Wolf of the Reach

"Mercenaries are useful, if dangerous weapons. But there are rare examples that are still more useful, and even more dangerous; mercenaries that understand politics."

High Lady Kamea Arano

Prologue

February 4th, 3022

Royal Palace, Cordia City on Coromodir VI, capital of the Aurigan Coalition

"Brother, please allow me to explain."

High Lord Tamati Arano sat back on the comfortable throne at the heart of the Royal Palace as the other members of the Founding Council, both House Representatives and elected Planetary Representatives, filed out. He glanced over the massive conference table displays still glowing with countless figures and details from their gridlocked discussions of the Taurian proposal. He wanted no more than to retire for the evening.

But it was his duty, both as family and as liege lord, to hear out what his brother Lord Santiago Espinosa, his strong right hand, had to say. "Alright, Santiago. My brain is a little overwhelmed at the moment, so give me the simple version. Again."

Lord Espinosa took it as a good sign the High Lord hadn't rolled his eyes. Perhaps he was making some progress after all. "Tamati, we are at a very vulnerable moment for our fledgling Aurigan Coalition. Our grandparents formalized the trading arrangements into the Coalition because they recognized that the Inner Sphere is too busy fighting each other to come back out and reclaim the Periphery any time soon."

Tamati smiled. "Our grandparents probably would have said come back and 'rescued' us, but yes, I'm with you so far."

"So the key point is, we're a hodgepodge of races and cultures without any strong sense of shared identity. The original colonists were from the Free Worlds League, itself a mishmash, but then our coreward systems were ruled by the Capellan Federation before they withdrew. Our spinward and rimward systems were ruled by the Taurian Concordat before they unofficially withdrew."

"Santiago, I am well aware of all this. What's your point?"

Lord Espinosa took a slow breath and spoke deliberately. "The point is that most of our people in the Aurigan Reach hold more loyalty to their planets and local House than to the Coalition. Everyone knows that some sort of agreement needs to be reached with the Taurians over our forward systems—whatever their claims, they withdrew their appointed governors and packed up more than a generation ago. But their new Protector, Thomas Calderon, is prickly and militaristic enough that we can't afford to seriously antagonize him. In short, if the Coalition can't reach an accommodation, then the Houses will try to make a deal on their own, and we risk the entire Coalition coming apart."

Tamati frowned. "I confess I hadn't quite thought of it in those terms, but we are keenly aware of how important these negotiations are. That's why we have these unbearably long Council sessions discussing them."

"Yes, but we're not getting anywhere." Santiago sighed and held up a hand waving off Tamati's objection. "I know you think I'm impatient, Tamati, and I am aware I sometimes jump before I look, but in this case the appearance of progress is almost as important as the reality. Everyone knows we must succeed here. There is enormous pressure on the Council as an executive body. The Council has hung together this far, but to be frank, I think a lot of it is out of habit and their long-time friendship and relationship with you as High Lord."

The High Lord in question gave Espinosa a measuring look. "You're building up to something Santiago. Spit it out."

"Tamati… it may prove necessary, for the good of the Coalition, for you to make the Council formulate a reasonable proposal."

"You're talking about seizing power," accused Tamati flatly.

"I'm talking about temporarily consolidating executive power to ensure that these vital negotiations succeed. You know how the game is played Tamati! The Taurians aren't just negotiating, they're testing us, seeing if we'll crack under pressure and be vulnerable to 'reclamation.' With the Capellans pressuring us to coreward, the Taurians to spinward, and the economy slowing down as the effects of the Inner Sphere's endless war finally reach us, the elected Planetary Representatives are feeling pressured by their constituents to try hold out for better terms in the for their planets. They're playing hot potato, and as long as they're not the one holding things up when it comes apart, they won't feel the heat because their political base is pleased. The Houses plan longer term and they can see the writing on the wall; they'll support you in, again, temporarily restricting proposal votes to the High Lord and the Founding Houses."

For the first time Tamati hesitated. "You have a point about the Planetary Representatives, especially the less-developed ones. They're definitely holding up the negotiations. Still… this would undercut the Council's authority, which could have long-term consequences."

"But they're survivable consequences! You can even keep the proposal unofficial until it's ratified by the whole Council, including the Planetary Representatives! They'll vote for a complete for a completed deal, whatever is in it, because we all know we need it, but for heaven's sake get them out of the proposal negotiations!"

Tamati nodded slowly. "Santiago, you may be on to something here. Let me think about it. The Council's recessing for a week and I'm scheduled to tour the Artru system and inspect their newly established House Guard. When I get back, we'll hammer this into something that's as… inoffensive, and clearly temporary, as possible. Assuming I don't think better of it between then and now."

"Thank you, brother. I know how much you dislike even the appearance of power mongering, and I know it's part of that which makes you so successful with both the commoners and the Houses. But this time, I truly believe this is necessary."

"I know, Santiago, I know." He put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "And I also know that my tendency towards building consensus can occasionally, occasionally, cause more problems than it solves. That's one of the many reasons I rely on you to help me see when those moments arrive. Don't worry—we'll navigate this storm together, as we always have."

