Seagulls circled overhead, singing their afternoon songs. The soft breeze kicked up thin veils of white sand. In the distance, waves crashed. As he stared at the cloudless Genanius sky, Domition felt the warmth of the summer Karasen sun upon his face, and the cool kiss of the seawater sweeping over his feet. He held his Hera tight, smelling the sweet scent of her hair as they listened to the crashing of the waves and the singing of the seagulls. He could lay here forever. The white beaches of Genanius; he’d never known a place more peaceful, nor anywhere else he would rather be. But then the sounds of the waves were drowned away by the familiar echoes of coughing and the tap tap tap of cane on marble and he was dragged back into his miserable present just in time to watch the Imperator come limping into the chamber of the Imperial High Council, orbited by his usual entourage. There was Tacitus and the Praetorians, and then Marcus. The leader of the Praetorians caught Domition’s eye and shot him a nasty smirk.
The council remained silent as they waited for their ruler to sit down and compose himself. They all knew about the Power Works. The story was plastered all over the news and broadcast throughout Imperial Space, praising the tireless work of the Praetorians in hunting down the vile creature that made the attack on their beloved capital possible. Hera had been watching the reports when Domition left that morning, eating up every word. Of course, his name was nowhere to be found though that was the way he liked it. The last thing he wanted was to be labelled a hero by this mass of idiots and bigots.
The coughing finally ceased. “I shall begin this meeting of the High Council a little differently, for I believe that congratulations are in order, to both Marcus and young Domition who, through their resourcefulness and devotion, delivered to me the wretch that brought about the senseless attack on our glorious city”. The Imperator raised his hands, began a slow clap. The rest of the chamber followed suit. Domition felt sick. Never mind the beaches of Genanius. He’d rather be anywhere else in the whole universe right now. “Well done to the both of you. I knew that my faith was not misplaced”.
“Thank you, My Imperator”, Marcus answered, very much enjoying the adulation. “It is an honour for you to put your faith in myself and my Praetorians”.
“Of course. You are one of my most capable instruments, and most loyal followers”. The Imperator’s eyes then fixed on Domition. “And Domition, I must admit that I had my doubts about you. Your conduct at these meetings has been most troubling and, as a result, I had come to question your faith and loyalty to my Imperium. But after hearing of your success in the Power Works, how, through your own initiative, you were able to track down the one we sought and deliver him into the hands of the Praetorians to face justice, now I see that I was mistaken, and that your faith and loyalty is unquestionable”.
It was bizarre hearing such words from the Imperator, even if not a single one was sincere. He was still playing his game. Everyone was looking at him. He better say something. “Thank you, My Imperator”. Thanking the Imperator for anything was like a giant fist to the gut. If father could see him now . . .
The Imperator’s eyes narrowed. “And I trust there will be no more cause to question your faith”?
“No, my Imperator”.
The shrunken eyes remained on Domition. He didn’t believe him for a second. “Good”. The Imperator turned his attention to the council. “Soon the justice of the Imperium will be served and all of these fools will learn the consequences of challenging me”.
Domition knew what that meant. He had to speak up. “My Imperator… with respect, I must ask you to please show mercy. He’s just a boy”.
“A boy who helped hardened killers infiltrate our city”, Marcus cut in. “Who played a pivotal role in the worst attack the Imperium has ever seen”.
“He didn’t know what was going to happen. They tricked him. He didn’t know what they were going to do”.
“He told you that, did he? I heard a great many things when he was stood upon that railing but that was not one of them”.
Domition hesitated. “Yes”. Not true but several of Parnett’s diary entries strongly suggested he was not aware of what exactly would happen once he’d fulfilled his role, not that Marcus and the Imperator would care.
“This is a lie, My Imperator. I was there. The scum said nothing of the sort. But I did hear some rather troubling things from you, Domition”.
Domition had almost forgotten about the things he’d told Parnett as he stood staring into the abyss. “I was trying to save him”.
