True Justice

Democracy Now

12 June 2022

The People’s Movement for Justice had not made a significant play since Luca Serban killed ten police officers and wounded nine more in a massive explosion on the largest road in Redmondburg. Since then, the city had been on complete lockdown, its strict curfew enforced by cops all too eager to beat, fine, arrest, or even kill any violators, depending on their mood, and what they could get away with. The Governor had additionally begun screening all movement in and out of the city. The reasoning was that the PMJ was likely operating from somewhere in Redmondburg, and if she could keep them trapped in the city, she could soon find them.

This action was met with stiff resistance from the Kritarchy. Chief Justice Stoker himself had flown in to meet with the Governor to discuss this. Many other governors were pressuring the High Court to declare such a ban outside the scope of her power. The economy of the country, after all, relied heavily on moving goods between major cities. Chief Justice Stoker, however, was less concerned with its effect on the economy and more concerned with how she made such a unilateral action without his consultation or approval. The smaller cities and towns of Aivintis could do what they want with their local power, even flagrantly disregarding some national laws, which some did, notably Grimreath and Wolfgard, which actually elected a city council. Large cities like Redmondburg, however, did not have such freedom.

The Kritarchy’s grip on the country was contingent on their power over the military, the economy, and the police in the major cities. Redmondburg’s police force, however, while ultimately aligning itself with the Kritarchy’s ideals of justice and order, did not answer to the Kritarchy. They answered to the Governor. It was a power struggle waiting to happen, and Chief Justice Stoker wanted to end it before it began. When he arrived, however, the police, who themselves had been highly militarised thanks to Stoker himself, blockaded the military bases in the city. The Governor met him with a smile, but she was threatening him. He could easily defeat her if she began a war, but a war would be bad publicity, not to mention the potential it could have to inspire other cities to begin resisting the Kritarchy’s rule. He diffused the situation, but left her with a little more autonomy than he liked.

The People’s Movement for Justice had been counting on this struggle to weaken the local police and the national government’s power. It did, but not nearly to the extent they desired. Something else had to happen to loosen the Governor’s chokehold. They could try more acts of terror, but the strict rules that were so threatening to the Aivintian economy were the same rules effectively preventing the import of more weapons and explosives. Doris argued for assassination, which may even have the benefit of causing more internal strife if blamed on the Kritarchy, but it was too risky. Aivcast News had already begun “reporting” on the “terrorism” the PMJ supposedly espoused, painting corrupt cops as valiant heroes and even fabricating the deaths of civilians. They had to prove the revolution was not something for the people to fear, but rather embrace.

Laurentiu suggested the protest. It was even more risky than the assassination, and Doris looked like she might try to take a vote to replace him as their leader, but most of the members seemed to agree it was necessary to fight back against the propaganda and shape the public image of the PMJ for the better. A peaceful protest, like the one Luca arranged, months earlier. Except this one would not be silent. They would be practically screaming for justice. Viorel and Florina offered to create untraceable social media accounts to talk about it, generate interest, generate virality. Bring the nation’s attention to the protest. If the people saw it live, the government would be hard pressed to distort the facts. Then, they’d livestream it across every platform they could. The government would take it down, systematically, but they were hoping that enough of it would be seen to change the tide.

Then there’d be the protest itself, in-person. The People’s Movement for Justice, for the first time, in the open. Undisguised, unafraid. They obsessed over escape routes and strategies. They chose an open location, a plaza, where the police would not be able to effectively block all public exits without weakening their response to the protest itself. They would not be using a public exit, though. Various store owners and workers had been befriended and secretly instructed how to leave a safe exit for the PMJ. If all went according to plan, the protest would be executed flawlessly.

It would just be the Redmondburg Cell participating. They could use the numbers of all the cells combined, but even Laurentiu would never allow that. To populate their protest, that meant, they’d need ordinary people. Everyone in the PMJ contacted every friend and family member in the city. If they were going public, those people would be in danger of association anyway. It was another risk, and in fact, the newest member, Kiril, ended up almost tipping off the police, something that left Laurentiu very angry. Doris had solved the issue, though. She asked Laurentiu if she could kill the man who had been planning to compromise their whole operation, but Laurentiu said to just capture him and hold him until the end of the protest.

There would be people in the plaza, too, that could join. They might even. There was safety in numbers. Only three participants of the silent protest at the beginning of the year were actually imprisoned, and even then it was for attacking police officers. Most of the protestors themselves were held for a short time, fined a small amount, and released. Now, of course, the story might be different, but not many Redmondburgians were sufficiently aware of the complexities of the power struggle between the Governor and the Regent, nor the increasingly violent attitude of the police, to prevent major participation. Besides, if the protestors were killed or even imprisoned on a large scale, Laurentiu reasoned, there would be a massive public uproar. The more moderate leaders of the country would decry it and demand justice, nevertheless. The international community might get involved. Stoker would have to bring justice to the Governor. It would still be a massive victory.

There was a lot of risk, but it was necessary. August Byrne was expecting a win in the public sector. The PMJ could provide that. Then, the ensuing internal chaos could create an opportunity for Byrne to influence the appointment of the next Governor of Redmondburg. Another moderate city would be instrumental in the shift of power away from extremism and authoritarianism. This domino had to fall, one way or another, and Laurentiu would not let him down.

He contemplated this as he stood tall, his gaze sweeping over the bustling plaza below. The PMJ was gathered around him, almost in a protective shield, one step down but still elevated. Already, the group was drawing curious glances and whispers. Laurentiu looked around once more, then nodded. There were a few police officers, but they were not expecting trouble and would have to call in back-up. Nearest station was ten minutes out, even without the roadblocks the PMJ had thrown together. They weren’t difficult to disassemble, and many were likely being taken down already, but they would slow and confuse the police. He lowered his head and told Doris to hand him the megaphone. She complied.

“People of Aivintis!” Laurentiu shouted, his voice filling the square. Conversations reactively lowered in volume, some shoppers and tourists even pausing to see what was happening. The officers whipped their heads around instantly, gripping their guns.

“I am Laurentiu Aldulescu,” he continued. “The state has accused me of a great many crimes. I fight for freedom, and they call it treason, terrorism. I am here to set the record straight.” A quick glance at Florina’s screen showed that there were already a few thousand viewers. It was impressive. “I am not a terrorist, although treason may be apt, for it is my goal to undo nearly a decade of oppression and suffering in our great country.”

The officers were speaking into their radios. Probably getting confirmation that he was who he said he was, before contacting the local station. Young officers were punished for mistakes so harshly that they were all afraid of failure. If they called in a full strike team to take down Aldulescu and it turned out to be some guy having a laugh, they’d be humiliated. It played in the PMJ’s favour. The culture of fear the Kritarchy had engineered would be its undoing.

“The people gathered around me are members of the freedom fighter organisation known as the People’s Movement for Justice. We are simple people, proud citizens of Aivintis, appalled by the state of this nation. Corruption reaches high into the offices of the government. The mafia runs rampant, unopposed, leeching off of the economy. Society’s elite, the wealthy, mainly, steer the country down a path that keeps their own prosperity at the sake of everyone else’s. The common man’s freedoms and rights are trampled over and over, violated and destroyed, in the name of law and order. In the name of justice. But no justice exists, and the guise of law and order is a mere sham. Crime stalks the cities of Aivintis in dark nights, and the police stand idly by, disabled by a bribe here or there, uninterested in the safety of the Aivintian people. The law is frequently disregarded by those meant to uphold it. The police rob, brutalise, and kill all who question their authority. The courts convict those guilty of no crime and expand the sentences of those guilty of minor crimes to laughable extremes in order to give the impression that they care to fix this nation.” By this time, many heads were turned, and digits were gathering on Florina’s screen. The police had seemingly confirmed his identity, and were clearly calling in back-up already.

Laurentiu paused, taking in the sights around him. Then he continued, emboldened by the curiosity shining in the eyes he saw. “This country is in desperate need of correction. We were written as a constitutional monarchy, yet our leaders parade in black robes and rule without checks or balances to limit their abuses of power. They are dictators. They are criminals. They are a disease, rotting away the very foundations of our country. The Emperors who came before would be ashamed of Chief Justice Stoker and his band of servants. The people of Aivintis will not let this stand!” Cheering erupted from the PMJ below. Some onlookers turned their heads, looking for the police. He couldn’t tell if they were concerned for him or wishing on his downfall. Then, some began to cheer as well, confident in their safety for the moment.

“The Constitution dictates that the people of Aivintis be afforded rights and freedoms. The freedom of speech. The freedom of protest. The right to a fair trial. These fundamental rights have been cast aside, as has the very Constitution the government claims to draw descent from. The Empress is dead! The Constitution is dead! Aivintis is dead! The Kritarchy, the so-called Justices of this land, sit in the Imperial Palace and pretend to be Regents. They pretend to be the Empire. They are not. They are a perversion of everything this country stands for. The Senate is no more. Elections are no more. The Imperial Family is no more. They are pretenders, scoundrels, maggots feeding on the corpse of what was once a great nation!” Some people were getting uncomfortable now, but others . . . something glinted in their eyes that was more than curiosity. Laurentiu fought the urge to smile. He didn’t need cheering. Not yet. He needed that.

“All is not lost for the Kritarchy! All is not lost for Aivintis!” Laurentiu claimed. He could hear sirens in the distance. They were getting closer. He looked around to see if the police lights were visible, but they were not. He noticed someone in the crowd, face partially obscured by a hood, watching him. That was strange. He continued nevertheless. “The Kritarchy can still change course! The country is veering towards doom, but with the help of those who do truly value the title of Justice,” he said, calling back to August Byrne’s interview nearly a month earlier, “we can return to greatness! The people of Aivintis can reclaim our destiny! We can reclaim our nation! We will sing and scream from every corner of Aivintis, crying out for our homeland! Reform the Senate! Stamp out the mafia! Return justice to our courts! Separate the branches of power! No more dictatorship! Democracy now!”

Some cheering. Some silent support. He nodded. “You have the power to take back your rights! You have the power to make this country rise from its knees to the peaks of greatness! You can be proud of your country once again! Reform the Senate! Justice now! Democracy now!” More cheering. More silent support. He could see the police lights now. “We are the People’s Movement for Justice! Even now, we stand unafraid! Even now, we stand up for our people, up for our nation! Reform the Senate! Justice now! Democracy now!”

The police were gathering at the exits. Some wise pedestrians had left. Others had stayed, determined to live up to the example Laurentiu was setting. More still were just minding their business. That was the problem with this country. Everyone kept their heads down while injustice reared its own ugly head. In doing so, they let it be. That’s how it had come to this, but Laurentiu was determined to change that. August was determined to change that. It’s why he was so willing to play his part. “We will not be intimidated! We will not be snuffed out! We will not kneel! Reform the Senate! Democracy now! Stand up for your country, my fellow Aivintians! Shout it from every corner of this country! Reform the Senate! Democracy now! Reform the Senate! Democracy now!”

And so the chant began, first in the PMJ members gathered around Aldulescu, but then in some of the passersby with fervour in their eyes. Then some more. Then some who weren’t as interested in the chant, but were more interested in fitting in with the crowd. That was okay. They would learn what it meant eventually. Hopefully, it would be a habit by the time they knew what they were doing was right. Many refused to chant, out of fear, maybe, or perhaps disagreement. Too many were willing to justify injustice when they thought it necessary, or unavoidable. Even that was all fear. Fear that justice would mean no more security, no more safety. That was okay, too. They would learn, eventually. Something about a crowd of chanting people, who the day before did not even know his face, gave him hope.

The PMJ dispersed within the crowd. Perhaps it was foolish, but many of them did not stop their chanting, when they did. The police pushed through them and others, headed straight for the centre. The exits were cut off. All according to plan. When they found their targets were no longer on the central platform, they began ID-ing everyone in the square. Chanting or no. Many shut up, afraid that they were going to face reprisal for their participation. They never did. The police were too focused on Laurentiu and the PMJ members they had seen only moments before. They would not harass the others too much. Besides, there were too many of them. It would be too much of a hassle.

The PMJ divided and slipped into the various stores, where back exits were awaiting. The police would think of it too late. By then, the PMJ would be gone, and it would be nearly impossible to find out who had helped them. Laurentiu breathed a sigh of relief when he came out into an empty street. “Come on,” he said to the others. “Let’s get out of here before they expand their search area.” By some measure of providence, the PMJ had succeeded and escaped. It would be a city-wide embarrassment. And if the numbers were anything to go off of, their broadcast had succeeded, in the parts where it was not taken down immediately. Their message had reached the wider population. August would be pleased.

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Science and Technology

23 June 2022


Nerana Prisel, Representative of Auravas: I’d like to propose formation of a science research agency within the council to carry out scientific research and advise the Council on science policy. This organisation would help make Gondwana a scientific competitor on the world stage and contribute to the accessibility and furthering of scientific knowledge.

Co-Chairperson Jonathan Gillespie, Representative of Aivintis: Member States of the Council of Gondwana, please consider this meeting called to order.

Mohammad Abdi, Representative of United Malordia: I agree, as long as regulations exist, such as that the agency may not be for military use, but solely for scientific advancement in the civilian sector.

Nerana Prisel: Exactly what I was thinking, Mr Abdi. This would be mainly focused on increasing scientific knowledge and literacy for academic/civilian purposes.

Krásta Sórle, Representative of New Leganes: This is a great opportunity that the Commonwealth will certainly support.

Yoko Katsura, Representative of Nagato: The opportunity to further Nagato’s exploration into space is too good to pass up. If this vote does pass, I advise the council to use Nagato to launch all rockets from, as this will allow the maximum use of Urth’s rotational speed.

Nerana Prisel: The best place to launch most rockets would be on the east coast at the equator, placing this in United Malordia. Of course, other things must be taken into account, and these can be discussed once basic plans are finalised.

Þayne Whitby, Representative of Wessæria: It really should not be my job to ground these discussions, but space? Really? You want us to pay our membership dues and ignore the ever-increasing difficulties in maintaining an adequate standard of living so we can put people in metal cones and fire them into orbit? Did the Space Race not end more than half a century ago? Do you intend to resolve your wish to see us hurl men into the void above before we are even close to food security?

Nerana Prisel: I would like to remind the council members that the proposal is for a science research agency as a whole, not solely a space organisation. Wider scientific knowledge can create job pathways and stimulate the economy through technology and innovation. The more information the public can access, the more opportunities they have as well. Scientific research has many applications in a variety of things like agricultural research, climatology, botany, biology, and so on.

Þayne Whitby: I am not inclined to oppose scientific research into practical work, such as agriculture and epidemiology, but I must be blunt and say that Wessæria has neither the means nor willingness to fund frivolous, flashy projects like space travel, and if such an organisation demands we do, we will be placed in a position where it must be opposed. We pay our membership costs with the acknowledgement that such funds will go towards the betterment of our people, and the wealthy countries firing their own into space does not serve that purpose.

Nerana Prisel: It is perfectly understandable that you want to only support scientific initiatives that support the people. However, you are mischaracterizing some scientific endeavours. Astronomy and space exploration is not simply launching people into space. Satellites, for example, provide extremely important climatological, oceanographical, and meteorological information. Observation of astronomical bodies and phenomena provide information that fuels physics research and leads to innovation. Not to mention all the jobs that investment in research would create, and more opportunities for the people and nations of Gondwana to compete with others on the world stage.

Þayne Whitby: To whom, exactly, do you think these jobs are going to? Do you expect work in astronomy, or in the high-level engineering positions needed to construct satellites, to be offered to the countries without the access to higher education the wealthy nations here seem to take for granted? Will the agricultural worker of Southwest Gondwana feel relieved to know he contributed to allowing others to be paid more than he will ever earn creating accurate data that he will never see? You claim innovation, but to innovate in areas such as this offers us nothing but your pride.”

Jonathan Gillespie: I remind the Wessæric ambassador that no extension of the COG is required for any members.

Þayne Whitby: If this extension fails to serve anything besides the temperaments of the wealthy states while discounting the areas of research that would actually assist the people of Gondwana, so it must be.

Nerana Prisel: The agricultural worker of Southwest Gondwana will feel relieved when the economic situation of their nation improves through innovation and can support a higher citizen wellbeing. This is by no means an organisation for the wealthy to throw away their money, but one which would invest heavily in many different varieties of useful research.

Rachel Amber, Representative of Mizore: My fellow ambassador of Wessæria, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us nations of Southwest Gondwana. The chance to increase our economic growth will help our citizens and even increase what we can achieve as small as we are.

Þayne Whitby: Should the nation of Mizore wish to throw funds leeched off of Nagato to further scientific advancements that will never be in their hands, do as you will.

Jonathan Gillespie: And should the nation of Wessæria wish to throw empty insults to further political goals that can never be achieved through hostility, do as you will as well.

East Cerdani Representative: We would be more than happy to assist with any scientific organisation. We already have launch facilities and have been conducting launches for decades. We would be happy to assist other nations in their space-related endeavours as we have done before. In regards to agriculture as well, we believe a scientific organisation could allow for large advancements to be made in that sector.

Hala Sirasikar, Representative of Serramal: I must concur with my Wessæric counterpart in that Serramal cannot at present dedicate resources to such an agency.

Nerana Prisel: We can work out the details of the launch facilities after basic terms are finalised. I’m excited to see the support for this project and I remind those who abstain from joining that they still can join at any time.


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A Steering Hand

1 July 2022

Mr Fielding lived in Rilanon as part of his assignment to the International Forum as the Aivintian Empire’s official delegate. Many of his staff did as well, although a number of others were temporary interns, visiting for the summer while university was not in session. He was very rarely visited by members of the Committee on International Policy, and even more rarely by members of the Foreign Council. This fact, combined with the fact that he was not under the man’s command and had never met him, rendered Mr Fielding shocked, speechless, in fact, when His Excellency Justice August Byrne appeared in his doorway.

“You know who I am?” Justice Byrne asked, simply.

“Er, yes. Your Excellency,” he added quickly, remembering that formality was important. He had only ever met one Justice - Her Excellency Justice Lupu, who herself was an oddity among Aivintian leaders for her collected calm and general quiet - so he was not quite sure how to proceed.

“None of that,” Byrne replied.

“Uh, Your Excellency?”

“Precisely. No need for formalities,” he sounded tired, perhaps jet-lagged from the journey. “Just call me August, or Mr Byrne, if you’d prefer.”

“Of course, Mr Byrne. Mr Byrne, I’d like to just tell you, I am honoured and humbled by your presence.”

“I’m sure you are,” the Justice replied, seemingly sarcastically. “I sent your receptionist away. I don’t want anyone listening to our conversation. Are there any recording devices, cameras, or other form of potential espionage in this room or within earshot?”

“No, Your— Mr Byrne. Cameras are posted at all entrances and exits, but not inside. Committeemember Crane valued his privacy when he was Ambassador, and I have not bothered with alterations.”

“Good.” He seemed to relax more. Mr Fielding got the impression that his demeanour was more controlled when he had not just taken a flight halfway across the world, but he did not fault the Justice for this. “Right. On to business, then?”

“Yes, of course!”

“I had some concerns which I require your assistance in alleviating,” Justice Byrne said, seemingly dancing around the issue.

“Of course, Mr Byrne, I’m happy to assist. What do you require?”

“I need you to protect my interests in the International Forum. I’ve received word that you’ve been given some freedom in the topics you bring motions on, as long as they align with the nation’s foreign interests, and so I’d like you to see if you could get some policy enacted on certain matters which, domestically, are under my jurisdiction, but internationally, can only be achieved with your help.”

“Sure! Have you drafted resolutions, or do you just have a list of topics for me?” Mr Fielding knew that being compliant and uncomplaining was the key to advancing politically in Aivintis. He didn’t intend to be sitting on an island in the centre of the world forever.

“The latter. Cancer research and net neutrality. I know cancer research is something of great importance to our nation, given the condition causes most Aivintian deaths, and if my guess is correct then you’ve already been assigned to encourage international funding for research into prevention and treatment. I’d like you to move that higher on your list. Net neutrality, on the other hand, seems a minor issue, but it means a lot to me personally. I’d like to note that some Committeemembers may not like it very much if you help me on this, but, then again, I’m a Justice, aren’t I?”

“Yes, Mr Byrne. I’ll make notes to address these issues as soon as possible,” Mr Fielding replied. He didn’t mind if he ruffled some feathers in the Committee as long as Byrne was in his corner.

“I’d also like to give you some advice. You see, I’m privy to certain information that you or the Committee might not know. I do know that Justices Grigorescu and Lupu both consider the anarchy in Strazsko to be thorns in their side, for differing reasons. If you make a move in the IF to respond to it with, say, a peacekeeping force, you’ll be on both of their radars. In a good way. Consider that part of your reward for helping me, the other part being, of course, my own favour. Don’t let me down, now Mr Fielding.”

“I don’t intend to, Mr Byrne.”

“Good. Oh, and one more thing,” Justice Byrne said, as nearly an afterthought.


The Justice’s face suddenly darkened. Gone was the lightheartedness and veiled promises of political bounties. He now seemed more threatening than helpful, and Mr Fielding began to feel very afraid. “Do not tell a soul what I asked of you today, or even that I was here. If I find out you did, your political career will be over. I don’t care if Chief Justice Stoker himself marches into your office and holds you at gunpoint. You don’t say a word. Am I clear?”

Mr Fielding frowned. Suddenly, he wasn’t so sure that being compliant was the best move for him. “Yes, Your Excellency.”

Suddenly, the menacing undertone melted away. “Good,” the Justice replied. “I’ll be looking forward to tracking your progress.”

Justice Byrne left quickly, but gracefully. Mr Fielding wondered idly why the man wasn’t wearing his robes, but his thoughts quickly turned to the events that had just transpired. His emotions were a cocktail of fear, befuddlement, and opportunistic greed. He knew that if he did as Byrne asked, he would have a lucrative career. What mattered was whether the consequences of getting involved in such an affair were worse than the consequences of refusing. He wished he wasn’t put in such a situation, at least not so soon after being appointed to his position. His thoughts were conflicted, but he pushed them aside. He knew, in the end, he would do as the Justice asked. Whatever mess he had gotten himself involved in, he was already knee deep in it. The best thing for him was to do as he was told and hope it all worked out.

August Byrne, of course, was counting on that. He knew, before stepping back into his private jet, that he would have no trouble manipulating Mr Fielding. For such an important chess piece, he was remarkably easy to flip. He didn’t even have to know what he was getting into, what he was supporting. August was so grateful that the complexities and mistakes of bureaucracy had left the IF Ambassador, the individual with the single most power over the international community at large, as a lower-level position, at the same level as a regular ambassador, so that simply flashing his authority was all it took for Justice Byrne to put a steering hand on international policy.

“Has anyone noticed my absence, yet?” Byrne asked the pilot, who, for the duration of the meeting, had remained in constant contact with the loyal members of the Judicial Security Force currently keeping Byrne’s absence a closely guarded secret from all of Aivintis, including Chief Justice Stoker.

“No, sir. Couple low level fools tried to contact you, but they were the type easily dissuaded by claims of you being too busy to meet with them.” The pilot was a former Air Force captain turned mercenary, a perfect hire for a Justice in need of someone who could fly him anywhere he pleased with discretion and operational security.

“Thank you.”

“No problem, sir. I had them make a list so you can talk to them when you get back.”

Byrne nodded. “Very well. No trouble in the airfield?”

“Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a wad of South Hills Dollars and some reassurances that you weren’t a terrorist.”

“I’m glad. Everything seems to be going smoothly. Take me home.”


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Pit of Vipers

13 July 2022

The Trade Council of the Aivintian Empire was perhaps one of the most self-serving institutions in the country. Though Arthur Frost was the only actual businessman present at Council meetings, many of the Councillors invested heavily in the businesses they favoured in these meetings. Some of them even took bribes to see certain agendas realised. Former Justice Crane had been more than willing to allow that corruption to fester, but August Byrne would not tolerate it. He had to do something that would appease the business elite and make a show of honesty and accountability in the government. It was a difficult line to cross.

As of this moment, Justice Byrne had removed a number of Councillors whose corruption was too deeply rooted to allow any semblance of compromise. These, he had fired, but upon the timely and anonymous release of key evidence by Justice Groza, they had begun to face trial for their crimes. Byrne was unsure how he felt about that. Groza’s work was central to his plan, but if he was associated with covering up these crimes, with silently dismissing those guilty instead of pursuing justice, then his entire operation was at risk. He glanced over at Arthur Frost, who dutifully sat in his council seat. He wondered if it would give him away if he had Arthur keep Groza out of his business, or if it would be too unconscionable for the other Justice.

Probably one of the two. So it was out of the question. Which meant Byrne could not keep toing this line. If he did, he risked having to make regular corrections when Councillors stepped out of line, corrections which would not go unnoticed by Groza. He needed the public to see him as a purifying agent. Moreover, he needed Groza to see him as a kindred spirit. He had big plans for his fellow Justice. All of this meant that he had to make some changes. Not wanting to rival the entirety of the Council at once, Arthur and he had already convinced a small number of Councillors to sell their shares, in exchange for a larger salary, of course. He wasn’t sure how he felt about openly associating with Frost, but the situation called for it.