The High Lord gave Lord Espinosa a final hug, then turned and walked confidently out of the Council chambers, his robes of state gently swishing across the floor in his wake.

It was the last time Santiago saw his High Lord and brother alive.

February 18th, 3022

Cordia City on Coromodir VI, capital of the Aurigan Coalition

High Lord Tamati Arano II was dead. It was hard to take in, but Lord Espinosa was filled with an almost frantic energy, impatiently awaiting the end of the massive state funeral being broadcast throughout the Aurigan Reach. Bad maintenance, they said. His JumpShip disintegrated out from under him. Just another example of our crumbling technology base.

At last the ceremony ground to a halt and the procession back to the Royal Palace began, in which the High Lord's family would walk together. His daughter Victoria took up position at his side, a half-pace back, and he followed just behind Lady Kamea Arano.

He stepped closer. "Kamea, may I have a few moments of your time?"

Kamea Arano, sole child of Tamati and Serena Arano, soon to be High Lady of the Aurigan Reach, and recently orphaned twenty-three-year-old girl, looked up from the parade ground and tried to blink away her tears. "Yes, uncle?"

Santiago hid a sympathetic wince at the pain in her eyes, her voice raspy from private sobbing. "Kamea, I am so sorry that this has happened. And I am so sorry that this burden has fallen on you, but we must face the trials that confront us." He glanced around quickly, ensuring that House Espinosa guards were nearby preventing any unknown ears from getting too close.

"Kamea, as I advised your father, I now advise you; you need to move now to consolidate executive power. I know it's complicated, and I wish to the stars you weren't forced into this position so quickly and without time to grieve, but we must act now. The Taurians are testing the waters, retracting some of their already negotiated concessions, probing us for a response, and I've heard some concerning whispers of independent movement among the Founding Houses. We must move now, removing the Planetary Representatives from negotiations and reassuring the Houses that you have a strong and confident hand."

Kamea pulled herself to her full height, doing her best to look regal, despite the puffy bags under her eyes. "I will show strength by holding fast to our traditions. How will it unify the Houses to see me immediately consolidate power on the Council, which you and I control? And how will the people be loyal to me, look to me for leadership, if my first act is to remove their voice?" She shook her head in a maddeningly superior sort of way. "No, uncle. I have thought about your suggestion for some time, but the answer is no. We have survived this long by doing what is right, and my reign will continue in that tradition."

She increased her pace, a dismissal of a sort, and Santiago slowed slightly to allow Kamea her space and let Victoria, a pace behind him, catch up. "As I feared, she will not listen." He shook his head in quiet exasperation. "She would make a fine High Lady, with the confidence to make her own decisions, if only she had more time to grow into the role. What I wouldn't give to provide her that time! But she remains too naïve and too unwilling to even listen to advice right now, in the critical moment. If only Tamati and Serena hadn't died in that fool accident!"

He grimaced then smoothed his face, conscious of the possibility of cameras. "Unfortunately, that accident appears to be caused by shoddy maintenance, a sign that our technology base continues to crumble. The situation with the Taurians needs to be resolved now, before we collapse completely."

Victoria looked up at him, her long silver hair matching the ibex of House Espinosa on her dress uniform. "I understand, father, but why are you telling me this?"

"Because with your mother gone, it is to you that I turn for help. Look at me, Victoria. I feel like I am being torn to pieces. My grief at Tamati's death I fear clouds my judgment, and yet we must press on, doing the best we can, because I have received word that Simon Karosas, leader of House Karosas, has been making quiet overtures to the Taurians, and possible the Capellans as well. It is already unraveling, and if it gets any worse the the Houses will compromise everything in the search for a soft landing."

Victoria stared at him with wide eyes. "But surely there's time to convince Kamea, to punish Lord Karosas for his crimes?"

"I… I don't know. All I know now is that Kamea is not up to this challenge. She does nothing, makes no decisions, because power is not formally hers yet, showing how poorly she understands the galaxy and, more importantly, how little she understands about her responsibility to the Aurigan people. She still thinks it's about her."

Victoria glanced around, taking in their security arrangements. "Father, what do you think will happen?"

"My best guess… I think the Taurians will drag their feet with negotiating the treaty until the coronation, at which point they will break them off completely. Kamea will have no way to respond. We already effectively hold the systems in question, so we can't take them over to force the issue, and military action against the Taurians directly is out of the question given how much stronger their military is. Remaining in the systems invites the new Protector Calderon, who by all accounts is eager to prove his strength, to try 'liberating' them, and just ceding the systems leaves our key system of Guldra just a jump away and vulnerable. While we could never hope to hold off the Taurians in a direct fight, having a defense-in-depth would make us prohibitively expensive to conquer. Whatever Calderon wants, his senior military leaders will argue hard against any sort of protracted conflict with us with the huge threat of the Federated Suns on their other border, but if they could take Guldra and Mechdur without having to punch through any other systems, the temptation might be enough. And this is to say mothering of our crumbling tech base."

"So, you're saying that we cannot win by waiting. Then how do we save the Reach?"

"I wish there was another way, but the only way I can see is to do something terrible, Victoria. Something… treasonous." He grimaced. "The only way I can see to save the Reach is to strike first."