The Imperator raised his hand for silence. “It does not matter now. We have our culprit and justice will be served. I agree with you, Marcus, my friend. The fact of his young age is irrelevant. He helped wreak a destruction upon the Imperium like nothing seen before and there can be no mercy for those who seek the destruction of the Imperium. We must send a clear message to those who would threaten our people and our way of life. This is my will, crucifixion at the centre of the Grand Amphitheatre for the galaxy to see”.
“Of course, My Imperator. It will be done at once”.
“No. Not at once. First, we must discover the identities of his accomplices. Surely there were more than just him and if not then I am certain that he will know of many more sympathizers of Freedom for All lurking in the lower reaches of the Castellum. They may well be planning another attack as we speak, either upon our city or elsewhere in our space. They must be found and eliminated before they have the chance”.
Marcus nodded, a little too enthusiastically for Domition’s liking. “Yes, My Imperator. Have no fear. We will learn all we can from the boy and bring justice to all who threaten the Imperium”.
Domition knew what that meant as well: more torture. It was futile, but he couldn’t just sit there and let it go ahead. “This is ridiculous. The boy doesn’t know anything. You’re wasting your time. You’ll get nothing from him”. He heard Lucius growl under his breath.
“We will be the judge of that”! Marcus snapped. “Your role in this matter is at an end. You’re free to go back to being a servant to the old fool to your left”.
“That is enough, Marcus”, the Imperator said, gently. “There is no need for rudeness. Domition will have no further part in the continued investigation and I have every confidence that you will find those whom we seek”.
“Thank you, My Imperator. Your confidence is not misplaced”.
“I know. Now you may attend to you duties”.
“Of course, My Imperator. I will keep you informed of my progress”. With that, Marcus took his leave, though not without giving Domition a parting glare. His heart sank. Parnett was in for a world of pain. So much for his promise to his mother.
“Now that that is dealt with, what other matters require my attention today”?
“My Imperator”, Councillor Trajan said immediately. “There is something that you will be keen to hear”.
“Then let us hear it”.
The councillor stuttered slightly. “Of course, My Imperator. This morning a message arrived from the Confederacy. Haema Irmit Cemma and Martas Sevanota have been taken into custody. The Executive Council wishes to arrange a meeting aboard the Assemblage Station to hand them over to you in exchange for an end to the hostilities between our sides”.
“And you wait until now to tell me this? Why was I not informed immediately”?
“My apologies, My Imperator. I presumed it would be best to discuss this development before any action was decided upon”.
“Well you presumed wrong! I could have been halfway to the Assemblage Station by now rather than sat here listening to your garbage”.
“My apologies, My Imperator. I-”
“Shut up, Trajan! Before I put you on a cross. I knew they would not hold out on us forever. They are weak. All they needed was a small show of force. Send a reply immediately. Tell them, I agree to the meeting and will head to the Assemblage Station at once. But there will be no talk of peace until those bastards are in my hands, and not a moment before”.
“At once, My Imperator”.
“Now I must leave, for I must prepare for my journey. Tacitus, await me aboard Indignatio. We will leave for the Assemblage Station as soon as I am ready”.
“Yes, My Imperator”, replied the Supreme Commander as his master left his seat and headed to the exit.
“This meeting is at an end”. The Imperator seemed to move quicker than usual, as if the news from the Confederacy had granted him renewed vigour. In practically the blink of an eye, he was gone, along with Tacitus and his Praetorians. Even after their footsteps had faded, the council continued to sit, quietly pondering what this meant and what would happen next. If there was one thing Domition hated it was seeing the Imperator get what he wanted, but even he had to admit that this seemed to be the best possible outcome. If getting his hands on Cemma and Sevanota was what it took to bring an end to the bloodshed, then so be it. They’d spilled their fair share too.
