"Forward, you dogs! Or backward if you want! Either way, you're going to die soon. May as well give your life for the Holy Emperor and save your family from the pain of the burning stake!" - Sergeant Patton, an hour before being killed by a stray bullet.
Lord Gerard Wolf sat there in silence. Truth to be told, he had never thought about things like this. When news of Republic invasions came, all the good Count knew was that the Empire he held dear was under attack. Sure, the sectors invaded weren't exactly his territory, but it was Imperial citizens that were dying by the billions under the Republic's nondiscriminatory orbital bombardments. Imperial properties that were robbed and looted. Imperial fleets that were wiped out and Imperial grace that was tarnished.
Plus, he was a Count and Wells was a Duke. It was only right for him to lend a helping hand.
For all four times, he marched Battlefleet Obsidian right into the heart of the Dukedom and engaged the Republic fleets. In many cases, he simply took over command of the local fleets. The local admirals welcomed it, and he didn't think much besides winning the battles. He never knew that the Duke would feel insulted.
"Here's the thing, Gerard. Sure, every invasion, the Republic can wipe out a few Imperial fleets. Maybe take over several worlds or half a system. But so what? Ultimately, they will not be able to march too deep into the Dukedom without launching a full-scale assault on the Empire, in which case the Holy Emperor and the other Lords and Ladies will be forced to intervene. Either way...it doesn't matter to the Duke. His position will always be ironclad. As dangerous as some of the situations seemed, he would never let himself get caught." The gorgeous Countess tilted her head as she watched Gerard's expression change.
"But you, Gerard, by assisting in the fight against the Republic, you are doing what the Republic can't do. You are threatening to rid the Duke of his systems, fleets, and people. You are becoming popular, and in doing so, you are making yourself a danger to his power."
"I would never have tried to usurp his position." The middle-aged Count retaliated somewhat weakly.
"Maybe not by choice, but tell me, my Lord." The Countess's tone remained unchanged. "If the people of the Dukedom come to you, get on their knees, and demand that you be their new leader, will you say no? If the officers and generals come over and beg for your presence, for the sake of protecting the citizens of the Empire, will you, the great, noble Count, reject their plea?"
The Countess stared at the Count, and Gerard could feel himself flinching a little, but he quickly changed the topic.
"Enough with the Duke. How about you, Amelia? Why are you doing this? How long have we known each other? Twenty years?" The voice of the Count raised a little. "Since we first met on the streets, we have saved each other more times than either of us can count. I even named my daughter after you! Why? Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
This time, it was the Countess who turned away. As she spoke again, there seemed to be a sense of upheaval in the Countess's voice. A sense of pain. Slowly, the Countess turned around and showed the Silver Serpent sigil on her uniform.
"Do you know why I chose the Silver Serpent as my sigil?"
"Because you are a treacherous snake?" Alex blurted out. One of the Serpent Sentinels behind him raised a fist, but a cold glare from the Countess stopped him right where he stood.
"Silver Serpents are not actually snakes or serpents. A common misconception. They are a type of snake-like creatures first discovered on my capital planet Gorgon I." The Countess spoke quietly. "They are the ultimate cold-blooded predators. They are always patient. Emotionless. Resolved. They will do anything and everything to survive, including lying still for hours. As a matter of fact, there were cases where Silver Serpents turned on their mates or offsprings in times of starvation, mercilessly mauling them to death just to feed themselves. It's something unseen in even the fiercest predators."
She let out a deep sigh. The hesitation and doubt in her voice was clear.
"I have ambitions. You, Gerard, of all people should know that. I am not going to hide it." She stood up from her leather seat, determination filling her voice once again as she spoke. For a moment, she felt like the righteous one in the room. "This is a cruel universe, my friend. Even Counts and Countesses are just one step away from falling. I want to climb higher. I want to be a Duchess…" She trailed off. After all, the rank above the Duchess would be Empress.
"I don't hate you, Gerard. If anything, I adore and respect you." The Countess glanced at Gerard's wife and saw the disgust in her eyes. That disgust made her chuckle. Just a little. "But there is no place for love or compassion in this world, not if I want what I want. If you had agreed to my proposal for marriage all those years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now and I would have stood by your side against the Duke, fighting for you to the death, but as of now…"
"What do you expect will happen?" Gerard wasn't convinced by the Countess's explanations. "Take me out, and Wells will make you a Duchess?"
"Oh no." The Countess gently shook her head. "Of course not. He merely offered me some ships and equipment. As a matter of fact, the Duke is no friend of mine. He is a suspicious one, yet the Duke is old and I am subtle, and his military capabilities are as pathetic as those sons of his." She smirked in confidence. "In the end, I will strike, and when I do, I will win. Unlike with you, he will never see me coming."
"Plus, whether you like it or not, you will always be a threat to my ascension, Gerard. When I try to remove the Duke, will you just sit back and observe? No...you will intervene, and I will never be able to beat you on the field of battle. There is only space around these sectors for one Duke, no more. And since you refused to join me…you have to go. Plain and simple."
Alex stared into the Countess's eyes in disbelief. There was just too much that happened in one day. First, the firefight that led to him claiming his first kill. Before having any chance to calm down and fully comprehend what just happened, he was pulled into this dining hall and witnessed the conversation between his father and this vile woman!
