The Weapon Concealed in Silk
“I went out down into the woods so cold and dark and deep, and there I saw a red, red bird rise from the tallest tree. She sang to me a sweet, sweet song that I could barely hear. She sang of smoke and sang of fire and sang of her love dear…”
-from “Ring of Fire”, Lonn folk song
Yan felt uncomfortably well dressed. She had woken in the morning to the sound of her apartment doorbell ringing, and she had been handed a package by a courier. The package had contained a truly ornate version of her usual uniform, which was for the the Governor's Dinner later that day. It had come with a note instructing her to be dressed and to meet Sandreas and Halen in Stonecourt at seventeen hours. Their morning meeting had been cancelled and they had the day off until just before the dinner. She had taken the morning to get her long anticipated haircut.
Now she was standing in Sandreas's office, with Kino and Sid lounging on the couch. Sandreas was sitting at his desk, and Halen had not yet appeared, though Yan knew it was only a matter of time before he did. Sandreas had let them into the office, but hadn't said anything to them other than a simple greeting, he seemed deeply invested in some sort of work. The three apprentices tried their best to not distract him, which meant keeping their conversation, including overly enthusiastic signs on Sid's part, to a minimum.
Yan inspected her reflection in the window. Her shoes were shined, her cassock was made of a heavy and thick fabric that still somehow managed to be smooth and cool. She had briefly inspected it with the power and discovered that it was a very strange mixed material, made of several layers, with the middle layer tightly woven enough that a knife would be unable to pierce it. Yan was grateful to the thought that had been put into it, but it still made her incredibly nervous. The fabric was black, but with crimson embroidery along the collar and sleeves. All the buttons were also a burnished red. The short cape that they usually wore was replaced with a much longer cape, one that went down the same length as the cassock, which was a matching red, with black embroidery along the bottom edge. Yan had looked closely at the embroidery before she put it on, and she had discovered that it had the text of a hymn hidden among a rich design of flowers.
"The universe is filled with the wonder of the Lord. The Lord fills us with the joy of creation," read the hem of Yan's cape. She wondered if Sid and Kino's capes had the same hymn, but she didn't ask to inspect them.
Kino and Yan had also been given a golden circlet to wear in their hair. Yan's was just tucked on top of her freshly shortened curls, but Kino had managed to braid her hair elaborately around hers. Thinking about it, Yan considered that Sid may have been offered one as well, but declined seeing as it would be uncomfortable on his bald head.
Regardless of how nice the outfit was, it was still so much more than she was used to wearing, even compared to the nice outfit that she had worn to the meeting with Guildmaster Vaneik. That had been a quiet, private affair. This was their first public presentation to the masses, which was a scary thought, even without the lurking danger.
Yan preferred to pace and stand rather than sit like her two partners, even though it was Kino who was the most fidgety of the three of them. Kino was just sitting on the couch, twirling the glasses Sid had given her around. Sid was watching her with a mild look of frustration. Yan preferred to pace because much of daily life on a ship involved being in the micrograv sections, where chairs were useless. Just another quirk of growing up a spacer.
Finally, Sandreas looked up from his work. Unfortunately for Yan, this was because Halen opened the door and walked into the office. She did her best to keep a flat look on her face, trying to acknowledge the man as little as possible. That proved impossible, as he insisted on making a comment as soon as he walked in the door.
"You all dressed up," Halen said to the apprentices, though he was walking towards Sandreas.
"That was the instruction they were given," Sandreas said flatly. "It's gratifying to see they can follow directions."
Halen laughed. Yan closed her eyes so that no one would see them rolling.
"How's security?" Sandreas asked Halen, who had come around behind him to look at the computer he was typing on.
"All set," Halen said. "No need to worry."
"So Marquis's cohort has been vetted?" Sandreas said, pointing at something on the screen. Halen frowned.
"Unless they switch someone out at the very last second, yes," Halen said. "No one seems ready to cause any particular trouble tonight."
"That's good," Sandreas said, rather absently.
"When will we be going to the dinner?" Kino asked, interrupting the conversation.
Halen looked at his watch. "An hour and twelve minutes," Halen said. Halen was dressed in his normal black suit, maybe a slightly nicer version than usual, but he wasn’t calling attention to himself the way the three apprentices' outfits were.