“This meeting of the Trade Council is hereby called to order,” called Martin Costiniu, the Trade Council Chair. Under Chief Justice Whitcher, it was customary for every Justice to serve as the Chair for each of their associated councils, but as the regime stabilised, that became less necessary and more impractical. So, each took the chair of one, typically the most important. Crane chaired the Trade Council, but Byrne saw the opportunity to earn himself a powerful and loyal supporter in Martin Costiniu, younger than most Councillors, but also more ambitious and more determined. He took to his assignment well. “The first item on the agenda is the permit for the construction of an oil refinery on Ostrow. The Chair recognises Darius Petrescu, Trade Councillor.”

Darius Petrescu was an older Councillor, but he had a good head on his shoulders. He had the intelligence to figure out what Justice Byrne wanted from him, and the wisdom to give him exactly that. “Thank you, Chair,” he said, more as a formality than out of true gratitude. “Following the terrorist activity of the PMJ, our oil production has been very lacking. The Energy Council, under the guidance of His Excellency Justice Groza, has authorised the construction of new oil rigs to replace it, most of which are located off the shore of Ostrow, where terrorist activity is low. They need refineries close by to maximise efficiency.”

Arthur Frost was the first to respond. “One of those rigs belongs to an international company, doesn’t it?”

“LegaPetro,” Justice Byrne offered, speaking for the first time since the Council assembled.

“Right. That. New Leganes is an Aivintian economic and diplomatic ally, yeah, yeah, but do we want to make it easier for foreign companies to undercut Aivintian prices?”

“Come on, Arthur,” replied Elena Stoica, another Councillor and, coincidentally, an investor in LegaPetro. “The free market demands we give foreign corporations a chance as well. Nothing makes Aivintian businesses better. Nothing dictates that we put our knees on the throat of the free market just because some companies here would like it.”

“Oh come on, Councillor, don’t you think that’s perhaps a bit dramatic? All I’m saying is it could help Aivintian wealth if Aivintian corporations did better, which we can make happen by inaction. It’s simple cause and effect. Not to mention the land it would save in Ostrow for other ventures.”

“Such as your company?” Victor Tarus chimed in. He was one of the few Councillors who did not have any investment in corporations affected by his policy-making. “Besides, LegaPetro is just one of the companies that this proposal would benefit. It would also benefit Nemes Oil and Idrun Energy, who were also involved in the Energy Council’s new deal. It would benefit the Aivintian construction firm chosen, and the Aivintians whose jobs would be created by the endeavour. You’re oversimplifying the issue.”

Arthur Frost gritted his teeth together. “I’d like to remind the Council that my company does not have any vested interest in Ostrow or the oil business. My opposition has nothing to do with any potential benefit for me and everything to do with the fact that the government shouldn’t be encouraging foreign takeovers of our local markets. LegaPetro is already a massive international corporation. Its executives won’t starve if we decided to deny this permit. Not to mention we’d be upholding decades of noninterference with Ostrow’s development. Aivintis has historically let every city decide for themselves what permits they allow and what they do not. Just because Ostrow has weird districting and is an island doesn’t mean we should throw that all away. Laissezfaire baby. Leave it to the cities and the companies. Don’t get the government involved.”

“Stubborn refusal to change is not wisdom, Councillor,” Tarus pointed out.

Councillor Stoica nodded, although it was hypocritical for her to do so. It’s why she did it nonverbally. She wasn’t on the record. Councillor Petrescu noted it, but ignored it when he spoke. “Councillor Frost, I understand your concern, as an Aivintian businessman, about foreign companies dominating the market. This, however, is not what you think it is. It’s just allowing all companies to maximise their efficiency and have an equal chance at the economic dream. Isn’t that what we’re here to do?”

“We’re here to regulate the economy,” Tarus mumbled.

“Councillor Tarus, do you disagree with this proposal?” Petrescu responded, knowing full well he didn’t.

“No, Councillor. I think we should approve the permit.” Victor wasn’t one to make enemies of allies. He’d make his point at another time, likely when Darius opposed one of his own policies.

“Good,” the proposing Trade Councillor said with satisfaction.

Justice Byrne looked around, then nodded. “Looks like discussion is over. For the purposes of the vote, I will be acting as a Councillor.”

“Noted,” Martin replied, his tone flat. “All in favour?” Ten Councillors raised their hands. The vote would pass. Justice Byrne counted himself among the supporters. Regardless of the clear majority, Costiniu asked, “All opposed?” Arthur Frost raised his hand. “Let the record reflect two abstentions,” the Council Chair instructed the recordkeeper. “Onto the next item on the agenda. The matter of reforming Council regulations on membership.” Many Councillors looked confused. This was not something they had known about, nor prepared for. “The Chair recognises His Excellency Justice August Byrne.”

Justice Byrne nodded graciously. He smoothed his black robes, and began to speak. “Thank you, Chair. Trade Councillors, today I bring to you a very important resolution. I understand that some of you may initially feel opposed to this measure, but I trust, in time, I may convince all of you of its value. I wish you all to know that I could have simply enacted this measure unilaterally, but I did not, even knowing it would be a hard-won vote. Despite being a Justice, I still value the Council as more than a formality. As a true policy-making institution. I hope you all keep this in mind as you consider my proposal. The specifics of this reform would ban all Trade Councillors from making policy based on their own economic interests, and from investing more than a hundred thousand crowns in any company. New Trade Councillors would be prevented from investing at all until holding two years of membership in the Council. I considered the details of this proposal very precisely, and I believe this is a fair and just policy.”

Victor Tarus started laughing.

“Excuse me, Councillor Tarus? Is something funny?” The Chair asked. Justice Byrne watched, his face expressionless.

“No, no, sorry. I apologise, Chair.” He seemed to have gotten a grip on himself.

“Apologise to His Excellency Justice Byrne,” Chair Costiniu replied.

“Yes, yes. Of course. I apologise, Your Excellency. It’s just— I’ve spent a few years on this Council, and all too often I find myself advocating for impartiality in dealing with the economy. I’ve been met with strict opposition at every turn, I could hardly believe it when an actual Justice proposed the very thing I’d been preaching to a blank wall for so long.”

“I believe we know where Councillor Tarus stands,” Justice Byrne said simply. “Any other comments?”

The spell of silence seemed to have broken, and suddenly nine people were speaking over each other all at once. Some were angry, others were just inquisitive. Justice Byrne, Chair Costiniu, Arthur Frost, and Victor Tarus were the only ones who did not speak. Byrne and Costiniu did not react, but Frost smiled slightly, and Tarus looked like he was still suppressing laughter at the absurdity of the hornet’s nest His Excellency just roundhouse kicked. Byrne gave Costiniu a look, and the Chair nodded, before shouting, “QUIET DOWN!” They complied, but Costiniu continued, “Ademar give me strength, are we not respectable politicians? Show some decorum! If I have to throw you all out for breach of the Council’s guidelines, I’m not sure you’ll be happy with the vote that ensues.” Once the offenders were suitably chastised, and Councillor Frost’s smile had grown a little bit larger, discussion resumed, or, rather, began.

“Your Excellency, as a point of practicality,” began Gabriela Vladu, a Councillor whose own investments were already somewhat limited, partially due to her enjoying wealth enough from her former noble family and from previously holding an executive position at a company that stopped existing shortly after she left it, “would this apply only to new investments or would we have to sell our existing shares down to a hundred thousand crowns worth?”

“Good question, Councillor. The latter. If every Councillor was grandfathered in, the policy would have no real effect.” Justice Byrne’s calm was commendable in the moment. Already, multiple Councillors were looking at him with murderous intent. It took bravery to take such a bold stance. He would certainly be praised for it in the media, if Chief Justice Stoker didn’t decide he was playing around too much, and force him to drop this matter. Which wasn’t extremely likely. Stoker trusted Justice Byrne greatly. Even if he didn’t like this, which he probably wouldn’t, given the precedent it would set, he wouldn’t take a stand here. He would give Byrne the benefit of the doubt for a little longer. It helped that Groza, another trusted advisor, would almost certainly take his side if consulted.

“I’d like to declare my support for this policy,” Arthur Frost stated. “I believe it is high time this country be more impartial in decisions affecting the entire economy. If we continue to allow this Council to be biassed in its decisions, we risk the economy collapsing under the weight of our own recklessness. This is not just necessary, it’s long overdue.”

That stunned the Council even more than Byrne’s proposal. Arthur Frost would be the most affected by this decision. He’d have to either resign from the Council and give up his power to influence economic policy altogether, or abandon his hugely profitable company, along with all the influence it went along with. Neither outcome seemed very plausible. Many began immediately formulating theories for why Frost would be so supportive of such a clearly detrimental measure. It couldn’t be just to kiss Byrne’s ass, although he did seem to do that plenty. Perhaps he knew something they didn’t. The confusion gave space for someone else to speak. Darius Petrescu, the sponsor of the previous resolution.

“I also support this policy.” This, the Councillors thought, was more likely an example of ass-kissing than Frost’s support. “I urge you all to vote in favour.”

This was beginning to concern Councillors like Stoica, who would suffer greatly if this proposal were to pass the vote. Frost might have to give up a lot of his influence following the vote, but he still had it. Darius and Tarus, too, had friends in the Council, and if Vladu, a Councillor with a reputation for being level-headed and smart, ended up voting in favour as well, the entire vote could shift in Byrne’s favour. Especially if the Chair, who normally abstained, but very publicly owed his position to Byrne, voted for, many might flock to power, the way they might already do with a High Court Justice bringing this proposal. August Byrne had caught everyone off-guard, but he had already seemingly won. Of course, enough were fearing this outcome to be a majority in the Council, but they didn’t know that. As far as each and every Councillor knew, Byrne already had a majority.

Councillor Stoica, keeping her voice steady in spite of her fear and anger, asked, “How much time would we have to do this?”

“A week,” Justice Byrne replied. His immense calm only solidified his victory in the Council’s minds. He introduced his argument with a surprising level of pleading, but now he spoke confidently and almost smugly. It was as if he knew every word that would be said and every vote that would be cast.

“Is there any chance we can negotiate it up from a hundred thousand to a million? Some of us depend on investment for our income and economic stability.”

The Justice gave her a regal, but judgemental, look. “The average Aivintian makes less than half of your salary working in the Trade Council. Most of you have generational wealth as well. You do not pay taxes. Many businesses charge you less, or even nothing at all, simply for being on this council. You do not depend on investments for anything. If you would like to, I can certainly see about revoking some of those privileges.”

Stoica silently glared at the unconcealed threat. Arthur Frost’s smile had grown even larger by now. The Council was already treating it like it was a foregone conclusion. They already thought it was inevitable.

“Is there any more discussion?” The Chair asked. No one was brave enough to speak. “Very well. All in favour?” Seven hands, including the Chair’s own. Frost’s smile threatened to split his face in half. “All opposed?” Zero. It wasn’t worth it now. “Let the record reflect six abstentions. The next item on the agenda is the representation of Aivintian businesses on the Trade Council. The Chair recognises His Excellency Justice Byrne.”

Stunned silence again, as Byrne spoke, carefully enunciating. “The decisions made in this chamber affect millions of Aivintian citizens and thousands of Aivintian businesses. I believe it is only fair to allow some of those businesses, selected for their importance to the economy and relevance to the decisions being deliberated upon, a say in the future of the Aivintian economy. These representatives may be non-voting or voting, depending on the will of the Council and its Chair. There may be permanent members or temporary members, selected ad hoc to represent certain sectors of the economy. The companies we select will choose their own representatives.”

Suddenly, everyone understood Arthur Frost’s smile. The silence persisted as the entirety of the Council considered whether they wished this to occur. Immediately following the previous decision, some were already thinking of accepting bribes from certain companies in lieu of their investments’ profits, and this would make that increasingly difficult. On the other hand, August Byrne didn’t strike them as a man who would allow such bribes to continue, and this was a chance for them to still have certain interests represented. The companies of their friends and families could be favoured over others. Not to mention, it would allow them to enter the political arena with influential businesses, which could mean political deals and favours aplenty, as well as the benefits of association with such powerful figures.

Finally, the Councillors considered Justice Byrne’s angle. He clearly wasn’t as committed to changing the status quo as he initially appeared. This proposal showed that he was someone they could be willing to work with. Additionally, his earlier threats had not seemed idle, and six Councillors had just crossed someone who had proven a very capable manipulator and a very powerful force. Their abstentions were practically equivalent to voting against, and their opposition was surely noted. They underestimated August Byrne, and they were not willing to do it again. All this and more was coursing through each and every Councillor’s head as they weighed the costs, the risks, the rewards, and the possibilities all against each other. No one spoke for a full three minutes before Martin’s voice echoed in the chamber.

“All in favour?” They didn’t mind that he did not ask for further discussion. All thirteen raised their hands. August Byrne finally let the hint of a smile across his face. He glanced over to Martin and nodded. Almost in reply, the Chair said, “Let the record reflect zero votes against and zero abstentions. This motion passes.”

August Byrne rose from his seat. “This Council is adjourned. Remember to comply with the new guidelines. You are all dismissed.” Then, he swept out of the room, his robed figure imposing in the face of the events that had transpired.


Byrning Question

1 August 2022

“Thank you all for coming.” Laurentiu Aldulescu’s voice echoed throughout the meeting room. About ten of the twenty assembled chairs were occupied - the ten most senior members of the PMJ. “As you all have noted, we have had great success in recent times. The government is scrambling like a headless chicken, unable to stop us from spreading our message. We have faced trials in the last few months, but make no mistake: we are well on the path to freedom. I brought you all here so that we might discuss the future of this movement.”

He looked out to the faces of those assembled. Representatives from cells in Derrim, who had been successful in bringing light to the inability of the government to address criminal activity and the greater corruption of the state, Castenor, who protested openly without much opposition as the new Governor focused on actual governance rather than the suppression of freedoms, Marnacia, whose revolutionary flame burned brightest of them all, and Westhafen, whose idea this very meeting was, were all gathered. Doris and he represented Redmondburg, but also the PMJ as a whole, including those cells who could not afford to send representatives. Doris was his counterweight, keeping his extremism in check as he did hers. She was the perfect second-in-command.

“I do not see the need for a meeting such as this,” called Elias, the Marnacian Cell leader and the son of the city’s Governor. “We should continue as we have. Secret attacks against government offices and officials to destabilise the regime and public protests against their abuses to rally support from the people. This is the example your cell here in Redmondburg has set. I see no reason to change course.”

Some muttered agreement, but Laurentiu shook his head. “We can be doing more. We can accelerate our timeline.” He spoke literally, as August Byrne expected a warm welcome by the citizenry by the middle of next year, but they, of course, took it to mean metaphorically. None of them were aware of the actual timeline, or the PMJ’s actual role in the revolution. They would not lead the charge, they would set the foundations.

“We risk getting stamped out if we grow too bold,” Elias persisted. “Already, my esteemed parent is growing annoyed at our activities in their city. Stoker is breathing down their neck, and they have been forced to institute harsher measures. They’ve ordered the police to shoot any suspected traitors on sight.”

“It is a similar story in Derrim,” one woman offered. “The Governor is paranoid that someone’s out to get him ever since the assassination of Governor Ristic. The mafia is breaking bones to find out if there’s an assassin on the loose, probably because the Alpha has figured that humouring him leads to a smoother relationship. We’ve had to be even more careful so that some mob enforcer doesn’t stumble his way into a conspiracy to overthrow the government.”

“All the more reason to strengthen our attack,” Doris said. It was rare that Laurentiu and she agreed, which lent credence to her words. “The best defence is a good offence. They see the smoke of our campfires and come to investigate, we set a bigger fire in their house, and they’re gone from our tail in no time.”

“That’s not quite what I’m suggesting,” Aldulescu interjected, “but the general principle is sound.”

“What would you suggest?” a different Derrim representative asked.

“Ah. I’m glad you asked,” the former lawyer replied. “We’ve been fighting Aivcast’s propaganda spree for a while now. Wouldn’t it be easier if we had propaganda of our own?”

“Excuse me?” Elias asked, incredulous. “Do you mean to suggest we infiltrate Aivcast News?”

“No! No, no, of course not.” Laurentiu explained, “All we have to do is set up posters, graffiti, social media posts, etc. Spread the truth.”

“What would these posters say?” The Warrisian leader asked archly.

“Various calls for democracy, reformation of the Senate, transparency in the government, etc. Demands, one might say. We could end up making dozens of different types, each exposing one facet of the government’s lies and crimes. We could post it on international sites, which the government struggles to control, and Aivintian sites where we might be able to block their censorship for longer. We could plaster it on trees, walls, statues, warehouses, government offices, military bases. If we make enough, and we manage to discreetly get them up, we could turn the tide of propaganda. None of it would be lies, none of it would be altered or manipulated for our own good. Just the facts.”

“Sounds like it would just be a minor annoyance to the government,” Elias commented nervously. “A waste of their money, perhaps, but a negligible waste. Even if it takes a few days to get it down, that would be months of work gone in days. And then we’d what? Do it again? Give up? This frankly seems very inefficient.”

“I have to agree with the lad,” Doris chimed in. “Unless we could prevent them from being taken down at all, there’s nothing we can do.”

“Well . . .” began a female Castenian representative by the name of Sorinah, “I’m not sure Castenor’s new Governor would bother. He might get shit from Stoker, or maybe even his old boss, Byrne—” at that, some Warrisian heads shot up, which concerned Laurentiu greatly, “—but his unwillingness to bother with the PMJ could prove to be to our advantage. The tides are changing. Maybe a few bribes here, a few threats there, we could keep posters up until the Chief Justice marches down and tears them down himself.”

“That seems extremely shortsighted,” Doris remarked, interrupting the Warrisian leader before he could speak, possibly ruffling some feathers Laurentiu would have to soon smooth. “I mean, I know your Governor’s been slacking, but he’s not going to let us pull off a move so big. Underestimating the Kritarchy is what gets us killed.”

Laurentiu held up a hand for silence, again frustrating the Warrisian cell’s lead representative. “I agree with Doris, that’s perhaps too optimistic, but at the very least we could manage to extend the length our message stays up, and I believe that even that temporary burst is worth the time, money, and risk. We’re winning hearts and minds. We don’t have the resources or power to expose the people to our mission over and over. The best we can do is pique their interest. That’s all we need. If even one percent of the country researches the abuse we found, that’s still almost eight hundred thousand people. If half of that finds the truth, and half of that decides to take up arms because of it, that’s two hundred thousand people. Hearts and minds, friends.”

“Your calculations make less sense than you think,” someone stated. Laurentiu looked at the man in confusion. It was another Castenian. “There’s eighty something million in the country, but in the cities we have influence over, there’s what? Can’t even be a quarter of that, can it? So take that one percent again, and half it twice again, that’s generously saying fifty thousand. Even that, though, doesn’t account for the complexities of city life and geography. Not to mention the fact that people who would be receptive to our propaganda drive would also be receptive to our protests and such. Sure, we’re in this for hearts and minds, but is it really cost-and-risk-effective to have a short burst of publicity that won’t even bring back a good ROI?”

Laurentiu would have frowned if he was a lesser leader, and slapped the man if he were a lesser man, but instead he kept calm and neutral. This wasn’t the end of this idea. Even if it was, the greater plan would survive. “Perhaps you’re right,” he conceded. “But on the off chance that we even get a thousand more than we would otherwise get, I believe this is a risk worth taking.”

“When we’re lying face up in the streets with bullets in our brains and the Imperial flag hoisted above our corpses, see if you feel the same,” Doris snapped.

Laurentiu privately shot her an annoyed look. She didn’t care. He sighed. “Does anyone else have anything to add, before we vote?”

“Sir,” the Warrisian leader said, perhaps a little too quickly, “the Warris cell would like to discuss how the appointment of Justice Byrne affects our organisation.”

The Movement President hid his surprise well, but not well enough. Not fast enough. A couple of faces darkened in what might be suspicion or might be confusion. Aldulescu clamped down on his growing panic. They could assume what they wished, enough of their brains would justify or forget the affair that nothing but increased caution would result from his blunder. Having collected himself, he answered, “How do you mean?”

“Well, some of us have begun to suspect that our movement will be rendered obsolete in the days to come.”

This time, Laurentiu didn’t even try to hide his surprise; he let it wash over him as a practised reaction. This surprise was, in fact, reflected by most in the room. All excluding the Warrisian representatives, who likely were already familiar with the idea, and Doris, who didn’t even look surprised when she was given a kill order on one of the most powerful individuals in the country, were in various degrees of puzzlement. Perhaps a little too sharply, which he winced internally at, the man questioned, “Why?”

Sensing his anger, the other almost didn’t continue, but decided to regardless. “Justice Groza has a reputation for honesty, trustworthiness, and respect for others. Justice Byrne has a history of the same, but also a respect for the will of the people. With both on the big bench, the country’s headed in a more positive direction than ever. Lupu’s still Lupu, and Grigorescu’s still hot-headed and war-hawkish, but Groza and Byrne together could make real, lasting change for the better. Not to mention, if Stoker dies, it’s looking more and more likely that one of them takes charge next. They’re newer, sure, neither into even a year on the bench, but they’re an example of good governance, they have the people’s adoration, and the Chief Justice seems to prefer them over the old guard. Lupu would never allow herself to become CJ, and between Justices Grigorescu, Groza, and Byrne, the scales seem to be leaning towards Groza and Byrne. If that happens, well there’s no telling how much the country will change. Maybe they’ll do it.”

“Do what?”

“Reform the Senate. Bring back democracy. End corruption. Everything we’ve wanted. Maybe our work is already done.”

The room was already silent, but something seemed quieter about the contemplative faces surrounding Laurentiu Aldulescu. He tried to think fast. Their hope was so inspiring, and he hated that it was now his duty to crush it. He couldn’t explain to them the plan, then it would all fall apart. August had been very clear about that. Their hope was inspiring, but it was misplaced. Stoker wasn’t a fool. He’d let Groza and Byrne into his inner circle because the country was vulnerable. He wouldn’t just hand them the reins. It would be years before they could take control. That wasn’t good enough. Years of suffering would not be worth it. Democracy now. Not to mention, Laurentiu himself was secretly afraid of the power corrupting even his old friend. They just couldn’t wait.

“No.” Firm, swift, and confident, his voice came.

“What?” The Warrisian exclaimed. At the same time, another from the same city replied, “Excuse me?”

“No,” he repeated, in a softer tone. “We can’t stop now. Hope is what keeps us fighting, but daring to hope that our fight is not necessary is too great a risk. We cannot rely on the Kritarchy to right itself. Even if, as you say, Groza or Byrne becomes Regent, and begins to transition back to the Empire as it was or forward towards a full democracy, our fight will be necessary. We need not be so violent, of course, but our voices must be heard. We must continue to rally support for our freedoms, and pressure the government to listen. Let’s say August Byrne becomes Chief Justice, Regent, Chief Minister, all the empty titles that summate to dictator, today. Let’s say he immediately announces that we will become a Republic. We need to make him keep his word, to make good on that promise. Even if we were already a democracy, that doesn’t mean the people should lay down arms in the eternal struggle for freedom. If the people get content, get complacent, that’s when the next George Whitcher strikes. Or the next Aeternus. Or the next Order of Enlightenment. The cycle needs to end here. Now.”

It hurt his soul to see their eyes lose light, but he had no choice. He pushed on. “What if this is what he wants? Name two Justices that could realistically save our country, so we stop, so we surrender. Keep them always at arms length from the Empty Throne. So close. Tantalisingly close. Almost as if a promise. ‘Soon.’ The people stop protesting, rioting, fighting, struggling. We fall in line. ‘Soon’ never comes. We can’t risk it. We can’t let it happen.”

At this point the Warris cell’s delegation was downcast. For the others, it was a fleeting hope that he had crushed. With them, it must have been deeper. He wondered how long they had fancied it, played with it, resisted hoping, as they argued and deliberated before finally accepting with a light heart and tears of joy that their work was done. He wondered how much damage he did. He could not help but see what he had done as an act of evil, even for all the good it would cause by allowing August’s plan to succeed.

“I’m sorry. I know how much you wanted it to be true. I did, too.” His voice was nearly a whisper. Their silence thickened like a fog. “Come on, let’s get back to the topic at hand.” His voice was a light touch on their backs, comforting, telling them he was here and he saw them and he heard them. It was an offered hand, pulling them to their feet. They had allowed themselves to dream, and he had softly shaken them awake.

Elias was the first to nod in agreement. “Alright. Yeah.” The rest soon followed. They discussed it more, and the idea was shot down, but the idea wasn’t why they were here, and it was not what had truly failed. No matter. Laurentiu could not let his conscience prevent the plan from being seen through. He needed to keep fighting. He had known it would be hard. It would all be worth it. When he saw August Byrne standing behind a podium, unchaining his country and his people, he could deal with the consequences of his sins. For now, the People’s Movement for Justice needed him.

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The Ends of the Urth

10 August 2022

There were two men meeting in an open plaza. In the centre of the plaza, a statue of Toma Nord stood tall and proud. In life, he was a General, and then a King-Consort. When his husband died, he was then a King. He created the first Parliament in Aivintis. Now, in death, he was a symbol of democracy. One man was seated in the plaza already, dressed himself in the regalia of a General, his white dress uniform adorned with medals of honour and rank. He stared absently at the statue, unaware of his comrade’s approach.