And the betrayals. They truly hurt. He had always known the Duke as the smiling old man that greeted him and his family every time they visited his territory. Never once did he realize that behind the warm smiles was a vicious intention. And the Countess...the woman who his entire family considered a friend. The person who his own sister was named after, no less! Turning against them just for her own political ambitions.
And the worst part of all this was the tone in the Countess's voice. She wasn't some comic book villain who was rotten from head to toe, and nor was she sadistic or cruel. It was clear she, as she herself claimed, truly took no joy in the slaughter here. It was just a means to an end. There was no satisfaction. If anything, there was some regret in the woman's voice, but not enough to make her rethink her decisions.
The halls were silent for a moment before Gerard asked the meaningful question.
"So, now what? You may be working with the Duke, but this is my territory. My world. If you think you can get away with this, you are clearly delusional." Gerard raised his voice. Even in this absolutely disadvantageous situation, with multiple weapons ready to gun down him and his family, he didn't seem afraid. "Your only option is to hold us hostage and make a bargain with Lamb. Or you can kill us...and never leave Valorian. Your Battlefleet Silver Serpent will be no match for Battlefleet Obsidian."
As he said those words, he stared into Countess Valentine's eyes, searching for a hint, any hint, that she was worried. When all he saw was confidence and a sense of pity, he felt his heart sink even further.
"You underestimate me, Gerard. Do you think I'm foolish enough to be sentimental if that requires me to risk my life and my plan? I merely wanted to tell you who's after you and why to give you some closure. As for your reinforcements...let's just say you shouldn't be expecting them anytime soon. After all, a lot of times, fear is more powerful than kindness."
Gerard's face turned just a little white. Right beside him, Alex bit his lips and turned to his father, hoping to see that he had another trick up his sleeves. Another threat to throw out. But none came. Instead, all the Lord could do was issue an empty threat. One so hollow that it almost seemed pathetic.
"The Holy Emperor will not stand for this!"
The Phoenix Empire gave its nobles quite the independence. The nobles could enslave their entire population and claim the resources and properties of an entire system as their own personal property. If needed, they could even purge entire worlds at will. But there were some things that nobles weren't allowed to do. Walking into another noble's house and murdering him and his entire family was quite high up on the list. After all, cruelty toward the populace who couldn't fight back was usually fine and acceptable, but no noble wanted to be stormed and killed in their own house.
If the Holy Emperor knew about what Valentine did, there would be consequences upon both the Duke and the Count, especially since the noble assassinated was one of the Emperor's best commanders. Perhaps the Lady of Deception would return home and find the Armada of the Ashes at her doorstep.
"The Holy Emperor will not stand the assassination of a loyal noble. That is true." The Countess nodded. This frightened Alex, who realized the feeling of dominance the Countess had never left her. Not even once. "But tell me, Gerard, what will the Holy Emperor do to a Countess who rid the Empire of a traitor? Would he punish her...or would he reward her?"
For a second, Gerard wanted to laugh at the hypocrisy of all this. Traitor? He? If the Count who led the Imperial fleets for decades and earned numberless victories for the Holy Phoenix Empire was a traitor, then there would be no loyalists left. All the Imperial Nobles who were wasting their time killing and raping on their own worlds? What would they be?
Unfortunately, much to his dread, the Countess was ready for that as well.
"Don't worry about the implementations, Count. I have gathered mountains of 'evidence' of your treachery, all of which will be presented to Duke Wells soon. The Duke will be outraged and confirm your betrayal before delivering the message to the Holy Emperor, who would be none the wiser. After all, who will he believe? A dead traitor Count, or a living Duke who controls three systems? It's not like you'll be there to defend yourself."
She sat back down on the leather sofa and crossed her legs. She wasn't gloating. She was simply stating the facts.
"And soon, every single planet in the Empire will learn about the true nature of the Obsidian Wolf. Trillions of Imperial citizens will be notified of your treacheries. Most of them...they will simply believe what we tell them, for they don't really know you or care about you. Hero. Traitor. Will they truly care?"
"There will be those who know you, my Lord. They will object. They will question the Imperial propaganda...and soon, they too will be arrested. After some interrogation, they will go to the public in tears and confess their crimes against the Empire. They will confess to being Republic spies themselves, tasked with defending you, their fellow infiltrator. They will beg for forgiveness, and under Imperial justice, they will be burned at the stake for their treason. Their screams will serve as a warning for all those that hear them."
"Soon, in a decade at most, no one will know the name of the Obsidian Wolf. All they will ever remember is a traitor. A dead traitor...and the Countless who put him down."
"Truth and lies will be what we say they are. That, my friend, is the appeal of power."
The Wolf family turned pale from the Countess's words. Alex was especially hit hard. He couldn't believe the words spewing out of the woman's mouth. The promises to twist the truth and scorch everyone that dared say what was right. This went against everything he was taught.
For years, the young boy was told that being an Imperial Noble meant being better than the common people. It meant being brave, courageous, and righteous. It meant defending the weak and protecting the just. But...but right now, it was the noble that were defeated, and the wicked that were smiling.
That was when the Countess drew her weapon and took aim at the youngest and weakest member of the family. Amelia Wolf.
"Now…Gerard my friend, why don't you confess to your treacheries?"