"Ok," Kino said, apparently satisfied with that answer. She continued to twirl her glasses.
"Who is Marquis?" Sid asked aloud, an uncharacteristic move.
"One of the governors who I warned to be on his best behavior yesterday. Governor of Olar. You most likely don't need to be concerned about it at the moment," Sandreas said.
"Isn't Olar one of the planets that you wanted the Trade Guild to cut off?" Yan asked.
"Precisely. The black market is not the only problem we have been having with them recently, simply one of many," Sandreas said. "He has a tenuous control of his population, to put it politely."
"We recently received some intelligence that suggested that he was being blackmailed into bringing some unsavory characters with him as guests to this event. So far that looks like it isn't the case, but he could be pulling a switch last minute," Halen said.
"Why don't you just require people to sign up in advance?" Yan asked. "This seems like a pretty major security flaw."
Halen laughed. "You're not wrong. Simply put, the governors take themselves far too seriously. Tickets to the event are often sold to the highest bidder, since it's seen as a chance to make political connections. In the past, there have been attempts to limit attendance, but governors threatened to boycott, which would not be a good public image. It’s a power play on our part to force them to come to it, so we have to give them a little in exchange. This is the most public event in years, and so being able to invite anyone is seen as a requirement. Every governor wants to reserve the right to bring their own personal security, as well."
"Still seems ridiculous," Yan said.
"It's traditional, Yan," Sandreas said. "The whole thing is a big party, most smaller events are more closely vetted, and any serious attacks would be more easily carried out before or after the event, while everyone is still on planet, but outside of the most intense security in the galaxy. I was really more worried about his political dealings than about violence."
Halen put his hand on Sandreas's shoulder, and Yan noticed silent communication pulse between them as they shared information through the power. Halen looked directly at her, seeing her eyes and attention. She looked away and walked toward the couch where Kino and Sid were sitting.
After a moment, Sandreas spoke. "Nothing is going to go wrong. You don't even have to do anything other than be introduced and then make polite conversation. Don't let fear paralyze you."
Yan was tempted to say that she wasn't afraid, but she refrained. She didn't actually want to snap at her boss. She didn't want him to think she was afraid, either, but she didn't want to say something that would only make her look worse. Obviously Halen had told him what happened the day before. She had no reasonable expectation of privacy. There had probably been a video of her little fit. Even if there wasn't, Yan was sure that Halen could have shown Sandreas what had happened through his own eyes. Yan made a conscious effort to relax the muscles in her jaw.
"Halen is going to go over the flow of the event with you," Sandreas said after a moment of awkward silence. "I am going to go get changed." He stood up from his desk and walked towards the door. As Sandreas headed out the door, Halen sat down in his abandoned desk chair, the much larger man's weight causing it to creak slightly.
"So, Kino, tell me what is going to happen at the Governor's dinner," Halen demanded. If this was a pop quiz, Yan was glad she hadn't been asked.
"We will come in during the entrance, go past the press, do not talk to the press. There has already been a statement made to the press about us. Ms. Rosario said that the embargo on that information would be lifted after the official announcement during the event, but we're processing in ahead of time with Sandreas so that they can get pictures..." Kino seemed to be getting slightly off topic.
"Sid, what's happening after you process in?" Halen asked as Kino trailed off.
Sid started to sign, and Kino hurriedly slapped her glasses onto her face so she could understand what he was saying. Being unused to wearing glasses, she literally hit herself in the face and jumped, apparently startling herself. Halen gave an audible sigh.
Sid raised an eyebrow, waiting for the minor commotion to stop before he started again. "We go backstage and wait for the speeches. Sandreas talks and he will introduce us. We come out on stage and stand behind him until the speech ends. Then we go sit at the table and wait for the rest of the speech to be done. Then dinner, politely talk," Sid used the sign for talking aloud, "to the other people at the table. Then dancing. Only dance with other apprentices or young people."
"And at the end of the night what happens?" Halen asked, looking directly at Yan.
"We leave when we're signaled. We won't be the first to leave, but we won't be staying all night. We probably will leave when Sandreas does. Someone will drive us back to our apartment," Yan said.