“Hello, Marc,” His Excellency Justice August Byrne greeted warmly, though the poise of politics never truly left him. His robes were shed, only his crisp suit remaining.

“August! Good to see you!” Senior General Marc Alupei was always so boisterous. August found it somewhat charming. As he did the lack of formal address. Almost everyone who referred to him by his first name did so because he asked it of them. S.G. Alupei just took one look at the new Justice, in his flowing robes, and called him by the name he always did. He’d smiled, then. He smiled now.

“Enjoying the monument?” Byrne asked, playfully, offering a quick glance to Toma Nord’s likeness.

“Eh, just thinking. I didn’t much notice the stone block.” As he said it, he began to do so. “Hm. I wonder why he hasn’t taken it down? Or why she hasn’t.”

August himself looked back up at it. “I’m not sure. I don’t know if she has the guts. Toma Nord’s a national hero. She’s just a footnote. I’d be surprised if anyone remembered her name in a hundred years. Him, on the other hand . . . maybe he likes the irony, or maybe it’s to keep up the sham.”

Marc quickly turned to August, hyper-aware of the potential treason his friend had committed. He shot him a warning look, then looked around with suspicion.

“Please,” August dismissed. “None of these people are spies for the Kritarchy. Even if they were, it wasn’t actually treason. I’m not saying the sham is bad. I’m saying it’s a sham. It is. It’s just also useful.”

“Even still . . .”

“Relax. If anyone asks, what did I say?”

“You didn’t say anything. I didn’t hear anything.”

“See? You’d be good at politics. If you tried.”

Alupei scoffed. “You need to talk to someone that isn’t a politician. To keep your ego in check.”

August laughed. “I keep telling you, you are a politician. A Senior General has as much influence as any other Councilmember. Or Councillor, if you’re in Trade and you want to feel different. Stoker was a Senior General, you know.”

“I’m not interested in politics. The backstabbing, the lying, I’m not comfortable with it all.”

“Don’t you think that’s what we need in politics? Someone tired of its evils?”

“Even if it makes me good for the people, it also makes me bad for the job. Tell me, and don’t deny that you know, was I ever considered for Justice?”

“I—” August trailed off. Unwilling to lie, he asked, “Why do you think I would know?”

“High Court Records. Surely, you’ve read them.”

August nearly laughed at his own forgetfulness, but it would be a bitter laugh. He was so busy concealing what he knew that he hadn’t remembered the things he should know. That was something to keep an eye on. “Oh. Right.” In answer to the actual question, he said, “Here’s the thing. The reason you weren’t considered is that you don’t want the job.”

“How’s Her Excellency Justice Lupu nowadays?”

“Oh come on, that’s different and you know it,” Byrne protested. “It was her or one of the worst people on the planet.”

“Then I’ll wait until it’s either me or Arthur Frost.”

“Arthur’s not that bad, if you get to know him,” August replied, although the other did not seem convinced. “He’s very strange, and can be annoying, but he’s not a bad person. He’s nothing like who Justice Lupu was up against. He hasn’t— he doesn’t— he’s nothing like him.”

“Let’s change the subject,” Marc advised. “Have you heard how Aivcast speaks of your recent stunt in the Trade Council?”

August let out a short laugh. “Funnily enough, having that much coverage wasn’t even my idea. I think Chief Justice Stoker was genuinely impressed at the show of force it represented. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I won his respect.”

“I don’t think that man has respected anyone in his life that his station didn’t make him. Do you remember the look he gave Duke Nicholas when he visited the palace in ‘09? God, it was almost worth the week of grovelling it took to get me on his honour guard.” Marc’s eyes shone with nostalgia.

“Before the Witch. When times were easier.”

Marc smiled. “The best part about His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice Stoker becoming Regent is that we can make fun of George Whitcher again without getting shot.”

“Now we know how Teodor Radu felt when he overthrew the Aeternus,” August joked.

“God-On-Urth, he was probably itching to make fun of the man’s statuary,” Marc added.

“Did you hear about the whole thing where the Aeternus statue in the Royal Palace had its wings broken off after the takeover?”

“Uh yeah, I think I read it somewhere online. It’s not real, is it?” The Senior General found it hard to believe that the first King of the Radu Dynasty was so petty.

His friend shrugged. “I like to think it is. Makes history more fun.”

“We’ve done it, we’ve found the only thing Historical Revisionism is good for,” Alupei bantered.

Byrne laughed, then grew a little more serious, before asking, “How’s your assignment going? How’s Redmondburg treating you?”

“Well, I’m mainly here as a threat, which means I have to be ready at all times to go to war with the police, but I also will likely never actually get to do it. I mean, not that I want to have to fight other Aivintians, it’s just that it makes me anxious to have my lips on the Gjallarhorn at every waking moment. I’ve been sleeping less.”

Justice Byrne nodded in understanding. His voice was more stately than before when he asked, “Would you like me to put you in for a transfer?”

Marc frowned. “You’re asking as His Excellency Justice Byrne, not as my friend August.” It wasn’t a question. He could tell immediately. It wasn’t the first time it happened. It had been happening more and more lately.

“. . . yes.” His hesitation was the only show of humanity he allowed. The response, when it came, was level and confident.

“You will expect a favour?” It was more of a question than the previous, but it was clear the Senior General had an inkling of an answer.

“Not yet.” The Justice’s face betrayed nothing, but Alupei knew he was planning something. The fact that he would not even let him know what his part was meant that it was bigger than any plan Byrne had ever executed.

“August . . .” he said in a warning tone.

“Yes, Senior General?” He couldn’t afford to let Alupei in on this, not yet. The plan demanded compartmentalisation. It demanded shadow.

Marc didn’t allow it to sting. He understood the separation of work and life that his friend needed to maintain. “Be careful.” His voice was soft. The separation could wait. This was big, and he needed to know his friend would not martyr himself.

“I know what I’m doing.” With anyone else, the statement would have sounded arrogant and distant, but Alupei understood it was August Byrne’s own way of accepting and appreciating his friend’s concern.

“Who will take my place here in Redmondburg?”

“It is not my decision.” Marc hated it when August was cryptic. It annoyed him to no end.

“But my own assignment is?”

“Yes.” Justice Byrne paused before adding, “We may not need a replacement.”

“Ole Governor’s stepping down?” There was slight humour in his tone, but the purpose was plainly probative.

“I didn’t say that.” Even more cryptic than before.

“Right. You didn’t say anything. I didn’t hear anything.” He was trying to shake his friend’s formality.

It worked. The Justice couldn’t help but smile. However, it quickly vanished. Before Marc could ask, he elucidated him. “This favour I will ask. It is no small thing.”

“It never is.”

“You understand my meaning.” They both knew this was different from the other political favours he had asked in days past.

“I do.”

“Good. When I ask it of you . . .”

“I will heed your call.”

“No matter what it is?”

“No matter what it is.” The trust in that one statement warmed August’s heart.

“If I ask for his head on a platter?” It was dangerous to ask this, not just for the fear of treason, but for the threat of S.G. Alupei discovering his actual plans.

“You won’t.” Such surety.

“If I do,” Justice Byrne pressed.

“You will have it.”

“You know I won’t ask for that.” The Justice was gone, and Marc’s friend had returned.

“I do.”

“I have committed a great many sins, Marc. I am planning to commit a great many more. I am putting you in harm’s way. I am asking much of you. I want you to know, I wouldn’t if I had any other choice. I do not want to take advantage of your friendship.”

“Understand, August, that I the Senior General stand behind you the Justice just as I the person stand behind you the same. It was the Justice asking. It was the Senior General answering.”

“Good,” Justice Byrne said, reassured. He stood up.

“Wait.” The man complied. “Where will I be assigned?”

“Greater Asluagh, Templar District.”

“The Imperial Palace . . .” There was awe, but suspicion as well.

“Nistor Grigorescu commands its garrison. Chief Justice Stoker has decided it is time for a change. You will answer solely to His Exalted Excellency. None other is your superior. Your place in the Council is unaffected by this. Do you understand the weight of this assignment?”

“His Exalted Excellency will allow a friend of yours in the assignment? Isn’t that as dangerous as keeping His Excellency Justice Grigorescu in control?”

“His Exalted Excellency has approved of your assignment,” Justice Byrne confirmed. “Choose half of your best officers and a quarter of your best soldiers. The existing garrison will offer the other half of the officers and the other three quarters of the soldiers. The rest of your current assignment will be reassigned ad hoc. The details of your assignment are confined to you and the officers you choose. None other may know. They will be informed with the rest of the public. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your Excellency,” August corrected. “Against my wishes, my better judgement demands that we maintain proper formality in public as a result of the gravity of your assignment.”

“I’m not so sure I want it now.”

“Of course you do,” the Justice said. At that, he departed, leaving Marc to contemplate the truth of his parting words.

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19 August 2022

Governor Arden Blackburn received His Excellency Justice August Byrne in the former throne room of their current Governor’s Mansion. The throne’s armrests ended in the heads of lions, and the elegant seat was covered in a long cloth striped red and white. Byrne’s first thought was that it would be uncomfortable to sit in. Above the throne, like a Sword of Damocles, the Lion Crown itself was mounted on the wall. There used to be an actual lion’s head there, but that was when the crown had a head to rest on. The former Duke of Marnacia was dead, and his firstborn was the Governor of Thaddea, now, as a form of placation. The crown stayed there. Arden followed his gaze and smiled.

“That was my husband’s idea, Your Excellency,” they said, simply. “I’ve closed the throne room in recent times due to the very topic of our meeting, but the tourists used to pay a great deal to see the ducal throne. The crown. The portraits. All of it. To be honest, it was somewhat hubristic,” they confessed. “Inviting the masses into your home as an unelected leader. A show of confidence, one might say, but arrogance, says another. I’ll be relocating the decor to a museum built like a replica, now.”

“Confidence, I would have said.” The Governor looked at him, their eyes curious. “The way I see it, the confidence of our leaders is the very thing holding our country together. Now, it might be arrogance, but before, I would have said it was confidence.”

“What did you do with the Elk and the Crossroads, Your Excellency, if I may ask?” This was more curiosity, more inquisitiveness. They, of course, referred to the Elk Throne and the Crossroads Crown, the symbols of monarchy in Castenor. Justice Byrne had almost forgotten that he was once a Governor himself. It was only a few months prior, but it felt like a lifetime ago.

“The University. I didn’t really want it, and they asked for it, so I complied. Funnily enough, the Danesti Foundation had offered to buy it. I almost let them, but then the Dean of UC asked for it, and, well, I was an alumnus, and it was a government institution, so I figured it was better.”

“Yes, Dr Danesti contacted me as well. I wasn’t quite sure of his intentions, though, so I declined. His financial officer, Mx Caragiale, as I recall, was sent to negotiate further, but the talk of history and education struck me as somewhat ingenuine. I know Westhafen was happy to sell their crown. Destroyed the throne, though, to appease some extremist groups in the city. This was before the ICHO, of course. I hear Dr Danesti gave the Governor an earful about destruction of historical artefacts.”

Justice Byrne chuckled. “I can imagine.”

“Well, Your Excellency, I can’t quite expect you to stand for our entire meeting. Come with me, we’ll go to the meeting room upstairs.” Blackburn’s approach to politics seemed to be the proper application of cunning and charm. They were very good at it. They had, of course, a lot of experience. They had been Governor since the Whitcher Coup. Before that, they were the Minister of War. They’d been everything from a Senator to an Imperial Colonel. They were well acquainted with power. They practically embodied it. More than that, they were one of the most fervent loyalists to the regime. Hence their appointment in Marnacia, historically the most prone to rebellion.

The two did not speak as they bypassed security without even so much as a patdown of the Justice’s black robes. He did have a gun, though he assured the Governor he did not, but it was more for self-defence than for any nefarious purpose. He’d considered killing Governor Blackburn, of course, but he wasn’t sure he could succeed. Maybe leave it to whichever psychopath took down Gavrilo Ristic. The guards had been instructed to leave them be for the remainder of the meeting, at Justice Byrne’s request, and so here the two had privacy. The corridors they walked were lined with wood panelling sourced from trees cut down in the Red Leaf Forest decades prior. They were too narrow to allow for the comfortable placement of paintings or other decorations. The stairwell was a stark contrast to the hallway, utilitarian in design and likely added into the building by Governor Blackburn themselves.

They reached the meeting room, which did have space for decorations. Three paintings hung on the wall beside a projector screen, likely for presentations during state meetings. One painting showed the Aivintian defeat at Adelslin and Norwich in 1664, which was a Marnacian defeat as well, but an ever present reminder of the nation’s weakness. The Governor likely kept it as a warning against hubris, although the Dukes before them had certainly commissioned it to spit in the Empire’s face. A second painting showed the old god Arkyr descending from the stars while the Aivintian people emerged from the clay below him. The third was strange, displaying two glowing white boats with graceful sails, gliding down a river at night, the moon shining dimly down on them. Trees lined the shore, and the perspective was far enough away to make the focus of the image - the boats - look distant and small.

Governor Blackburn again noticed the Justice’s interest. “That painting has been here since the 19th century. Records show that a travelling painter offered it to the Foreign Magister, and the Foreign Magister accepted. That’s all we know about it. It’s a curious piece, isn’t it, Your Excellency?”

Justice Byrne absentmindedly nodded, captivated by the scene. It looked so real, even though it was clearly just an oil painting, as if it was a window to another world. He turned to the Governor, who had already taken a seat at the head of a long oval table, and was watching him. They gestured silently to the empty seats, of which there were many, and August sat with a chair between them, to make conversation easier but less crowded. He sat on the far side of the entrance door. When he turned to face the Governor, the projector screen was on the wall behind him.

“As much as I enjoy these little chats, Governor, I believe we have business to attend to.” It was a light nudge, polite enough, and Blackburn didn’t mind.

“Of course, Your Excellency,” they replied. “You see, the so-called People’s Movement for Justice has had a presence in my city for far too long, and I believe it’s time to take action against them.”

“I agree,” Byrne lied. “They’re interfering with the governance of our country. They are coordinating acts of terror, promoting high treason, and unsettling the citizenry. We need to end their disruption before they cause lasting damage.”

“Forgive me, Your Excellency, but I don’t believe they have the ability to cause lasting damage.” The mockery in the Governor’s voice was thick.

“They don’t have the power to overthrow the government, no, but they do have the power to incite violence and infect the people’s minds with doubt in our leadership.”

“That is a wise observation, Your Excellency. I do not wish to underestimate them anymore than you do. It’s why I invited you here. You are the newest Justice, I am aware, but your ambition and influence is remarkable, among other high officials and with the people. You are also more moderate than I, but I still believe our greatest chance of defeating this terrorist organisation lies with you.”

“Thank you, Governor, for your trust and confidence,” Byrne replied. Straining his ears slightly, he held a hand up before they could continue. “It appears we have an interruption,” he said quietly. The Governor looked alarmed before Byrne raised his voice and called, “I hope you’re not planning to loiter outside the door for the whole day. You may enter.”

The door creaked open to reveal a young man, perhaps nineteen or twenty years old. The Governor’s son. Elias Blackburn. Instantly recognisable from his resemblance to his parent, but also an individual whom the Justice had found it prudent to keep an eye on. The leader of the PMJ cell in Marnacia, he knew, though he also knew there was no true suspicion of him. He had a vested interest in this conversation, of course, but was smart enough to have already formulated an excuse for his espionage.

“I am so sorry, Your Excellency, Governor,” Elias said, addressing them both. Arden’s suspicion and panic evaporated, replaced by muted disappointment. August, however, did not show any emotion yet.

“What are you doing here, son?” The Governor asked sternly.

“I just wanted to get involved more,” the man answered, with a practised tone. Before the Governor could unmute their disappointment, he continued, “I understand I have an important job, but . . . Customs, really? If I want any chance of being Governor after you, I need to be included in more political discussions.”

“I’m sorry for my son, Your Excellency” the Governor told Byrne. “Military training didn’t quite eliminate his rebellious spirit.” It took significant willpower for the Justice not to laugh at that. “I will send him away. He is usually much more respectful, I promise. Please do not let this affect your image of him.”

“His ambition is admirable. Let him be,” August finally said, visibly letting himself be more amused than angry. It was a front, of course, he just didn’t want it to be very difficult for this information to reach the PMJ. “Were we not just discussing my own ambition? Of course, it was a gambit to display it so openly, but it was a calculated risk, I understand. Your son is a smart man, Governor.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency. Elias, please take a seat. Now. As I was saying,” the Governor said crossly, “the PMJ has become a thorn in my side I wish to remove.” They gestured vaguely to the city outside the room. “The city is very tense. Their little gatherings are stopped quickly, but not quickly enough to actually catch any of them. Whenever we manage to pick up a few stragglers, it’s always the people that were already in the square before the protest, and joined in later on. We discovered that the PMJ members wore red to distinguish themselves, but then they stopped altogether. We’ve identified some key terrorists, who had already long-abandoned their homes and lives, but uncovering the identity of more has become difficult, as they’ve managed to disable any nearby security cameras before their activities. We are making progress, but slowly.”

“The PMJ are smart,” Justice Byrne began, “but not that smart. I would begin investigating your police force. There may be a leak.”

“I agree, Your Excellency,” Elias piped up. “This amount of luck is unprecedented. They have to have someone on the inside.” Brave.

The Governor let their gaze linger on their son before nodding. “Very well. We will begin an internal investigation. In the meantime, how possible do you think it is for my city to procure more funding for the police, Your Excellency?”

Byrne winced. “That’s a bit of a sore subject. Redmondburg was the last to receive an increased budget, and their Governor used it to challenge His Exalted Excellency’s authority in the country. You are as loyal as any Governor, but Marnacia has a history, and our guard is up.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

“Surely there are measures of escalation that do not require additional funds?” Byrne asked innocently.

“Yes, yes. We’ve discussed the possibility of a curfew, but then again, we don’t want it to tread the same tracks as Redmondburg in that way as well. I could do more checkpoints, but we’re spread thin already. Police officers are begging for more vacation days and less work hours. It won’t lead to anything, thanks to the government workers exception to the Unionisation Act, but it’s concerning. I’m afraid their productivity is declining.”

“It’s a difficult balancing act, Governor.” The Justice paused. He had an idea. “What if you gave them what they wanted?” Both Blackburns looked confused.

“Then I’d be giving the PMJ what they wanted as well. What are you thinking, Your Excellency?” The Governor was smart to assume that there was a catch in Byrne’s proposal.

“If you decrease concentration somewhere, you can increase concentration elsewhere. Close certain roads to increase response time, position them at random points with high levels of access, and I promise you will get lucky eventually. It could be months before you catch them, but if you do this enough, the probability of the PMJ ever getting caught increases. If you continue as you are, it’s not going to work. They’ll still be a step ahead, and you a step behind. You can’t overwhelm them with force, but you can position your force to maximise its impact, at the cost of losing coverage in other areas. As long as they don’t know where all your teams are, they can’t avoid you forever.”

Governor Blackburn looked unconvinced. “This is extremely unconventional, Your Excellency. I do not wish to loosen law and order in any place in the city.”

Their son, interestingly, agreed. “The PMJ isn’t the only source of crime. We still need to deal with the mafia, and with the average murderer and thief. The police need to protect the city from all threats, not just the PMJ.”

“Hm, perhaps you two are right,” Justice Byrne said. “I have another idea.”

“Oh, Your Excellency?” The Governor prompted.

“You won’t like it.”

“I will not hold any suggestion against you, Your Excellency,” Arden insisted.

“Military occupation.” He didn’t explain. He didn’t need to. Both understood his meaning. Let the police rest more, at the cost of the city’s autonomy over law and order. At the cost of the Governor’s own control over their city.

“No,” came Elias’s voice, surprisingly. “My— The Governor,” he corrected, “has ruled this city since His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice George Whitcher took power. They are one of the main reasons for why the Kritarchy exists today. They are a far more capable leader than any general the High Court could choose.” It was admirable loyalty, even though Justice Byrne was sure it was out of self-preservation.

“Thank you, Elias, but the wellbeing of the city is above all,” the Governor pointed out.

“You’re not actually going to do this, are you?” The younger Blackburn sounded aghast.

“I’m considering it. I have not yet made a decision.”

“Whatever you choose,” Justice Byrne assured, “I will support you. This won’t be like Redmondburg, I hope you know.”

“I do. Thank you, Your Excellency. Your help today will be remembered.”

“I live to serve, Governor.” With that, the Justice gestured to Elias. “Mr Blackburn, please escort me out. The Governor has a lot to consider.” The secret revolutionary nodded, and stood with the Justice.

When the two exited the room, they remained silent until they were finally out of all earshot. “Elias,” Justice Byrne said.

“Yes, Your Excellency?”

“They will not agree to what I have proposed. Don’t worry.”

“Excuse me?” It was genuine confusion.

“The Governor will not accept military occupation. You have no need to worry about it.”

“I just worry about their station is all.” He was nervous, though he hid it well.

August Byrne didn’t mind the nervousness. He was a symbol of what Elias wanted to destroy, and a great threat to the revolution by his reckoning. “Detective Filip Enache,” he named.

“I’m sorry, Your Excellency, I don’t follow.”

“The Detective is corrupt. He has been providing information and assistance to the mafia for years. He has access to all the information that was leaked to the PMJ.”

“Your Excellency, do you believe this Detective is the source of the leak?” He worded it carefully.

Now was the time to reveal his hidden agenda. “I want the Governor to think so. Part of that means removing his ability to defend his name. Kill him.”

“What?” the Governor’s son spluttered.

“Kill Detective Filip Enache. When the internal investigation begins, evidence will reveal that he was leaking to the PMJ, but threatened to stop sending information, and the PMJ killed him in retaliation. It will keep your parent and any other interested actor from discovering your association with the group. It will tie up all loose ends and buy you some time. In the meantime, do not change the Movement’s behaviour. Do not give any indication that this meeting has changed anything. It will be too suspicious. I assure you there will be no military occupation. Stand by for further orders from Laurentiu or myself. Your cell will be instrumental in the coming days.”

The other man was stunned.

Justice Byrne gave him a curious look. “Feel free to contact Mr Aldulescu and confirm my interest in the Movement’s continued survival. He will answer any questions you have. Do not tell anyone else. No one in the Movement can know. Certainly no one outside it. Any attempt to reveal my true loyalties will result in your immediate, painful death as well as that of your parent, whom I know you would like to see alive and well, but simply without office. Beyond these consequences, revealing my true nature will accomplish nothing. You cannot begin to comprehend the breadth of the Revolution. It is coming and it is coming soon. Comply.”

Elias Blackburn did not know how to answer, so all he said was, “Yes, Your Excellency. It will be done.”

“Good,” August replied, satisfied with the PMJ member’s support. “Now. I can find my way from here. Do not go back to the Governor, your current state of confusion will lead to carelessness and suspicion. Return to your post at Customs, or to your quarters if you so desire.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

The robed Justice left the Governor’s son with the latter’s head spinning. He went past mansion security once again, then exited the building. His business in Marnacia was over. It was time to return to the capital.

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Make Them Feel Important

31 August 2022

The warship Sasha Radu had been the flagship of Junior Admiral Sinclair since he was a young Senior Captain promoted to command of a cruiser, leaving behind his destroyer, the Vehement. There were two other cruisers under his command now, but despite his recent promotion, he was determined not to change his flagship. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to establish dominance over the Senior Captains in his fleet. His own ship had a sentimental nostalgia to it. He had grown attached to it.

The Asluagh Bay Fleet was a major promotion. The fleet’s guns were only ever hot in drills and attacks on the capital of the nation, but that didn’t matter. The prestige of being assigned the defence of the homeland was worth more than the battlefield honours of being assigned to an expeditionary fleet. It was similar to being appointed the General in charge of the Asluagh garrison, which was another promotion that had been made recently. Sinclair felt the shift in military power deeply, even if he didn’t quite understand the root causes. Very few did, not even Chief Justice Stoker or Justice Grigorescu, who, on paper, made these changes.

The real strings were being pulled by the man who was being expected on Sinclair’s cruiser within the hour, although the Junior Admiral didn’t know it. One of the benefits of being a Junior Admiral in Greater Asluagh was having the same voice as a Senior Admiral in the Military Council. The Senior Admirals and Generals met every month to discuss military matters. Although, as there was no quorum, and many of the military’s top brass was assigned many kilometres away, it would often come down to a handful of leaders. Those Senior Generals and Admirals that bothered to visit the capitol, and the fewer still who were held on conference call. And, of course, Sinclair.

His Excellency Justice Grigorescu had met with Sinclair multiple times over the course of his officer career. Well, ever since he Captained his own cruiser, at least. As a lowly destroyer Captain, he only saw the Justice from a distance. However, Grigorescu was the only one he had ever met. His Excellency Justice Byrne had never spoken with the man, not even when he was a Governor. This was exciting and new for the Junior Admiral. He knew the two Justices had once shared a law firm with each other and the infamous terrorist Laurentiu Aldulescu. He wondered how it must have felt to work at that firm, knowing that all three of your bosses would eventually become three of the most impactful historical figures of your era.

