“You were right,” Fiearius grunted, leaning against the heavy bolted door with his arms crossed. He scowled. “I don’t like this plan.”
Leta just shook her head, not looking up from the book she paged through as she sat lounged in a plush red armchair with her feet up. Beside her sat Admiral Gates, smoking from a cigar and looking like he was enjoying his evening, as odd as it had turned out.
“Why not, Admiral?” he asked, smirking through an exhale of smoke. “I thought you were just dying to get away from the party.”
True enough, that was the one positive effect of Leta’s idea. But the idea of waiting it out hidden in this mansion’s incredibly well-furnished underground panic room until the danger of the supposed assassin upstairs passed was obviously not Fiearius’ kind of plan. For a man who lived on the cramped Dionysian, he didn’t seem very comfortable in other confined spaces.
“I was,” Fiearius growled, his fingers tensing against his arms before he pushed himself from the door and started pacing across the carpeted floors. “But we’ve been down here an hour. Nothing has happened, nothing’s gone wrong at the party. What are we even waiting for?”
“You know what we’re waiting for,” Leta reminded, trying to keep her patience.
“We have to wait for dessert to be finished, yes?” Gates muttered absently, who did not seem to find an assassination attempt particularly surprising or worrisome. When they had approached him in the ballroom and insisted he come with them or something terrible might happen, Gates had treated them as though they’d just asked him to play a game of cards instead of save his life. “Happens more than I care to admit,” he’d sighed in amusement as they descended the stairs to their temporary prison.
“The assassin was supposed to do the deed before dessert, right,” Leta agreed, “but–”
“‘Before dessert’ was ages ago,” Fiearius cut her off, running a tense hand through his hair and gripping the edge of a desk with the other.
“–but we’re going to wait it out a little longer,” Leta continued. “To be safe.”
The desk made a dull thump as Fiearius slammed it back against the wall. “I don’t like this.”
“So you’ve mentioned,” mumbled Gates, now uncorking a glass decanter he’d found on the table and sniffing the bottle with interest.
“I don’t like hiding like some coward,” Fiearius said. “If someone wants to kill me, fine, but I want to look ‘em in the eye when they try it. I want to know the face of my enemy,” he went on, gripped by some unbearable passion or perhaps just unextinguishable boredom. It was often hard to tell with Fiearius. “I want to meet them head on. I want — ”
“Leta,” Gates interrupted suddenly, looking over at her. He corked the decanter and set it aside. “Since we’re here regardless, I’ve been meaning to ask you about your foreseeable plans in the upcoming days.”
Sparing only a quick glance at Fiearius to take in the wonderfully dumbstruck look on his face, Leta answered, “To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Vescent doesn’t seem like the best place for me right now and my clinic, if Nikkolai is to be believed, is running just fine in my absence. I’ll probably stay on as the physician aboard the Dionysian for a time, if for no other reason than to spare anyone from the Carthian med teams the task.” She glanced meaningfully at the ship’s captain who rolled his eyes.
“Half of those stories are made up.”
She raised her eyebrows pointedly. “Which means half are true.”
Gates was nodding, his fingers laced together under his chin. “A noble sacrifice, I’m sure,” he said at last. “Well I certainly don’t intend to take you from the important and impossible task of keeping the Dionysian flying, but it’s good to hear you’ll be close by because we might have another significant need for you.” Leta frowned at him curiously and he asked, “Tell me, have you been to Ellegy?”
“Uh–yes, I have,” she answered, voice full of questioning. “My dad did a lot of work in the capital city. My family had property there, we used to visit every other summer, sometimes more.”
“That’s what I thought. Well. As I’m sure you’re aware, Ellegy is the natural next step in the war. So far, we’ve only managed to claim small victories that do us little good in the overall scheme of things. But Ellegy? The great, powerful Ellegy? Rich in resources, technology and wealth? Not to mention, the known location of one of our own assassin’s targets.” He gestured towards Fiearius. “If we can take Ellegy, we’ll finally be in a good position to start ending this war.”