"Good. I see Ms. Rosario briefed you on the basics well enough," Halen said. "During the speech you need to keep pleasant expressions on your face. Sid, that means looking professional. Kino, that means trying to smile."
"And you're not going to tell Yan what to do? Not fair," Sid signed.
"Yan has a normal face," Halen said in response. Sid stuck out his tongue. "That's what I mean by that," Halen said, pointing at Sid. "When Aymon introduces you individually, you should step forward and smile for a second, then step back. I don't want any grand gestures from any of you, there will be plenty of time for that later. Just forward, smile for a second, then back. Got it?"
The three apprentices nodded.
"He's going to introduce you in alphabetical order by last name, so it will be Yan BarCarran, then Kino Mejia, then Sid Welslak. Aymon will say your name, then where you're from. This is really the barest of introductions. The media package that we released earlier has more details, but nothing private or revealing. It's all just standard copy about who your families are and where you grew up, what you studied at the Academy, things like that."
Halen explained all this as though it was no big deal, but Yan was thinking that between the three of them, Sid was the only one who had an immediate family to speak of. And was it really such a good idea to remind the public of the massive failure of the Falmar colony, and did Yan really want it broadcast to the whole universe that she was an orphan who was walking away from her family's ship?
There were so many ramifications to all this that Halen was just glossing over, but apparently this information was already out there. She supposed there really was nothing that could be done about it; it was going to all become public knowledge as soon as they entered the public eye, anyway, even if they made the press dig for it rather than handing it out. How much would the press dig if they didn’t give out this information? Yan didn't have any dark secrets that she was hiding, but she wondered how much would be allowed to become public if she did.
"You all understand that you are to be on your best behavior tonight, correct?" Halen asked.
Sid rolled his eyes.
"Yes, we understand," Yan said. "Don't get involved in anything, just make friendly conversation that has as little to do with politics as we can manage. We can do that."
"Good," Halen said. "Until you become forces in your own right, your main job at these types of events is to smile and look pretty. As long as you keep that in mind, you should be able to avoid getting tangled up in any messes."
"What would happen if we did get caught up in something?" Sid asked.
"It would unfortunately become the Imperial Government's job to disentangle you, and that is not something that anyone wants to waste time and resources on," Halen said. "You don't have the authority to make official Imperial stances right now, but by your association with Aymon, people will believe that they can use you to influence him. Don't let that happen."
Yan thought back to the awkward conversation she had had with her uncle when she was aboard the Iron Dreams. He had said almost the same thing. Yan could see how this could quickly become a problem if she, or Sid, or Kino, started making promises that they had no real authority to keep. The intriguing thing that Halen was saying was the "right now". How soon would it be before they had that authority? Yan wasn't sure if she wanted that time to be sooner or later. She felt like a fish out of water, right now, with no real desire to form Imperial policy with her words or actions. But in the future... The possibilities felt dark and endless. What would that kind of power be like?
"Is there anything else we need to know before we go to the dinner?" Kino asked.
"Be aware that there will be both regular security and undercover security people among the crowd. You probably won't be able to recognize them, but if you start looking like you're in trouble, one of them may approach you," Halen said. "Obviously, I'm not expecting you to get in trouble, but if you need to be extracted from a dangerous conversation, we can provide that exit for you."
"So you'll be watching us," Kino said, which wasn't so much of a question as it was a statement.
"Me? No. But the security team will be. If it hasn't been made clear to you yet, my responsibilities for you only extend as far as my responsibilities to Aymon. I will teach you, but I will not be babysitting you," Halen said.
"You could just say out that you don't like us," Sid signed with a smile.
"Like has very little to do with it, I assure you," Halen said. "It's best you all understand perfectly where each of our responsibilities lies."
"How long are we expecting to stay at the dinner?" Yan asked, changing the topic.
"Probably four hours or so. Maybe a bit more. These things run long. The speeches take up a good hour at the beginning, then the food is served, then there is plenty of time for socializing, which is the main appeal," Halen said. "Have you ever watched the coverage of one of these events?"
"I read about them online, I think," Sid signed. "They don't happen very often so I don't remember the last one well."
"They're big. The footage of the event is usually published afterwards," Halen said. "I'd say, you really should have kept up more with politics as Academy students, considering the careers you all tend to end up in."
