“The engagement reception will be next week.”
Delis looked like she was waiting for an explosion as she spoke. Heru wished he could smile at the sight. She seemed to be warring between guilt and duty but also a good deal of determination. She was a good senator, but also a good mother.
“Mom, I haven’t changed my mind. I will accept the marriage. The admiral is probably not as bad as the rumours.”
His family seemed to pause at his words. They hadn’t yet gotten used to this level of maturity on his part. “Really, a change of environment might be good for me. It will help get away from... the memories.”
Seeing him hesitant to elaborate further, his mothers relented. “It is idiotic to believe those useless rumours. Some of our best empaths have been in the same room as admiral Bet’heldt before and none of them ever found any guilt or hate in her aura. The most they could sense was sadness and a worrying level of indifference. So, either she did kill her mother and is incapable of guilt, or she didn’t and is covering for someone.”
Heru looked up from his dessert, surprised. He hadn’t heard about this before. He had thought the rumours the result of an open secret.
Kaire seemed to find his surprise amusing. “I know that with this arranged marriage, we might not have seemed like the best parents, son, but we are still your parents first and servants of the Union second. Did you honestly think we would let you share your life with a monster?”
Ashamed on behalf of his host, Heru could feel his cheeks warm. Delis moved to hold his hand and smiled assuringly at him.
“So is she,” Sander spoke, “covering for someone?”
“We have no evidence, of course, but that’s what the Intelligence Committee have suspected for a few years now. ” Kaire continued. “Five years ago, the empress died and the emperor was sent to the Imperial Hospital with heavy wounds. Half the Imperial Palace staff was killed. Mere days after, news that the admiral wanted to usurp the throne and thus, had been responsible for the attack on her parents spread among the people. It had all seemed a bit too convenient to us. The admiral would get the throne in a few decades anyway, so why the attempt at a coup?”
“She could have become impatient. Isn’t it said that the emperor and her don’t get along well?” Sander said.
“They don’t. But I believe that if Admiral Bet’heldt had wanted her father dead, he would be dead, not wounded. In addition, the emperor started to remove himself from politics and power following the death of his wife. He hasn’t been seen in formal events in a long time. Such behaviour is not the behaviour of an all-but-deposed ruler struggling against traitors.”
“Was he the one who killed the empress then?” Heru asked.
Delis moved the chair over to be closer to her younger son. “We think so. Not even the highest of his officials have vouched for the emperor’s mental stability in a long time. It’s the reason why although the alliance treaty requires the emperor’s oversight, none have questioned the admiral’s role in substituting for her father.”
“Again,” his mother said, “We have no proof of anything. We could be wrong on all counts here.”
“But if the admiral is not playing with us and reasonably sane, why would she ask for such a ridiculous condition for the treaty?” Heru asked.
“We have no idea. I have investigated every instance of her visits in this planet. You have never met before. And neither your mother, nor I are influential enough to irreversibly tie our nations together with just a marriage. The eldest omega daughter of the president or the beta son of the vice-president are both of age, of pleasant appearance and education, and overall infinitely better matches for something like this.”
“Maybe the admiral fell in love at first sight.” Sander interrupted.
Heru eyed his brother disbelievingly. “I have never seen her in my life.”
“Maybe she saw some holopics of you and her icy heart started to flutter or something.”
He punched his brother in the arm for the stupid remark.
“It’s not the time for jokes, Sander.” Their mother chastised.
“I can’t find a better time, mother.” Sander said, suddenly sounding morose. “My baby brother has to marry an imperial autocrat to save our country from the threat of war simply because he is fucking beautiful. If that isn’t the narrative of some inane YA novel somewhere, I’ll go kill the freaking autocrat.”
“Sander...” Heru spoke, shocked at the words. His brother didn’t curse or sound like... that.
“I joined the military, mother, to protect this family, as you have done. I didn’t join to stand by as my brother is forced by a dysfunctional would-be tyrant to be her trophy husband. So, you think she didn’t kill her mother? Great. Mad Emperor Oz did. Now the only thing we have to worry about is that imperial power struggles in a star system 50 light years away from here might result in Heru’s death.”
