✦ I ✧

AS HIS HORSELESS carriage drove itself halfway-into the coach house, Asahel Jones had nary a moment to spare before an attendant appeared out of nowhere, offering to assist him out of his seat with a smile as manufactured and plastered-on as the newly-repaired walls of the building. Politely refusing, Mr. Jones hopped out of the car himself, slinging his purse over his shoulder. Preferring to have the attendant lead the way to the front steps, he fumbled around the side pocket of his handbag for a relatively small slip of paper, on which was printed the date and time of his appointment and the purpose of said appointment. Once he had found it, Asahel handed it to the attendant, who slipped it into his pocket and continued walking him to the front door of the Executive Estate.

Though luxurious and embellished to the core as always, the Estate seemed a tad more empty than it had been in previous years. The light snow that had been drizzled over the lawns and now-frozen fountains seemed to do little to cover up the deadness and lack of activity its occupant had nowadays. Keeping these observations inside, Asahel walked alongside the attendant, occasionally nodding or responding to a pre-prepared question asked of him with a yes or a no, oftentimes to the confusion of the poor young man ordered to walk with Mr. Jones through the cold without a coat on.

Once they had reached the door, the young man raised a shivering hand to use the largely-ceremonial door knocker. It opened immediately; another sign to Asahel that this odd efficiency the occupant of the Estate had was little more than a cover for his age and lack of physical activity. The first attendant hurriedly handed his compatriot the slip of paper before rushing to the warmth of the indoors. The one who had opened the door to them wasn’t fazed at all by the cool draft of wind that rushed in the house upon allowing them in. No wonder. He was wearing a long hooded robe.

“May I take your coat, sir? And your hat?” the other said, casting a glance at the slip of paper crumpled up into his hand. “Governor Jones, is it?” Asahel chuckled a little as he took off his outdoor garments. “I suppose, although not for long—the Council advises me not to attempt at the governancy of Muscogea again this time around.”

“Perhaps it is for the best,” the attendant, appearingly a hobgoblin or something of the sort, said cautiously. A comment like this would have gotten a beating for the slave for sure just a year ago, although a year ago Asahel’s ego had made positive criticism of his tenure as governor of Muscogea nigh impossible. “The Council is generally right on these things.

Anyhow, I suppose I should lead you to the Lord Protector’s sitting room. The meeting’s begun without you, I’m afraid.”

“I don’t mind it a bit,” Asahel shrugged. “He doesn’t know me quite so well, and if this can be between you and I, I think his age is changing him for certain.” He handed the hob a gold continental before the slave disappeared, appearing again on the other end of a hallway. Hobgoblins were known for their ability to disappear and appear again in another place, which made them great guides, as all a person following them had to do was follow the sound of their voice in order to get where they needed to go. Though this ability, or craft, was considered heretical and blasphemous by the Church, more secular authorities such as the Protector General couldn’t care less, so long as his slaves did their work, and did it fast.

Asahel looked out each window they passed, noticing that it was now snowing again. I hope those idiots who parked my carriage didn’t let it get covered in snow, he thought to himself. How he wished that it could drive itself into a parking position, and didn’t need to be led like a dog on a lead!

Once they had reached the fourth floor where the sitting room where the meeting was to be held, Mr. Jones received confirmation that the meeting had started without him. He could hear the clinking of glasses and the sound of many voices, as well as the distinctive accent of the Protector General himself. A bondswoman, a raspy-voiced African, seemed to be serving them a drink, judging by the sounds of ice hitting the inside of a metal pitcher or some other utensil.

“More cider, my lords?” Asahel heard her say, the sound of the decanter shaking in her hand coming through the door. Strange question; cider, or any drink for that matter, was rarely enjoyed in any room of the Executive Estate save the dining halls and the cellar narthex. However, on account of it being yuletide, and good cheer was necessary during the Engelmas season, a half-barrel must have been brought out of the cellar on occasion of tonight’s meeting with the Protector General. Had he been in that room, Mr. Jones would have opened his mouth to ask for some, just to set the negress’ mind at ease, when her lord barked out a rather emotionless response.

“That will be all, thank you,” the Protector said, waving his hand dismissively. “Leave us.”

The slave bowed and turned to exit; a few of the other men in the room’s eyes lit up with excitement and started joking to each other as she turned her back to them. Once the door had been opened, Asahel slipped in.

Having not noticed or cared to react to the inappropriate gestures of the men gathered around him, the Protector continued, calling after her. “And for the love of God, get Jacob up here to put some more wood on this fireplace! I’m simply freezing in here!”

With all this hyperbolic yelling and commanding, Asahel tried his hardest not to compare the head-of-state to a child deserving of a beating. The Protector certainly hadn’t always been this way, as a few close friends of his would remember. Levi Solomon Asher, in his youth, had been a loyal and steadfast friend during the First and Second Assuristan wars, where he had led Occidental troops to victory against the Yazdani Confederacy. He had successfully re-established Jerusalem, Cyprus, the Morea, and Antioch as protectorates of the State, and by the end of his twenty-eight year tenure as Legionary General of the Continental Armies, he gladly accepted his installation to the highest office of the land: Protector General of the United Republics of the Occident. Asahel had grown up hearing romanticized war stories of the Protector General in school, and knowing that all of the scenes and battles in those stories did not occur, save for a few well-proven and historical events here and there, it was hard to watch this figure, the ‘lord regent of the upright,’ act like a elderly toddler, especially in front of friends who knew him well. Fortunately, Mr. Jones didn’t know the Protector, or at least as he truly was in his prime, very well.