"I wanted to go into xenobiology," Yan said, a meek defense. At least she had one: Kino didn't seem to have had any life plan, and Sid claimed he would have taken any apprenticeship. They really were an oddball group.
"Science and politics are inextricably linked, my friend," Halen said. "Things have a way of worming their way together."
Yan chose not to respond to that. "Are we just waiting here for Sandreas to come back?"
"Why, do you want to be doing something more exciting?" Halen asked.
Aymon's personal stylist had provided him with an outfit for the occasion, and had made sure that he was looking presentable. It was always an occasion, wasn't it? He was wearing a color reversal of his usual outfit. His cassock was a rich crimson, and he had a flowing black cape over a cropped black jacket with a high collar. The cape was embroidered with a hymn that came from the same chapter as the hymns on his apprentices’ capes. On his chest was a heavy gold medallion with the symbol of his office as First, Voice of the Empire. On his head was a circlet. It was important to put on a unified front with his apprentices, so their outfits were matching.
He was waiting in a room in Stonecourt proper. Halen would be bringing the three apprentices along momentarily; if he focused he could sense Halen's familiar presence coming through the halls. The great hall of Stonecourt, where the Governor's dinner would be held, was not attached to the main building, where they currently were. It wasn't far, of course, but all the attendees, including Aymon and his apprentices, had to walk along the path that was surrounded by press. He could have entered through the back, but it was traditional, and they needed pictures of his apprentices, so along the path they would go.
He was reading a dossier that an aide had handed to him as he waited for Halen and the apprentices to arrive. It was an update on the status of one of the military missions on the front; a landing force had been sent down to a new planet to make sure that all locals had been destroyed. Pleasant reading, he supposed. When the door in the antechamber opened and Halen and the apprentices walked in, Aymon handed the dossier back to the aide who had originally given it to him. The document went into a briefcase the aide was carrying. Aymon gave it no more thought. He smiled when the four came in.
The apprentices looked him up and down, but didn't comment on his outfit. Halen nodded at it. "Matching today, I see."
"You can thank the wardrobe department for that," Aymon said. "God knows the less time I spend concerning myself with fashion, the better."
"And yet you still manage to look the part of the handsome devil," Halen said.
Behind Halen's back, Sid signed "Stop flirting." Aymon laughed.
"Are you ready to go?" Halen asked. "The guests are almost done arriving."
"Of course. Sid, Yan, Kino, with me," Aymon said. He nodded goodbye to Halen, who would be taking the back entrance into the event. As 'merely' security, he did not need or want to walk through the press corridor. The press had seen more than enough of Aymon and Halen together, since Halen was his personal bodyguard. More than that, of course, but that was all that anyone else needed to know.
Aymon walked out of the antechamber, and towards the nearest exit onto the many outdoor paths that surrounded Stonecourt. The whole place was a strange refuge in the center of the city, with buildings, gardens, and paths that were deliberately designed to seem separate from the city that had been built around them. It was a cool twilight, with the sun low in the sky, not quite set yet. The days were starting to get shorter, but not short enough for the sun to be down at eighteen hours. It was the \past the golden hours of the day, which would have been perfect for the press to get some pleasing photos of the guests as they streamed in, but they had lights set up all along the path to provide good illumination for photos. Aymon, Sid, Yan, and Kino were followed at a respectful distance by security personnel as they walked across the paths towards the area where the press were gathered.
There was a wide, flower covered archway that they passed under to reach the path that lead into the great hall. A gathering of media figures holding cameras and microphones gathered around, eagerly looking for a perfect photo or quote. Aymon ignored these various spectators, declined the offered microphones for comment, and walked past them as serenely as possible. The three apprentices followed behind, looking slightly more shaken at the public attention and clicking of camera shutters than Aymon did. Still, they avoided the temptation of stopping and talking, or of running away. That was a good sign.
They processed in to the hall, which was lavishly decorated and well lit. Many guests were already there. It was easy to pick out which guests held what positions in society. Sensitives, of which there were a few scattered throughout, were mainly dressed in variants of the cassock and cloak that many preferred. Governors tended to be dressed in neat formal wear, often going in the traditional clothes of their planet, whether they were sensitives or not. For all other guests, however, it was an opportunity to show off their wealth through clothing, and many took it as an opportunity to be over the top. Though Aymon's outfit was more dressed up than usual, it was mild in comparison to most of the others’.