Leta couldn’t disagree. Ellegy and Satieri were the Society’s two giants. They’d fortified them beyond penetration since before the bullets even started flying. Losing just one would be devastating to the whole Society structure and Leta had known for a long time that, with Ascendia finally calming down in Carthis’ favor, Ellegy was on the horizon. But that still left a gaping question.
“I get all of that, but I’m not sure I get what you think I can do to help.”
Gates’ mouth twisted into a smirk. “Ellegy has always blocked Carthian citizens from entering their borders. They certainly don’t allow space pirates to saunter in either. Not a single person in our strategy meetings has ever set foot on the planet. But you? You have.”
A nervous half-chuckle escaped Leta’s lips. “Ages ago. When I was a child, a teenager maybe, but–I mostly just stayed on my parent’s property. Maybe hung out with some of the neighbor kids, played in the park, I don’t know anything of any value.”
“Perhaps not,” Gates admitted. “But you may know more than you think and regardless, as a citizen of the Ellegian cluster if not Ellegy itself, you have a perspective that none of us do. I don’t expect you to be an expert, but if you have any fraction of insight that could help us plan the largest attack we’ve made so far, I want you in those meetings. If you’re willing.”
“Of course,” Leta said at once. “I mean, if I can help in any way, I’ll–”
“Hang on a second.”
Startled, Leta looked over at Fiearius, having almost forgotten he was in the room. He was eyeing Gates, face full of suspicion. “Why the hell do we need her for that?”
Leta bristled. “Excuse me?”
“No no, you don’t understand–” Fiearius said quickly.. “Not saying you shouldn’t help, you should, we do need you, but not for that. The specific thing. The knowledge of Ellegy thing.” His apologetic expression snapped back to confused anger when he swung his attention back to Gates. “Because we have experts. People who’ve always lived on Ellegy. On the ground. Currently.”
Leta looked between the two of them, but Gates had looked away. “Ah,” he said quietly, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “Right.”
“The rebels?” Leta filled in on her own, turning to Fiearius when Gates didn’t answer. “The Ellegian rebels you told me you were in contact with.”
“Yeah, those rebels,” Fiearius confirmed, sitting down in a chair across from them. “Who know a lot more useful intel about Ellegy than you do. No offense.”
“So I ask again. I’ve built a good relationship with the rebel leader.” Fiearius brought his forearms against his knees, leaning in. “They’re on our side, they’re ready to take our orders, you signed off on this course of action, so why are you trying to hire a Vescentian tourist as our strategic team’s Ellegian expert?”
Gates met Fiearius’ stare coolly. “Unfortunately, the president–”
“Oh, fuck,” Fiearius growled preemptively, dropping his head in his hands.
“–has deemed the rebel forces on Ellegy too risky of an investment.”
“Of course.” Fiearius slapped the arm of his chair dramatically before rising to his feet and starting to pace again. “Of course, they’re too risky. Because they might pose a threat to your little expanding empire.”
“We’ve been ordered to cease contact with them immediately and any further relay of confidential plans is prohibited.”
“I can’t believe th–no, actually–no, I can believe this. I can completely believe this. I knew you would pull this shit before the time came.” He clenched a fist and somehow held off on punching a hole in the wall with it. “Gods forbid there’s anyone at the end of this who you owe anything to.”
Leta watched Fiearius as he tore across the room, a barely contained tornado of rage, but when she spared a glance at Gates, feeling her own spike of anger (it was going to be just like Vescent, like Ascendia, all over again, wasn’t it?), she didn’t see the man she expected. She thought she’d find Admiral Kaiser Gates, stern, resilient and, as always, uninterested in his counterpart’s opinion of Carthian policies. Instead, she saw Admiral Kaiser Gates, hesitant and thoughtful, like he didn’t really think cutting off the rebels was a very good idea either.
