinius. He then left without a second glance, Tacitus and the Praetorians following. The old men waited in silence, listening as the coughing and footsteps faded from existence.
“This is insane”, Councillor Lunius said once the Imperator and his people were well out of earshot.
“Be careful, my friend”, Lucius cautioned his fellow councillor. “These walls have ears”.
They sat for a few minutes more, until they were absolutely sure the Imperator could no longer hear them. Still nobody said a word. They all just huffed and puffed and rested their elbows on the table top, heads held in their hands. Many things about the Imperium frustrated Domition but few more so than the High Council’s reluctance to stand up to the Imperator. It was unthinkable to him how things could get to this point, one man wielding absolute power over an entire people, completely unchallenged and unscrutinised. It just wasn’t the way things were meant to be.
“It doesn’t have to be this way”, he mumbled despite knowing the answer he’d receive.
“What did you say”? Servillius asked.
“I said it doesn’t have to be this way”. Domition could no longer hide his anger. “You are the High Council. You can put a stop to this. This doesn’t have to happen”.
“Are you stupid, boy”? Trajan hissed. “Don’t you see what this is”?
Domition did see, and he didn’t care. “You’re the leaders of the domains. All he does is sit back while you do all the work. You can rally your people against him. He’s nothing without you”.
“We’re leaders of nothing! Can’t you see? All of this is an illusion. We have no power. The only one who does is him. He has the military and the Haelqen behind him. He can do whatever he wants and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s already done”.
Domition couldn’t help but smirk. “Back in the days of the Old Dranastonic Empire, you know what the people below the Imperator did when they didn’t like what he was doing”?
“This isn’t the Old Dranastonic Empire, boy”, Horatius replied. “That’s just another illusion. This is the Imperator’s Empire and what the Imperator wants the Imperator gets”.
“Lucius”! Trajan snapped. “Keep your boy under control in future, before he gets us all killed”.
“Of course, my fellow councillors”. His mentor’s eyes smouldered. “You have my word this will not happen again”.
Their responses didn’t surprise Domition in the slightest. Cowards, all of them, unwilling to stand up for those suffering at the hands of one psychopath just to save their own skins. In all the years the Imperium had stood, not a thing had changed and this was the reason why. The people with the power to make a difference concerned only with their own wellbeing. He gave up arguing. It would get him nowhere. As he left the council chamber, Domition felt the same as after every meeting: powerless.
The rest of the day played out much the same as those that came before. He got another scolding from Lucius though it wasn’t much different from the last. He’d been told off so many times his mentor was running out of things to say. He wasn’t sure why he bothered anymore. Surely he must have realized how pointless it was. From there, the day was spent following Lucius around as he went about his duties as an Imperial High Councillor and representative of one of the fifteen domains. The first thing to do was relay the outcome of the council’s meeting with the Imperator to the representatives of the star systems within his domain. Then it was on to the treasury to meet with the resource allocation officers and finalize the quotas for the corporations operating on the worlds under Lucius’ “control”. Then they listened to reports from the planetary governors about pirate and slaver activity in their vicinities. It was all thoroughly mind-numbing stuff, and nothing to do with what Domition was interested in: changing the lives of the Imperium’s oppressed for the better. He was just expected to sit quietly and not cause any trouble while also writing down everything that was said. He also made sure his mentor had plenty wine and bread. At midday, he called to make sure Lucius’ favourite table at his favourite restaurant was free and that his favourite dish was ready for when he arrived. He was supposed to be learning from it all, so that one day he might hold a position on the council but, like every other day, Domition spent it on autopilot. When he thought back on them later, the day’s events would be little more than a haze, every second, minute and hour melting into a messy, disorganized ball of wasted time. That didn’t bother him. He’d long since lost interest in the possibility of sitting on the council. He would have just as much success trying to make a difference on it as he’d had off it, not to mention Nero would probably have him and Lucius killed at the mere suggestion of it.
Things started looking up when he awoke from his sleepwalking to notice the skies over the Imperial City had turned a fiery orange. That’s what he always waited for. It meant he would soon be able to return home, to his Hera. She was all Domition could think about on the ride home. She greeted him in one of her favourite ways: leaning against the wall opposite the entrance to their apartment, wearing nothing but a cheeky smirk upon her face, hair draped over her shoulders and covering her breasts and bathed in the evening sun flooding through the windows behind her. The mere sight of her made it seem as if a ton weight had been lifted from Domition’s shoulders. She took him by the hands and led him to the bedroom where they made love and then, finally, he was able to forget the misery of the day. He never failed to lose himself to the sight of her body, the taste of her lips, the smell of her perfume, the feeling of her skin rubbing against his own and the wetness between her legs, and the sounds of her moans and gasps as she reached her climax. He didn’t believe in some grand paradise awaiting him when he died but, if such a place did exist, it would consist of nothing more than him, his bed and Hera.
They lay in each other’s arms, Domition on his back and Hera with her head rested on his shoulder and leg across him. He played with her hair and she stroked the skin of his chest. A cool breeze accompanied the flow of the setting sun through the balcony doors. It seemed like they’d only been laying a few minutes but, when he checked the time, it turned out to be a couple hours. He couldn’t think of another place he’d rather be.
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