With his services no longer required at the House of Repentance, it was back to following Lucius around, making sure his every need was attended to while somehow learning how to do his job. Domition sleepwalked through the rest of the day, coasting from one hour to the next while daydreaming about Hera and longing to get back to her so she could help him forget about his life. Lucius tried his utmost to convince him he’d done everything he could have but it was no use. Domition couldn’t stop thinking about Parnett and the fate awaiting him. The thought of the treatment he was receiving from Marcus and his lackies made him shudder. And Varlehn; he remembered his promise to her, how he would find her son and protect him from harm. Some promise. He wondered if she would even be allowed to see her son’s body afterwards. Likely not; they’d probably dump him out of one of the airlocks with the garbage. Still, she’d likely be able to tune in and watch him die slowly and in agony before a crowd of cheering sycophants and bootlickers. That was something at least.
The sky blazed by the time Domition made it home. He found Hera sitting on the living room couch with a glass of orange juice in her hand. The past few days had been so hectic he’d barely seen her. He lingered in the shadows, taking in her beauty. Just the sight of her went some way to dulling the day’s pain. She finally looked to him, smiling that galaxy-beaming smile of hers. She put down her glass and skipped over to him, then rested her arms on his shoulders and pressed her lips to his. She seemed even more upbeat than usual. Something had her in a good mood.
“How was your day”? Domition could only sigh, not sure what to tell her. “That bad was it? Well I’ve got something that might cheer you up”.
“Oh yeah? What”? Domition expected her to take him by the hand and lead him to the bedroom, but she just stared at him, suddenly very quiet, almost nervous. “What is it”?
Hera bit her lip. “I’m pregnant”.
Domition needed a moment to process what he just heard. “You’re…”? Hera nodded, grin stretching across almost the full width of her face. He hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time. In an instant, his misery was washed away by the rush of joy that went flowing through him. The words eluded him every time he found them. “When did you find out”?
“Just today. I missed my period and I’ve been feeling sick so I went to the doctor. I’m about three weeks along, they said”.
Domition heard everything but could hardly believe it. He shouldn’t have been surprised. They’d been having so much sex, and all without protection. The fact it hadn’t happened sooner should have been more surprising. But he still couldn’t believe it. The possibility of having a child was one he’d thought of many times but had barely given any thought to in the past few months. His brain almost needed a moment to reboot itself. Surprise turned into something else as it wrapped itself around everything being thrown at it. The idea of becoming a father brought tears (of joy) to his eyes. The only thing he could think to do was take his wife in his arms and kiss her on the lips.
“This is wonderful”, he whispered in her ear. His joy buzzed like a nest of hornets in his stomach. “This is the best news I could have hoped for”.
“Isn’t it? I know you’re going to be an excellent father”.
“And I know you’re going to be an amazing mother”.
They held each other for what seemed like an age. He wanted to hold her forever. “We need to find a better place to live”, Domition said. The initial shock was wearing off. He was beginning to think clearly again. “This is no good for raising a child”.
“You think”? Hera didn’t sound convinced. “We’ve got enough space here”.
“It’s far too hectic out here. We should find somewhere quieter, like on the outskirts”. The Imperial City was one of the biggest and busiest megalopolises in the galaxy but it had its quiet parts, mostly in the ring of parkland around the outer rim of the disk it sat upon. That was where its most expensive homes were located, though Hera’s family would no doubt deal with that, especially when they heard the news.
“But what about your job? Wouldn’t it make things harder for you”?
“I’ll manage. You don’t have to worry about that”. More ideas swirled around Domition’s head. He hadn’t thought much about it, but he knew exactly what he wanted for himself, his wife, and their child. She’d hate it but he couldn’t help himself. He threw all caution to the wind. “In fact, let’s leave this place. Let’s just get as far away from here as we can”.
Hera tilted her head, confused. “What do you mean”?
“I mean let’s get out of the city, out of the Castellum, out of the Imperium. Let’s just leave it all behind, find a patch of land on some backwater world where we can build a home for ourselves and live the rest of our lives in peace”. It sounded so perfect but, judging from her look, Hera was less than enthusiastic.
Her smile had vanished. “Are you being serious”? Domition didn’t answer, allowing the silence to speak for him. “No, that’s crazy. We can’t do that”.
“Why not? Because we have a life here. What about my family? My friends? What about your job? We can’t just leave”.
“We can build a new life for ourselves . . . away from all of this”.