“–waiting for the day it’s my turn,” Fiearius was still ranting across the room. “When’s that order going to come from the president? Put Soliveré on the chopping block, he’s ‘too risky’, he’s–”
“Fiear,” Leta interrupted, softly, but he heard her. His fists were still clenched in frustration when he turned to look at her, but his anger lessened in her gaze. He glanced at Gates who met his eyes firmly, then back at Leta whose mouth tightened a little at the corner, and then finally he turned away entirely.
“This is ridiculous,” he declared. “The assassin’s probably long gone by now. He failed his mission over an hour ago, I’m not waiting here any longer.”
This time, no one argued as he marched towards the heavy security door, unlocked the bolts, swung it open and walked out.
Leta stayed where she was another long moment, watching the man still beside her, unflinching and unmoving. She released a small sigh before rising to her feet and following Fiearius back upstairs.
Fiearius stood on the edge of the party, jaw tightened, expression unreadable as he leaned his shoulder against a pillar. Leta stood beside him, silent for several minutes as she watched couples glide through the dance floor, though she wasn’t really seeing them. Her mind was back in the panic room, considering what Gates had said.
“What do you think changed their mind?” she asked finally, her voice an undertone.
“They found out,” Fiearius answered. He didn’t look away from the dance floor as he spoke.
“About the rebels meeting with Dez?” Leta guessed. “How?”
“Who knows? They’ve got spies everywhere. On Ellegy, surely. Could have planted one inside the rebel cell itself. Hell, maybe even my pretty you-clone watcher’s been digging through my messages when I’m not looking, what difference does it make? If they know, that alliance is dead,” Fiearius growled under his breath. “I told him not to. I told him it was too big a chance.”
“But he met with them anyway,” Leta sighed. “And now Carthis thinks the Ellegian rebels are in league with terrorists.”
Fiearius groaned. “How many times do I have to tell you, Dez and his people–”
“Aren’t terrorists, I know,” Leta cut in. “Weren’t responsible for the bombings, didn’t cause the transit meltdown, are just easy scapegoats, I know, I know. But you told me yourself what they have done.” She raised her brows at him pointedly. “And none of it Carthis would approve of. So I’d venture a guess that the Ellegy meeting–”
Fiearius was already shaking his head and sighing. “Not good. Yeah. I know.”
They fell into a thoughtful silence again before Leta mused, “Do you know what they’re planning?”
“Not a clue.”
Leta paused. Then a smirk twisted her lips. “Well, maybe when we get back to the ship, we should call the rebel leader and ask.”
Fiearius shot her a look of amazement. “Call the rebels? Despite Carthis’ very clear prohibition on contacting them? You, newest member of the strategic team, breaking the rules? Already?”
Leta blinked slowly, full of innocence. “Prohibition? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never got any messages mentioning a prohibition, did you?”
Fiearius barked a laugh and then wound his arm around her, drawing her to his side warmly. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
Leta grinned, dropping her eyes to the floor. After a moment, her brow creased and she ventured, “About that me-clone spy. You haven’t…?”
Fiearius glanced down at her wryly. “Just who do you think I am?”
“Well then, that was a nice break.” Leta glanced back at Gates just as Fiearius let his arm drop to his side and took a step away. The older admiral looked between them, a little too knowingly, Leta thought, before walking straight through the space Fiearius had left beside her. “Back to work then?”
“Back to work,” Fiearius sighed in agreement as he and Leta followed the man back out of the hallway. Still standing by the entrance were the guards they’d had posted there before secluding themselves.
“Anything weird happen while we were gone?” Leta asked the woman and she dutifully shook her head.
“Nothing out of the ordinary at all, miss.”
“And isn’t that a relief,” Leta muttered under her breath. Fiearius snorted his agreement and held out his arm for her to take as they walked down the steps towards the main ballroom.
