I realized I forgot to set up an incident in a future chapter, so I added this new chapter 5 to Book Three. Please leave feedback in comments. I’d love to know what you think.
The three-dimensional hologram hovered above the central war room table. Hundreds of symbols representing Emperor Kenji Mizuki’s fleet were disbursed throughout Toradon territory.
He frowned. His dominion had been larger in his grandfather’s time. Now the Mizukian house commanded only these four solar systems—a mere four populated planets and two habitable moons.
He jabbed at the control, making the Aboru system expand and take over the holo-table. A red mark pinpointed his current location in the outer asteroid belt. A red, zigzagging line showed the path he’d traveled over the past two months. Several color-coded dots and lines connected, indicating all the cargo ships that had delivered supplies during that time.
Someone on one of these damned ships had told Fujishin about the emitter.
“Explain what his means,” he ordered Nezumi regarding his classification system.
The rat-faced general indicated the legend illuminated on the table. “The blue dots represent ships that have already been cleared.”
Mizuki nodded. After they’d contacted the cyborgs for help, Nezumi and his team had spent days scrutinizing surveillance videos, looking for anything suspicious.
“We need to look into the rest of the ships,” Nezumi continued. “I’ve organized them by likelihood, with the white ones being the most suspicious.”
“I see three whites.”
“Yes, Sire. Two of those have visited us within the past twenty days. We don’t have their plotted courses, which is why I’ve put them at the top of the list.”
Mizuki straightened. “Alert the authorities. If one of our ships finds them, tell them to begin interrogation. If it’s a refueling station or space station, tell them to detain them until I send someone.”
“Yes, Sire. Shall I do this for all the suspected ships or just the top ones?”
“Do you have the projected courses for all the other ships?”
“How many have reached their designated ports on time?”
“The ones in orange were more than two days late. The ones in yellow haven’t reached their designations yet.”
“Which of these ships have made port near Jinsekai or Meixing?” Mizuki asked regarding two of the habitable Toradon planets.
Unlike his own ship which had longer-range access to communication hubs, cargo ships had to be within a few light minutes to transmit information. This meant they couldn’t simply send sensitive information to Mizuki’s enemies. They had to utilize the arc-drive to get within radio range, then transmit the information. Not having instantaneous transmission capabilities also meant their projected courses could not be verified until they checked in at their next destination.
“The ones in green have docked near Meixing. None have reached Jinsekai yet.”
Mizuki rubbed his chin. Fujishin was last seen on Meixing while Jinsekai was the Toradon homeworld ruled almost in entirety by Lord Enomoto. The man was powerful, but he didn’t command space. Swearing fealty to the Mizukian line allowed him to trade throughout Toradon territory. It didn’t seem likely Fujishin colluded with him, considering how far Meixing was from Jinsekai and how long it took the smaller arc-drive engines of cargo ships to make the trip.
“Put an alert out for all these ships, but no one is to conduct their own interrogation until they speak to me first.”
Nezumi bowed his head the appropriate degree. “Yes, Sire.” He cleared his throat. “If I may inquire about the other side of our investigation?”
Mizuki gritted his teeth. Corporal Jeruko had checked all outgoing transmission and said nothing suspicious was found. This meant no one aboard the Dragon had called Fujishin to tell him about the emitter. But could Jeruko be trusted?
There was a time when Mizuki had been sure he could trust him with more than just his life. Jeruko had been privy to the many beatings and humiliations Mizuki suffered from his drunkard father, and he never told a soul.
Of all the Five Talons, Mizuki had appreciated Jin Jeruko the most.
“I cross-referenced a sample of his report and they match up,” Mizuki replied. “I also checked his personal transmissions.”
“Begging your pardon, Sire, but there are two people who have left this ship recently who could have leaked the information about the emitter.”
Mizuki resisted the urge to massage the throbbing of his skull. After Jori’s betrayal, Mizuki had nearly killed the boy’s personal guards for not watching him closely enough. Jeruko had pleaded for mercy. If not for their lifelong friendship, Mizuki would have denied it. He exiled Jeruko’s sons instead.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have shown mercy. Emotion was weakness and Mizuki couldn’t afford to be weak—not even for the sake of his friends. After all, Fujishin had been his friend for the same number of years Jeruko had.
Jeruko had a different personality, though. All the sons of Lord Maru Jeruko strictly adhered to a code of conduct that surpassed most other men. They possessed flawless self-control, were loyal to a fault, always exuded respect, and possessed an integrity worthy of praise.