Halen had made his way in through the back door, and was lurking on the side of the room near the stage. Aymon saw him as he glanced around the room, quickly taking in the state of all the guests and the overall mood of the party. Most people were milling around, not yet seated at the tables for the speeches and the formal dinner. Politeness kept many of the guests from immediately accosting Aymon, but it was only a matter of time before someone would approach him.
Aymon reached out with the power, knowing that Yan would notice. Halen had informed him of Yan's ability to tell when someone else was using the power, so this was an easy way for him to pass a message to her quietly. He simply used the power to nudge a flower arrangement on the table that their party would be seated at. Trusting that Yan would understand that she was intended to take the other two apprentices in that direction, Aymon left the three apprentices to their own devices.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a Trade Guild representative approaching. It was Nomar... Aymon couldn't remember the man's last name, but he was Vaneik's apprentice. Though the Trade Guild was not precisely a governor, and this was the Governor's dinner, it was polite to extend an invitation to them. Since Aymon could see the full delegation, he presumed Nomar was here as Vaneik's representative. It was strange that Vaneik himself did not seem to be in attendance. It was for the best, since Aymon didn't particularly want to deal with him.
"Good evening, First Sandreas," Nomar said as he came up, reaching out to shake hands.
"Good evening, Nomar. Has your master abandoned you planetbound?" Aymon asked with a faint smile.
"No, but he did send me here to deliver his regrets of not being able to attend," Nomar said, with a genuine smile at being remembered.
"Did he have personal business to attend to?" Aymon asked.
In a voice that made it clear that he was attempting to be diplomatic, Nomar said, "I believe he is trying to avoid bringing his personal business into your party."
"How considerate of him," Aymon said dryly. "Though I hope he knows that no harm would come to him or anyone in his party while under my protection."
"I think he simply would prefer not to cause a scene," Nomar said. "Not everyone is holding him in the highest regard at this moment, even within the Guild."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Aymon said. "I appreciate your candor about this."
"Not a problem at all. We always strive to have good relationships with the Imperial government," Nomar said. Aymon laughed.
"Well, enjoy the party, Nomar, and tell Ungarti that I missed having him."
"Of course, thank you sir." The tall apprentice walked off, headed back to the Trade Guild's delegation.
Before he could be approached by any other guests of the party, though there were several who looked ready to talk to him, a member of the security team came up beside him and informed him that to start the speeches soon, he should go to the area behind the stage. Aymon headed towards the back of the room where the stage was surrounded by cameras. To the side of the stage was a small door that led to a hallway behind the stage. A security officer saluted and opened the door for him.
In the hallway, Halen was waiting for him, along with Josa Runwest, the governor of Emerri, and the master of ceremonies, a man that Josa had selected but who Aymon didn't know personally. A few aides and security personnel were also in the hallway, attending to business that was beneath Aymon's notice.
"Hello, Governor Runwest," Aymon said. "Enjoying the party?"
"My friend, the party has not even started," Runwest said. She was a broad shouldered woman of about Aymon's height. She wasn't a sensitive, but she had managed to claw her way into political power regardless. Despite her languid tone, Runwest was a strong-handed and practically minded politician.
"That is true," Aymon said. "How have you been recently?"
"Oh, I'm perfectly content," Runwest said.
"Not at all nervous about the election?" Aymon asked. The election for Emerri's governor was approaching in a few months, and there were two other candidates running against Runwest.
"Not at all. Are you planning to vote against me?" Runwest flashed Aymon a smile.
"You know it would be bad manners for the Imperial Government to get involved in planetary matters," Aymon said. Personally, he did think that Runwest would win reelection. She had a significant amount of money behind her, as well as having generally high public approval ratings. She made working off of Emerri easy, and was quite cooperative with the Imperial Government, which was always a good thing. It would be a shame if she lost.
"Well I must thank the Imperial Government for giving me a nice big stage to speak on today," Runwest said. "How nice of a coincidence that the biggest Imperial event in three years falls in our election year."
Aymon smiled at her. She was mainly joking. There would be no overt campaigning at today's dinner; there were other stages and other times for that.