“Oh, Mr. Jones! I’d nearly forgotten that you hadn’t arrived yet! Please, take a seat.” said he, extending his hand for Asahel to kiss his ring. Mr. Jones, upon bowing to perform the proper greeting, awkwardly took the only vacant seat in the room, which, unfortunately, was to the direct left of the Protector. As he sat down, the Protector continued, almost as if Asahel had never arrived.

“It’s no use—they don’t listen to me! I suppose that’s only what I deserve for purchasing an Ashanti slave!” he proclaimed, already exasperated. A few people sitting next to him exhaled deeply, themselves growing tired of this. The head-of-state continued, explaining the simply fascinating history of every slave he had ever owned since he was twenty-three years of age, and those that he deemed to be disobedient, although Asahel stopped listening immediately, instead choosing to try and recognize the faces of the other men assembled in the room around him, mostly military officers, government officials, and churchmen who just so happened to be good friends with the Protector General.

Unfortunately, that little adventure didn’t last long, as he only vaguely recognized two countenances: Rector Madison of a nearby district of the Leontarian Church, and Secretary Adams, his assistant. They didn’t appear to be enamored with the Protector’s antiquities of indentured servants, either; Rector Madison looked as though asleep, and Adams, as always, looked about as baked and glazed-over as the frosted peach puffs sitting across from him on the coffee table. Asahel, mentally fatigued by the sheer lack of a spectacle, was left to resign to watching the turkey-like wattles on the neck of the Protector go up and down as he spoke.

“...but I digress.” he concluded, to Asahel’s joy. “Tonight’s meeting will be almost entirely concerned with the subject of my retirement, of which I’m sure you all heard about, insofar as the IPC I sent you reached you all well.”

A few of the men gathered around him chuckled, and Asahel himself laughed uneasily. IPCs, which stood for Inter Personal Communications, were a relatively new technology for sending and receiving messages between people, mostly politicians, via small holographic projectors, usually small metal boxes no bigger than a dice sitting on a table or a desk. While wonderful in principle, messages sent via an IPC operator were always deleted within a day of sending, meaning that powerful men with many people to talk to would frequently lose messages that they had never viewed. Fortunately, everyone present had received the IPC, as obviously indicated by their presence at the meeting. Once the awkward quiet laughter at an unfunny subject had died down, Asher continued.

“Allow me to be quite frank this evening—” he began, “I’m not the young man I used to be, and I haven’t been such a man in a very long time. I’ve made far more enemies than friends in this term of mine, and remaining in Domus Dei, especially given the current direction of the war, gets more and more risky by the day. And, since a failure of national security is the last thing I plan on having to deal with before I’m dead and buried, I plan on leaving the Estate behind, and living in Cuba, or some other isle of that kind.”

The man sitting next to Asher, a short, mustached companion of the Protector by the name of Malachi Godfrey, spoke first. “How are we going to tell the Federal Press? They will feel a need to know why you’re leaving, and to tell them that it is by reason of an escalation in a war as unpopular as this, they will demand you return to them.”

Asher laughed a sardonic laugh. “Malachi, old friend, the United Press need not know that I’m leaving. If they don’t know that I’ve left, then there’s no reason for them to be told that I’ve left. And if they don’t know that I left, then they need not ponder why I left; and should they have no need for a reason for my departure, then no reason shall be given to them, and the Federal Press will not know that Albion has reached theurgic capabilities.”

Albion. The mere mention of the country made the hearts of every man in the room stand still. That ancient foe to the State, that old tyrant who took her stand against the Revolution in the days of old, that self-declared utopia that had long deposed its monarchy in favor of a new one under the guise of a ‘socialist federal democracy.’ Even now it was a rival to the Occident, whose theurgic capabilities, or ability to manipulate etheric energies on a high enough level to form theurgic-operative weapons, were rivaled by none. None save Albion. Asahel shuddered at this recollection.

“Is that entirely why you’re leaving? To secure safety?” Malachi continued.

“In a word, yes.” replied Asher. “In a few words, my departure would be instrumental in isolating Albion’s expansion of that accursed clarionist philosophy to the rest of the world. If the damn Executive Council can keep diplomacy in the protectorates at the best it has been all year, even that would help far more than my continued residence in Hamilton.”

It was Rector Madison who spoke now. “You said something about the protectorates. Levi, you of all people would know that if the North African protectorates have lost their allegiance to the Church, then our influence in nearly all the protectorates is lost as well.”

Asahel struggled to keep from laughing. Leave it to the churchman to somehow bring God into all of this! he thought.

Secretary Adams, never quite far behind the Rector yet never quite on the ball, fazed back into social awareness just in time to speak. “Lord Protector, if I’m not confused, our presbyters have judged those protectorates to be key to our goal of uniting all Negroes under one banner of faith.”

Mr. Jones noted how Adams addressed the head of state as ‘Lord Protector,’ which placed out for all to behold the secretary’s hierarchical inferiority to everyone else in the room. All others present had in one way or another an excuse to simply call him ‘sir’ or some other more casual form of respect, but Adams, of course, had no such authority. Pity might have swept over Asahel, although his interest in the conversation overshadowed his pity by quite a large margin.

To be continued...just learned what marquee's are.