Getting into the palace hadn’t been much of a challenge. The Zathran Defense Force wasn’t up to the standards of a House military. They were enthusiastic, but not hard-drilled like the Steiners or fanatic like the Kuritans. Dominguez had gained access to the restricted palace areas by first posing as a tourist and then slipping away. A quick change of clothes into a stolen ZDF uniform had allowed Dominguezs to slide through the dark corridors of the palace without much notice as the evening had drawn on.
As Dominguezs moved deeper into the restricted military and Imperial wing they found the corridors were more brightly lit and it was easier to see their features. Dominguezs took time in moving from room to room avoiding personnel that looked particularly alert, at one point finding that they had entered the office of the; Field Marshall in order to escape a patrol. The infamous Field Marshal Talon was asleep at his desk, a half drunk chocolate milk on the desk and reams of paperwork and maps scattered across every surface. Dominguez could have killed the warrior, but that wasn’t why they were on Zathras. Killing that man would only raise the alarm more quickly and Dominguez intended to terminate their target before that. Dominguez fought the urge to leave something out of place or mark the office so that Talon might know he had been in danger. Counting coup was a tradition among their people but Talon was not an enemy yet and ego need not be satisfied; and so they moved on; hopscotching through the palace.
Time passed quickly as Dominguez had searched for the Emperor’s conference room, finding it in the early hours of the morning. They knew that the Emperor now spent almost all his time here, planning for the coming war on Zathras. As they approached the room they could hear a voice and moved slowly to avoid detection. The emperor was inside talking to someone. Even so, Dominguez had a job to do, and so they slipped into the Emperor’s strategy room, sliding behind the velvet tapestries that ran around the whole room. The tapestries were abnormally thick and mounted to brass rings in the ceiling. Dominguezs knew they were made this way to muffle most sound, and that they had a ferrous weave that made them mostly bullet proof. In the center of the room was a large holotable with a display of the planet and the disposition of various military units. The lighting was subdued as if for a presentation; and inky shadows pooled everywhere. Beyond the table stood the emperor of Zathras; his back was to the table and room as he looked out a window at the city below. An occasional static discharge indicated that it had a holographic emitter working to block sight into the facility while the Emperor stood at the plasteel window.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Dominguez searched the room with their eyes, seeing no one else.
“They came for Smalls. I’m not sure what I would do if I lost any more family.” The Emperor talked to the empty room around him.
“It… it just feels so familiar. The bastards coming for us directly. It feels like the day Sokolov found us.”
Dominguez slowly pulled a blade from its sheath. The blade was oiled and painted black, only its sharpened edge visible.
“Back then I… no, WE took the fight to them. Now look at me.” The Emperor gestured as if to encompass Zathras itself.
“Trapped here in a palace like a GODDAMN RAT in a cage!” The sound of a fist striking the stone near the window was loud in the dark room.
“I never asked for this, you know… I never even wanted it.”
Dominguez slid along the wall until there would be no obstructions between them and the emperor.
“All these lives hang on every word I say, every decision. I hear the rumors you know… all of them. They say I’m weak because I don’t use force like my father. They say I’m unfit because I spend my troops on the defense of others…” The Emperor let out a long sigh. “The enemy is coming. I can feel them here, so close I can almost reach out and touch them.” The Emperor moved away from the window and Dominguez shrank back into the shadows. The emperor moved to a small door that stood ajar and stepped through. Dominguez followed, pausing to cautiously peer through the portal. The emperor stood in a small moonlit garden staring up at the face of a statue. The fragrant smell of roses wafted on the wind.
“Pretty soon it will be dawn and I’ll have to decide who I next send to die in my name. I’m tired of all the dying… I really am.” The emperor’s shoulders sagged and he moved to sit on a bench at the foot of the statue.
“I’m never going to be you, not that I would want too… but now I think I understand your burden.”
Dominguez knew that the perfect moment to strike had come and moved quickly into the garden and toward the emperor, blade held ready.
“You know Weylon, if you don’t do something I will.” Dominguez’s eyes widened and they stopped mid stride; a bolt of fear passing up their spine.
“All you, sir!” The voice floated across the garden from everywhere and nowhere. The emperor jumped to his feet, turning to reveal a Nakjama laser pistol held waist high. Dominguez’s eyes narrowed and they sprang at the Emperor, knife held high. They heard the pistol’s capacitor hum as it discharged; and then knew darkness.
“Seriously! You were just going to leave me hanging like that, Weylon!” The exasperation on Archibald’s face was both mocking and playful.
“My distraction from that alcove was enough, Sir. Besides, I couldn’t deprive you of a drinking story.” Weylon jogged over to the assassin, placed them in restraints, slapped some dermal patches on them and began to disarm and search them.
“I’m mostly dry these days and you know it.”
“Which will make the story all that much more impressive when you tell it to the Renegades over a good wine.”
“You know, you may be right. So what do we have here?” Archibald drew close, but Weylon held out a hand to stop him from getting close.
“The obvious is a well equipped assassin. Oh! How curious!”
“A tattoo associated with Marik infantry and special ops on the forearm. They tried to cover it but I can make out the details. Probably a merc now… ”
“What about the gear?”
“Expensive; definitely from offworld… VERY offworld!” Weylon pointed out a small insignia on an explosive device he had pulled from the assassin’s pockets that identified its maker as Defiance Industries. He pointed to the assassin’s knife. “Don’t touch the blade; it’s oiled and poisoned, used for wetwork.” Archibald rocked back on his heels and began to pace the garden.
“Someone really wants me and my family dead. I mean really badly. This was bold!” Weylon continued to search the assassin.
“And personal, your highness; they could have killed you a lot of ways, but a knife… that’s personal.” Archibald whistled and then looked at his watch.
“Weylon, would you take care of this mess and make sure our medics keep this person alive long enough to get some intel? I’ve got brunch with Smalls in about 8 hours and I REALLY need some cool down time after this.”
“Of course, your highness.” Weylon made a mock bow from his kneeling position as Archibald headed for the exit. Archibald stopped in the exit and turned back toward Weylon and the unconscious assassin.
“I meant what I was talking about. I’m tired of the dying.”
“I know, Sir.”
“They are wrong though…”
“I’m not unfit or weak, I’m just not what they’re expecting; and I’m going to use that against them just like we did with… uh, that.” Archibald gestured to the crumpled assassin.
“By the way, thank for being better at your job than the assassins are at theirs, be sure to pay our informants a little extra.” Then he was gone. Weylon smiled as he continued his work, things might just be getting really interesting now.