Empire of Bones – Chapter Two

Princess Kelsey Bandar looked up from her reading as her brother stalked into the library. His thunderous expression gave her just enough warning to mark her place before he exploded.

“He’s coming to dinner tonight.” The petulant snarl in Ethan’s voice dripped with venom.

Those few words told her everything she needed to know about his less than temperate behavior. The Bastard was gracing them with his presence tonight. Ethan’s use of the word made the mental capitalization mandatory. And, to be fair, she’d used the word in the same way.

She set her book aside and gave Ethan her complete attention. “I honestly don’t understand why do you let him enrage you like this? You know there’s nothing we can do to stop Father from having a relationship with him. I’m not even sure we should try anymore.”

Ethan stared at her, shocked. “How can you say that? It’s obvious what the scum wants.”

She leaned back in her chair. “Is it? I’m not so certain these days. If Jared Mertz was trying to take advantage of his blood, you’d think he’d be a little more aggressive in advancing his career.”

“The Bastard forces himself on us time and time again, and all Father ever does is cater to him. And now you’ve become his apologist? The man wants something and I’m not convinced he won’t get it. Father has been muttering and planning something.”

She regarded her brother coolly. “In the fifteen years we’ve known he’s been around, I’ve never heard of him asking for one thing. Not for himself. Not even for Fleet. And God knows Father has a soft spot in his heart for Fleet.”

“But… How can you defend him?”

Her brother’s anguished face tore at her heart, but she couldn’t keep catering to his fixation. “Because Jared Mertz isn’t the one that created our family’s problem. Father had an affair. Father had a child out of wedlock. Father shamed Mother so badly she divorced him. Jared Mertz is as much a victim of circumstances as we are.”

Ethan slapped his palm on the table sharply, making her jump. “No, he is not. I think he knew exactly the chain of events joining Fleet would start. He did so knowing that the medical test would show precisely what it did. This is part of a long range plan to steal our birthright.”

That was ridiculous. Kelsey only barely smothered a chuckle. It wouldn’t improve her brother’s mood one bit. “Take a deep breath. This isn’t some deep-seated conspiracy to displace you. Father would never allow that, even if the Imperial Senate did…which it won’t. You’ve let this delusion eat at you too long. You need to get a grip.”

Ethan’s expression darkened further. “You’re being dangerously naive, Kelsey. If one of us needs to wake up, it’s you. The Bastard wants the power of the Imperial Throne. Rest assured he won’t fool me as easily as he has you. Tell Father I feel ill.”

Ethan stalked out of the library even angrier than when he’d arrived.

She rubbed the bridge of her nose tiredly. The normally levelheaded heir to the Imperial Throne had an unhealthy dislike for their half-brother. It wasn’t reassuring in a man who would one day rule the Empire. The Emperor couldn’t afford to have the same kind of petty jealousies as everyone else.

Jared Mertz was a pain in her behind, too, but she had finally gained some hard won perspective. At worst, he was some kind of power seeker and her Father would eventually see through him. He would never be more than an irritant for her or her brother.

When Jared appeared in their lives, she’d been just old enough to understand that her family was coming apart because of him. It had taken far longer for her to realize he wasn’t responsible for her parent’s divorce. That didn’t mean she had to like him, but she no longer blindly hated him as Ethan did.

As far as she could see, Father’s formal acknowledgement of his bastard son had drastically complicated Jared Mertz’s life. It made advancement in Fleet more difficult because they avoided even the appearance of favoritism. Her discreet checks had revealed his commanders considered him a brilliant officer and he was long overdue for promotion to captain.

She tried to get back into the book she’d been reading, but her mind refused to focus. The subject of the Empire before the rebellion and resulting Fall usually fascinated her, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her half-brother…and about herself.

He commanded a Fleet ship now. He’d been twenty-two Terran Standard years old—the same age as she was now—when he’d joined Fleet. He’d known what he’d wanted and he’d pursued that goal with a single-minded determination even she had to envy. What would she be doing in fifteen years?

With Ethan as the heir, she needed to find a long-term career. Being the spare apparent wasn’t very fulfilling. Once her brother married and had children of his own, she wouldn’t even be that. She’d be just one more Imperial noblewoman without real purpose in her life. As if there weren’t enough of those in the capital.