"How is your daughter doing at school?" Aymon asked, turning the conversation to more personal matters.
"Elena makes me proud every day," Runwest said, sounding more genuine than she had before. "She'll be graduating this year."
"Does she have a job lined up?" Aymon asked.
"She's planning to enter the Fleet," Runwest said. "Though I dread the thought of her being off planet for years, I think it will be a good environment for her."
"The Fleet will be glad to have her, I'm sure." Aymon knew that Runwest had contacts in the Fleet who were sure to get her daughter into a good position for advancement. He would have to have someone keep an eye on that.
The door to the hallway opened and a staff member directed Aymon's three apprentices inside. They stood quietly to the side of the hallway, looking as though they didn't want to interrupt any conversation that Aymon was having. Halen looked them over briefly.
"Are these your new apprentices? I had heard a rumor that you were getting some, but I had no idea it was true," Runwest said.
"Yes, though you shouldn't believe everything you hear," Aymon said. "People have been saying that I need to take apprentices for years."
"It's almost as though they're worried you'll die without a successor," Runwest said dryly.
"I wish the rumors could all decide I'm immortal and impervious to harm instead," Aymon said flatly.
"If only all talk could be so flattering. Is having apprentices living up to your expectations?" Runwest asked.
"I had none to start, so I suppose they are meeting them completely. I've had them for less than a week, after all." This was not completely honest. Aymon had some expectations about his apprentices, from when he first looked at their projects, but those gave little real information about what the future would hold. In person, Yan, Sid, and Kino were all much more... human. But they were less annoying than he had feared.
"Your system of apprentices makes me jealous, in a way," Runwest said. "I almost wish I could pass down my position as you do."
"Ah, but that would destroy the fair and open elections that we hold so dear on Emerri," Aymon said. Runwest laughed.
"When I retire from real politics, I'll start a colony where leadership is passed down like that. I'm sure it will be a roaring success," Runwest said.
"I'll put in a notice to the colonization board right away for you," Aymon said. "I don't understand why you like it so much, considering you're not a sensitive."
"There but for the grace of God go I," Runwest said. "I have no desire to be mystical and cultish as you all are. But I do like the idea of personally training a successor, that's all. Just a way of ensuring things continue the way I want them to."
"There are no guarantees in life like the one you are looking for. God knows that I've made many decisions Caron would have hated," Aymon said.
"But you always have her voice in your head, telling you what she would have wanted," Runwest said. "That's all I want."
That was a little close to the mark. "You always have your daughter," Aymon said.
Runwest waved her hand. "I spoil her too much, she would never want my job anyway."
As they were talking, the technicians and staff who were setting up the event and consulted with the master of ceremonies. Eventually, they got the attention of Aymon and Runwest, asking if they were ready for the event to start properly. Runwest would be introduced by the master of ceremonies and speak first, then Aymon would speak afterwards. There would be relatively few speeches. Although this was a political event, it was first and foremost a time for people to gather and talk on their own, not for the Empire to make political policy.
The master of ceremonies went out, up a small set of stairs and through a door onto the stage. He made the introductions, then the staff waved Runwest, Aymon, and the three apprentices out the same door and onto the stage where they were greeted with polite applause and the flashing of cameras. The lights in the hall were slightly dimmed, and there was a focused lighting on the stage. Aymon and the three apprentices sat down on chairs directly behind the lectern where Runwest would be speaking from, and the master of ceremonies disappeared out the door that they had entered. Runwest stood at the lectern, looking earnestly out into the audience, with microphones directly in her face.
"Thank you all for coming here today, I know that for most of you the journey was much more than a quick train ride, which is why we only make you do it once every three years." There was the obligatory audience laughter.
Runwest's speech was nothing remarkable, but to her credit she avoided any overt campaigning that Aymon had been worried about. She spoke generally about the state of the planet Emerri and the successes and importance of interplanetary relations within the Empire. She successfully portrayed Emerri as merely one planet among many, despite the Imperial Government making its home there. That was a rather divisive political issue, both on the planet and off, so it was relevant to Runwest's reelection campaign to reiterate the balance that her government was trying to strike. It was important to address at this dinner, in particular, though, so Aymon couldn't fault her. In general, she was a gracious hostess to the Imperial Government, though it was not as though she had much choice. She spoke for about a half hour, which was an average amount of time for the remarks by speakers in previous years. Aymon didn’t intend to take quite that much time, but he wasn’t going to rush through his planned statements either.