“You think we don’t worry about that constantly?” Delis snapped at him. “This is my son we are talking about. If I thought a war between the three superpowers wouldn’t end with Galecians, including us, in the hands of human traffickers from the Republics, I wouldn’t say a word against war. But we do not have the privilege of war. War is led by the strong for they fear seeming weak and is fought by the weak for they are not strong enough to choose differently. We are weak, Sander. We are desperately, exhaustingly weak.”
“Dear, calm down.” Kaire said as she embraced Delis in her arms. Her wife’s emotions were all over the place and the room had become suffocating under her feelings of helplessness. “I thought you more even-tempered, Sander.”
“I.. I am sorry, mom. I was just speaking without thinking.” Sander apologized as he realized how absolutely awful his mom felt. His honest regret lightened the atmosphere a bit.
Suddenly, a wave of optimism engulfed them. They all stared at Heru with ludicrous faces.
“What?” Heru said, smiling somewhat carelessly. “I thought I was getting married to a future empress, not sent to my execution. Tone down the angst, will you?”
“Heru, I am just worried that—” his brother started.
“And so am I,” he interrupted. “But worry means nothing. Admiral Bet’heldt is a rational human being with a lot of power. She has no reason to kill me, and neither does her father. I know I will be going to a completely foreign nation but I wasn’t joking when I said that I would appreciate a change of environment.”
“But you hate politics.” Sander insisted. “You have no idea how life as an imperial consort will be.”
“I will learn. I’m pretty sure they have etiquette and culture professors in the Empire. I am not a child, Sander. Our mothers are trying hard to make me see the good points but you don’t need to do that. I am not innocent. I can see how difficult things will become in the near future. But I will learn. The p-po... poisoning,” he forced out a stutter, and looked at the ground as he continued, “was a wake-up call. It’s time to see things as it is. The admiral asked for the most beautiful person in the Union. She did not ask for me, or for the president’s daughter. ‘Beautiful’ means a lot of things. It is too vague. I don’t think she would declare war over us choosing a random model as her consort. Maybe this marriage was about something different. Maybe she wants to see Galecia’s attitude toward this treaty with our choice. I don’t know. I am not versed in politics as you said. But I sure am not her enemy. And she will understand that at our engagement. So while you may worry, do not prepare flowers for my grave yet.”
As he finished his speech — something he had rehearsed for a while now, — he raised his eyes to meet those of his family’s.
Sander seemed shocked at the level of rationality he had just displayed, while Kaire showed a mixture of guilt at the reason for his growth and pride for his reasoning. Looking over at Delis, however, Heru’s nervous smile almost slipped as he felt a flash of suspicious confusion among the happy surprise that enveloped her broadcasted emotions. Kaire and Sander were both in the military and thus left often times for entire months before returning home, so their understanding of Heru’s character wasn’t comparable to that of Delis. She, while busy herself, always made certain to keep an eye on her youngest son and understood him the best.
Her reaction was unfortunate but within his expectations. Even if he pretended to be her Heru to the best of his abilities, he didn’t have high hopes that it would be successful enough to fool her for years to come. He would slip up. Whether on something small like his changed taste in food, or the type of music he composed, or on something far more immediate, like his inexperience with empathic communication, he would slip up and Delis would break at the realization that her son was dead and someone else possessed his body. He couldn’t let that happen.
That is why, despite numerous disadvantages, this arranged marriage to a foreign nation was his best chance at survival. According to his memories, because of their empathic bonds Galecian families could tell when one of their own died or was in extreme distress despite distance. This bond didn’t allow him to fake his death and start under a new identity. And his host’s idiotic wish didn’t allow him to run away and live in blessed obscurity. Going to a place where no one knew him was the best option. The boost in reputation Heru would gain for his valiant ‘sacrifice’ in stopping a war was just the cherry on the cake.
Accepting his new family’s group hug, Heru thought of what he could say to Delis later to show her that her suddenly mature son, hadn’t matured as much enough to be a completely different person, or at least, not with just the murder attempt as a reason.
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