It was a great honour to receive any Justice, but the fact that it was not Grigorescu, the military leader of the country, led to the beginning of some rumours. Perhaps the newly named Junior Admiral was being pulled out of the military and put on a bench somewhere, in preparation for a future Justice appointment. Not all the rumours were so positive. Some suggested Sinclair was on trial for some crime, and others insisted that Byrne had his eyes set on taking control of the Military Council from Grigorescu. The news stories, however, suggested that he was not so underhanded. Perhaps he was just visiting on a favour for a busy Justice Grigorescu.

Sinclair was content to enjoy the excitement while it lasted. He was very aware that this position would be a quiet one, and that most of the fleet’s business involved customs duties and rescue missions that he himself would be more than willing and able to sit out of. He could grow tired of his station quickly, if he could not find some interest in it. It was the reason the previous Admiral had been removed, having developed fun habits that put his white blood cells to work. Sinclair considered taking up tennis. He was a jogger, but that was less of a hobby and more of an exercise requirement. Maybe he would enrol in Greater Asluagh University. Pursue a Doctorate in Defence Studies or Philosophy, or something.

One thing he intended to do was utilise his unique opportunity at early employment in the Military Council to his benefit. He could be promoted to Senior Admiral without moving his station, if he played his cards right, and at that point, all he had to do was wait for Grigorescu to die or retire, which would take a few decades, perhaps, but it wasn’t as if Sinclair couldn’t outlast the man. He had a much longer lifespan, after all. He could eventually become a Justice. Perhaps even Chief Justice one day. It was a dream many probably had, but he was in a unique position where he did have an, albeit small, actual possibility of achieving it. Maybe he would just be content to stay where he was. It depended on how much he liked his position.

His musing was interrupted by a junior officer on board informing him that His Excellency Justice August Byrne had come aboard. It was traditional for politicians to request permission to come aboard, even though it wasn’t required by any law or regulation, so it somewhat annoyed Sinclair, but he knew it was just his ego. He didn’t like to think that the Justice didn’t respect his command. He pushed the feeling aside, as it was of no use to him. He prepared his most winning smile and opened the door to see the man of the hour, dressed in black robes that made him look somewhat like the Grim Reaper.

“Hello Junior Admiral Sinclair. Allow me to congratulate you on your recent appointment,” Justice Byrne began.

“Thank you, Your Excellency. It is a pleasure to have you aboard.”

“It is a pleasure to be here.” Signalling to the junior officer that had announced his arrival, and a few crew members, the Justice commanded, “Give us some privacy.” It was second nature for them to do as he said immediately, even though it should have been Sinclair ordering them away. Was the Justice undermining his authority after all? “Junior Admiral, I will be honest, I believe you have a higher capacity than any other military commander for leadership.” Oh. Hm. That rendered his earlier theory null.

“You do?”

“I do. You graduated at the top of your class in the Officer’s Academy. You were promoted quickly, and you proved to have a level head on your shoulders. You know when and how to take charge, just as you know when and how to defer to higher authorities.”

Sinclair wasn’t sure if that was a veiled threat, but decided he didn’t care. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“I admit, I had a small hand in your promotion to Junior Admiral. I called in a favour to have one of the Senior Admirals suggest you. It was primarily your impeccable record, and the values I mentioned, but I find that sometimes people need a little bit of a nudge to acknowledge greatness. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“I’m afraid I will be challenging the very values that make you great, today, Mr Sinclair.”

“Your Excellency?”

“His Exalted Excellency Eduard Stoker, Chief Justice of the High Court and Regent of Aivintis, has tasked me with a very private mission.” It was important he used the full, extended title for the tyrant, with all its honours and elegance. It was a necessary flourish. “It is highly classified. None but His Exalted Excellency and I myself have been informed. You see, Justice Grigorescu is being investigated by His Exalted Excellency. I have been tasked with keeping an eye on him and his immediate inferiors. You, of all the Councilmembers of War, have the most power over the defence of our nation. If, Ademar forbid, Justice Grigorescu attempted a coup d’etat, you could either be our first line of defence or his first line of attack. I know this is difficult to understand, but we cannot let you be a tool for attack. Do you love your country, Junior Admiral Sinclair?”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“Then you will abide by my orders. Do not worry, I will not ask anything too demanding of you. If I receive word of an imminent attack, I need your fleet to spur into motion and prevent any movement in and out of the Bay. This order, while delivered by me, will come directly from His Exalted Excellency, the highest authority in the land. It will supersede all other orders and directives. You will abandon all other missions to comply. No matter what Justice Grigorescu or any other Admiral says.”

“Of course, Your Excellency.”

“I understand if this unsettles you. Know that I will not ask anything else of you. Only that you keep this information to yourself. You will not need to lie to any superiors. They will not ask. You will officially report my visit as a meeting to discuss new customs regulations. This is not a lie.” He pulled out a manila folder. “These are the new regulations. Distribute this information properly. There are no major alterations.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“Thank you for your service, Junior Admiral. You will be instrumental in this investigation. My heart tells me Justice Grigorescu, an old colleague of mine, as you may know, is innocent and pure. However, I must perform my duties. Of course, you understand.”

“I do, Your Excellency.”

“In addition, I have provided you with a private bodyguard. I understand you have not yet selected one.”

“I haven’t, Your Excellency.”

The Justice poked his head out of the room and spoke rapidly. Then, a soldier entered, dressed like any elite sailor trained in sea and land combat, except for an obsidian black ring on his right index finger.

“I hand selected him. He is the best of the best. If Grigorescu makes any move against you, he will protect you.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“I cannot stay long, Junior Admiral Sinclair. Remember your orders. Your nation is counting on you. His Exalted Excellency is counting on you.”

“I will not fail you, Your Excellency.”

“Good day,” Justice Byrne said simply, and then he was gone.

Junior Admiral Sinclair was impressed by his commanding presence, his swiftness and his ability to instil respect in all who met with him. The Justice himself was impressed with Sinclair’s loyalty and sense of duty. It was easy to manipulate. It helped that, if Sinclair stepped out of line, the Black Hand assassin he had hired to play the role of bodyguard would kill him and escape before anyone could blink. Now, he had control over all the forces in and around the capital. It made him feel powerful. He had more to do, of course. He always did. Even his control over the military was not absolute. He had the power to mobilise the units in the capital, but he needed the power to make the rest stand down. That would be more difficult than this had been, although this had only been easy because of the many risks he had taken in the past month. He couldn’t afford to be sloppy.

Enemies to Justice

9 September 2022


Beloved citizens of The Aivintian Empire. These are trying times. In a few weeks, the anniversary of Justice Mardare’s death will be upon us. Justice Crane’s own death remains fresh in our minds. Our country has experienced great troubles, but we have faced them, together, and we have come out stronger together. Aivintis is a powerful nation. The Aivintians are a powerful people. We will persist. We will prevail. It is in our nature.

There are those among us who have lost their way. Those who have become disillusioned with the necessity of a strong government. They believe that it is not necessary to maintain law and order. They believe the strength of our great Empire has declined. In the same breath, they preach treason, violence, and terrorism. They aim to bring this country to its knees, and claim it is us, the great people of this great Empire, that have ruined the nation.

We face a war of ideology and a crisis of morality. The social contract theory asserts that the government is the will of the people, and yet the terrorists in the grossly inaccurately named People’s Movement for Justice claim this is somehow not the case. They demand that, instead of the government upheld by the will of the people, we capitulate to their desires, to their ambitions. They want nothing more and nothing less than complete, tyrannical control over this nation and its people. They call the true, legitimate, loving government of this nation criminals and tyrants, while they themselves promote crime and tyranny.

They are the worst kind of terrorists. They do not embrace the terror they cause. They cause it and blame it on us. They cause it and claim it to be just. The worst kind of enemy to justice is that which pretends to be a friend to it. No justice is in their attacks, in their crimes. There is no justice in indiscriminate bombings and shootings. There is no justice in mass gatherings which disrupt our way of life and attempt to manipulate us into becoming puppets to their leader. They believe that their evil is justified. They are not themselves evil. They are misguided, manipulated, and coerced into supporting a campaign of great evil.

Their leader, Laurentiu Aldulescu, twists their beliefs and moulds their minds to his will. He demands that they be willing to die for him. Then he sends them to kill and destroy. They are monsters at his bidding. As such, he is the true monster. I feel great sympathy for those who have been somehow convinced that they are doing good. I feel great empathy for those who feel they are doing right by their country. I cannot feel mercy, however. I cannot tolerate them to continually erode the moral foundation of our nation. I cannot let them tear down this country and build a new one on the grounds of fear, violence, aggression, and terror.

The Empire will not rest until these monsters are hunted down and their flames of revolt extinguished. Their misguided crusade will end in disaster. All the pain and all the suffering they have unnecessarily caused will lead to nothing. They will not win. They cannot win. The great protectors of this nation, the unsung heroes in our police force and military, will prevent their aimless destruction. They face against the unified might of our great nation. They stand against the principles of order, peace, and safety. They stand against you. They stand against us. They will not succeed. We will prevail.

I invite all the misguided criminals who have decided to take up arms against the innocent people of this nation to lay down their arms and surrender. The police will treat them with fairness and dignity. It is more than you offer them, when you bomb police cars and murder officers of the law. Officers with families, friends, and lives. If you lay down your destructive ways and cooperate with us, the great people and nation of Aivintis, you will be treated more fairly than you deserve. Any attempt to curtail the bloody expansion of this evil organisation will be met with praise and reward from the Aivintian Empire. Do your part to protect our way of life.

The People’s Movement for Justice is a brief footnote in the history of Aivintis. A dark blemish on our wonderful nation. The Aivintian Empire will persist. The Aivintian Empire will prevail. It is in our nature. I wish to acknowledge and offer gratitude for the efforts of those who have assisted in bringing these monsters to justice. I wish to acknowledge and offer gratitude for the faith and strength of the Aivintian people in these uncertain times. I assure you, your country will not end in fire like these enemies to justice desire.

In solidarity and humble servitude,
His Exalted Excellency, Eduard Stoker
Regent of the Aivintian Throne
Chief Minister of the Imperial Cabinet
Chief Justice of the High Court


15 October 2022

“This Session of the High Court is hereby convened per the request of His Exalted Excellency Eduard Stoker, Acting Regent, Chief Minister, and Chief Justice of Aivintis.”

“Thank you, Recordkeeper.” Chief Justice Stoker looked over each of the assembled Justices. This time last year, he was introducing a new Justice to the High Court. Since the beginning of 2021, the Court had seen two vacancies which were subsequently filled. Stable governments, he knew, did not require so many new leaders. In the same period of time, dozens of countries had experienced zero changes to their leadership. They looked weak, he knew it. He was determined to make the Kritarchy last beyond his death. He would not be the leader that ended the Empire. “Let’s forget the formalities. I really don’t need to know what every Council in the country is doing. I don’t need to hear about every little fucking thing. Are there any pressing matters that require my attention?”

Silence. No one wished to talk about their failures. They, too, knew the instability of the country. They would not let themselves be victims of it.

“Very well. Then we shall discuss the primary reason for this assembled Court. The continuation or end of the Death Penalty as an appropriate punishment under our legal system. As requested by Justice Byrne.”

“Thank you, Your Exalted Excellency,” Justice Byrne cut in. “Before we begin, I wish to request that our session be a matter of public record from this point onwards.”

Chief Justice Stoker raised an eyebrow in mock surprise. He had been informed of this, of course, otherwise he would have flayed the man, but he had to keep up appearances. He still wasn’t sure why August had proposed this — Justice Byrne was an excellent public speaker and his ability to sell policy was second to few, but the death penalty was a highly contentious topic, one which many, perhaps most, Aivintians disagreed with Byrne on. The Justices arrayed against him would not be swayed by a public record. In fact, many of their arguments might be emboldened.

“Any objections?” His Exalted Excellency asked.

“None from me, Your Exalted Excellency,” Justice Grigorescu replied, all too eager to appeal to the sense of justice that the Kritarchy had so carefully cultivated.

“Nor I,” added Groza, almost tentatively, his mind warring over potential motives in the same moments as it began to develop arguments.

Justice Lupu looked up at the Chief Justice with concealed disgust. “I have no objections,” she shrugged.

“Very well. The record from this point onwards shall be public,” Chief Justice Stoker announced.

“The record shall so reflect,” chimed in a small voice, which made Justice Grigorescu jump.

“Thank you, Recordkeeper,” Stoker dismissed. “Justice Byrne, I understand you have a motion to bring to the High Court and Cabinet?”

“Yes, Your Exalted Excellency. I hereby move to eliminate the death penalty as a valid sentencing in all judicial districts for any crime. I believe that eliminating the Death Penalty will be an essential step into the future. It will be done, whether we do it now, or our descendants do it a hundred years down the line. It will soon be a thing of the past. We can step into the future, or cling to the past. I assure you, the public and the international community will think higher of us if we do the former, rather than the latter.”

“Your motion is observed, Justice Byrne. I hereby open the session to discussion. In hearing this matter I will abstain from opining.”

“Thank you, Your Exalted Excellency,” came Byrne’s even reply. “Again, I assert that the future is elimination of the death penalty. Many civilised nations have already taken this step. The Ethalns are largely against such a punishment, Oscrelia abolished it in the 90s, Tavaris in 2000. Durakia has no death penalty, nor does Nystatiszna. If you look at the nations that have it, such as Kæra’zna and Meagharia, you see a correlation between the death penalty and various forms of tyranny.”

“His Excellency forgets,” interrupted Grigorescu, “that one of our closest allies, Norgsveldet, employs the death penalty. It is not enough for tyrannical nations to have it. It must be used for tyranny.”

“I agree,” conceded Justice Byrne. “However, the general trend appears to be leaning towards more civilised, just nations eliminating execution and more barbaric nations keeping it. Through the reckoning of time, I affirm that this will hold true. Aivintis can set an example for our illustrious allies. We can be a leader in our time. A beacon of progress. We can build a better future, and all it will cost is letting go of outdated traditions. Sometimes, the strongest thing we can do is take a bold step into the uncertain future, to do the right thing when it means changing our way of life.”

“You can talk about grand schemes of morality from now until sunset,” Grigorescu scoffed, “but what of justice?” There it was. It took naught but a few minutes for the man to hearken to the false ideal pervading every level of Aivintian culture, the word that sounded like a bell in every level of the government, the word that was a clarion call for the coming revolution. Justice Byrne wished he could be amused by it, but it was just disheartening. Chief Justice Stoker, similarly, was somewhat disappointed at how quickly it descended to this. He would have liked a more interesting argument.

“Is death justice?” Byrne asked rhetorically.

“Is it not just to punish evil? Is it not just to prevent killers from striking again? Is it not just to bring closure and comfort to the families of those who have been robbed of their lives? Is it not just for those who bomb courthouses in session and hospitals saving the lives of police superintendents to face the chair, the injection, or the gallows?” Grigorescu’s voice rose. It was not the first time the two had argued. When they were legal partners, they would fight like this at least once a month. Their life philosophies were in opposition to each other. It was only natural such would happen. It felt right to return to it. It was a comfortable battle of wits and morals. At the firm, it was Aldulescu who would break their tie. Here, it would be Stoker. The stakes were raised. It wasn’t about taking certain clients or adopting certain defence strategies. It was about the corruption of a nation.

“There are many people who deserve to die, Your Excellency,” Byrne retorted. “There are many I’d wish to kill by my own hand. People such as Joseph Montauk, who, just last year, was executed for killing twenty seven people. There are undoubtedly people this world would be better without. But what does it say about us if we decide to give ourselves the power over life and death? To kill is to debase the spirit, to corrupt the soul. It is to degrade ourselves to the likes of Joseph Montauk. How many Honourable Judges have sentenced twenty seven people to death? It eases our mind to think them worthy of death, but that isn’t the question, the question is do we deserve to kill? Do we deserve to play the part of the God-on-Urth? To steal from the Great Architect of the Universe? What makes us different from them? Is it only right to kill with the approval of the government?”

“The government must take the moral burden to protect society,” Grigorescu countered. “It is our duty to protect our people from the likes of Joseph Montauk. If Mr Montauk was caught after the first death, and executed, twenty six people would be saved. Innocent people.”

“They would be saved if he was locked away for life as well. Yet the difference between a life and death sentence is the blood on our hands.”

“The difference is that none can appeal a death sentence. None can get out of Hell on parole. None can break out of the grave.” Grigorescu seemed proud of this, but he had inadvertently fallen into the other Justice’s trap.

“Exactly. No one can appeal it. If the justice system treats a death row inmate unfairly, there is no opportunity to rectify that injustice. If someone is wrongfully accused, the record can never be set straight. There can’t be pardons. There can’t be appeals. There can’t be parole. They can’t reform. They can’t be better.”

“So you’d have murderers be able to break free and kill again?”

“No, of course not,” Justice Byrne said, but with such an obvious tone that it did not have the same effect as Nistor intended. “Prison escapes are very rare, and almost unheard of in maximum security. The only way murderers would leave prison is if the justice system determined them to have reformed. To truly feel remorse and guilt for their actions, but to have overcome their faults and sins so that they may try again. So that they may contribute to society rather than affront it.”

“A second chance that the people they killed never got. Where is the justice in that?” Justice, again. The word was spoken so much it lost all meaning. August was sick and tired of hearing the word justice. He was tired of hearing it thrown around to justify crimes against an entire people. He was tired of hearing it be used to address people who deserved death as surely as any murderer. These people who were murderers themselves, and thieves, and frauds, and monsters. Barely human, holding onto this false sense of justice as if it made everything right. As if it excused their actions. People who would never know the true meaning of the word, who would never be brought to justice themselves.

He didn’t say that. Instead, he said, “where is the justice in doing the very thing we condemn? Where is the superiority in hypocrisy?”

“Hypocrisy was if we killed without thought, without reason, without a fair trial. If we killed as they did. Montauk’s victims died without justice, Montauk died with justice.”

“Did it bring them back? Montauk deserved death, but his victims deserved life, too and we cannot give that to them. We cannot bring back to life, we shouldn’t be so hasty to bring to death. We do not have the powers of the God-on-Urth, we should not attempt to emulate them.”

Justice Grigorescu was shaking his head the whole time, a movement which would not make it into the public record. “The death penalty is a punishment for wrongdoing second to none. To make murder a capital offence is to dare the would-be murderer to face the reality of his actions. It is an effective deterrent against crime. This cannot be argued away, Your Excellency,” he nearly shouted, putting as much venom into the style as he could. “With those for whom death is no deterrent, there can be no saving. There can be no reformation. Society must make it so that they cannot act again with such reckless abandon, with such evil. Lex talionis. The law of retaliation. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. No harm may be done without just harm being visited upon the wrongdoer.”

“An eye for an eye makes the world blind, Your Excellency. This is vengeance, not justice. There is a line that must be drawn. Did the families of Montauk’s victims find closure in his death? Did they find peace? Did they lose their grief? Did they lose their hate? Did their ache for the lost diminish?”

Justice Groza’s brow furrowed. He was deep in thought. Justice Lupu looked down in shame. Chief Justice Stoker remained passive and unmoving as stone. Justice Grigorescu’s face did not change from its practised stoicism. He paused to think, to strategize, then issued his rebuttal.

“Nothing the living can do can bring the dead back. Nothing we can do can make that pain bearable. However, we have a duty to ourselves, to each other, and to our children to punish. It does not bring the dead back to do so, but it eases their spirits to be avenged. It eases the living’s minds to know that such a heinous individual as Montauk is gone. The world is a better place without him. Aivintis is a better place without him. Kantian ethics suggest that every murderer deserves to die, for the crime is so unthinkable that the punishment must be equally so in order to be proportional and, thus, just.”

“What about the mistakes?” Justice Groza asked. Byrne studied his colleague closely. He was an asset, certainly, a fucking important one. More important than Groza even knew. He was more than the leak. He was the key to the revolution’s success. Every moment Byrne could take to gauge the man’s intentions, to peer into his mind, was a moment he could not take for granted. This was more than an interesting development. It was a potential to discover something crucial about the Justice.

“What do you mean?” asked Justice Grigorescu, with a flash of deep irritation at being interrupted in his private war with Byrne which would not be reflected by the court reporter.

“The innocent people wrongfully convicted, killed on death row. The people too poor to afford proper counsel, and convicted without a fair trial. The botched executions, those lethal injections which are not properly administered, resulting in hours of pain, or the malfunctioning electric chairs resulting in the same. The hangings that ended in strangling rather than a broken neck.” Groza’s voice remained steady, its tone low and serious. It was not combative, like Justice Grigorescu, nor defensive, like Justice Byrne. It had not the passion of either.

“Those cases are outliers,” Nistor dismissed quickly.

“They should still be considered,” Justice Byrne argued. His former and current coworker shot him a glare, but internally, he was pleased that August reinserted himself into the debate. Groza, meanwhile, looked at the man with curiosity, eager to hear his response. “When dealing with matters of life and death, we cannot afford to get it wrong,” the former Governor explained. “It is the most fundamental human right, and it cannot be taken away without complete certainty of guilt. Moreover, we cannot afford to, even unintentionally, impart cruel punishment on even the worst of criminals. To torture needlessly is worse than to kill needlessly, and both are happening.”

“As time has progressed, and so has technology and society, capital punishment has become more and more humane,” Grigorescu countered. “It is far more safe and kind now than it was a hundred years ago, and in a hundred years, it will be safer. Minors cannot be executed, no matter what crime they commit, and mentally ill criminals, who are ruled insane by the court, are treated psychologically rather than killed for being different. You cannot fault the law for the mistakes in executing it.”

Justice Byrne gave him a warning look, and gazed back at Chief Justice Stoker, who did not react, but just nodded with solemn reassurance. He nodded back before speaking. “A law is not just if it is just in theory but unjust in application. Especially if innocent people are wrongfully convicted, or power in the judicial system abused—”

“You assume that our justice system is unfair. You assume that our judges are malicious, or negligent. These judges are chosen by His Exalted Excellency personally. Many of them are close personal friends. This is the background of our entire government, our entire nation. You mean to insult our entire nation by suggesting it is fundamentally corrupt and flawed.”

The way Justice Byrne slowly shook his head was not put to record, nor was the way he filled his voice with reason and disappointment. “That’s not what I’m saying. The duty of government is first to control the people and next to control itself. Our laws are not, and should never be, judged on whether or not our government abuses them, but on whether or not our government will be able to. Personally, I trust our judges implicitly, but that is in practice, not in principle. Our principles must be held to higher standards than human trust. Human trust is fallible. Judge Obradovic’s murder of Judge Gabor earlier this year is a perfect example of how even the most seemingly upstanding moral citizen and impartial judge can prove to be more complex and potentially more dangerous than first thought.”

“Our appeals process is designed to combat this,” Grigorescu growled. “The rights of the accused are designed to combat this. We give criminals fair trials. We give them lawyers, if they are indigent. We give them the right not to self-incriminate. We give them the right to a jury of their peers or a qualified bench trial. We give them the right to comfort and safety in prison. We give them the right to not be tried twice for the same crime. These criminal rights are enshrined in the Imperial Constitution, and honoured in the court of law,” he lied.

“We cannot gamble with people’s lives,” Byrne disagreed. “These rights are here to protect against a miscarriage of justice, but when it happens, we have ways to reverse it. We cannot reverse capital punishment. We cannot bring executed innocents back to life. It gives too much power to the state. The role of the government is as protector of natural rights, including the right to life.”

“The rights of the people who criminals might harm if left alive are more important than the rights of the criminals themselves. They forfeit their right to life when they take that right away from another. It is fundamentally immoral to allow that to happen.”

“Life imprisonment is just as effective a deterrent.”

“You mean offering criminals a nice place to stay for the rest of their life? Food, shelter, clothing, all for free? All at the expense of the taxpayers? Any person too lazy to get a job can just commit murder, and they’ll be set up for life! More than that, it is an effective cost-cutting technique to remove the cost of all the basic necessities of life prisoners, as well as a tool to prevent prison overcrowding and save money on maximum security prison. The fact of the matter is that, fiscally, capital punishment is the best choice.”

“The moral fabric of our nation is above any small cost difference,” Justice Byrne refuted. Instead of retreading previous ground, he made a very bold decision. “Justice Groza, what are your thoughts?”

“You both make compelling arguments,” the Justice in question responded, hiding his discomfort. In truth, he did not mind letting the two other Justices argue until Stoker made a decision. The Chief Justice himself, though, was privately fuming. Grigorescu was repeatedly letting his disagreement between Byrne become personal, and it clearly affected his judgement. Interrupting his interlocutor, making flawed arguments, forgetting key points until later. On the other hand, Justice Byrne had prepared for the clash of ideas with his old friend. He did not let his convictions get away from him. He was controlled and rational throughout the entire argument. Stoker finally realised why August had chosen to make this a matter of public record. The public disagreed with him, but he argued better than his older colleague, and the latter seemed to diminish the credibility of his stance merely by arguing it. Especially with August Byrne’s reputation, the publication of these records would sway public opinion in a direction Chief Justice Stoker was unhappy with. He was tempted to wipe the record, pretend this never happened, but there would certainly be consequences if he did. He could only watch.

