‘It’s an embarrassment.’
Long silence met the protest. In the gloomy offices Toresa could see the senator bent over her desk, could hear the faint clicks of her console as she wrote notes rather than answered. They had been here before, and with a hum Toresa folded her hands into the sleeves of her formal robes and waited.
Once Senator Vriana had determined she’d waited long enough she leaned back from her desk, long fingers leaving the console that had commanded her attention. ‘Embarrassment is for children,’ she chided. ‘Talvath is a distant collection of rocks and renegades.’
Toresa tried to not squirm under her cool, dark gaze. ‘It is the principle of the matter. Another star system turning its back on the Empire. We should send ships.’
‘Should we.’ Vriana tapped her chin. ‘How many people should they kill?’
‘When they reach Talvath and the governor refuses the orders of the Star Navy to surrender his authority back to our duly-appointed leadership. Does the task group commander just kill him? His staff? His family? His followers?’
‘Surely,’ said Toresa delicately, ‘they should kill as many as are found treasonous.’
‘By all accounts, that is a lot of people. They will fight back.’
‘So how many of our soldiers do you think should die to bring Talvath to heel?’
‘And while our ships are in the distant Talvath system, weeks away at maximum speed, they will not be elsewhere. Which border should we leave under-defended instead? From which more-vital system should we remove the garrison?’ As she remained silent, Vriana inclined her head. ‘Everything has a price. Reasserting dominion over Talvath has a price.’
Toresa drew a slow, careful breath. Vriana normally indulged her staffer’s opinions, challenged to guide them through decision-making in these hallowed halls of the Senate of Rator, the stuttering artificial heart of the ancient Romulan Star Empire. From here they issued legislation and orders across what remained of the once-greatest power of the Romulan people, like pumping anemic blood through thinned veins to the stumps of amputated limbs. But less and less in recent months had Senator Vriana mustered the patience for her staff’s youthful ignorance.
‘Letting Talvath proclaim independence unchallenged,’ said Toresa at length, ‘makes us look weak, and will embolden our enemies within and without the Empire.’
‘You are correct,’ Vriana allowed. ‘But these worlds having the nerve to proclaim independence at all makes us look weak. Don’t spend so much time parrying the first strike of the sword that you miss the dagger slipping into your kidneys.’
Toresa considered this a moment. ‘You think somewhere else will try to secede soon? Somewhere more valuable than Talvath, so we have to keep our forces in reserve rather than send them far away?’
‘It is possible. We have to guard the Empire’s heart, rather than race off to assuage a scratch on a distant limb. But you should worry about fitting a meeting with Governor Lorean into my schedule, while I and the Praetor worry about assuring the galaxy that our authority remains firm.’ There was a bleep from her console, and Vriana frowned at the screen. ‘Curious.’
Toresa slid over, knowing when it was and wasn’t permitted for her to read over the senator’s shoulder. ‘By what grounds does Admiral Hitath summon the Senate?’ It was hard to fight shrill indignation.
‘He wishes to complain about our refusal to send that task group to Talvath, no doubt,’ Vriana sighed, ‘and the Praetor will let him spout hot air so he feels he is still important.’ She rose from her seat and gestured across the office. ‘My outer robe.’
Toresa was a well-qualified young woman from a good family who had worked hard to become the senior aide to one of the most prominent senators of Rator. It was both beneath her to dress Senator Vriana, and an absolute honour. ‘I look forward,’ she said as she shrugged the robe onto Vriana’s shoulders, ‘to the Praetor doing his usual dressing-down.’
Vriana gave a tight smile. ‘This may be another occasion where we take a blow now to maintain stability later. If the Admiral can indulge his pride today, he will keep fighting for us tomorrow.’
The senator’s offices were not far from the Senate Chambers themselves. The main corridor leading there had a high, curved, windowed ceiling through which the shining sunlight of Rator stretched, broken by shadows of the frames to paint criss-crossing beams across the marble floors on which their footsteps echoed.
‘If I can fit Lorean in at 1630,’ Toresa said as she fell into step beside Senator Vriana, ‘then you can make it to dinner with your wife and that concert at 2000?’
Vriana groaned. ‘She does want to see the concert, doesn’t she.’