Fleet wasn’t a good fit for her. She’d never been particularly good at obeying orders. None of the social work she’d done had excited her that much, as important as it was. She wanted an all-consuming purpose that she could dedicate her life toward fulfilling. She wanted the things she did to count for something once she was gone.

She sighed. She wouldn’t solve that problem tonight. She might as well go see Father. He’d be looking for her soon enough anyway.

Kelsey found Emperor Karl Bandar of the Terran Empire sitting in his private office dressed in the ratty old jacket that he loved. The grey in his beard was almost as plentiful as the chestnut brown. It made her sad to see him age. She wanted him to continue being the vital young man she’d chased around the garden as a girl.

He looked up from his console and smiled. “Kelsey! I was just coming to look for you. We’re having company for dinner.”

“I heard. Father, you know Ethan doesn’t enjoy these dinners.”

Her father took off his glasses and set them on his desk. “I know. This is something he needs to adjust to, whether he likes it or not. Jared is his half-brother. And yours too, of course. Nothing can change that.”

“Yet Jared does none of us any favors by rubbing Ethan’s face in it.”

Her father looked confused. “Jared? How is he rubbing anyone’s face in anything? I’ve never seen him be anything but polite. Even when others are not,” he added pointedly.

“I mean him continually forcing himself on us like this.”

“He’s not arranging these visits. I am.”

She stared at him. “You? I don’t understand.”

“I’ve apparently been too vague with my intentions. My apologies. I invite Jared to visit us several times a year so that all of you can come to know one another.”

Kelsey sat down in one of the comfortable chairs scattered around the small room. “We’ve always assumed he was behind them. Ethan is quite certain the man is out to steal the Crown Jewels. And he will not be joining us tonight.”

The revelation didn’t seem to be that big of a surprise to her father. “I’ll talk with him. Again. I’m sorry for giving you both a false impression. I suspect that Jared doesn’t enjoy these gatherings any more than you do. I’d hoped to ease him into the family, but I’ve probably botched that, too. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to explain to me how can I rule dozens of worlds and yet screw up my personal life so badly?”

“I’m going to treat that as a rhetorical question. This…changes things. It’s a bit embarrassing.”

Her father sighed. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I specifically invited Jared to dine with us tonight because he’ll be leaving on a long-term mission tomorrow. He’ll be gone at least a year. Probably two. So you’ll have a while for this new information to sink in.”

She perked up with genuine curiosity. “Really? What far frontier are you banishing him to? Thule?”

Her father smiled. “That’s for marines and it’s not so far away. You should hear the horror stories they tell about the winter training there. You’d think their commanders were all sadists.” His expression grew thoughtful. “Well, they are marines, so it’s a distinct possibility.”

“That’s your Fleet prejudice talking,” she said primly. “Maybe I should join the Imperial Marines to bring some well-needed perspective to this family.”

He laughed before he could stop himself. Clapping his hand over his mouth only made his mirth more obvious. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. The Imperial Marines are a fine group of men and women. I just have difficulty imagining you in their ranks. In spite of your occasionally combative nature, you’re a little…petite for a combat role. And you just don’t have the requisite killer instinct.”

She stood and stared at him haughtily. Unfortunately, her eyes were still at almost the same height as his. “Are you saying that my lowly one point five meters makes me unsuitable for hand-to-hand combat?”

“Yes. I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m positive the smallest woman I’ve seen in the marines topped you by a head and weighed half again more than you weigh. It might be…embarrassing to the Imperial dignity to have them hold you at arm’s length while you swing futilely at them.”

Kelsey sighed theatrically. “I suppose I need to cancel my order for combat armor and automatic weapons.”

“That might be for the best, yes.” His eyes twinkled. “Despite my questionable sense of humor, any service would be better for having you, though I really don’t think you’re suited for the marines.”

“Maybe I should date one.”

His shocked expression made her laugh. “You should see your face. It’s like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He made a gesture for warding off evil. “Don’t even joke about that. My heart might fail.”

She tilted her head a little to the side. “Why? I thought you said they were fine men.”