“Justice Grigorescu,” Groza continued, “makes salient points about the upkeep of prisoners who society may be better off without. His arguments for public safety and closure are convincing, but you, Justice Byrne, defend your position well. Morally speaking, I cannot sit here, hearing what I heard, knowing what I know, and support the continuation of capital punishment. It is fundamentally flawed to kill someone in order to prove that killing people is wrong. It is fundamentally flawed to believe that we can kill people without implicating our own humanity. There is no justice in this retribution, only thoughtless vengeance. The potential for abuse, additionally, is far too great. I support Justice Byrne’s motion, completely. The death penalty has no place in the civilised world. It is time we take initiative to remove it, and set an example for our advanced allies and friends of the world to do the same, lest they forsake the tide of progress and justice for the folly of illogical tradition.”


“That is enough, Nistor,” Chief Justice Stoker boomed. “I have come to a decision. Justice Groza speaks wisely. I, too, find myself pulled by Justice Grigorescu’s arguments, yet unwilling or unable to fully commit. My conscience holds me back. Giving such immense power, the power over life and death, to dozens and dozens of judges throughout the nation, many of whom may turn out like Judge Obradovic, is too great a risk. Public safety includes the safety of the wrongfully accused, and the costs are manageable. Justice Byrne’s motion is granted, in part. The death penalty shall be removed from law unless given explicitly by this High Court. We cannot deny ourselves the possibility, in such extreme cases as high treason. We must maintain a last resort. This, I judge to be the most logical, reasonable course of action. I know many may disagree, but take comfort in knowing that your voice was heard, in the form of Justice Grigorescu, and in that our High Court is not only representative of the people, but at all times steered towards the utmost application of justice in our great nation.”

Hole in the Wall

28 October 2022

The armoury in Warris was typically a highly secure facility. Usually, guards patrolled the gates and roofs of the armoury. As a military installation, its protection was paramount. The guards were armed with assault rifles and ordered to fire freely upon any who unlawfully crossed the boundaries. They were empowered to intimidate, beat, and arrest any who jaunted suspiciously close to the building. On a normal day, no one entered or left the premises without the explicit knowledge and consent of the ranking officer on duty. This was no normal day.

An order had come from on high. Not dreadfully high, as in, not as high as the Military Council, but indeed from a high-enough ranking officer that the order was to be followed without question or delay. If one traced this order back to its source, they would discover that a Warrisian Colonel, who had a penchant for drinking and gambling, very often at the same time, had been relieved of certain debt owed to very dangerous individuals in exchange for his compliance with any order from the People’s Movement for Justice, although he was not aware that this was who he was dealing with. After all, the mafia and the PMJ did not work together.

The Colonel had commanded a decrease in security measures. Less guards, less firepower, less secure doors. It wasn’t an unusual request. Security had been increased months prior, when the terrorists in Redmondburg led to a power struggle between the Governor and the Kritarchy. The Junior General had ordered increased watch on all military installations. Searchlights were installed in the most sensitive locations. Patrols were doubled. Their restrictions on shooting decreased — safeties were turned off. Keycards were required for all doors, even the bathrooms. More soldiers were awake at any given time. Guards were more heavily armed. The military was preparing for violent unrest.

Until the Colonel’s orders came through. In actuality, the same orders were delivered to five armouries which the Colonel had some semblance of authority over, but this was the one where it really mattered, the South Warris Barracks. A small building, carrying enough firepower to arm an entire company of soldiers. Now guarded by ten guards, on twelve hour cycles of five soldiers each. The Warrisian PMJ had ten people on this operation. They chose their timing precisely, like clockwork. Ten hours into the current watch, five days after the shift changes. They’d be complacent. Fallen into a rhythm. Growing tired.

The revolutionaries were grouped in three teams of three, with their final member lying prone on a roof nearby, watching through expensive binoculars. Team 1 stumbled through an alley, feigning drunkenness, leaning on each other with bottles in hands and hidden switchblades in other hands. The woman in the centre stumbled forward and fell to the ground. The soldier, armed with a semiautomatic rifle flipped on safety, walked forward, a look of genuine concern on his face, and tried to help her up. The other two rebels walked forward, seemingly helping her as well, but quickly subdued the soldier with a hand over the mouth and a blade across the neck. An unfortunate casualty, but unavoidable. Team 1 stood up and moved quickly. Teams 2 and 3 had likely taken down the other two exterior guards. Only the gate guards remained.

Team 1 reached them first. From behind a corner, they threw their bottles, hitting one of the guards. Both raised their guns and turned to Team 1, before radioing in to the exterior guards, whose corpses crackled with noise. Team 2 came from behind, their blades swift, before the soldiers even flipped off their safeties. The perimeter guards were down. There were five soldiers left in the facility. All of them should have been sleeping. They weren’t. As Team 2 opened the gate and Teams 1 and 2 flowed in, having armed themselves with the semi-autos and pistols of the perimeter guards, a bleary eyed soldier opened the door to the barracks and entered the pathway between the gate and barracks, an automatic pistol in hand.

He fired, filling the air with the sound of spraying bullets. All of Team 1 were caught in the fire, one groaning, one screaming, and one falling to the ground with a dull thump and a sick crack. Team 2 returned fire immediately, and the sound of gunshots was deafening in the rebels’ ears. The soldier died quickly. In the silence following the firefight, the revolutionaries stood stunned. One member of Team 2 attempted to help up the downed Team 1, but someone from Team 3 held them back.

“Leave them all. It’s only a matter of time before all of our lives are in danger. We have to accomplish the mission.”

One of the speaker’s downed comrades reluctantly agreed, the others being either dead or unconscious. Teams 2 and 3 continued on, their guns unwieldy in their hands and their expressions hardened by the reality of their recent encounter. Pulling themselves together, they rushed into the open door of the barracks. When a member of Team 3 saw a man out of the corner of his eye, he turned and shot an unarmed soldier and a running coffee machine. His eyes widened and he fell to the floor, weeping at what he had done. His fellow killers stepped over him, ignoring his moral crisis. It would only slow them down. Team 2 entered the sleeping quarters and shot two soldiers in their sleep. Team 3 continued to the armoury itself.

The last soldier of the compound was there. He held an automatic rifle and his finger was on the trigger before the door fully opened. Two rebels were dead before the final killed the soldier, and even she was hit by a bullet. With her remaining strength, she pulled herself to the plastic explosives of the armoury, and detonated them with her second to last breath. The building collapsed upon itself, a cloud of dust filling the air. No flames were visible from the outside of the barracks, but they consumed the inside. The rubble crushed many dead bodies, but not as many living ones. By the time the police arrived on the scene, the living ones were dead. By the time the rescue teams arrived, they were dead for hours.

The official statement of the police stated that a force of twenty heavily armed PMJ terrorists overwhelmed the barracks, killing the guards on patrol and brutally murdering the barracks’ other occupants in their sleep, including an unarmed cook. According to this statement, Aivintian soldiers fought bravely, but enough terrorists survived to ritually kill themselves by detonating safely stored explosives to bring down the entire building. They claimed the PMJ had been trying to steal the weapons, but were unable to, resorting to their backup plan of domestic terrorism. The statement condemned the terrorists’ actions, of course, and so did the public. His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice Stoker issued his deepest condolences for the lost, and His Excellency Justice Grigorescu announced his continued commitment to rooting out the terrorist cells and destroying them wherever possible.

The PMJ issued their own statement, via internet chat rooms and printed flyers dropped into busy squares by hooded men on rooftops. Their statement claimed that their freedom fighters entered the barracks unarmed, picking up guns only to defend themselves, and blew up the compound after ensuring that only armed combatants were present. They stated that destroying the weapons was always their plan, as they were pacifists, and believed in nonviolent change. They called the police statement slander, libel, and lies. Their statement, however, was denounced as equally untrue propaganda by AivCast news network. Many Aivintians did not know what to believe.

It was comfortable to just accept the government’s words as true. It was easy, and it led to no trouble with the authorities. It set one’s mind at ease, knowing that their country was a place of stark good and evil. However, idealists might find themselves believing the words of the PMJ itself. They knew, in their hearts, that their country was flawed, that people were flawed, and that the PMJ’s statement was far more realistic. It was not perfectly moral, but it was far more reasonable than the government’s claims. These were the same people that did not trust their government, that believed it to be in need of drastic change. Many of them were the same people that saw Justice August Byrne as a national hero.

Neither statements were true, however. Not fully. Both were propaganda. Both manipulated the facts. The PMJ had no way of knowing some of the details of the operation, but they knew they were not speaking the truth, just as the government knew it wasn’t either. They didn’t care. It was for the greater good, they reasoned. There were no survivors of the fateful event. No one could set the record straight. It would always be the word of the PMJ against the word of the government. The question was, whose lies were more believable. Laurentiu Aldulescu crafted the statement of the PMJ to be as believable as possible. To sway as many people as possible. It was necessary to the success of liberty, and, in the end, it was a great victory for the People’s Movement for Justice.

To the Sound of Trumpets

11 November 2022

The soldiers of the 1st Army marched with practised synchronicity in the wide streets of the Templar District, Greater Asluagh. Rows upon rows of soldiers stepped on the black asphalt of the busiest street in the city, today devoid of cars, save for the military trucks and tanks that followed. Their guns were on safety, and many of them held no rounds in their magazines. Today, they were for show, a decoration, much like their dress uniforms. Their uniforms were reminiscent of black suits, with their black buttoned coats, pants, and tie, contrasted by the white dress shirt underneath and the single white stripe along the side of the same pants. Insignias were shown on the chest and sleeve. Medals were pinned to the coats of those soldiers brave enough to commit murder in the name of their homeland.

These were the very streets George Whitcher marched through, with his tanks and APCs, upon declaring himself Regent of the Empire. The Chief Minister and Chief Justice had, in times before, taken control of the military at the behest of Her Imperial Majesty Empress Mariana Radu. Most notably, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. When she died, 308 days later, in 2013, Whitcher wasted no time in marching through the streets. It was an invasion, but from where many stood, it was a funeral procession. In many ways the sirens of the police cars, which enforced Whitcher’s domination, were mourning cries, elegies sung into empty air. The despair of a nation. In many ways, it was an affront to Her Imperial Majesty’s memory, and the memory of the Radu dynasty. The march of the 1st Army, the Asluagh Garrison, mirrored this march. In many ways, it was a tribute to it, paying homage to the event. In many ways, it was a mockery of the same.

George Whitcher died of cancer seven years after Mariana had. Many wept. Many cheered. Eduard Stoker did neither. Stoically, without emotion, the Justice stood tall in a broadcast to the nation and declared himself everything Whitcher was: Chief Justice, Chief Minister, Regent. The death of Whitcher was not the death of the Kritarchy, not like the death of Mariana was the death of the Empire. Stoker’s autocracy continued, and this march was a reminder of that. It was a powerful nation flexing its muscles, taunting its foes, boasting its military might. It was a statement to the PMJ, the SIG, and any who would dare cross Chief Justice Stoker. It was a statement that said, “Here we are. We do not hide. We stand tall. Dare to oppose us.” It was a statement that disheartened all peoples desiring of liberty and true justice in the modern age. It was, in many ways, a funeral procession, mourning lost freedom. Rubbing salt in the wound.

It was a great honour for Senior General Marc Alupei to lead this great dishonour to his nation. He knew what it represented, completely, like any other who lived and served through the rise of the Kritarchy. He knew it was a symbol of the regime he secretly wished had never come to pass. Yet, he was a good soldier. Good soldiers followed orders. Good soldiers served their country with pride and humility. They did what was asked of them even when it was asked by politicians they despised. S.G. Alupei’s patriotism outweighed his disgust at what the Kritarchy had done to his beloved country. It was still his beloved country, and he would still do what it required of him. Many of his soldiers felt the same way. Many who served under him before, certainly, but also many who served under Grigorescu, who nursed these mournings in dark corners and hushed tones.

The sun was high and bright. For a November afternoon, it was hotter than usual. A sign? No. Thin clouds wandered over the sun for a moment, then drifted away. Marc looked up to the cerulean sky while the clouds still obscured the blinding star above. Birds scattered as a company of fighter jets streaked through the sky, leaving behind black and white smoke in the shape of a square and compass, the national symbol of Aivintis. It was a powerful symbol, representative not of a country but of a people. The Aivintian people, enduring beyond three legal governments and three illegal regimes, including the current one. It was the symbol of morality and religion, but also of service and secular government. It was a symbol of freedom. It was introduced by a tyrannical regime, but, when that regime was overthrown, the beloved, democratic one which took its place used it still, with pride.

Marc looked to the crowd on the side of the street, many of whom waved the black and white Aivintian flag. Parents and children, alike. The poor and the rich. Asluagh citizens and Aivintians from around the country. Foreigners, too, very rarely. The crowd was great and diverse, gathering in throngs to the sidewalks like sheep in the slaughterhouse. They looked at Alupei, standing in the hatch of a dark tank, covered with medals and badges of office, with awe. Many knew him to be a Senior General, one of the highest ranking military officers in the entire country. Many more did not, thinking him just another soldier. They waved their flags with pride nevertheless. His expression, dour and stoic, was entirely practised, and not a bit genuine.

At the end of the street stood the Imperial Palace, which was still called such despite the lack of an imperial family. It was grand, its domes and pillars white in the sun. It stood on the dust of the Templar District’s namesake, the Grand Temple. It was on that hill, Lerasi was said to have stood, the ancient founder of a powerful empire, then only a humble priest, in only his robes, and to have welcomed thousands of refugees into the temple walls, before channelling his divine power to rout the armies of the north with only his voice and his holy commands. It was the site where the first of the Dulgheru line was crowned King, and where Caius Dulgheru commanded that the Palace of Teronia be constructed to the northwest. It was where The Aeternus declared himself a god, two thousand years after Lerasi had, and where Teodor Radu had begun his dynasty. It was where the last of that dynasty finally died.

The 1st Army stood between Alupei and the Palace, and so he looked forward. The buildings on either side of the street each had beautiful facades, a requirement for owning such real estate, although the designs blended with each other to bring focus towards the unique sight of the palace. Some were government buildings, others banks, and others still lavish restaurants. Their doors were all closed. Some, for the national holiday for which Alupei was marching, the unification of Aivintis. Others, for the parade itself. Public safety and order dictated it. The police were present, too, on the side of the road. They did not march, for they were not symbols of the country in quite the same way as soldiers were.

Marc was not at the front of the parade, Senior General though he was. Instead, five lines of five soldiers each, the top performing soldiers of the city’s garrison before his arrival, preceded the march of his tank. They stood stoic and strong, while he stood regal and determined. If he had chosen from the soldiers that he already knew and trusted, those who served under him, he would never gain the respect of the personnel he inherited from Grigorescu. It was a calculated move. All the moves he made were calculated. He needed their loyalty, respect, and dedication. Any good leader needed such things, but Marc suspected he needed them more than most, if his meeting with August was any indication. There was something brewing on the horizon.

The Senior General felt a tingling on his neck, as if someone behind him was breathing down it. When he turned around, no one was there, of course, as he was in the open hatch of a nine foot tall tank in the middle of a massive military parade, but a chill went down his spine nevertheless. When turning forward again, a glint caught his eye, and he whipped his head around once more, looking in the distance. His gaze focused, and he saw an Aivintian flag burning in the wind, on the roof of one of the government buildings. He furrowed his brow, preparing to report the incident, but when he blinked, the flag was gone. In his mind’s eye, he could still see it, flying proudly in the wind as it was consumed by flame, but there was no evidence that it was anything but a hallucination. The wild imaginings of his troubled mind.

He pushed the thoughts away, focusing on the parade at hand. It was a joyous day. 11 November! The founding of the nation! More than that, its unification. In a time of division and tension, Marc found comfort in the holiday. A reminder that the nation was once fragmented and warring, until the actions of a great man brought the many kingdoms into one, uniting one people with one culture under one government as well. It was a mark of all the Aivintian people were. They were proud fighters. They resisted authority, overthrew governments, and established new regimes. Yet all of their fates were intrinsically tied to one another. It was the source of Marc’s sense of duty to his nation and his people. Their fates were tied to his, and he would do all he could to protect the future. Perhaps this, however, was the wild imagining of a troubled mind, rather than his earlier vision. Perhaps he was naive, or just stupid.

Stray shouts cut through his musings like a knife, abrupt and bloody. For the second time that day, his head swivelled like a canon and locked onto a scene which confused him. A line of people, all wearing red shirts, standing in the path of the parade. Marc angrily looked to the sidelines, where the police were supposed to have been keeping order, only to see the wide eyes of innocent witnesses. They were afraid of the people in the road, who so brazenly disregarded the law, but more so they were afraid of the law, which so brazenly disregarded justice. They were afraid of Marc, and his soldiers. They feared that he would blame them for the obstruction, and they would be punished. He did not care about them at that point in time, however, too busy calling in police back-up to arrest the blockages.

He did not know how they managed to get past security, but the suspicious lack of police indicated that it was perhaps a bribe, or a mafia order. Either would lead any police officer to abandon his post. In fact, either would lead any police officer to betray his country. To betray his loved ones, perhaps. Their actions were fuelled by greed and self-interest. Alupei was sure that there would be documentation of which officers were supposed to have been in place, but had a sneaking suspicion that said documentation would go missing when the investigation finally began its sluggish pace. Corruption within the police was not the concern of the police.

More shouting came from below. Marc lazily brought his gaze back to the people blocking the street, where he could see the soldiers in the front line had raised their rifles to the annoyances. All hell broke loose. Marc’s voice tore through his throat, begging the soldiers to lower their weapons. He scrambled down from his tank, shouting, “STAND DOWN, SOLDIERS! STAND DOWN!” He held his hands up in placation as the soldiers all turned to face him, and the crowd, too, watched in silent horror as the scene unfolded before them, with Senior General Marc Alupei at the centre. “LOWER YOUR RIFLES! STAND DOWN!” Although he wore the full regalia of one of the highest ranking military officers in the Empire, he looked dreadfully small and powerless in the sea of soldiers as he pushed to the front. “THESE ARE UNARMED CIVILIANS! THEY ARE NONCOMBATANTS! STAND DOWN, I REPEAT, STAND DOWN!”

The soldiers lowered their rifles, but only slightly, the barrels still focused more or less on the people blocking the parade. One of them, a bold little shit, found the courage to challenge the Senior General. “Sir, they are in our way,” he said. Not softly, but not loudly, either. It was a conversational volume and tone, as if the matter of threatening these people was trivial.

“They are unarmed civilians and citizens of Aivintis!” Marc shouted in return. “Stand down!” His voice bellowed, sounding like a rushing train in the empty day.

The Captain of this group broke formation and elbowed forward to Senior General Alupei. “Sir,” he reproached, “What seems to be the problem?”

“Soldier, I don’t like your tone,” S.G. Alupei admonished.

“Apologies, sir. I would just like to know how to move forward.”

“Don’t let your men raise guns on unarmed noncombatants, for one. This isn’t a warzone and those aren’t soldiers. We have no right to raise a hand against them, let alone a rifle. This display is an embarrassment to your unit.”

“Sir . . .” the Captain trailed off, unsure if he wished to continue.

“What?” Alupei asked with audible scorn.

“How are we supposed to continue the parade?” The man chose his words carefully.

“We wait for them to leave,” Alupei responded, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“But . . .” Again, unsure of his position.

“Captain, say a full sentence or none at all.”

“We can get them to move, if you just authorise us to use force. Respectfully, sir, that is my opinion.”

“You don’t get an opinion, Captain. This is my call. Do you want another Irala? Do you know what happened to the Kyrlot government when they killed peaceful protestors? Do you know how even Aivintis reacted? If we lay a hand on these people, we’re all dishonourably discharged, at best. Imprisoned, more likely. The world is watching, Captain.” Alupei gestured to the crowd behind them. “Dozens of phone cameras are on us. AivCast News is streaming this live. Do you want all of Aivintis and the international community to watch the Aivintian military attack unarmed civilians?”

The Captain’s gaze dropped to the ground.

“Look at me, soldier.”

The Captain complied.

“If anyone in your unit takes a step towards them without my permission, I will personally see to it that you are assigned to a shitty outpost in the middle of the Weald, do you understand me?”

“Yes, Senior General,” the Captain replied.

“Return to your station, Captain,” Alupei said, relaxing slightly.

He watched the Captain go, and relay his orders, with considerably less threats. The guns lowered. The soldiers stepped back into formation. The parade stood on hold. Marc sighed, and walked back to lean on his tank, not quite comfortable to return to his place in the hatch on the top. Without warning, a high pitched, musical tone filled Marc’s ears. Under the stress of the current situation, he didn’t even recognise his ringtone for a few rings, until he fumbled for his phone and glanced quickly at the caller ID. “Unknown.” Strange. He debated not answering it, but he had a strange compulsion to answer, and so he did.

“I can get them to move.” The caller’s voice was so heavily distorted that it sounded more like static than words, but somehow, Marc understood what was being said.

He debated asking the various questions in his head. Who was calling? That was an obvious one, but clearly they had gone through great efforts to conceal their identity. Get who to move? Although that, Marc knew instantly. Why would they help him? Hm. That might be promising. “Why would you help me?” His tone was not judgemental, as he was careful to craft, but inquisitive nevertheless.

“Ask yourself, instead, how you might repay me.”

“I don’t take bribes, or threats.” He lowered his voice as he said this, unsure who he wanted to let know about this call.

The caller laughed. “Do you know who those protestors are?”

“I have a guess.”

“Say it,” the caller nearly whispered.

“The PMJ.”

“Say the full name,” the caller insisted angrily.

Marc paused, unsure of himself. Then, throwing caution to the wind, he said, “The People’s Movement for Justice.”

“Do you believe in justice, Senior General Marc Alupei?”

He paused again, this time for a very different reason. “Yes.”

“Good. Do you believe in the People’s Movement for Justice?”

“They’re terrorists and rebels,” Marc said, but the caller was laughing heartily before he’d even finished. “What’s so funny?”

“How many heroes were once called terrorists and rebels? Wasn’t Teodor Radu a terrorist and a rebel? Wasn’t Thaddeus? Wasn’t Toma Nord? Look around you, Senior General Marc Alupei. You are standing at the head of an army in the face of a single line of people. Your enemies do not wear body armour. They do not hold weapons. Their shirts are red. If they bled, who would see it? You wield the cameras. You rule the nation. You are the evil Empire, Senior General Marc Alupei. We are the brave heroes. There has to be something worth fighting for. Look at the people arrayed against you.” Marc, reluctantly, did as the voice asked, even as it continued. “They show no fear. They show no quarter. They are staring down the barrel of thousands of guns and they are unflinching. Look within yourself and tell me you do not long for that. Tell me you do not see the vision of a new world reflected in their starry eyes. Tell me you do not see a real hope for a better future and I will have them turn themselves in right now.”

Marc knew what he should have said, even if he didn’t believe it. He had a duty to his country, above all. He had a duty to his people. He had to maintain peace, order, and the rule of law. He had to uphold stability. He had to crush these revolutionaries. The weight of his rank, his history, and his honour screamed in his mind to say what he should have already, what he should have said instinctively, immediately, without thought. What he should still say now. The screaming was like the whistling of a falling shell, the rolling of a tank, the detonation of a bomb, the din of war. A headache formed in his mind from all the noise, and yet, in the back of his head was a whisper. In that din of war, a prayer. A declaration of love. He ran his hands through his hair, his mind resting on that love.

“Go fuck yourself,” he said, tears threatening to fall. The whisper screamed as it died.

Quietly, the voice responded, “I know what you want to say, Marc.” The silence hung between them, and Alupei didn’t have a chance to hang up before the voice said, “There will be a place for you in the world we create.”

Sirens sounded, but the protestors had escaped. Alupei’s soldiers spoke with the police, giving their reports, and pointing where the PMJ members had run off to. Phones were confiscated. Camera operators interviewed. In a few minutes, the parade continued. Marc was back in the tank, looking out over the city, and the people which cheered him on. The post he held was the furthest from battle than any other, and yet he couldn’t help but feel like he was at war. When he returned to his quarters, that night, the tears came freely.


Behind the Curtains

14 November 2022

“How much longer will it take?” His Excellency Justice Varujan Groza complained. He did not wear his black robes, nor a full suit. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were rolled up.

Across from the Justice sat Arthur Frost, the leader of the Aivintian Mafia and the most successful company in Aivintis. He was a man that had committed many crimes, and a few of them were even the right thing to do. For months, Frost had been Groza’s handler of sorts. He was largely behind the testimony condemning Crane, but he also helped Groza uncover crimes committed by various high officials, and it was connections that got the information revealed to the public. Anonymously, of course. Frost wore a three piece suit, and he crossed his legs in the red chair in Groza’s private chambers. He was admiring the carpet when he raised his head at Groza’s words.

“Shouldn’t be more than a few minutes,” Frost assured the Justice, after dramatically looking at his broken watch.

The door creaked open slowly, and His Excellency Justice August Byrne strode in quickly, his robes dragging across the floor. Groza shot to his feet. “Justice Byrne!” He shot a warning glance at Frost. “Mr Frost, please rise for His Excellency.”

“No thank you!” Frost called, busying himself with a game on his phone.

“I apologise for Councillor Frost’s behaviour, Justice Byrne. We were having a business meeting. I wasn’t expecting you, Justice, did we have an appointment?” He spoke quickly and guiltily.

“Apparently. Mr Frost, I hope he’s not always like this when our plans are complicated.”

A noncommittal grunt came from Frost’s chair. Confusion flashed across Groza’s face, and then understanding swept over it instead. “YOU?!”

