The Commodore’s Palace shone brightly in the warm, dim darkness of Voslok. It was the glowing heart of the city, a subtle and stunning reminder of the Commodore’s power and influence. The palace’s fortified walls were gilded in gold, reflecting the low and magical lights of the city. The windows, hand blown glass with shattered gem fragments from the Lorm Mines of the Southern Country, radiated dazzling light that could be seen from miles away.
The capital city had not changed much in the five years that he had been away, but the true nature of change lurked just beneath the gilded surface. Prince Hjalmar Ovid Gjord Volm, or just Hjalmar to the people who addressed him as a peer, stood outside the palace walls and looked up at the sky. A chill wind cut through the winding streets as servants and traders shuffled around him. He pulled his fur lined cloak, embroidered by the finest craftsman and trimmed with exotic furs, up around his hunched shoulders.
Hjalmar had been off planet setting up a new and lucrative mine in a relatively isolated star system at the edge of the Gnolam League’s control when the news reached him. His father, Commodore Gjord Volm, had died unexpectedly and violently in an accident involving the small robots he often loved to tinker with in his spare time. Before Hjalmar could board a heavily escorted royal yacht to return home, it was announced that his uncle, Arvid Volm, had claimed the throne and taken Hjalmar’s mother as his bride.
Grand Duchess Agneta was of her own noble heritage and was much beloved by the people. To Hjalmar it was infuriatingly obvious that his uncle had arranged his father’s demise then married the Commodore’s widow to cement his own claim to the throne. It was a bold move by Gnolam standards, and a sloppy move at that. Arvid’s claim had gone largely uncontested by the Gnolam nobles who did not want a disruption in their profitable enterprises. They knew to keep a smiling distance because they had the means and patience to wait out whatever chaos their new Commodore could cause.
Arvid was soft and not especially clever, traits that Hjalmar knew he could exploit. As Hjalmar waited for the final night of wedding feasts, the last in a month of parties befitting a royal marriage, he tried to calm his nerves. The soothing sound of harps and high bells were carried by the cool wind, likely projected from the castle itself to spread the joyous ambiance to the population. Arvid was not playing by the unspoken rules and social expectations of a Commodore’s campaign, but Hjalmar would not lower himself to his uncle’s crude ways.
Hjalmar approached the golden gates of the palace, massive metal worked pieces of art that had been chiseled by the Grand Masters of the Decorative Arts Guild. He had grown up on the other side of these gates and there was some thrill in seeing his gilded world from the other side. The guards at the gate suddenly noticed who was standing there and jumped to their feet. One began blinking their six eyes nervously and shuffled up to Hjalmar on short legs, “Prince Hjalmar, what a surprise!”
Hjalmar stopped to address the attendant with a smile. “Yes, business has brought me back to Gnol unexpectedly. I’m lucky to have made it in time to celebrate my mother’s remarriage.”
The attendants looked at each other nervously, obviously internally struggling over whether or not to contact the Commodore’s personal security. Prince Hjalmar had been the contender to the throne before Arvid’s messy coup, and if Hjalmar were to become Commodore one day, it might not look kindly on their careers to have him barred from entry. Hjalmar waited patiently as they nervously fluttered over their options.
Finally, the second of the attendants gave a wary smile, as the first put in the access code to open the gate. “Excuse us, Prince Hjalmar, we just hadn’t expected you to arrive without a carriage.”
Hjalmar smiled, “It was no problem, gentlemen. It was a nice evening for a walk.”
The two attendants seemed relieved, but quickly walked away from Hjalmar with plentiful excuses and pleasantries. Hjalmar walked up the smooth stone steps to the Grand Chamber of the Commodore’s Palace where many hooked snouts turned to whisper as he approached. Some of the nobles lifted their bejeweled hands to cover their small mouths and avert their many eyes as they whispered about him.
The celebrations tonight were already controversial without Hjalmar’s presence, but now the nobles knew they were in for one of the events of their lifetime. The wealthy class were practically salivating already for the drama. The soft bellies of the lords and ladies went pale as the Prince passed them, their anxiety and anticipation reaching a fevered pitch.
Soft bells began to cascade in pleasant peals from the massively arched ceiling, notifying guests that the Commodore was entering the room. Arvid entered from a carefully adorned doorway onto an ornate platform which stood just above the crowd, his woven capes and robes shimmering in the light. A ceremonial crown was place atop his sloping head, the twisting and rare purple metal of the Silgran Canyon gripping various priceless jewels in a tight grip. The nobles in the crowd made a shushing sound, a sign of respect when those of higher station people entered the room.
Behind Commodore Arvid Volm was Grand Duchess Agneta, her head solemnly downcast and expressionless. Hjalmar struggled to keep calm as his fiery and headstrong mother, who had often advised Hjalmar’s father in sensitive domestic issues, seemed visibly oppressed. Surely she had her own plans to overthrow Arvid, but as her blood was not Volm, her options were few.
The Commodore spoke gently into a small device which amplified his soft voice so it echoed pleasantly against the shining walls of the estate. “To my beloved friends, family, and fellow nobles… good evening. It brings me such joy that we could be gathered here to celebrate the final night of our honeymoon cycle.”
Hjalmar noted a hushed wave of whispers throughout the crowd. Arvid smiled serenely, “Even my esteemed nephew, Grand Duchess Agneta’s first born son, has returned for the celebrations.”
Any Gnolam who did not know of Hjalmar’s presence let out audible gasps as they began to survey the room. Slowly, the gaze of all the nobles eventually turned to Hjalmar. He did not want to let the moment pass, so he waved graciously and smiled confidently. “I’m honored to be here. May I make a toast to my beloved mother on the final night of her wedding celebrations?”
Arvid seemed uncomfortable but tried not to let it show. To spurn Prince Hjalmar in public like this would show that Arvid considered Hjalmar a threat. The Commodore waved a lazy hand, as if to graciously allow it. With that simple wave, a dangerous political dance had begun.
Hjalmar took a goblet of bubbling silver liquid and raised it towards the vaulted ceiling. “As the head of my mother’s family, it is only right that I offer a dowry worthy of her Volm name.”
Hjalmar took a sip of the liquid and it warmed his throat, the rest of the crowd following his action. Only Arvid stood without drinking, the first of many errors Hjalmar hoped his uncle would continue.
“As many of you know, I was not here for the happy wedding because I was in a far system on a mission from my late father.” He set the glass down on the table and began to slowly pace the room in front of the raised dais. “Conquering the distant Oshiad star system and extracting the wealth it represented was my father’s dream. I return successful, but unable to share this joy with him. So, for my mother’s dowry, I transfer all of my rights and disclaim all profit as I name her Steward of Oshiad.”
The crowd began to openly discuss the implications of such a generous gift. Even the preliminary reports from the Oshiad system were lavish and wealthy, so who knew what would be found after further analysis? On top of that, whoever governed the star system would be able to assign land ownership, mining rights, and trade concessions to Gnolams who wanted to develop the system. It was an incredibly powerful role, one that Hjalmar could have used to overtly wrest control of the Gnolam League from his uncle.
Hjalmar’s plan was more elaborate. The vast majority of Gnolams, including his uncle, planned for profits and market share only through the next cycle. Hjalmar took the time to carefully plan for the subtle machinations that would bring him control of the entire League, not just one wealthy system. The transfer of Oshiad to his mother was already turning Arvid pale with worry as he tried to divine the implications. It was all just another step in the dance, and as Arvid’s tenuous grip of authority over the nobles began to slip as they scrambled for Oshiad’s plundered wealth, Hjalmar’s plan had time to unfold.