Then the master of ceremonies returned, and introduced Aymon. He stood up from his seat and approached the lectern. As always, the flashing of cameras was distracting, but he tuned it out as much as possible. There was polite applause upon his approach, but it stopped as soon as Aymon looked as though he were about to speak.
Aymon saw Halen standing at the bottom corner of the stage. Their eyes met briefly.. Though he smiled at the crowd, he tried to communicate his feelings towards Halen. Maybe the other emotions in the room were overwhelming, because Halen turned away and continued scanning the room.
Aymon had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't any fear of speaking to a crowd; if he had any such thing he would never have survived his position, but there was a particular buildup of forces in the room, and a warning he had received that something would be happening today. He tried to ignore it as he began his speech.
"Good evening, Governors, guests, friends. It is a great honor to have you all here once again. As Governor Runwest said, all of you have traveled quite far, and left your own homes in the capable hands of others to join us here, and for that, I am truly grateful.
"Being here today is more than just a gathering of politicians. It is a sign of our unity as an Empire. Though all of your planets are unique and beautiful, many with their own languages and all with their own cultures and people, we are all one Empire. We thrive and grow together.
“I did not grow up here on Emerri. I was born on Lonn, which you may think of only as that planet with all those trees. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the forests there then you understand just how large and thick the trees grow there. As on any planet with dense forests, fire is an ever-present danger. Living among the trees gives you a great respect for their ability to survive and come back after disaster. The native trees survive fire in an interesting way: only their core is made of living material. The outside may be damaged or destroyed, but the inner living tissue will continue to grow. Within just a few months of a major fire, the forest will look almost the same as before. The trees still stand, even if they’re skinnier for having been burned. And even if some trees don’t survive the fire, the forest always does. It is not each tree individually that makes Lonn look the way it does, it is all of them together. But it is not the fact that it is in a forest that makes each tree special, it is the unique way that it has been grown, shaped, and, yes, even damaged.
“There is no planet represented here who could survive on their own. Physically, we share and trade resources with each other. Culturally, we share our knowledge and works of art over the ansibles on a daily basis and each one of us is richer for it. Spiritually, every one of us recognizes the light of God within each other, and our unity prevents us from turning our backs on our fellows.
"I know that the past three years, since we last gathered here, have not been easy for some of you. Several of you have had to weather major difficulties in your homes, from natural disasters to criminal uprisings. Some of you are new leaders, while some of you have been heading your planets for over a decade. Regardless of the specific challenges that you are facing, know that we are here for you. I say that as a member of the Imperial Government and as a citizen of a planet in the Empire. Regardless of what planet you represent today, regardless of the difficulties you are facing, and regardless of your past, there is not a person here would would not come to your aid in times of need.
"It has been a common topic in history classrooms for centuries: why, as an Empire, do we have an official language and standards, but not enforce them on the planets under our care? The answer is simple, and I should hope that you remember it from your tenth year history class when you last heard your teacher say it. It is our differences that allow us to recognize ourselves. If we were all identical, we could not understand the different faces of God within each other. If we all spoke and acted the same, we would have no reason to expand beyond our own homes. If we all knew everything, we would have no need to learn new things to share with others. All our differences are only surface level ways of expressing our shared humanity. We all have the desire to understand ourselves, to grow, to learn, and to live.
"Our unity gives us each the strength to overcome challenges, our differences give us the reason to do so. We can overcome any individual adversity, and we will come out stronger for it. That is the most important reason you are here today, to gather with a common goal, so that you can bring our shared strength home to your own planets in the days ahead.
Aymon paused for a second before he moved on.
“And now, my friends, allow me to introduce my new apprentices; one of whom will someday take my place,” Aymon said. “I could not have three more capable students.” He smiled at the crowd.
"Yan BarCarran, of the Trade Guild ship the Iron Dreams."
Yan stepped forward and smiled briefly at the cameras. Glancing at her, Aymon saw her look briefly at Halen and then away. There was something odd there, he made a mental note to have a talk with Yan about it later.