“Keep your voice down, Mr Groza, we don’t want the entire capitol to hear what we’re saying now, do we?”

“But . . .”

“If you’d like to sit back down, Mr Groza, you may.” Varujan did just that. “Now, I’ve been told you’re refusing to cooperate with Mr Frost’s plans. I have one question for you: What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I— I couldn’t do as he said until I knew who was calling the shots . . . I didn’t expect it to be you.”

Justice Byrne snorted. “Of course you didn’t. Well, you know now. I expect you won’t try to further complicate my plans? There will be immense consequences for the entire nation if you insist on being unhelpful, Mr Groza.”

“I . . . I need more answers.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk, answers, answers, answers. The ugliest currency on the Urth. What answers do you want, Mr Groza?” Byrne still stood, although the other two in the room sat. The newest Justice cast a shadow over his colleague, having blocked the light from a lamp on the far side of the room.

“Was it always you?”

“Of course it was. Mr Frost told you he wished to create a vacancy for me, did he not?” Byrne was genuinely curious. He had given Arthur a lot of freedom in how he executed the Justice’s plan.

“I mean, yes, but I thought it was another step, not the endgame.” Groza’s mind was struggling to keep up with the pace new information was being revealed.

“You were right in thinking that. This is not the end of my plan. It’s why you’re still collecting information. You will keep having public officials removed, and I will keep doing my part.”

“What is your part?” Varujan asked.

“Everything.” When his colleague glared at him, he sighed and explained, “Gathering supporters, influencing policy to make way for my final goal, manoeuvring all the chess pieces, and softening the blow of my finale for the Aivintian people.”

Justice Groza pressed him further. “What is your finale? What is your final goal? I am completely in the dark here. I understand the benefits of removing corrupt officials, but if it only feeds your hidden agenda, which is clearly linked to your own rise in power within the nation, I don’t know if I can be part of this anymore.”

Byrne tilted his head slightly. “I don’t need you anymore. You’re only here because I respect you and have high hopes for your future.”

“I was a diplomat, once,” Varujan reminded the other Justice. “I do not cave under flattery.”

“Of course,” August smiled. “That was not my intention. It was merely a preface. My finale is Eduard Stoker’s resignation and imprisonment for his many crimes. My final goal is democracy in our time.”

Groza’s eyes sparkled with disbelief. Reverently, but carefully, he asked his next question. “When?”

Justice Byrne looked at his watch, which was not broken. “Seven months.”

“You’re kidding.” It was not a question, but, really, it was.

“I am not.”

Arthur Frost finally looked up from his phone, for once acknowledging the conversation unfolding around me. “I was equally shocked.” Upon a glance from August, he reluctantly added, “I trust him, Varujan. I fully believe that Aivintis will be under the control of a democratic regime in seven months’ time.”

Groza looked back and forth between the two. “You know everything?” he asked Frost.

“I do. You’re not the first to demand answers, you know. It’s quite a popular trend. I wonder if Laurentiu Aldulescu has done the same.”

“Mr Aldulescu trusts me a great deal more than you two apparently do,” August half-joked.

“Wait . . . I’ve been working for the PMJ?”

“No. The PMJ is a part of my plan, same as you, but you are unconnected components. You each have a goal, let’s say, which contributes to the greater revolution. When Stoker resigns, it will be as much due to the PMJ as due to you, and the other parts.”

“What are the other parts?” Groza asked quickly, suddenly concerned, but mainly curious.

“I’m not answering that. I’ve indulged many of your questions, but I cannot tell you everything. It’s a danger to the operation. Perhaps I’ve told you too much already. Certainly, if you were to lose faith in the cause, I would have a very difficult time escaping reprise, but sharing any more information than this poses an actual risk.”

“You don’t think me losing faith in your cause is an actual risk?” Justice Groza asked, somewhat offended that his apparent co-conspirator didn’t see him as a threat.

August Byrne scoffed. “Of course not. I have faith in you having faith.”

“Mr Byrne,” Arthur explained, “Is not a practical individual. He’s an optimist of the worst kind.”

“I’m going to ignore that, Mr Frost,” came the levelled reply.

Groza rubbed his forehead. “Justice Byrne, I understand I’m your pawn in this endeavour, but I remind you we are equals. And I’m your senior.”

The second Justice sighed. “Mr Groza, I have been building my revolution for a very long time. It is very tiring. I apologise for not explaining myself better. I have faith in your faith because you are more important to this revolution than me. If you do not have faith, there will be no democracy in Aivintis. All of this,” he gestured wildly and indistinctly, “would have been for nothing. Yes, I masterminded it. I gathered the people, the resources, and I laid the plan. I set the board, and I moved the pieces. In seven months’ time, I will move into a checkmate. I will be the founder. I will be the hero. Then, when the regime is stabilised, I will retire, and you will take over.”

“Excuse me?”

“I must note that there will be an election, but you will win. You will be the leader of the nation. I will lead it first, of course, but just to put things in order. You will be the first, true leader.”

Groza had too many questions, he didn’t even know what to say. “Why?” is what he managed.

“I cannot be elected.”

“Yes, you can,” Groza argued.

“You don’t understand. If I get elected, my plan will have failed. I want democracy, I don’t want another sham. Look at history. The leader of the revolution always gets elected. It’s always nearly unanimous. That’s not democracy. Democracy has competitive elections. Democracy has multiple candidates. Aivintis is fragile now, it will be fragile come election season. I refuse to exploit that. I need to retire as soon as possible, lest our democracy become an echo of our existing elitism. The same government, regurgitated. Of course, it has to be that at first, but we cannot set a strong precedent. If we do, all of it will be for nothing.”

“How do you know you will give up power once you have it?”

“I don’t know,” he replied quietly. “Perhaps Mr Frost was right about my optimism.”

“I’m always right,” Arthur chimed in. The two Justices gave the unwelcome interruption a small smile.

“Why me?” Groza asked. “Why not someone else? A Governor? Or a former Senator? Hell, why not Aldulescu?”

“Aldulescu is a domestic terrorist, and he will be charged as such.” Before Groza could begin anew their cycle of exasperated confusion and respondent reluctant explanation, Byrne offered, “I cannot let the PMJ’s crimes go unanswered. I cannot fault them for their fight, and I cannot punish them all, but their sins are many, and they need to be answered for. What’s most important to me is reviving our justice system, putting it back where it should be. That means even the heroes are prosecuted.”

“You’ve committed crimes,” he pointed out.

“No jury will convict me. I have to take justice into my own hands.”

Cautiously, Justice Groza prodded, “What are you planning, August?” There was an underlying fear there.

“Not what you’re thinking. I’m the reason there is no longer a death penalty, remember. No, I’m thinking of something like house arrest. Better than I deserve, probably, but the fairest sentence I will get.”

“Fine. I’m not going to argue with you. I’m not Nistor Grigorescu.”

Byrne made a disgusted sound.

“I’m not too big of a fan, either,” Groza confessed, in some ways to get his mind off of thoughts of the future.

“He’s an obstacle,” August said, and Groza had a feeling that he was putting it diplomatically.

“One you will overcome?”

“Of course. Nothing will stand in my way.”

“You didn’t just choose me because I was Justice,” Varujan mused, unable to truly distract himself. “You were behind my ascension to the Court.”

“There’s a question in there.”

“One I’ve already asked. And you’ve still not answered.”

August Byrne looked at the floor. “I have work to do.”


“I told you I would stop answering questions, and I did. Now, I’m telling you I won’t, and I won’t. I have to go.” There was clearly something off, but Justice Groza did not feel uneasy at all. He didn’t feel afraid, intimidated, or paranoid. He didn’t feel like there was a missing piece of the puzzle. But there was. Something was wrong. Not with the revolution, or his role in it, but with August himself. There was a sadness to the man. Something about Groza’s question coaxed it to the surface, and the Justice was doing his best to choke it back down. The reason he chose Groza was not truly significant or relevant. It wasn’t some strategic advantage or complicated gambit. He chose Groza for a very personal reason, and he wasn’t willing to share it. “Before I go, though, I have a question for you.”

Groza debated withholding answers himself, but dismissed the notion as petty and unreasonable the moment he thought of it. “Ask.”

“Knowing all you know, and not knowing what you do not, are you willing to go on? Are you willing to do your part and, when the time comes, step up for your country?” While the edges were painted with propaganda, the core message was plain. It was open-ended, too, and asked so softly Groza didn’t even feel like he was pressured to say yes. He did anyway. A curt nod, and August Byrne was gone. Arthur, looking up with eyes that betrayed his attention, smiled at the remaining Justice, and then left himself. Alone in his office, Varujan Groza stood up with a sigh, walked over to his desk, and poured a drink.

Old Friends

14 November 2022

Byrne darkened the doors of Justice Grigorescu’s quarters like the spectre of death. The lights were dimmed in Nistor’s private chambers, where he sat behind an expensive desk with a single lit lamp and a stack of papers. Nistor licked his finger and turned the page of a small book to his right, then followed a few lines with his finger before noting something down on one of the papers in front of him. August cleared his throat, but Nistor did not look up, his reading glasses slipping slightly down his nose.

“Good evening, Mr Grigorescu,” Byrne sighed.

“I saw you, Mr Byrne. I’m afraid I’m rather busy right now, so . . . I think you can find the door very easily, given you’re standing in it.”

Justice Byrne smiled, unfazed by the other’s standoffishness. He’d had a long day, and was in no mood to let his former partner get to him, but moreover, he was feeling quite triumphant. He had come out of his conversation with Justice Groza feeling a little more secure in his plan and he knew he was going to really enjoy this part.

“As much as I would love to not speak with you, we have business to attend to.”

“How many times have I heard that just before you bothered me with something that would ruin my day?” Nistor asked, dwelling in past resentment.

“You would have rather not heard about the latest whistleblower, or failed inspection, or trust-busting attempt that targeted your clients?” August asked, continuing their little game of rhetorical questions. “You know what they say about shooting the messenger.”

“It keeps unpleasant truths away?”

“Not to do it, actually.” Byrne shrugged. “I guess you were never one for following directions.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” This was a rare feature in their arguments, when one would ask the other to waste time and breath explaining an insult instead of directly following up with one of their own. Usually when it was easier to defend against the explanation than the insult.

“Oh come on,” August complied, feeling like an executioner serving a last meal in how he indulged his foe before he ended him. The irony of that simile wasn’t lost on him, in light of their death penalty debate. Debate being a generous way to describe that shouting match. “Chair of the Senate War Committee, despite never serving in uniform. Giving orders without ever needing to follow them. Drafting and supporting military spending bills, strong-arming your committee into accepting them, even when the new Empress declared a policy of disarmament and decreased military spending. Filibustering a tax bill after being ordered by the Lord Speaker, who was a member of your own party, for the record, to let it go to a vote and just abstain. You’ve caused a lot of disruptions by not doing what you’re told, Nistor. For such a war hawk, you’re a terrible soldier.”

“I’m flattered you followed my actions after we parted ways all those years ago,” Nistor prodded, not really in the mindset for his usual blows.

“Yes, I did. Twenty-two years it has been, Mr Grigorescu. And here I am, back to being the messenger. And here you are, back to being told what to do. Except this time, His Exalted Excellency doesn’t allow dissent. That was the beautiful thing about the Empire, Nistor. You could disagree. Now here you are. I am winning. My policies are being enacted every day. Yours are being blocked. The Chief Justice turns to me for counsel, and you are forgotten. You resist, oh how you resist, and it’s truly admirable that you refuse to give up, but you’re going to have to.” Justice Byrne layered each and every word with smug arrogance, revelling at his position of power over Nistor.

His colleague laughed. “I’m not doing anything of the sort.” He pushed back his desk chair and stood up at this point, having forgotten whatever task he was doing. He sensed a threat, and not an idle one. His years of living in the mud and mulch of politics had led to a stubborn refusal to let anyone threaten him or stand in his way. This was no longer a matter of personal pride, but now of political survival. “Now leave.”

Byrne stepped forward, crossing the room and closing the gap between him and his political opponent. “Here’s what’s going to happen—”

“I said, leave. Do you want me to call security?”

“—you’re going to support every policy I propose and you’re going to do so enthusiastically.”

“Final warning,” Nistor simply said.


“Don’t make me do this. I’ll enjoy it too much.”

“—you’re going to sign over command of the military and intelligence councils to me. I’ll give you Immigration and Health in return. You’ll love the little power trip you’ll get from shooting asylum seekers.”

“SECURITY!” Nistor shouted.

“Oh, they won’t be coming,” Byrne told the man, almost as an afterthought.

“Excuse me?” The venom in Grigorescu’s voice could kill an elephant. Silence hung in the air for the next few moments, which was how long the typical response time for the Judicial Security Force would be.

“I called in a bomb threat on the Chief Justice. All our security teams were slashed. You only had two, and, funny enough, both of them were good soldiers. They don’t take after you, I guess. I ordered them to give me some alone time with you, and sent them far out of earshot. A Justice ordering the Judicial Security Force to back off is going to work about nine times out of ten. Especially if you throw in a bonus check for good work.” It felt empowering to explain how defenceless and vulnerable Justice Grigorescu now was. August Byrne had him in his claws, and could kill him whenever he wanted.

“The cameras all saw you go in. The Security force can testify against you. The Chief Justice outranks you and he will demand honesty. Not to mention, a dozen people must have seen you come in here. Aides, clerks, the like. If you kill me here and now, you will get caught, and when you do, you will be killed. The High Court can still impose the death penalty, you know. Then, what? Your corpse rots, and all your beloved policies are undone. You don’t want that. So how about you turn around and go back to whatever hole you crawled out of and I may feel like not reporting you in exchange for one or two favours.” The Justice pushed aside his fear, and pulled himself together. He was in control now, he thought. Except his old friend and enemy wouldn’t stop smiling. “What’re you so damn pleased about?” he snapped.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Byrne half-laughed. “I’m going to do something much worse.” The newest High Court member shifted his robe to reveal a stack of papers under his arm, barely fitting in a single folder. He pulled it out and dropped it on Grigorescu’s desk. “These aren’t the originals. I still have those. And copies aplenty. Do you want to know what they are?”

“Blackmail, I imagine. You’ve changed, August.” There was a hint of genuine admiration in the man’s voice that chilled August’s spine. Perhaps it was meant to, but it unsettled the revolutionary.

“I do what I have to,” was all he said about it.

Grigorescu opened the folder, just to be sure. He didn’t put it past his rival to bluff about incriminating information for political gain. Flipping through the pages, he soon found it was real. Meetings and transactions with domestic and foreign arms companies, emails and messages to and from various generals and regiments to go against Aivintian and international law, pictures of the Justice meeting with foreign terrorists and private military companies. Every crime he had ever done. When Grigorescu got to the blood tests, he decided not to read on. He got the point. “How’d you get all this?”

“Bribes, threats, the flash of identification here and there. A couple really good private investigators. A break-in or two. Does it matter?”

“No, I suppose not. You’re the leak, then.”

“No,” Byrne answered, legitimately telling the truth. “I’m not. I just . . . took a page out of their notebook. I figured if whoever it was could do it, so can I. But that doesn’t matter either, does it? What matters is that I have this information, and that it will be released to every major news outlet in the world, including Aivcast, and every social media platform I can access, unless you do exactly what I say. Do you remember?”

“Support your policies, give you the military.” Nistor gritted his teeth.

“And intelligence,” Byrne added. “Can’t forget that one. Don’t worry, you won’t be out of a job. I’ll give you some replacements. Remember?” August grinned. “You’ll have fun.”

“Welcome to national politics, Mr Byrne,” Justice Grigorescu said. “You’ll fit right in.”

Another deep wound to the other Justice’s ego, but he was too proud of his accomplishment to let it sting. He reached over the desk and flipped the folder to the last page. The seal of the Empire sat atop, and the title read “JUDICIAL MEMORANDUM. CONFIDENTIAL. UNAUTHORISED VIEWING CONSTITUTES A SEVERE CRIMINAL OFFENCE.” Below it, the words “The Office of His Excellency Justice Nistor Grigorescu.” Then, a block of text.

Nistor read it, not to be sure it was what Byrne said it was, but rather to know what he was getting into. He had already begun formulating a plan to eliminate Byrne from the High Court. He wouldn’t make Byrne’s mistake of blackmailing; he’d go straight to releasing the information. It would be a delicate matter. He’d have to destroy the evidence against him. Now, all he could do was pick up his fountain pen and sign his name in big letters at the bottom of the page, just below Byrne’s.

The Chief Justice would have to still approve, of course, but he would, pleased the two finally agreed on something. Perhaps he would suspect foul play, but even so, he might not care enough to investigate, given how much favouritism he showed Byrne, and his general desire not to interfere with personal rivalries and squabbles. He’d be happy to just be spared the headache of dissent. To Stoker, it would finally be peace of mind. To August, it would be his greatest political victory yet. But to Nistor, it felt like signing his soul away.

By the Victors

20 December 2022

“This meeting of the Education Council is hereby called to order,” called Her Excellency Justice Maria Lupu with a tired voice. Typically, she chaired the Foreign Council, and only observed Education, but the Education Chair was very sick, and had no Deputy to fill in. Justice Lupu wasn’t happy to perform duties she didn’t want to, but she had no choice. “The Acting Chair welcomes His Excellency Justice August Byrne to the Council as a temporary petitioner. It is most irregular, but I hope we will show him the utmost respect. The first item on the agenda, then, is His Excellency’s own motion to update the history curriculum to include the past eight years.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency,” Justice Byrne replied, deferring all respect and authority as demanded by their corresponding stations. “As a quick history lesson for this esteemed council, which I am sure is familiar with the details thereof, I remind you all of the education reforms of early 2014. Following His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice Whitcher’s regency, may he rest in peace, Justice Hutopila, may he rest in peace, instituted updates to the curriculum of every history and civics class at every level of education, explaining the new form of government in which our citizens then found themselves, and teaching the history of how this government came to be, with the death of Empress Mariana, the lack of Imperial heirs, the declaration of regency for Chief Justice and Chief Minister George Whitcher, the investment of emergency powers by the Senate, the failed 9 Senator Rebellion, the maintenance of order in the streets, and the dissolution of the Senate. This added an entire chapter to 8th year primary school Aivintian History textbooks, and an entire unit to 4th year secondary school Aivintian History classes.

“However, since then, our history textbooks have remained the same. When Chief Justice Stoker took power, civics classes changed, thanks to the work of this Council, but history classes remained the same. I understand the reasoning of course, that history need not be updated with every change in current events, but I firmly believe that this is our best chance to educate our citizens on the change brought in the past eight years under Chief Justices Whitcher and Stoker. We have a chance to teach our people more than just the existence of our current regime, but also the good it has done. Education is how our children become productive citizens. It is an early chance to shape their opinions of our government by telling them the facts. By providing an unbiased account of what our regime can do, we combat harmful propaganda and resist the trend of public opinion decline. I have consulted His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice Stoker on this matter, and he has given me his blessing to pursue it before this council.” Byrne sat back down, allowing the other council members to react.

Bunda Nastasic, a non-binary Serdemic Councilmember with long hair and financial ties to the Danesti Foundation, a private institute which had supported Byrne’s city-wide educational reforms as Governor of Castenor, was the first to indicate support. “His Excellency Justice Byrne makes an excellent point. History is made quickly in the Kritarchy, and we need to account for that in history classes.”

Suzana Nastasic, their wife, was the next to comment. “I agree with Councilmember Nastasic,” she said, to no surprise. “If His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice Stoker saw no reason to oppose this motion, I see no reason for this council to, either. It is a logical step.”

Another Danesti Foundation donor, Claudiu Stanca, concurred. “Many other countries do not update their history books so often, but many other countries aren’t making history so often. Aivintis is leading the world in policy reform, paving the way with new measures such as His Excellency Justice Byrne’s elimination of the death penalty. We must document these successes for posterity. Some universities, such as Lerasi College, are already offering rigorous semester-long courses on the last decade of change.” It was no surprise that Mr Stanca brought up Lerasi College, the most prestigious university in the country, which was owned by the Danesti Foundation, and similarly led by Valerian Danesti.

To cement Byrne’s bloc, it was not another Danesti supporter, for there were none left on the council of twenty members, but a former Castenor resident, and indeed the former Castenor Superintendent of Schools, appointed by August Byrne and recommended to the Council by the same, who indicated support for his motion. “I believe this is a wonderful idea,” Councilmember Octavia Hasdeu began. “If I was on this council when the last motion to attempt the same was proposed, I would have supported it wholeheartedly. It should have been adopted then, and should be now.”

“Judging this by its merits,” Torsten Mohr jabbed, “I’m not sure it is necessary.” Councilmember Mohr was formerly a Dean of Westhafen’s Historic Ethalrian College, and then an elected Senator, before the Whitcher coup, when he was sent to Marnacia upon the dissolution of the Senate to serve as one of Governor Blackburn’s advisors. He had eventually lobbied Blackburn for their support in his ascension to the Education Council, where he served with a highly conservative agenda, opposing most reforms proposed to the council, and attempting to shift education into the hands of private colleges, like the HEC, and similarly privatised schools. “I know Mrs Hasdeu has no reason to oppose Justice Byrne’s agenda, given she, her wife, and her son have all benefited from his favouritism, but I am ashamed that my friends and supporters, Mx and Mrs Nastasic and Mr Stanca, are doing so as well. This will come at great cost to already aggravated taxpayers, easing the radical messages of revolutionaries like the PMJ, which cater to a frustrated citizenry.”

“Do you believe, Mr Mohr, that our educated citizens would allow that appeal to convince them to move to terrorism? Do you believe their message has any merit or effectiveness?” Justice Byrne knew which cards to play against the ageing Councilmember. He had already anticipated Mr Mohr’s opposition to his plan. Torsten’s entire political strategy was centred around fervent patriotism and denial of revolutionary ideals, including any progressive reform.

“Of course not! But we must fight these revolutionaries. We can’t continue to feed into their destructive rhetoric by scamming our own people out of their tax money.” Some murmurs of general agreement came from a couple Councilmembers of the same ideology.

“Mr Mohr, do you believe education is a scam?” Justice Byrne had debated cleverer opponents than Torsten. He had fought with Grigorescu so much that Councilmember Mohr was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

“I believe we should not waste money on updating the curriculum for every little change each year,” Mohr replied. He, too, was used to debating, but his strategy was less refined and more aggressive. It was sloppy, easily anticipated.

“Councilmember Mohr, the way to oppose the PMJ is to strike at the heart of their rhetoric — the idea that the Kritarchy has failed its people, that the Empire has fallen and that we’re a sham government. I’m sure you’re familiar with this rhetoric, as I have read the transcripts of this Council’s previous meetings. We can only fight that by showing the people what we’ve done right, and dispelling doubts of failure. Your opposition to this motion is what will feed their rhetoric, not this motion. They have a harder time manipulating an educated population than one which does not understand history.” Justice Byrne observed some of Mohr’s supporters softening to Byrne, mainly Mohr himself, but they would not let it go. They would continue dragging out the issue and conjuring doubts unless something could be done. Justice Byrne shot a look across the room.

Councilmember Valentina Marin spoke before Torsten could. “Your Excellency, I couldn’t agree more. I believe public education is the lifeblood of knowledge and understanding in this country. We must note that the successes of universities like Lerasi College are commendable, but unlikely to quickly spread, unless individual cities, like Castenor has, take steps to improve public education on the matter, or unless we stand up and set an example. Policy flows from this council, and I will fully support His Excellency’s motion.” The general agreement from her own small bloc of around four Coucilmembers didn’t need to say they supported it as well. It was an ideological minority in the council, but it managed some victories with the help of the six or so conservative-leaning moderates that recognised the importance of public education to a certain degree.

The lines were forming. Byrne’s four personal supporters and four ideological supporters made eight. Eleven was a majority, meaning three moderates would have to see it his way. His mention of Chief Justice Stoker’s support, as well as Mrs Nastasic’s reminder, was likely to sway the self-serving opportunists who were more than happy to gain the good graces of the new Justice and the country’s Regent at the same time. Perhaps some of the more radical supporters of Mohr would see it the same way. Perhaps not. Byrne himself could not vote, and Lupu would only cast a tie-breaking vote, but August was unsure if the female Justice would be such a big fan of his motion. She hadn’t said anything, which was normal, but might be happier to delay the Kritarchy’s agenda out of spite. She certainly had the political capital to do so, at least this time.

“Do any Councilmembers have any further comments?” Lupu’s voice cut through Byrne’s musings, and he realised she was looking directly at him with a curious expression.

“I’d like to say that I believe this motion unfairly benefits traditional public education at the cost of private alternatives,” claimed Nicusor Vaduva, another conservative radical, this one from Marnacia. This council is guided by its own Statement of Principles, passed with a 3/4ths majority at its inception, which states that it shall consider and benefit alternative education such as home schooling, charter schools, and private schools, whenever possible, in order to maintain equality of education and freedom of educational choice. Considering the interpretation of laws lies ultimately in the hands of Her Excellency Justice Lupu and His Excellency Justice Byrne as members of the High Court, I wonder if they would remark on the legality of passing this motion.” Councilmember Mohr smiled slightly at this.