“I suppose I’ll have to look into the who’s, what’s and how’s of this little ordeal, but for now I’m thinking a drink is in order,” he said, faking a posh nobleman’s accent as best his working-class Satierian tongue could manage. “Do you concur, dear lady?”
“A drink wouldn’t go amiss,” Leta admitted though she paused halfway down the stairwell to peer out over the crowd. “I should probably find my date though.” Fiearius made a sort of disgruntled noise, but fell obediently silent as she searched the room for a sight of Liam. Hopefully he would forgive her for abandoning him for so long in the middle of a gala. Maybe he’d be more willing if, as soon as she found him, she told him they could leave the gala.
She had just thought she caught sight of a familiar face when a voice behind her slowly drifted into her conscious awareness. “–whole schedule’s off now,” the voice was saying. One of the guards she’d just spoken to. “Admirals need a lot of protecting I guess so the first rank’s gonna be pulling overtime to accommodate. And you can guess how happy Lady Illusán about that.”
“Not,” said the other guard with a snort.
Leta didn’t understand why she suddenly felt a need to listen in on this conversation about the budget and schedules of the hired security. It certainly wasn’t interesting, but something compelled her to pay attention when the first guard went on, “Precisely. I mean the lot of them were supposed to be let off-duty when Gates slipped out in the last course, but now–”
And just as suddenly, Leta was very glad she did.
She turned around in alarm and marched back up the stairs. Fiearius, who seemed to have been dazing off waiting for her, perked up and followed, his mouth half-forming a question that never quite got out. Before he got the chance, Leta demanded of the guard, “What were you just saying?”
The woman looked startled and then embarrassed and then quickly nervous. “N-nothing, miss,” she explained hurriedly. “Just idle gossip, won’t happen again, miss.”
Leta shook her head in frustration. “No, no, it’s important. What you said. Gates slipping out in the last course?”
Now the poor woman simply seemed confused. “Wh — yes, miss. The schedule indicated Admiral Gates would be discreetly departing early as always.”
“Always?” Fiearius asked, finally seeming to somewhat catch-up in the conversation.
“The Admiral tends to always leave these functions early, sir. The first rank guards that watch him are only ever scheduled until dessert.”
The panic that had been slowly rising in Leta hit its peak. “The assassin had to act before dessert–” she breathed.
“Because he’d be gone after,” Fiearius finished for her, eyes widen.
They both swung their heads toward the ballroom floor where front and center, Admiral Gates was back to his duties, already deep in some political discussion with his fellow military brass.
Fiearius was the first to react.
“You two,” he ordered to the guards, “With us.” He marched down the stairs, Leta on his heel. Together they pressed through the crowd, side-stepping guests who were laughing, drinking, singing — they had no idea an assassin was among them.
Adrenaline surged through her and Leta had half a mind to yell to Gates across the room, but then she glimpsed it, in the corner of her eye: a flash of black metal. A gun. It was locked in a man’s hand, at his side, moving in and out of sight as its holder marched toward Gates through the crowd.
Shock bolted through her veins. Her hands reached for Fiearius’ arm, and then, before she could think to do otherwise, she pushed herself forward and seized the weapon and the man’s forearm in one motion. Gritting her teeth, she twisted his hand hard, drawing the weapon away. Fiearius was yelling her name as the guests jumped back, a chorus of screams erupting around her. The assassin wrestled his hand back, growling furiously to free himself, but in the back of Leta’s mind, she knew she’d done it. She’d already drawn enough attention to him.
“Over here!” a guard yelled over the fray, while another gasped, “Grab him!” In a flash, the man was ripped backwards, his grip freeing from the gun. Leta saw that Fiearius had swung his forearm hard against the man’s throat, dragging him away. The assassin struggled furiously against Fiearius, but his efforts died off when the guards arrived, parting the crowd.
Shock drowned out sound in Leta’s ears as she watched, transfixed. It happened in slow motion: Fiearius stepped away, chest heaving hard; the guards withdrew their weapons, then forced the assassin against a wall, and seized his wrists with metal restraints.
