Chapter 4:

Fitness to Rule

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

Sight and sound returned abruptly, cracking through the foggy sleep I had been - until mere moments ago - enjoying.

“Tristan, open the door this instant!” I heard Nona Regina bellow from the other side of the frosted transparisteel. My head was pounding; I must have had more than a few Saturn’s Rings last night at the club. Nona Regina continued her assault on the door of my suite, and I was momentarily tempted to turn on the soundproofing, roll over, and go back to my dream of dancing with Isul all night.

Unfortunately, the real Isul was shaking me awake, and looked as frightened as I had ever seen him. I tentatively swung my bare legs over the side of the bed. The world spun momentarily as I clutched Isul’s arm. “Don’t ever let me do that again,” I muttered, my mouth tasting like a mixture of cosmic dust and death.

He gave me a small smile and pecked my cheek with his cool lips. "Gladly. You know how much I despise the Stardome. I shall be only too happy to never see its wretched inside again." Isul assisted me up off the bed and into a nearby chair before tossing me a shirt that I pulled on before he opened the door for Nona Regina.

Her hand was balled into a tight fist, ready to strike the door once more, but it quickly dropped to her side as she swept past Isul into the room.

"Leave us, abomination,” Nona Regina said with a dismissive wave, not even making eye contact with Isul. Isul gave me a little thumbs up before going to fetch my breakfast tray from the kitchens.

I sighed and squinted at my grandmother. "Nona, I wish you would stop calling Isul an abomination.”

She stalked back and forth in front of me as her robes billowed behind her. "Tristan, at this very moment, I care very little about your desires. Your…inclination toward that robot may very well have damned our dynasty.”

Always a flair for the dramatic with Nona Regina, no matter the hour. “Isn’t it a little early to pin the end of the Empire as We Know It on me today?” I asked, my head lolling to one side. "I mean, I haven’t even had a cup of caf yet, so I can’t have gotten into any trouble today.”

Trading barbs was nothing new for us, but the expression of bald-faced fury Nona Regina wore wasn’t something she revealed very often. She threw a rolled up plascreen at me, and I jumped as it hit my chest and unfurled in my lap. "Look and understand, Tristan,” she commanded.

I powered up the plascreen and accessed the files there. What I saw made even my jaw clench in anger. Someone at the club last night had photographed me kissing Isul.

Nona Regina was still pacing, her rage barely contained. "Care to explain this, Tristan? I have been more than lenient - our people have been more than lenient - with your carousing and partying over the last several years. They understand that your memories did not survive the accident, that the loss of a life is not an easy thing to recover from. I understand the pain and trouble it causes you. But this,” she said, slapping the picture on the screen as if it were a fire she could put out with her voluminous sleeve, “is unacceptable behavior for the Crown Prince of the Jovian Empire.”

I wanted to cry, but not for myself, and certainly not for Nona Regina. But this would devastate Isul when he found out. I knew he didn’t like causing me any trouble. Best to find out the damage before he did. "What’s the media saying? I’m sure this is better for their ratings than a Martian warship appearing over Ganymede,” I said.

Nona Regina finally stopped pacing, her eyes narrowed as she looked down at me. “They don’t have the pictures, Tristan. I paid a considerable sum of credits to the individual who brought them to the palace in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement.”

Damn my feeble heart for feeling relief. I should have been past the point of caring what others thought of me. "Then it’s over and done with?”

Nona Regina barked a harsh laugh. "Your problems are only just beginning, Tristan. The holos arrived directly into the middle of an Imperial Council meeting. So while the public may not have seen your shame, the highest echelon of your government has.”

I forced a laugh, trying to recover my nonchalance. "Well, fine. I stopped caring what they thought of me a long time ago.”

"They have the power to hurt us, Tristan,” Nona Regina said, laying a hand on my shoulder.

"How?” I scoffed, bristling at her touch. "They’re a Council, and the last time I checked, councilors don’t run or control an Empire.”

Nona Regina let out a deflated sigh as she sat down on a couch opposite my chair. “They’ve called on the Order of Oberon to assess your fitness to rule.”

My head snapped up. “They what?”

"You heard me the first time.”

The Order of Oberon was only supposed to take a ceremonial role in the ascension ceremony, but part of the treaty that brought Uranus and Neptune under the Empire’s rule stated that - if requested - the Oracle, and the Order they commanded, could be called upon to assess a future ruler’s abilities to govern.

My fingernails turned white as they dug into the soft fabric of the chair. "Why those disloyal, Martian-loving bastards! How dare they do this? When I’m crowned the first thing I’ll do is have them blown out an airlock!” I sprang up from the chair, knocking it backward in my surprise. “Do they have any idea what they’ve done?”

Nona Regina met my eyes. "Yes. If the Martian Republic gets wind that the Crown Prince may perhaps be an unsuitable candidate for the throne, they’ll smell blood and their cloaked warships will certainly come running, hoping to catch us in a time of weakness. I did try pointing this out to them, but the Council would not be swayed from this decision.”

I stomped to the suite’s bathroom and began harshly scrubbing my face. "And if I fail this audience with the Oracle?” It was a rare, though dire possibility that the Oracle might not approve me.

Nona Regina threw up her hands as I looked in the bathroom mirror at her. "Only the Saints know, Tristan. The Oracle could approve someone else, perhaps a distant branch of the family, or perhaps someone different entirely. This situation hasn’t happened in over two hundred years - and, need I remind you - would not have happened now had you controlled yourself with that Bio-Droid and perhaps attended a few Council meetings to show them that you’re of stable character.”

"I wish the whole of them get lost in a gravity well,” I said.

Nona Regina arched an eyebrow. "And if wishes were starships, we would have obliterated the Martians in that last border skirmish. But what’s done is done, Tristan. Now you must decide your course."

The words tumbled out before I could stop them. "What would Father have done?”

Nona Regina’s eyes grew cold and distant. “Whatever it would have been, I suggest you don’t follow that path.”

The throne, the future of the Empire. The inevitability was all I had ever known since the accident. It was the only tangible tie to my parents outside of the fuzzy memory engrams…and Isul. I could not let my only future go unchallenged.

"What must I do?” I asked finally.

Nona Regina arose from her couch and began pacing once more. "You must prove you are able to see past this … indiscretion. Take a spouse. Male or female matters not - only that they come from a good family with long ties to the Empire.”

I was flabbergasted. “But Nona, the Ascension Ceremony is approaching in four weeks. There’s hardly the time.”

Her eyes were hard and sharp. "Make time then, Tristan. But only if your future and that of the Empire is important. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize your robot rutting time.”

I growled as my hand slammed into the wall and anger coursed through me.

She stood her ground in the face of my temper, as always. "Regardless, the Council is relieved that the Bio-droid’s Revolution Cycle is coming to an end prior to the ceremony. If you insist on keeping a Bio-droid, they feel it best to have a fresh start.”

I seethed to hear her speak so callously about throwing Isul away, but I let her ramble. Neither Nona Regina or the Imperial Council knew that I had successfully mapped Isul’s memory files, and law or not, would transfer them over to the next model. They would not keep me from saving my best friend.

Heedless of my anger, Nona Regina continued on as she moved toward the door of my suite. “I’m throwing a gala in a week and forwarding invitations to every eligible family I can think of. Find someone, and we can begin the vetting process.”

She left in a swirl of robes, and I buried my face in my hands. This was my absolute nightmare come to frigid, soul-sucking life. Not only was I going to lose my freedom by becoming Emperor, but now my privacy and only chance at true happiness as well.

And by Jove and all the Saints, what was I going to tell Isul?

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