“Thank you, Mr Vaduva, for voicing your concern,” Justice Byrne replied, taking up the question to Justice Lupu’s silent gratitude. “I believe that, because private institutions such as Lerasi College, as Mrs Nastasic mentioned, have already begun similar processes, this motion is indeed in line with the Education Council Statement of Principles of 2013, as they already meet the standards the council is enforcing in traditional public education with this motion. I’d also draw your attention to the Memorandum on Statement of Principles passed in 2018 with a 11 member majority, which clarifies that any attempts to improve traditional public education in categories where alternative education is largely superior do not violate the Statement of Principles. I understand this Memorandum to be fairly clear on the subject. I also note that I understand your opposition to my motion, and do not mean it to be an attack on your ideology. My next motion in this council will, I believe, be more in line with your beliefs.” The request for reciprocity was implied, but did not go over many heads. This council understood political manoeuvring like this.

“I believe that addresses the last of this council’s concerns with the motion, and concludes discussion on the matter,” Lupu jumped in, eager to get this over with. “For the purposes of this vote, I will be acting only as a tie-breaking vote. I remind this council that His Excellency Justice Byrne, as a guest petitioner, does not have voting rights within the council. All in favour?” Sixteen. Vaduva, the moderates, and the one other radical who voted, would be expecting Justice Byrne to deliver on his promise, of course. He quickly noted the four votes against, including Mohr, wondering if he could punish them somehow. “All opposed?” Lupu asked next. Three hands. “Let the record reflect one abstention.” That didn’t matter to Byrne, an abstention was as good as a vote against.

“Onto the next item on the agenda,” Lupu’s tired voice continued. “The matter of school vouchers.” The conservative Councilmembers broke out into smiles. The more liberal bloc was horrified. “The Acting Chair recognises His Excellency Justice August Byrne once again. I remind the council of his guest status.”

“Thank you once more, Your Excellency,” Byrne said, following the same pattern as before. “My motion calls for certificates of government funding for students, which will allow parents to use public funds to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition. I believe, as I know many Councilmembers do, that this can increase access to education and freedom of educational choice in such a way as to greatly improve the education that this council offers to our citizens. These vouchers can also be used to partially reimburse home schooling expenses. This promotes free market competition among both private and public schools, meaning every school will be forced to improve themselves if they want to maintain enrollment. It is the capitalist option, a form of consumer sovereignty which Aivintian citizens desire according to a 2021 poll by the Danesti Foundation.”

Immediately, the Castenian on the council expressed support. “As many of you know, I made my name in public education,” Mrs Hasdeu stated, “but I can see the benefits of this system for public education as well as for private education.”

Before the Byrne Bloc could continue its round of praises, or one of Mohr’s supporters could chime in with their own approval, Councilmember Marin objected. “This proposal benefits the wealthy over the poor, and can easily lead to a form of income segregation, diminishing our public education options and disadvantaging hundreds of thousands of children. It is unconscionable. This motion is immoral and illegal. We passed a law in 2021 that required a 3/4ths majority for all attempts to fundamentally change the education system, and the last motion for a voucher system was ruled to fall under the purview of that law. You do not have the votes for it.”

“The law allows the sitting Justice of the Council to override that majority. Justice Lupu, will you please do the honours?” Justice Byrne asked.

Lupu sighed deeply.

“Justice Lupu,” Byrne pressed, a warning note in his voice. The way he spoke to her shocked all in attendance. Clearly something had happened. She would only take that shit from Chief Justice Stoker himself. Which meant the Regent had a hand in this. Simply mentioning that might have gotten Byrne the majority he needed, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted a show of force. A reminder of what this council really was. Nothing. Nothing but a sham bureaucracy, a little middle school theatre performance of a government that was ultimately slave to the whims of a single man.

“Fine. The 3/4ths majority required for passing this motion is struck down by my authority as a Justice.”

“Thank you, Ms Lupu. Simple majority vote it is, per that law. Thank you for reminding me, Ms Marin.”

“I waive the discussion period for this motion as is my right as sitting Justice and Acting Chair,” Justice Lupu said next, to the protest of many members, including some moderate conservatives who might have voiced support. “I remind the council that it serves at my pleasure and at the pleasure of Chief Justice Stoker. Maintain order and decorum or be thrown out. Your choice.” Silence. “Thank you. Simple majority. I will be voting in the event of a tie. All in favour?” 10. “This motion passes with my eleventh vote in favour. Thank you, Justice Byrne. Your guest petitioner status has expired, please exit the council chambers. And Mr Byrne?”

“Yes, Your Excellency?”

“I’d like the record to reflect that if you pull something like that again, I will do everything in my power to make your political career hell. You will not order me around like some servant. You will not take over my council. You will not step foot in this room ever again. I am not Nistor Grigorescu, Mr Byrne. Whatever you did to him, you can’t do to me. You have made an enemy of me, Mr Byrne. That was unwise. Do you understand?” It was the most words the Justice had said at once. Everyone was shocked, Byrne included, but he understood something deeper. He had poked the bear for this very reason. He wanted to see her claws.

“Your Excellency, I’m not sure His Exalted Excellency would be happy with the way you’re speaking of your colleague and equal.”

Lupu just waved him away in annoyance and dismissal, and he complied. The council sat in silent awe, tension, and unbridled fear at what they had just witnessed, at what their chamber had become. No one, Lupu included, could ever understand why Byrne had decided to employ such a dangerous manoeuvre. It seemingly harmed him more than it helped him. But he was not doing it for political power, as they all suspected. He was sizing up his opponent in a far more risky game. August Byrne had been given much to think about.

Start the Presses

1 January 2023


For over nine years, the state of emergency that exists in our nation has led to the suspension of certain rights. George Whitcher, may he rest in peace, in his infinite wisdom, suspended these rights for the wellbeing of our people and of our nation. It was necessary, then, when chaos and confusion plagued our country. When the death of the Empress left us without a clear leader, and the treachery of a few villains left us scared for our lives and our future.

However, I am proud to say that this emergency is lessening. The actions of Mr Whitcher’s administration, and of my own, have been instrumental in protecting and safeguarding Aivintis from those who would wish to do it harm. Those like the PMJ, an organisation dedicated to fear and terrorism. Even in the face of this most recent threat, though, Aivintis is stronger than ever, and ready to face the future with optimism and pride. The PMJ, try as they might, cannot defeat the united Aivintian people.

As such, I am jubilant to announce the return of the Freedoms of Speech and of the Press, as protected under Article 6 of the Imperial Constitution. The government regulation of these freedoms was necessary to prevent seditious responses to George Whitcher’s regency, such as malicious news outlets attempting to discredit the legal government, and government management of the press has been important to ensuring government funding for such an important industry, but the need for state supervision is no longer present.

Within my Constitutional emergency powers, I have authorised the Trade Council to take action to return the freedom of the press, especially, to the hands of the people. To facilitate the free market journalism industry, I have dissolved Aivcast News and sold its trademark to Seier Enterprises, which shall independently arrange an auction for its ownership. Furthermore, His Excellency Justice August Byrne has authorised the investment of five billion crowns in fledgling news stations, the creation of which has been negotiated with various corporations, including Abraxas Industries and Quartz Technologies, chosen for their diverse portfolios and vested interests in unbiased reporting of fact.

The Aivintian government will continue to provide significant subsidies in the journalism industry in order to kickstart its growth. The devolution of the press to the hands of the people requires the oversight of a steady hand and the assistance of a great degree of investment. Tax breaks will be offered to all rising journalism companies in all media — television, radio, internet, print, and more. The Trade Council is overjoyed to make this transition, and the Aivintian government believes that free market capitalism in all matters, including news media, is always preferable to government control.

The freedom of speech shall be encouraged throughout Aivintis as well. The Education Council has been instructed to clarify these freedoms in all history and civics classes throughout the nation, to document this great gift I am pleased to grant my people. These freedoms are nothing if they are not fully understood by the citizens of this great nation, and I have authorised informational materials on acceptable speech to allow this freedom to be fully realised. Disagreement with the government, provided sedition laws remain followed, shall be allowed and even encouraged, so that public servants can learn how we can better serve you, the people.

The Aivintian Empire understands the freedoms of speech and of the press to be two of the most basic and important freedoms offered to people around the world. They are some of the most important political rights that can be granted to the people by the government, and Aivintis has long ached to return those rights, as is the natural way of legitimate, moral government. We are thrilled to return to the ranks of those Urthen countries devoted to the protection of the rights of our people, now that our state of emergency is not so severe as to limit our capabilities.

Laws have been enacted to further the advancement of the freedom of the press and of speech, and to protect these rights from various restrictions on all levels of government. Free reporting and speech will be not only allowed, but actively encouraged by my administration. All of this, however, is within reason. Obscene and harsh speech will not be tolerated in primary and secondary education facilities. Seditious and discriminatory speech will not be tolerated in any setting. However, we welcome our citizens to express their opinions on all matters of political and non-political importance.

As the sun dawns on the new year, it dawns on a new era of Aivintis. I am grateful to all the people of Aivintis who have patiently lived through these trying times of fear and pain, who are now rewarded for their patience by emerging into times of freedom and prosperity. Aivintis will continue to maintain domestic tranquillity and peace within our borders in the face of the terrorist threat, and will continue to serve the best interests of the people no matter what seditious propaganda the PMJ promotes. We, the Aivintian people, stand strong and united as ever. We are proud to be Aivintian, and we are proud to be served by the legitimate officials of the Aivintian Empire.

In solidarity and humble servitude,
His Exalted Excellency, Eduard Stoker
Regent of the Aivintian Throne
Chief Minister of the Imperial Cabinet
Chief Justice of the High Court

Barrel of a Gun

2 January 2023

Her Excellency Justice Maria Lupu was awake. She didn’t remember when she woke up, but she had, and she knew why. There was someone else in the room. Although the lights were out, she knew they were there, sitting in her old wooden chair on the other side of her dark bed. She heard their soft breath, and their small shifting movements. Subtle and quiet, but not so skilled as to escape her notice.

Maria kept her breathing steady, and her body still. If the intruder knew she had awoken, she would likely be in great danger. She slowly and cautiously opened her eyes, her head facing away from the unseen figure. The door was closed, a thin sliver of light reaching through the cracks in the door. The shadows of her guards were gone, but she didn’t expect them to be there.

She kept a gun under her pillow. If she could slowly pull her hand up and slip it under the pillow, the Justice could wrap her fingers around the handle of the gun, aim it at the intruder, and squeeze the trigger. She did not get a chance. The man in her room pulled the chain on her tableside lamp, flooding the darkened room with warm golden light. She debated reacting, but the man spoke before she could come to a quick decision.

“Oh please, Ms Lupu, you’re not fooling me.” The voice was familiar, but Lupu, in her state of heightened fear and anxiety, did not place it until she rolled over and sat up to face His Excellency Justice August Byrne, wearing his traditional black robes.

“What the fuck are you doing in my bedroom?” she asked, quite reasonably, by her standards. Most of her fear was gone, replaced with confusion, but the underlying paranoia remained and shock.

“Keep your voice down,” Byrne admonished. It was at that point she noticed his right hand, which was holding a pistol, pointed directly at her with the hammer drawn.

Slowly and shakily, she asked again, “What the fuck are you doing?”

“I could kill you,” he said, as if thinking out loud. “I’m not sure I want to.”

“That makes two of us,” she said, in quite the negotiating tone. “How about you lower the gun and we discuss this like two civilised adults.”

“Ms Lupu, I’m not here to have a civilised discussion. I’m here to show you what I am capable of. I know you, Ms Lupu. I know you don’t care much for the Kritarchy. That is good. It will make this very easy. When Stoker says heel, you heel, but you hate him. My demands are simple. When I say heel, I want you to heel.”

She looked at him for a moment. A long pause filled the stale, warm air. “You’re going to overthrow him, aren’t you?”

Byrne smiled. “You’re the first to figure it out.”

“If you’re smiling, that means you’re far too close to victory now for me to do anything about it.”

“You were always the smartest person on the Court, Ms Lupu,” Byrne remarked.

“Not smart enough, it seems.”

“How so?”

“I did not escape this,” she replied.

Byrne nodded. “Of course. You will, though. When Stoker is gone, things will be different. I want you to know that. Things will be better.”

“That’s what George Whitcher said. ‘Things will be better,’ is the battle cry of all would-be oppressors. ‘Things will be better if you accept me as your ruler.’ ‘Things will be better if this freedom is restricted.’ ‘Things will be better if you do what I say.’ Do things get better, August? Do they ever?”

“I think so,” he said quietly.

“I don’t think this country can change,” she argued. “Look at this. Look at how you take power. Pulling a gun on me in the night. In my own bedroom. Look at what you’re doing and tell me we’re not too far gone.”

“I have to believe we aren’t, Ms Lupu. I have to. Otherwise, what do we have left? I can’t sit idly by while my people are oppressed and suffering. What would you have me do? Just watch?”

“You chose this, Mr Byrne,” she reminded him. “You could have remained in your little life. You chose to be elevated to the stage where you have to do unpleasant things every day. You chose this life, you have no right to complain.”

“I am sorry,” he said, and he meant it. “I know you did not choose to become a Justice. I know you have done nothing but your job for your entire term. That is not important right now. When the time comes, you will have to make a choice. You can stay loyal to the tyrant asshole that means us all to be his servants, or you can join me, and I can offer you a ticket out of this hell.”

“You mean your bullet?”

Byrne gave a weak smile. “I’m not going to kill you, Ms Lupu, unless you make a very stupid mistake. We’ve already established you’re far too intelligent for that. You know what I mean. I will let you leave this building, and you never have to come back. You’ll be free to live your life. The way you always should have been. Every Aivintian will. Things will be better. I assure you.”

“How much longer, do you think, until you do something you can’t come back from?” she asked. “Or have you already?” It was not judgmental. She was making a point. “We have dug ourselves a deep pit, Mr Byrne, and we tossed our people in the pit, and we jumped in after them.”

“‘We,’” Byrne quoted with disdain.

“We,” she confirmed. “Not you or me, but us nonetheless. We have attached ourselves to this regime. We have become accessories to its crimes. You cannot deny that.”

“I suppose I cannot,” he replied.

“We put ourselves in this pit,” she explained, “and we have no rope or ladder by which to climb out. And here you are. Building stairs out of corpses piled high. How are you any better? Do the ends really justify the means, Mr Byrne? Can they ever?”

“Will it change your response?”

“No, I don’t suppose it will.”

“You know what my answer will be, though?”


“I’ve already done so much good, Maria.” When Stoker used her first name, all she wanted was to punch him in his smug face. When Byrne did it, she understood a compassion and empathy behind it that she had not encountered from any on the court. “You know it. You’ve seen it. I’ve accomplished so much. I restored freedom of speech, freedom of press. I ended the death penalty. I’ve expanded education. I’ve increased transparency in government. Can’t you see that this is just the beginning?”

“I can see that you have done much, quickly. But—” she looked at him strangely.

“What?” he asked, confused.

“I hope you don’t consider criticising you to be a very stupid mistake,” she said meaningfully.

“I will not shoot you for speaking your mind, Ms Lupu, and even as the man holding a gun to you, I feel insulted you would think so low of me. No, speak your mind. I want to hear it. Under cover of dark, in the sharp fear of death, thoughts come clearer. I just finished telling you about my fight to let people criticise their government officials. What a hypocrite I would be to censor you here and now. What an ego I’d have to have.” He looked her in the eyes. “I am not him.”

“For now.”

“We’ve been through that. What were you going to say?”

“How long will your reforms last, Mr Byrne?” She waved her hand, and he narrowed his eyes. She seemed to forget that sudden, unannounced, and swift movements by the person with a gun pointed at them was ill-advised. “How long?” she repeated. “I mean, he’s tolerating you for now, but are you sure he won’t get bored of you soon? He has tried your methods, but he retains the power to revoke what concessions he’s granted. What if he decides it’s not the time for freedom of speech, after all? What if he revokes it? What if he starts questioning all the other good you’ve done? What if he undoes it all?”

“I’ll redo it when he’s gone,” Byrne responded matter-of-factly.

“Will you? How easy will it be? The supporters you need to take power are different from the supporters you need to keep power. You’ll need to keep the loyalists happy. The fascists.”

“Don’t call them that,” August interrupted. “Tyrants, yes. Oppressors, yes. But fascists, no. There is a fundamental difference and we cannot blur the lines. Fascism implies sociocultural totalitarianism. They have not stooped so low.”

“Maybe they will, if it so suits him,” she countered. “But,” Lupu then conceded, “you are right. The tyrants then. You will have to appease the tyrants. The elites you so despise. You will have to make difficult decisions and even more difficult compromises. As pressure surrounds you on all sides, the people drunk on power will do whatever it takes to keep power. You will, too. You may resist, at first, but you will see the need for offering them something to keep them satisfied. So they do not rise up. So you do not risk war. Then you’ll do it again. Of course you will. You will need to. Then what next? It will be easier and easier to bow, or else to fight back. And you will have to choose. Appease the tyrants, or counter their tyranny with some of your own. And where will we be, then?”

“Ms Lupu, I understand your perspective. Pessimistic as it is, I understand. Disagree with it though I do, I understand. What keeps me from that? My conscience. What if my conscience fails? I don’t know. I’ll do my best. That’s all any of us can ever do, Ms Lupu. I will do my best. And if it’s not enough? I don’t know.” Byrne was deep in thought. He often was. “However, I’m sure you know that, even if you hate both choices, there is a lesser of the two evils. You hate him. You know his way doesn’t work. What does it cost you to see if my way does?”

“My head, if he finds out.”

“Is that really too much to gamble?” She looked shocked that he would suggest such a thing, but he elaborated. “You know the odds. You said it yourself. I’m too close to victory now. Even if he finds out, he can’t do anything about it. He can try, he can struggle and fight and kick and bite. But it’s too late. He’s in my trap already. He is a fly in a spiderweb. Like quicksand, struggling will only pull him deeper into my plot. He is as good as deposed.”

“Then why do you need me?” she asked.

“To make it go smoother. I will win. I will take control. The matter of if the other countries will accept me. That is another affair entirely. If we have you, I have no need to worry. If we do not, I will struggle to legitimise my new regime. As a result, foreign aid will decline. We may be sanctioned, or lose our diplomatic partnerships. Our people will suffer.”

“Fine. You can count on my support. Now let me sleep,” she insisted.

“Ms Lupu, need I even say that you do not breathe a word of this to a soul?” Mr Byrne adopted a patronising tone to emphasise the blatant apparency of this stipulation.

“Of course not,” she replied indignantly. “I’m not an idiot. Now go.”

“Very well,” Justice Byrne said, and he lingered for just a moment before he tugged on the lamp chain, turning the light off, and put the gun back in his robe, unfired. He was glad. Justice Lupu’s doubt unnerved him, he’d be a fool if it didn’t, but he couldn’t lose hope. He couldn’t lose faith. If he did, it would all fall apart. He could not let that happen. Stoker had to fall. The Kritarchy had to fall. And now, the entire court save Chief Justice Eduard Stoker was in his pocket. Enacting favourable policy would be a matter of playing with the strings he had tied to the Justices. His time was coming soon, and he would not hesitate to do what needed to be done.


20 January 2023

Victor Tarus could sense the shifting winds of policy in Aivintis. Everyone could, whether they knew it or not. Since His Excellency Justice August Byrne was appointed, the agenda had changed. Different decisions were made, yes, but more than that, different issues were addressed. The way people spoke changed. The rhetoric they used. The way people walked changed. The air smelled different, and even the water tasted different. It was as if the universe fundamentally understood that there was a great change in progress.

Mr Tarus should have noticed it earlier, he believed. Justice Byrne, though, was careful and clever. He used the natural unnaturalness of a new Justice to conceal the unnatural changes he brought about behind the scenes. Most people, Tarus included, did not even register the shift until he had the Chief Justice’s support. He had a knack for making the right allies. Everyone knew something had happened with Justice Crane, something that had shaken the Chief Justice, and that Byrne had reaped the benefits of it.

What no one knew — or perhaps a few people did, given Byrne’s growing circle of allies, from people like Arthur Frost to Martin Costiniu to the Chief Justice himself — was to what end. What had Justice Byrne been planning? His policies seemed to align with those of the Kritarchy. He was harsh on crime, loose on trade, and had kept the military as powerful and well-funded as it ever was. However, he brought a sense of honesty and authenticity that few had even realised the Kritarchy was significantly lacking.

Transparency in the government was practically unheard of in the Kritarchy. Politicians would inform the public of their greatest victories when they occurred, their words dripping in propaganda and nationalism. However, beyond that, silence. If the people did not know what their government was doing, it was easier for them to keep their heads down. It was a tactic of control that the Kritarchy had excelled. August Byrne had changed that.

Justice Byrne held regular press conferences and interviews. Members of councils and committees under his jurisdiction were the same, pushed on by his own example and various encouragements and requirements he had made. Unbiased reports on government activity and the effects thereof were released to the public. Yet the Kritarchy’s control wasn’t slipping. At least not visibly. The people were too infatuated with their new national hero to care about how jarring the difference was between Aivintis before and after him. After the dark, they were too blinded by the sun to turn on the clouds for hiding its beauty.

He had more influence than the public knew, Tarus guessed. He couldn’t help but notice how many Castenians on various Councils outside Byrne’s jurisdiction started voting differently and bringing new policies to the table at an accelerated rate since he became a Justice. He couldn’t help but notice how many judicial appointments were made by the Chief Justice where the new judge ended up being an alumnus of the University of Castenor, or a lawyer who had previously worked at Byrne’s law firm. He couldn’t help but notice all the visits the man took to major cities, more than most Justices. Visits which ended with some new policy or other announced by the Governor.

The man’s every action intrigued the entire country, but Victor couldn’t stop thinking about the membership reforms he had made many months prior. The way he had caught his entire council off-guard, masterfully manipulated them into throwing away their wealth, then kept the status quo intact by manipulating them again. The way he earned a public victory without disturbing the establishment. The way he removed the Councillors as middle men by taking away their self-interest in the success of certain businesses and earned those businesses’ favour by giving them a direct line to influencing policy.

Since then, the Trade Council had become increasingly heated. The initial Councillors, of which there were twelve, held their seats alongside six major businesses, all six of which owed Justice Byrne much. Ten was the majority now, but it required only convincing four. At least, when he wasn’t restricting those businesses. His antitrust measures were met with opposition from the six business representatives, but the twelve Councillors themselves, unburdened with bias towards monopolies, were more easily swayed to Byrne’s way of thinking.

The Justice was playing a game more complicated than any of them could imagine, and Victor was starting to suspect that they couldn’t even begin to imagine the scale of it, either. It intrigued him, though. It was a fascinating mystery. Was he preparing to become the next Chief Justice, after Stoker died? That was increasingly likely, with Grigorescu’s decline in power and Lupu’s Lupu-ness. But that couldn’t be the only reason. Byrne had an ideology. He had an agenda. And he was realising it, slowly.

It was one Mr Tarus could not accurately guess at — some form of Libertarianism, it seemed — but he thought he agreed. At the very least, Byrne’s attempts to improve ethics within the government were highly commendable. Tarus could admit to himself that he admired the man. He knew he wasn’t alone. Darius Petrescu practically worshipped the ground he walked upon. He voted the way Byrne wanted every time. Tarus himself, however, had at times opposed His Excellency. He could tell everyone on the Council either loved him or hated him at any given point, and sometimes, it changed. He wondered what it must be like, to be the subject of that.

Tarus knew little of Byrne, he had realised, and had resolved some time in July, following Byrne’s council membership reforms, to research the man. To learn more about him. There were already biographies published, but he also read Byrne’s various amicus curiae briefs, his academic papers, and some political essays he had published during the Aivintian Empire. His mind was interesting to dissect. Victor worried that he obsessed too much, but something bothered him about the newest High Court Justice. There was something about him that begged some question in need of an answer.

He did not expect August Byrne to discover this, however. All it took was a slip of the tongue during a heated debate, where Tarus pointed out the Justice’s hypocrisy in allowing certain companies to sell private data when he himself had written an article in 2009 about the dangers of data mining and the fundamental right to privacy. The Justice’s eyes had narrowed and his face had darkened, in realising that Tarus had been researching him. He merely stated, “People change. Opinions change. I am a pragmatist above all else.” Then, he had moved on, but Victor knew what had happened. He’d been registered as a threat.

And so it was that Victor Tarus found himself summoned to the Justice’s private chambers the next day. One of the many meetings Justice Byrne took with public officials, to establish ties, smooth relations after opposition, strongly suggest policy goals, and other political manoeuvring. Yet it was the first time he had been called to it. He knew it was about his newfound hobby, but he couldn’t help but feel excited about getting a glimpse into the private power plays of His Excellency Justice August Byrne. Perhaps he could get a better idea of what the man wanted. The very thing he had been wondering all this time.

He walked in the dimly lit room to find Justice Byrne already watching the door as it opened. It was unnerving. The Justice wore his robes, and that, along with his soft face and bright eyes reminded Tarus of old paintings of the Great Architect of the Universe. The face hardened and eyes darkened when Tarus stepped in however, and the resemblance to divinity vanished like spilt water on a hot day.

“Take a seat, Councillor Tarus,” His Excellency ordered.

He did as he was told.

“Mr Tarus, have I misjudged you?” His Excellency’s voice was more curious than upset, but it was certainly threatening.