"Kino Mejia, originally from the Falmar colony," Aymon said. Perhaps his speech about unity was in bad taste with this announcement, since most people considered it the Imperial Government's mistake to abandon the Falmar colony. Only the Trade Guild had stepped in to rescue the uninfected citizens there. Aymon intended this to be a show that the Imperial Government was taking steps to move past the disasters of years ago and toward better future. Of course, the reasons Aymon had for acting the way he did at that time were more complicated than any lay citizen of a planet could understand.
Kino stepped forward as she was announced. She looked tense and nervous, and her smile looked more forced than Aymon would have liked. She would have to develop a better camera presence, but at least she wasn't running away or crying or anything truly embarrassing. An awkward smile could be fixed; a media disaster could leave a bad taste in people's mouths for a long time.
"And Sid Welslak, from Galena," Aymon finally said. Sid stepped forward jauntily and flashed his widest grin at the cameras, his glasses glinting in the light. At least Galena was the most average and unassuming planet possible.
In terms of politically minded choices, he couldn't have picked a stranger group if he had tried. If he had been able to choose apprentices based on their affiliations, rather than on the inscrutable whims of God, Aymon would have picked one apprentice from a mining colony (unassuming, and would send a message that the small outposts weren't being forgotten, would also work as a liaison to the Trade Guild), one from a new outer colony as a gesture of goodwill towards them, and one from an average central world (preferably the child of a higher up in the Fleet). He certainly wouldn't have outright picked a Trade Guild child, someone who was bound to remind the whole Empire of his greatest perceived failings as a leader, and a complete nobody from a farm on an average world.
He was doing his best to spin this as well as he could. God clearly had no cares for the delicate politics of the situation.
“Although they are young, they are all experienced and talented in their own right. It is my pleasure to train them to be the future leaders of our great Empire. It is the youth who will lead tomorrow, and it is our responsibility to bring those youth to greatness today.
“Rest assured, that though I am taking on apprentices now, I have many years yet to lead you. BarCarran, Mejia, and Welslak are young yet, and do not have the authority that only time and learning can provide. They have my blessing, and through their hard work and dedication to the Empire I can only hope that they will gain yours as well.
“Before we conclude, let us pray for the safety and prosperity of our Empire, and of each of the planets and colonies under our care.”
Instinctively, most people in the room closed their eyes. Out of the corner of his own eye, Aymon saw Halen jolt into action, making a hand signal to the security agents in the room. Immediately, Aymon put up a personal shield around himself: a simple power structure to redirect any incoming objects. It was an instinctual and instant use of the power, it barely required any thought. The next action would require a bit more.
Aymon looked out into the crowd. There was nothing happening, yet. He began speaking his prayer, putting a compulsion behind the words. Remain calm, don't pay attention to anything else. Focus on the words. Focus on the prayer. Don't be disturbed.
"God who created the stars..."
A scuffle broke out at the table where the delegation from Olar was sitting. One man was raising some sort of weapon towards the Trade Guild delegation.
"You guard us in our work and lead us ever closer to the right path of the universe..." Don't pay attention to anything other than these words. Keep your eyes closed.
Aymon felt a gentle, questioning presence on the corner of his awareness. He almost laughed out loud at Yan trying to figure out why he seemed to be calling everyone into the shared meditation. Aymon shut her out and focused on the task at hand.
"Keep us secure on every road that we walk..."
The security team had already taken the man down and were bringing him out of the hall. Aymon kept everyone in his thrall until they were well and truly gone. Only then did he feel comfortable ending the prayer and releasing the thoughts of his captive audience.
He had almost forgotten how easy this was to do, with such a relatively small number of people, with such a rote text that they were all sure to know. It was like being back in his apprenticeship again, where he had learned of the technique for influencing people for the first time.
"So that we might know Your power and glory, Your truth and mercy, for the rest of our days," Aymon finished.
There was a polite amount of applause as he stepped away. He exited the stage and his apprentices followed him out. He would have to talk to Halen afterward to find out what had happened, but that could wait. The atmosphere in the room was calm, now. When he had exercised his power, he hadn't felt any of the guests actively resisting it. That was a good thing.
He would have to put all these worries aside, as it was time for the dinner to be served.