Mizuki rubbed his chin. If there was one thing he could always count on, it was Jin Jeruko’s refusal to lie.
He tapped the comm placed behind his ear. “Colonel Jeruko, report to the war room.”
General Nezumi cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Sire, but will asking him be enough?”
Mizuki shot him a glare. “Careful, General. I’ve known Jeruko a hell of a lot longer than I’ve known you.”
Mizuki could have sworn Nezumi’s mouth twisted with sourness, but it was difficult to tell through his rat-like features.
Nezumi bowed. “Of course, Sire.”
At least I hope I still know Jin Jeruko.
Jin Jeruko’s mouth fell open. He snapped it shut and replaced his shock with a mask of assurance. “I highly doubt Washi and Michio would have any contact with Fujishin. They know very well the thin ice they’re walking on and wouldn’t dare jeopardize their safety—nor mine, for that matter.”
The emperor’s eyes subdued but the twitching above his eye remained. Not a good sign. The tic resulted from the tremendous stress the man was under. It also hinted at the volatility of his temper.
What happened to the self-assured youth I used to know and love?
Jeruko maintained a calm stance, hoping the emperor didn’t notice his nervousness. If Emperor Mizuki could kill his own sons, anyone could be next. Thank goodness he hadn’t killed Washi and Michio as well. His mercy had been a close call, though. If only Jeruko had been able to intervene before the emperor had killed Jori.
“You doubt it, but you don’t know for certain?” the emperor replied.
“It’s true I don’t know for certain, Sire. But I believe their desire to remain true to the Mizukian line is much greater than their regard for Fujishin.”
General Nezumi stepped forward with a pinched expression. “You told me once that your sons looked to Fujishin as their uncle.”
Jeruko bowed. “True, General. However, Fujishin’s betrayal shocked them. It shocked us all. And we all swore an oath to the emperor and disavowed him.”
“My son disavowed him as well, yet he still betrayed me,” the emperor snapped. “And right under Washi and Michio’s nose, no less. Either that or they helped Jori betray me.”
Jeruko’s heart skipped a beat. Washi and Michio weren’t the only ones who had helped Jori betray the emperor. He was culpable as well. It wasn’t like his decision came easy, though. Loyalty was his conviction, a quality he’d inherited from his ancestors who had served the Mizukian line since the beginning. However, Jeruko’s regard for Jori, a Mizukian prince, had been stronger—and the boy’s quest for honor had been greater.
Since the emperor didn’t question him outright, Jeruko still had an out that would keep him from lying. “Jori liked Fujishin well enough once, but he had no reason to collude with him.”
Nezumi harrumphed. “He had no reason to collude with the Cooperative either.”
“One of those Cooperative officers saved his life,” Jeruko replied. “He probably felt obligated to save him.”
The emperor’s face darkened. “Emotion is weakness, and he gets it from you.”
Jeruko hung his head. “You’re right, Sire. I have failed him.”
The truth of these words wrenched his gut. No doubt the emperor suspected he meant about Jori’s inability to control his sentiments, but Jeruko meant with how things ended. He still believed Jori had done the right thing in saving his enemies, but if only Jeruko had protected him better. If only he had stalled the emperor when he went into his rage and killed him.
If Jori had gotten away, though, the emperor may have taken his wrath out on Washi and Michio. If he could go back, would he trade the lives of his sons for Jori’s? He couldn’t answer.
The terror of that fateful day still haunted his thoughts. Jeruko had knelt in front of the emperor with his head held low in meekness.
“He’s dead because he helped the Cooperative prisoners escape,” the emperor had said regarding Jori. “He’s dead because he betrayed me.”
Jeruko kept his head down to hide his grief as well as his shame.
“Does that surprise you?” the emperor asked.
Jeruko swallowed the lump in his throat. Lying and saying it surprised him would not change what happened. “No, Your Eminence,” he said in a low tone.
The emperor rushed up and kicked him in the jaw. “Explain yourself!” His balled fists threatened further punishment.
Jeruko’s muscles quivered as he pushed himself back to the kneeling position. Alarms resounded through his body at the extent of the emperor’s madness. He stole a glance to his sons. Washi and Michio remained stiff as they awaited their turn for questioning.
Jeruko bowed lower than usual. “I have seen evidence of the boy’s sentiment,” he said carefully.
“You saw evidence and you didn’t report it?” the emperor roared.
Washi and Michio cast worried looks his way.