Awed murmurs rippled through the crowd — horrified, confused, even some drunkenly excited at all the commotion. But when the guards escorted the assassin from the room, the scene somehow became a lot more chaotic. She lost sight of Gates who was being flocked to in worry by everyone in the room who needed to earn his favor. She even lost sight of Fiearius amongst the clammer.
She was vaguely aware that people were talking to her, clapping her on the back, congratulating her on a job well done. How brave, they said. How selfless. What a relief she was here to act.
But she’d gotten lucky, said the cold, logical voice in her head. That was all. They’d accidentally forced the assassin to act sloppily, and caught him in a desperate act. If they’d been off at all, the assassin would have done his job quickly and quietly in the mansion somewhere, not desperate and urgent in the middle of the dance floor, not sure he’d get another chance before his target disappeared. Dazed, all Leta could focus on was her own breath, still shorter than it should be, and her own heartbeat, still pounding away in her chest relentlessly.
She was also vaguely aware of the gun she’d wrestled away still sitting heavy and cold in her hand. Part of her wanted to just hand it to someone to get it away from her, but another part, the part she recognized as the one that had spent too much time in the company of space pirates on the Dionysian, wanted to grip it tighter.
Slowly, she began to drift out of her daze and then, much more suddenly, she was dragged out of it by a frantic tugging on her arm. Shaking her head, she forced herself back into the moment and found herself face to face with Liam, whose face was stark white.
“–hear me? Leta? Are you okay?” he was saying, grasping her hands in his.
“Fine,” she said. Realizing she’d sounded a bit harsh, said again, more softly, “I’m fine. Really. I–”
But Liam looked as alarmed as she’d ever seen him, his eyes frantic. He held her elbows and drew her closer.
“Leta, you need to listen to me, right now. I found something,” he explained breathlessly, starting to steer her away from the fray. “When you were gone, I followed someone, I found — ”
“Liam, liam, it’s okay,” she interrupted, putting a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all taken care of. He’s in custody. He failed. Everything’s okay. The guards have the assassin.”
But to her growing dismay, his response was not, “Oh thank goodness.” Nor was it any sort of relief at all. He simply knit his brow, confused.
“Assassin? What? No, I don’t know anything about–” He shook his head furiously. “Leta, there was this man that stuck out to me. I shadowed him for a while. He seemed normal enough, but he went upstairs, I thought why the heck not, and I followed him and he made a call. I heard the whole thing.”
“It was–about you. About Soliveré. That you didn’t know–Something with–Ascendia? And Vescent and Ellegy and –They said things about–” He was stumbling over his words, speaking too fast, but he came to a sharp halt and heaved a deep breath. “He’s a Councillor, Leta. A Society Councillor is here.”
Leta felt as though all the blood in her body had turned cold. Her grip on Liam’s shoulder tightened and she leaned towards him as she hissed, “What? How do you–Are you sure?”
“Positive, without a doubt,” Liam answered without skipping a beat. “I know what I heard. He’s a Councillor.”
Liam opened his mouth, but words didn’t come out. He frantically looked around the two of them, his head whipping back and forth until finally it stopped and his wide eyes grew wider. “Him,” he breathed and Leta followed his line of sight to, “The one talking to Soliveré.”
Not just talking to Soliveré. Smiling with Soliveré, laughing with Soliveré. The two of them seemed to be sharing some cordial joke or story like any of the vague, polite society acquaintances at this party. And then the man, who looked no more interesting than any other middle-aged man in attendance, reached up his hand and let it drop affectionately on Soliveré’s shoulder. His fingers tightened. And that was when Leta had to do something.
What, however, was another matter.
“Fiearius!” she shouted to him without even thinking. He looked over at her, surprised. So did the man beside him. And before she could even consider reason or logic or the best plan of action, she remembered the gun in her hand. Almost of its own accord, it lifted into the air.
A loud bang and a cacophony of gasps filled the ballroom.