She looked at him like he was crazy. “What do you mean away from all of this”?
Domition hesitated. He had to be careful. “All this pain and corruption”. It was difficult to explain without offending his wife’s beliefs too much. He did his best. “Let’s just get away from it all. Away from the Imperium and everything it stands for”.
“Everything it stands for”? Judging by her tone, you’d have thought he’d called her by some hideous obscenity.
He knew he was in hot water, but he couldn’t stop now. “The brutality, the injustices. All of the pain and suffering”.
“What are you talking about”?
“You know what’s happening right now? A young man, Rylukan; he’s being tortured, right this second, not far from here, and then he’s going to be nailed to a cross and left to die for the galaxy to see. No trial, no chance to defend himself, no mercy”.
“You mean the one they’re talking about on the news. The one who helped the attackers get into the city. Who cares about him? He deserves what he gets. He helped defile our city. People died because of him”.
Domition felt the anger flow, poisoning the joy that had filled him minutes before. “That’s not the point. No creature should have to suffer like that, Haelqen or otherwise, no matter what they did and especially not for something that he was pushed into doing by a society that hates his kind just because they’re different”.
“It’s not just because they’re different. They hate us. They would kill us all if they could. They’re savages”.
“Who told you that? Who? They did. The government, your precious Imperator, the Circle of Worship. All the information you get is from them. Everything they tell you is so you’ll trust them no matter what. They’ve been brainwashing you. They’ve been doing it to everyone for years. Everything they’ve ever told you is a lie”.
“That’s ridiculous. The Imperator would never lie to us. Everything he does is to protect us from the hordes. They want to destroy us. They want to take what we have”.
It was almost amazing to see just how deeply engrained into her the indoctrination was, Domition slowly realizing there was nothing he could say to make his wife she the truth. “You’re just as blind as everyone else. How can you stand by and let this happen”?
“He’s a dangerous criminal, Domition. He endangered all of us. His kind want to kill us all. They want to kill our child”.
“No they don’t. They just want to live in peace. They want to be free. They don’t want to be suppressed and persecuted anymore”.
“Maybe that’s true. But they think the only way to get what they want is through violence and death. You saw what they did to the city”.
Domition screamed, unable to contain his rage any longer. “We pushed them to it! We left them no choice”! Hera said nothing, visibly shaken. She’d always been a delicate soul, never able to stand having voices raised to her. “Everything they tell you is a lie. They’ve been lying to all of us for years. All they do is spread pain and misery and suffering”.
Hera shook her head as the tears made their way down her cheeks. “You’re wrong. The Imperium exists to bring peace to the galaxy”.
“By destroying everything that isn’t the Imperium”!
“Enough”! Domition couldn’t help but be surprised by his wife’s scream. He’d never seen her so furious. “I don’t want to hear any more. How could you say such things? How could you doubt our Imperator like this? This was supposed to be one of the happiest moments of our lives together. It was meant to be perfect, magical. But now you’ve ruined it”. Her words were like knives piercing his heart. She headed for the bedroom.
“Where are you going”?
Hera stopped and looked back, tears still streaming. “Aemilla is holding a party tonight. I told her we’d be there. But I suppose it’ll just be me now, won’t it”?
Domition said nothing. Even in the best of moods, he’d have rather blown his brains out than suffer another party of the Imperial elite, especially one of Aemillia’s. She and her friends were all just as deluded.
“I thought so”. Hera entered the bedroom. The door slid shut behind her.
Domition sat on the couch and put his head in his hands. She was right; he just ruined what was meant to be one of the happiest moments they would ever share. Why couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut? He’d really done it this time. But even as he blamed himself, he couldn’t allow the Imperium to get away so easily. It was taking everything from him, now even threatening to destroy his marriage, the only good thing left in his life. Never had Domition hated the Imperator and his little empire more than he did now. The need to burn it all down screamed louder than ever, wrapping around his mind like the tentacle of a great sea monster. He couldn’t just sit there. He needed to do something. The Imperium needed to pay, and he was just about done caring about what it did to him.