“They are. Just not the kind of men a father wants his daughter to date. I’ll make sure to send any you find attractive to Thule for an extended period. Perhaps a decade will do as an example to the rest.”

Kelsey gave him a gimlet eye. “You think you’re funny, but you’re not.” She resumed her seat with a sigh. “I doubt I’m a good candidate for the military at all, honestly. I’ve tried to get into the social scene, doing good works there, but I’m not satisfied. Thinking about Jared made me realize that he’s achieved so much in his chosen field. He commands a ship in the Imperial Fleet. That’s huge!”

Her father nodded. “That’s a very significant thing indeed. I served in Fleet long enough to gain a tremendous respect for the kind of person who commands a ship in space. The very least of them is a leader of some note. Your half-brother is far from the least of them. His commanding officers all respect him. Admiral Yeats told me that if he’d had his way, Jared would be commanding a cruiser task force by now. One day he’ll be an admiral. Not because of his connection to our family, but in spite of it.”

“That won’t go over well with Ethan,” she mumbled only barely audibly.

She gave him a haughty stare. “And just so you know, that doesn’t make me feel any better. I mean, hello, this conversation is about me and my options…or lack thereof.”

“You know you can literally do anything. What do you enjoy doing that might translate into some career?”

“I don’t know. I’m good at the things you’ve trained me to do as an Imperial ruler, but that isn’t likely. Ethan is depressingly healthy and I like you too much to have you assassinated.”

“Well that is an obstacle to your ascension to the Imperial Throne. Remind me to hire some food tasters at once.”

“Right after dinner.”

“Ha! Good one! Honestly, there are careers that are perfectly suited for your skills. For example, you trained with that young man from the Department of Imperial Affairs for a while. They handle diplomatic affairs of all kinds inside the Empire. That’s something we’ll always need.”

She nodded slowly. “True. Carlo Vega. He’s a senior attaché, and I admit that his work always seemed interesting.”

“I’m sure there are other avenues you could pursue. You’ve been spending a great deal of time in the Imperial Archives, for example. Are you researching something?”

“Aren’t your spies following me? I figured they’d already told you what I’m looking into.”

“Perhaps I should actually hire some. I’m certain there’s a conspiracy going on somewhere that I should know about.”

She gave her father a stern look. “Don’t try to fool me. Everyone knows you have secret police to spy on everyone.”

“Secret police? I had no idea.” He smiled. “Seriously, I haven’t felt the need to set my spies on you. I’m certain they have far more pressing matters requiring their attention. What have you been researching?”

Kelsey crossed her legs. “If only it were something spies would be interested in. I’ve just been reading up on the Old Empire. Speculation on what sparked the rebellion that led to the Fall. I wanted to see if I could find anything in the restricted stacks about it.”

“Hmmm…The rebellion and the pre-Fall Terran Empire,” her father said, his eyes sharpening. “That is worthy of study. I seem to recall seeing quite a few new books on the shelves on the subject in the library. What’s driving this sudden interest?”

“I read a first person account of the exploration mission Grandfather sent out. The book has been out for over a decade, but I missed it somehow. Maybe I was a little too young to be interested back then.” Or too distracted by her family situation.

“It’s a fascinating story,” she said. “Imagine exploring the worlds of what used to be the Terran Empire. Finding the ruins of civilization. Searching for lost Terra. That kind of thing could excite anyone. You really should consider sending out another expedition.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a good idea. I’ll look into it.”

“You should. So, what is this mission that’s taking my half-brother away for so long?”

“Well, that’s an interesting story—”

The buzzer on her father’s console sounded. He tapped the screen. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Your Majesty. Commander Mertz has arrived at the first checkpoint.”

“Send him up as soon as he’s in the Palace.”

Her father stood. “I should go get dressed. I wouldn’t want to have you tell me what a disgrace I am for wearing this jacket to dinner again.” He pulled her into a hug and kissed her cheek. “Please, do try not to blame Jared for my actions.” A smile crept across his lips as he looked into her eyes. “See you in a bit.”

Kelsey watched him leave and sighed. As much as she doubted she’d be any more comfortable with her half-brother, she’d try for her father’s sake. She headed for her room. She had just enough time to make herself presentable.

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