“The boy has always had a soft heart, my Lord.” Again, Jeruko spoke truthfully. Lying was cowardly. “I thought I had done my duty as his mentor to talk sense into him. You know how stubborn he could be.”
The emperor seemed to accept his half-truth though fury still stained his features. “Did you see anything that told you he was going to betray me?”
“No, Your Eminence,” he said truthfully. He’d spoken to Jori of his plans, but he never actually saw anything.
The emperor hardened his expression. “You’ve failed me, Corporal Jeruko. You failed me through my sons.”
Jeruko bobbed his head. “My most sincere apologies, your Eminence. I never meant for this to happen. I’ve always had the best interest of the Mizukian empire in mind.”
He would have felt a sense of pride for speaking the truth without revealing the truth, but this wasn’t the end. The emperor would undoubtedly exact some sort of punishment. In all honesty, he was sorry. Although he devoutly believed that supporting Terkeshi and Jori was what was best for the Mizukian Empire, he didn’t mean for things to happen this way.
“You have always been loyal, Jeruko,” the emperor replied in a surprisingly soft tone. “All these years of service, your loyalty has been unwavering.”
Jeruko stiffened in hope but said nothing.
“But,” the emperor said and Jeruko waited for the hammer to fall, “I must do something about this gross negligence. My son was somehow able to fool you and the other guards. He helped our enemies escape and you, the very person who sees him every single day, claims to have known nothing about his intentions. He defied me under my very nose. No. Under your noses. On your watch.”
Jeruko held his breath. He wanted to say he understood but couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“All of you will be scourged. Even you, my friend,” Mizuki said with a surprising warmth. “And the two guards who allowed themselves to be shot by the enemy during their escape will…”
The emperor hesitated. Jeruko took the opportunity to speak. “They are loyal, your Eminence. And they have always served you well. Please don’t let this one incident, though bad as it may be, undo all the good they have done.”
The emperor frowned, though it seemed to be more in thought than in anger. “I can’t let this go unpunished, Jin,” he said, using Jeruko’s given name to show how close they’d once been. “Anyone else would be executed without question for this.”
Jeruko looked up with pleading eyes. “Exile them,” he said. “Send them away on some distant mission where they will undoubtedly continue to serve you loyally.”
The emperor’s mouth turned down further. Fortunately, only a few of the higher-ranking officers were here. If he had made this display in front of all the men, there was no doubt he’d call for death. But here, with only those closest to him, he showed mercy. “A scourging. Then exile,” he said.
Jeruko bowed his head in thanks. It had never occurred to him that the emperor would blame Washi and Michio for the Cooperative escaping. It should have. He should have known better. It was his fault Jori had been killed and his sons exiled. At least Washi and Michio got to live, though. Jori was gone forever.
The emperor grunted, bringing Jeruko back to the present.
“Don’t make the same mistake with Terkeshi,” the emperor said regarding Jeruko’s failure with Jori.
“I won’t, Sire,” Jeruko replied in a quieter tone. His heart had been crushed when Jori died. It had been squashed further when the emperor exiled his sons. Now it was being pulverized with Terkeshi’s dangerous mood. Although the young prince had conceded the honor in saving the enemy, Jori’s resulting death had wounded him so deeply that he no longer saw it. Much of his hurt came out as destructive energy.
“Back to the matter of Fujishin,” the emperor said. “Contact your sons. Act like the conversation is secure and ask them if they’ve spoke to anyone about the emitter. I want the conversation recorded.”
Jeruko bowed. “Yes, Sire.”
Nezumi’s mouth twisted. “Perhaps we should call them back and interrogate them ourselves.”
Jeruko clenched his fists behind his back. He’d never liked Nezumi. The man didn’t have an ounce of honor. He wasn’t trying to find the truth for the emperor’s sake. He was doing it for himself and willing to feed Jeruko to the blackbeasts in the process.
“If that is what you wish, Sire,” Jeruko said to the emperor.
The emperor hesitated. “No,” he finally said.
Nezumi’s upper lip twitched. Jeruko slowly let out the breath he’d been holding and vowed to watch his back around that rat-faced general.
“Contact them and record it.” The emperor flicked his hand. “Dismissed.”
“Yes, Sire.” Jeruko left. Despite the possibility that his sons might say too much, a weight lifted from his shoulders. It was highly unlikely Washi and Michio would be foolish enough to let anything slip, and he’d managed to speak truthfully without implicating anyone.
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