‘Yes, but also Director Stardel will be there, and I’ve got his staff to pivot him your way at intermission.’ Toresa tried to hide her pleased smile. It had taken no small amount of engineering to arrange an informal encounter away from prying eyes.
The senator raised an eyebrow, but Toresa could see she was impressed. ‘That might make three hours of modern music marginally worth it, if-’
They were not the only senators or staff moving through the corridors, but most parties were like them, huddled in the final moments of orchestrating their day before the representatives entered the chambers and the doors were sealed. This made the naval officers near the doors like rocks jutting out of a rushing river, a breaching stillness amid smooth motion.
Toresa let herself slide half a step behind Senator Vriana as she came to a halt and tilted her chin up an inch. ‘Admiral Hitath.’
‘I had not known you were still on Rator.’ Hitath was built like someone had crafted a dancer out of iron, graceful and yet inflexible on anything for which he was not made to bend. ‘Your trip to Velorum was cancelled?’
‘Setbacks in their dilithium processing made me postpone,’ Vriana said coolly. ‘Which means I am here to hear you today.’
‘Hm.’ Hitath looked up and down the corridor as the last of the senators entered the chambers, their staff drifting away. Toresa followed his gaze to see more naval officers than she might have expected dotted among them, resplendent in the dress uniforms that were required if they set foot in the Senate. ‘I hope you will listen.’
‘I always listen to the servants of the Empire.’ Vriana gave a smile that did not reach her eyes, and extended a hand to the open chamber doors. ‘You may walk with me, Admiral.’
It was, Toresa thought, a bold and clever move. On the one hand, it situated her alongside this bullish admiral, Hitath ever the hawkish voice in Rator’s rulership. On the other, it made it clear he was a guest within the chamber, the servant of the senator walking him in at her say-so. As she smothered a smile, she found herself meeting the gaze of the young centurion next to Hitath, found his eyes locked on her.
He did not smile, and she shifted her feet and looked away.
When Hitath nodded, Vriana looked to Toresa. ‘Put the governor on my schedule. I may as well get him dealt with before tonight.’
The centurion’s eyes were still on her as Toresa watched the senator and admiral enter the chamber. It was a vast hall, built in the same manner as the Senate of Romulus, though Toresa had never been there herself. Painstaking effort had been taken to ensure it was a duplicate in every way possible, but she had heard older staff call it desperate or even cheap, a flawed mimicry of something that could never be recreated. Most of the senators were gathered within, seated already, making Vriana and Hitath some of the last to arrive.
But not the last, as naval officers fell into step behind them to enter the senate chamber, and sealed the doors as she watched.
Toresa’s throat tightened. ‘They’re not supposed to go in there,’ she whispered.
If she had held her tongue, it might have been different. If she had done a better job of following Vriana’s lessons and instructions, had kept her expression more studied, it might have been different. As it was, she turned sharply from the door to find her way back blocked by the centurion with the cold eyes.
‘Perhaps you should come with me, Miss,’ he said.
She swallowed. ‘I was heading back to my office. Senator Vriana’s office.’ From there she could check the day’s schedule, check the admiral’s schedule, send a quick message to her friends in Senate Security. ‘I don’t-’
Through the doors to the senate chambers she heard the muffled sound of raised voices. Her eyes widened, and she took a quick step forward, only for the centurion to side-step and block her way.
‘Miss,’ he said again in that cool, level voice. ‘We should move away.’ His hand was on his holstered disruptor, and behind her she heard a single shot go off in the senate chamber.
‘No…’ Again she faltered, again she hesitated, turning back to the door to see the naval officers now blocking the way, then rounding once more to find the centurion’s disruptor in her face.
Now his coldness had faded for something else. Perhaps it was regret. Perhaps it was disgust.
‘For too long the so-called senators of Rator have let the Empire flounder and weaken. This must end.’ The centurion could not be speaking loudly, but it felt like his voice echoed off the walls of the corridor, felt like it overwhelmed the sparking sounds of shouting, screaming, shooting now bursting through the senate doors. ‘By the authority of Galae Command, you have been found complicit, by malice or incompetence, in this plot to undermine the Romulan Star Empire.’
Toresa’s knees shook. ‘Please.’
Whatever had softened in the centurion’s eyes now turned to ice. ‘No mercy for traitors.’ And his disruptor fire joined the chorus echoing through the halls of the Senate of Rator.