“I– I don’t know, Your Excellency. I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I was surprised to hear that you were familiar with my essay work for the Casten Commentator while I was a young lawyer,” Justice Byrne said. “I was caught off-guard when you brought it up. I wasn’t aware that a Derrim-born man like you read a local Castenian paper. I mean, it doesn’t deliver papers there, and the website is light on traffic. So I wondered if perhaps you were stalking me online. So I accessed your web history. Which, as you might point out, goes against the thesis of a paper I wrote thirteen years ago. But I don’t care. Do you know what I discovered, Mr Tarus?”

“No, Your Excellency,” he responded shakily.

“You don’t? Do you not recall your past readings?” Byrne kept his voice steady and disinterested, which was scarier than anger.


“I’ll remind you,” Byrne said simply. “You looked through public records for all my amicus briefs, from cases on the freedom of speech to criminal rights. Then, you looked through some of the cases I worked, such as the infamous Castenor v. Frost. After that, you found the opinion pieces I wrote for the Commentator. You proceeded to purchase three biographies online, including a very questionable one that cost you only three crowns. Did you read that one first?”

“Your Excellency, I meant no disrespect. I didn’t realise how much it violated your privacy. It was wrong of me to do and—”

“Mr Tarus.” Byrne held up a hand. “I did not ask you what you meant, nor what you realised.”

“I’m sorry, Your Excellency. No, I did not read that one first.”

“Did you finish reading all of them?”

“Your Excellency . . .” he trailed off, his voice desperate.

“Don’t make me repeat myself again, Mr Tarus.”

“Yes, Your Excellency, I did.”


“I just wanted to familiarise myself with your work, Your Excellency, so I could better understand the Justice I was serving under.” It was the answer he had prepared the moment he saw Justice Byrne’s dark look.

“You’re lying.”

“No, Your Excellency, I swear.” He was still adamant. It was a commendable commitment, but ultimately foolish.

“Mr Tarus, answer my question, please.”

He did not. His Excellency rose from his seat. “Mr Tarus,” he began again, “you are being extraordinarily difficult.”

“Your Excellency, I’m sorry,” he tried again. “I didn’t realise.”

“Mr Tarus.”

“Yes, Your Excellency?”

“Show some dignity,” Justice Byrne sneered.


“Mr Tarus, you are grovelling to the wrong person. I am not His Exalted Excellency. If you wrong him, perhaps throwing yourself at his feet and begging for your life will fill his twisted ego, but I have no such flaws.” It was dangerous talk in the palace. It was dangerous talk anywhere in the capital.

“Excuse me?” He was shocked to hear anyone disrespect the Chief Justice like that, let alone another Justice. It was treason. People had been killed for less, everyone in the palace knew that.

“Mr Tarus, if I wished to arrest you for violating my privacy, you would be in handcuffs. If I wanted to kill you for it, you would be in the ground. Have I made myself clear?” He said it with such certainty that Victor suddenly understood that Justice Byrne had indeed arrested and killed people who opposed him. Somehow, the truth of the statement, and the confidence with which it was delivered, did not calm him.

“Why am I here, then?” he tried, choosing each word carefully.

“I have been watching you, too. Longer than you have been watching me, I imagine. I respect your commitment to your values, Mr Tarus. I do.” The Justice leaned back and waved his hand at nothing in particular. “I mean, consider our recent . . . squabble,” he phrased diplomatically, taking on a disappointed tone. “You enforced my own standards and called out my hypocrisy. It is a commendable stance.”

“. . . thank you, Your Excellency?”

“Was that a question, Mr Tarus?”

“No, Your Excellency,” Victor said quickly.

“Then don’t phrase it like one,” Justice Byrne admonished. “This is politics, you can’t afford to be nervous or off-guard.” He paused. “Of course, you were wrong. I told you, people change, and I wasn’t saying that for the record. I was being truthful. However, I still believe in privacy rights. Of course I do, everyone with a moral compass does to a certain extent. But that’s not what this is about. As I said, this is politics. Sacrifices need to be made. Compromises. Can you make compromises, Mr Tarus?”

“Are you referring to my opposition to your policies?” Tarus asked. Much of his fear was scared out of him by that point, and his annoyance and desire to reach the point of the conversation trumped his desire to keep from angering Byrne.

“No, but we can discuss that as well, if you’d like. I personally find it charming that you stand your ground even in the face of hopelessness. You know what I want will come to pass, but when you don’t want it, you still fight it. I admire that about you, Mr Tarus. It shows integrity. Few people in the palace have that sort of integrity.” Justice Byrne was almost finished. “It shows bravery, too. Standing up to one of the most powerful people in the country? In the world? That is courageous. I like someone who is willing to stand against authority for the right reasons. Where did that go?” That question was rhetorical, unlike many others he had asked.

“Your Excellency, what is this?” Mr Tarus asked, confused.

“I have a lot of people behind me, Mr Tarus. I have a legion of supporters and a network of allies. Almost all of them agree with every word I say. I have no exposure to alternative perspectives, and no one who is keeping me in check while sharing my goals. No one to keep me accountable. To maintain my integrity.”

“So, what, you want me to become an advisor?” It should have been a great honour, Victor knew, but something about the whole affair felt wrong.

“I am seriously considering it,” he confessed. “I have not yet decided. That is why you are here. I’m wondering if your stubbornness and your willingness to disagree with me are threats to my agenda at this point in time. Hence the questioning. So I ask again. Can you make compromises?”

“I can. I can’t promise I won’t fight them, but I can promise I will accept them when the talking is done.”

“And when the voting has begun?” It was a thinly veiled request for an extra permanent vote for every measure Byrne proposed.

“I’m not sure I can do that. But after voting has ended, yes.”

“Hm. I think I can work with that,” Justice Byrne mused. “What are your thoughts on the People’s Movement for Justice?”

Taurus looked around, shocked. “Are you allowed to say that here?”

Byrne looked down his nose at the man. “Mr Tarus, I am not His Exalted Excellency’s slave.”

More treasonous talk, then. Victor was unsure he liked the direction this was going. Suddenly acting on a hunch, he blurted, “Your Excellency, are you planning to overthrow His Exalted Excellency?”

Byrne’s face contorted in an unreadable emotion. Not anger, nor surprise, nor joy. Something in between them all, or perhaps some combination of them all. Or perhaps some entirely new emotion, one that had never been documented before.

“Your Excellency, I apologise if I offended you—”

“Mr Tarus, when the time comes, if I ask, will you commit high treason for me?”

“Yes.” He wasn’t sure where his surety or confidence came from.

“That is the kind of loyalty I am looking for, Mr Tarus. You can disagree with me all you want, but when the soldiers line up and march to war, you will be holding my banner. Do you understand?” It was not a request. It was a demand.

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“I’ve decided to trust you, Mr Tarus.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“You will not let me down.”

“I understand, Your Excellency.”

“And Mr Tarus?”

“Yes, Your Excellency?”

“Do not bring up the information you found ever again.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

Government Contract

13 March 2023

“Your Excellency, I am delighted to discuss with you the terms of our new agreement!” Arthur Frost practically squealed with delight when the Trade Council chambers had vacated following a very important meeting, leaving only him and the Excellency to whom he spoke.

“Wipe that grin off your face,” Justice August Byrne replied, “and tell me what happened.”

“Is that an official decree from Your Lordship?” Frost asked. “A law passed down from the High Court, perhaps?”

“I don’t know what you’re so giddy about,” the Kritarch scolded. “We barely won that vote. I was afraid I would have to take drastic measures.”

“Ah but we won it, didn’t we?”

“Tell me how.” Justice Byrne did not raise his voice often, but he had feared for the survival of his grand design, and he was angry he had not been made aware of all relevant circumstances.

“I made a deal. Nothing too illegal, so don’t worry, Your Judiciousness.”

“I do not like how you are avoiding the point,” Byrne said judgmentally. Which was a fitting tone for a judge of sorts. He crossed his arms, which looked a bit strange in his flowing black robes, the sleeves of which were a little bigger than comfortable. Maybe that was one of the reasons he wasn’t angry very often — Arthur Frost could not reconcile the physical expression of the emotion with his co-conspirator’s grand stoicism and dark brilliance. He filed that thought away before he inadvertently complimented the high official.

“Right,” he said, before introducing a new energy to his tone. “So last meeting, or I suppose the meeting before last, I noticed that our little regulatory bloc was shaking. I don’t wanna use the term ‘falling apart,’ but let’s be honest here, Excellency.”

“There were cracks in the foundation,” Byrne agreed. “I didn’t think Petrescu would turn on us so quickly and suddenly. And Stoica. Of course she would side against you, she hates you. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. I was naïve and foolish. I will not make the same mistake again. We’re getting off track. You noticed the schism. How did you get your biggest competitors to support your bid for the telecommunications project?”

“First, I hunted down the second-thought-havers on our side—“


“I know, I know,” came the excuse. “I didn’t do it for you. I asked them, each, one by one, without giving any of them time to talk amongst themselves and form a united front, if they would support my company in the coming days. I mentioned government projects, but I swear on my own, future, bejewelled, bedazzled, and burnished, shallow grave, I didn’t speak a wisp of a whisper about your telecommunications idea. I was just testing the waters, acting completely inconspicuously of my own interests. Everybody expects that at this point right? Ouch,” he added upon seeing the former Governor of Castenor nodding in agreement.

Frost continued, “They flaked, for the record! Every one of the traitors who ended up voting against the proposal told me that they were not sure they would be voting with the bloc anymore. Ungrateful, treacherous backstabbers, the lot. But not coordinated. Honestly, Your Most Revered Worshipfulness or whatever your title is, I think you just ran into a stroke of bad luck. It sucks but it happens. I see it all the time. Cops bust a coke deal, there’s no snitch to put in a ditch. There’s no leak. They just get lucky.“

“I understand the concept,” Byrne defended himself sharply. “I was told my plans would go off without a hitch.”

“Told?” Frost echoed.

“Forget it. It was bad luck. Continue with your story.” The way he brushed it off, though . . . August Byrne was hiding something. No matter.

“I was concerned about your plans, so I met with a couple more reasonable souls. Vladu, for example. I promised them some things, all above board deals, I just wanted to make sure that the next vote you called, they’d be the first ones shouting, ‘Aye.’ That didn’t cost me anything. Which is to say it cost me quite a bit of money and contracts, as well as a promise to focus on economic enrichment of the Waerham metropolitan area. Oh by the way, I need you to offer some funding for the economic enrichment of the Waerham metropolitan area.”

Just a sigh, this time. Byrne knew if he interrupted with his words, Arthur would go chasing butterflies and conversational tangents again. “Continue,” he prompted regardless, just in case. He felt like an adult chaperone on a primary school field trip. Or like one of those parents with their kids on leashes.

“So I got a couple more votes, but it wasn’t enough. I mean, of course, I needed to be sure. But it wouldn’t solve everything.”

Byrne nodded his solemn approval. It was people like Frost that made his revolution possible. His core group of supporters was all the same — Frost, Aldulescu, Groza. Each prong of his trident all acutely sharpened with zeal. His success, he knew, was entirely dependent on them. Their initiative, their resources, their dedication. It had been a while since he had spoken to Groza about the plan. He knew his colleague wouldn’t hesitate to do the right thing at every crossroads, but he thought maybe he should confide in him. A kindred spirit, certainly. He wished he could have known Aldulescu. The two would get along well. Byrne’s wandering train of thought did not distract him from Frost’s words.

“The regulatory block that had formed behind us was turning against us, but the businesses still owed you for their direct influence in the Council. They haven’t been voting with us because you’ve been focused on limiting their power and protecting the workers — which is lame, if you ask me, but if we no longer have support from the Councillors who want to put more restrictions, we should support the businesses that don’t want those restrictions. The enemy of our enemy can be sufficiently bribed into becoming our friend.”

“So what was the bribe?”

“A great blow to my pride, and my business opportunities,” the crime boss sighed. He looked off into the distance. There were no windows in the Trade Council, but August always found Arthur staring at a particular painting, a peculiar one, certainly. An ice field in twilight, below the stars, and a horse in the distance, riding in the gloomy cold. Come to think of it, the piece reminded Byrne of the painting he saw in Marnacia, in the Governor’s meeting room. It had the same ethereal quality, and looked to be made in a similar time period and style. He wondered if it was possible that it was the same, unknown artist. He wondered what that artist’s life was like.

Byrne was not so captured by the painting that he forgot Arthur’s last words. A little dazed from the painting, he smiled slightly. “You made a sacrifice for the cause, didn’t you?”

“Indeed. Sold a lot of my company’s holdings and assets, which I would have much rather kept. I think you may have gotten your good person germs all over me. That’s liable to cause a pandemic, we might want to talk to Justice Griggy about getting the Health Council on that.”

Byrne’s smile only grew at the fun his co-conspirator poked at Nistor Grigorescu. “He’ll hang you if he hears that.”

“He’ll be in the gallows long before he hears me speak ill of him. I’ve outlasted far tougher bastards.”

“He’s not going to the gallows, he’s going to rot in prison,” Byrne refuted. “I’m keeping the murder at a minimum, Mr Frost.”

“Eh, that’s no fun. Metaphorical gallows, then,” he amended. “He’ll be shanked in prison soon enough, or he’ll die in there, come twenty years, and that’s a gallows of a sort, isn’t it?”

“From a poetic point of view, I suppose.” Sensing a lull, and unable to keep his curiosity in check, Justice Byrne asked, “How much did you give up?”

“Quite a lot. About half. The board will have a fit, some of them may even jump ship. But they’re useless as deckhands anyway.”

“All that for one telecommunications contract? Seems a bit harsh.”

Frost lit up like a lightbulb, suddenly overjoyed at some good news he was aching to share. “All that for their bloc’s full support in any measure you propose. It had to be you, of course. They know we have ties, any fool could see that. And nothing would ever get them to fully support every measure I’d propose. You were the compromise. They think they got more out of it than me. I’m not sure they realise that’s all I wanted in the first place.”


“Hm, must have slipped my mind.”

August was stunned at how the billionaire managed to be so lighthearted all the time, like everything was a joke, or could be. In a way, it took great courage. A wasteful courage, Byrne reasoned. Wasted on something so unlikely to cause any positive change and so difficult to find admirable. He wondered if it was a nihilistic commentary on absurdism. Knowing Frost, everything was possible. The Justice composed himself. “Maybe we should discuss the specifics of this telecommunications project.”

“I heard the motion — I get a monopoly on government devices and cell service, including the entire Palace, and every other government building. I get a fancy room to facilitate it.”

“I meant more logistics, regulations, that sort of thing,” Justice Byrne clarified, stately as ever.

“Psht. Boring!” Frost exclaimed.

“Mr Frost,” Byrne said, disappointed.

“What? It’s not like there’s going to be any regulations anyway. And logistics will, I imagine, be entrusted entirely to me. Am I wrong?”

Byrne looked annoyed. “No, but I’m not just going to put that on the reports.”

“Why not? I put cocaine down as a business expense once on my taxes.” It was delivered with such a calm and reasonable tone that August seriously wondered if his ally knew what the words he was saying meant.

“How did I ever keep you out of jail?”

“I bribed the tax guy, okay?! I’m not completely incompetent!” He was indignant.

“Okay, I’ll figure out the forms on my own. What I need you to understand is the plan. You will have complete control over the internet and all communications. You will monitor all conversations, and feed the data to myself, Laurentiu, and Justice Groza. They will know what to do with it. When the time comes, I will give the order, and you will shut down all services and activate a communications jammer for good measure. I will ensure that the guards assigned to your room are loyal to me above His Exalted Excellency. After the coup is complete, you will ensure that my final speech is broadcasted.”

“I understand, August.” Frost had grown serious. He was making mental notes of it.

“Very well. I’ll leave you to it. And Arthur?”

“Yes, Your Magnanimousness?”

“Thank you for thinking on your feet.”


2 April 2023

His Excellency Justice August Byrne was an imposing figure in the empty war room, standing above maps and documents like a vengeful angel, his black robes falling elegantly to the floor. Two guards stood just outside the door, armed with semi-automatic assault rifles. The Judicial Security Force maintained discretion and security even in Byrne’s illegal dealings. They were used to protecting law-breaking Justices. They had no reason to suspect they were supporting a coup d’etat of their own government, of course. They thought they were just defending a corrupt leader, as they had for years.

The door creaked open. It was dark grey, heavy, and very old. Justice Byrne turned smoothly, the short-barrelled pistol hidden in his robes poking against his body uncomfortably. He smiled. “Hello, Mr Kostic.”

“Your Excellency,” the man responded. He wore a black suit and white dress shirt with no tie. His bald head hadn’t been shaved in a little while, nor had the stubble around his chin. His eyes were dark brown, and they darted wildly around the room. Even so, his voice contained the proper level of deference. “I haven’t heard that name in a while,” he said, somewhat lightheartedly.

“Yes, I suppose you have been the army veteran and experienced banker Vidak Karanovic for quite some time now, haven’t you?” His voice was light and casual, not at all the tone he knew Justice Grigorescu would have used in communication with the field agent.

“Yes, Your Excellency. My assignment has been in operation for over a year now. And, Your Excellency, I believe it has brought valuable information to the government.” It was no boast. It was a reminder and, in many ways, it was a question.

“You are wondering why I withdrew you, Mr Kostic?” Justice Byrne asked.

“Yes, Your Excellency, I am. I understand I am not entitled to request such information, but I am hoping that any pertinent information is shared with me regardless.” Kostic’s voice was trained and level. It was the steady voice of a soldier trying not to piss off his commander.

“You are right that you have been an invaluable asset, Mr Kostic. The Serdemic Independence Group has been closely monitored and kept in check thanks to the information you have provided us. However, there have been some changes in the capital since you were assigned by His Excellency Justice Grigorescu. We are no longer playing the long game, Mr Kostic. The game has become too complicated. I have authorised a drone strike on the secure compound where the SIG leadership is meeting tomorrow. The location of the cells you uncovered have been delivered to the police in Nisava, Novoska, and Saragrad. They will storm the hideouts while the drone strike occurs. Your mission is complete.”

“Too complicated, sir? Your Excellency, if this is about their planned infiltration of the National Reserve, I assure you that I am capable of handling the assignment. As I indicated in my report, my cover’s background is sufficiently experienced to be legitimately offered such a position, and the Reserve’s staff and security do not have to be aware of my mission; the cover has been sufficiently constructed and maintained in such a way that neither the SIG or the Reserve would find reason to doubt me.” Mr Kostic very obviously disagreed with the Justice’s decision. Byrne did not care. Kostic was not in charge of the Intelligence Council.

“Mr Kostic, I have reviewed your report. I have decided to resort to a drone strike.”

“Your Excellency, I strongly advise against it. Based on my year of observation, only about five of the seven major SIG leaders visit the chateau each meeting. With any surviving leadership, the SIG will continue to operate. Not to mention, their cells are full of zealous separatists that would not hesitate to rise into leadership positions for the continuation of the cause. There are cells that we’ve missed, Your Excellency. They’ll be crippled, but they will rise again. We’ll only be safe for a year at best. The SIG will come back. I recommend foiling their major operations and continuing with His Excellency Justice Grigorescu’s plan to eliminate cells entirely, one by one. It has worked thus far, I firmly believe it will work again.”

“Mr Kostic, I am your superior officer, I have made a decision, and you will abide by it. Unless you wish to appeal to His Exalted Excellency Chief Justice Stoker, this matter is settled. Your infiltration of the SIG is complete, and the drone strike will occur tomorrow morning at nine.” Justice Byrne spoke harshly and quickly, smothering all hints of rebelliousness.

“Yes, Your Excellency,” Kostic responded, resigned to accept his orders.

“Now. Tell me what you know about the People’s Movement for Justice, Mr Kostic.”

“Well, Your Excellency, not much. I know that their leader, Laurentiu Aldulescu, is in contact with Nikola Andric, one of the SIG leaders, who will be killed in your drone strike. They meet infrequently, irregularly. Recently, not at all. They work together for mutual benefit. The PMJ doesn’t operate in historical Serdemic territory, at the SIG’s request. The SIG does as the PMJ asks, from time to time. They share information. As far as I can gather, the PMJ assisted in their attack on the courthouse in February, and have protected SIG members from law enforcement.”

“Yes, I have read all the reports. I’d like to know, however, the SIG’s thoughts about the Movement.” Justice Byrne’s curiosity was faked. He did not truly care. However, as the Justice in charge of the Intelligence and Military Councils, he should.

“They are wary, but they do not see the PMJ as just an ally. They see it as a hope for a democratic Aivintis, which they think may lead to an independent Serdemia. Although their goals are different, they’re intrinsically linked in certain basic principles of popular sovereignty. They see the PMJ as ideological allies, and they have a vested interest in the PMJ’s success. I think they are confident that if they fail, the PMJ may still achieve their goals.” His honest opinion of the situation. Justice Byrne could tell he was speaking plainly and truthfully.

“Which do you think is more of a threat?”

“The PMJ, Your Excellency. Their goals and beliefs are far more broad and ambitious, and they have a larger reach.”

“Say their full name, Mr Kostic. Don’t demean the enemies of the state,” the Justice ordered.

“Yes, Your Excellency. The People’s Movement for Justice is our greatest threat, by my analysis.”

“Why do you think I want you to say their name, Mr Kostic?” Justice Byrne was insistent on this point, despite it being seemingly minor in the eyes of the agent he spoke with.

“Because that is their danger, Your Excellency?” It was not a question, really. He was just unsure of himself.

Justice Byrne turned away, staring at a map of Aivintis on the war room table. The lighting was dim, and he could barely make out the markings of major cities and military bases. “Good. You’re smart, Mr Kostic. I like that. Our country is in need of intelligent citizens.” August traced his finger across the border of his home country, and turned back.

“Why did you betray your people, Mr Kostic?”

“Excuse me, Your Excellency?”

Justice Byrne slipped his hand between the folds of his black robe, and slowly withdrew the gun he had hidden there, keeping it hidden and pressed against his body all the same, while his hand gripped the comfortable handle. “You are Serdemic, Mr Kostic. You were born and raised in the suburbs of Saragrad. It is what made you the perfect infiltrator. It is why the SIG did not question you. But it is the reason you shouldn’t have taken the assignment.”

“Your Excellency?”

“Why did you betray your people, Mr Kostic?”

It was a test. It had to be. “Your Excellency, I do not believe I betrayed my people. I believe I did right by them. They are not ready to be independent. This government is good for them. It protects them, and it ensures their welfare and prosperity. It keeps law and order, and maintains justice. It is necessary for the Aivintian government to rule Serdemia.” Justice Byrne stood by and looked on unblinkingly. It was not enough. It was not what he wanted. Kostic stumbled before continuing, “Not to mention, the only way to achieve change is inside. Legally, peacefully, and fairly. Committing acts of terror does not help their case. They are killing people, destroying public and private property, and spreading anarchy and chaos. It is an embarrassment to the Serdemic people.”

“Are you only saying what you think I want to hear, Mr Kostic?”

“No, Your Excellency, I truly believe it.” After a pause, he added, “Look at it this way, Your Excellency: What good have they done? All I see is a pile of dust and blood. They decry the Aivintian government’s denial of loans, mortgages, education opportunities, and the like to the Serdemic people, but has that changed based on their actions? They have not made any true change. Yet look at you, Your Excellency. The good you’ve done in changing the system from the inside is admirable. It is a shining example of why what the SIG is doing is not only wrong, but ineffective. That is not a compliment, for the record, Your Excellency, it is an example. Logical reasoning, merely.”

“You truly believe this, Mr Kostic?” Justice Byrne looked down on the spy, studying the man’s eyes. They were not nervous or fearful. Mr Kostic did not seem like a liar. Then again, perhaps it was his training, the very reason he was chosen for this assignment. Perhaps Mr Kostic did not believe anything.

“Yes, Your Excellency, I do.”

“And you were willing to die for this? If you were discovered?” Byrne seemed to be showing admiration and respect for the man, but internally, he loathed him. Mr Kostic was an example of his own, an example of the untrustworthiness and zealous authoritarianism of the Kritarchy.

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“Good,” Justice Byrne replied. He raised his gun to Mr Kostic’s head, and pulled the trigger.

The guards rushed in, their guns raised, ready to deal with any threat to the Justice’s life. Expertly, August had already dropped the knife with Kostic’s fingerprints near the fallen man’s hand.

“He attacked me,” the Justice explained, attempting to sound shaken up. “He was upset. He was going to kill me.”

The guards lowered their guns, the one on the right nodding. “We’ll file a report for His Exalted Excellency and the Asluagh Police, and we’ll dispose of the body.”

Before the meeting. August had carefully disposed of the relevant reports linking the PMJ to the SIG. Now, the knowledge lived on only in his head, and Eduard Stoker would be receiving falsified reports that the two groups had no such connection. With the attacks on the SIG, the organisation would falter, and, August was hoping, many of their members would flock to Laurentiu Aldulescu’s anti-Kritarchy banner. He had not wanted to kill Mr Kostic. He was not happy to have done it. But he was happy it was done, and that thought haunted his mind like a guilty spectre, screaming from the depths of his mind, promising the vilest treatment in Hell when he died. “Thank you,” he told the guards. “You are dismissed.”