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13 Thargelia 3364 AR (19 January 2198), Shadow Broker Site, Eramethos Mountains, Thessia

Miranda drifted upward from a deep sleep, slowly at first. Then some piece of her mind became aware that she was being watched. That was enough to snap her awake, as if shot out of a catapult.

She found herself on that cramped little cot, lying on her back, the blanket pulled up almost to her neck. Liara was there, a few centimeters away, her body warm all along Miranda’s left side. The asari lay on her own side with her head propped up on one arm, enormous blue eyes watching Miranda’s face.

“Good morning,” she said, and leaned in close for a brief kiss.

Miranda growled in exasperation. “Were you watching me sleep?”

“Not for long. I would like to point out that you’ve got me trapped against the wall. It was either wait patiently, or climb over you to reach the refresher. No doubt digging an elbow into your stomach along the way.”

“I see. You were just being polite.”

“Yes. Well, that, and your face is interesting while you’re asleep, so long as your subconscious mind thinks you’re in a safe place.” The asari smiled. “An entirely different personality emerges. I think I’d like to get to know her.”

“She probably drools.”

Liara snorted, then became serious. “Miranda . . . I know this isn’t what you are accustomed to . . .”

Miranda extricated a hand from under the blanket and reached up to caress Liara’s face, run the ball of her thumb across Liara’s lips. “No, it isn’t. Maybe that’s a good thing. My love life has never been what you would call healthy. Maybe it’s time for me to try being involved with someone I respect, someone I can trust. See if that works better.”

Liara shifted. One blue hand moved under the blanket, smoothing across Miranda’s skin, sliding up between her breasts to feel her heartbeat. “Thank you.”

Miranda felt an odd sense of comfort at Liara’s gesture, the quiet intimacy of it, affectionate rather than aggressive. “What about you?” she asked. “You come at this from the opposite direction. I didn’t think you had ever been involved with anyone but Shepard.”

Liara’s eyes half-closed, became shadowed. She moved closer, pillowing her head on Miranda’s shoulder, snuggling into the curve of the woman’s arm. That hand emerged from under the blanket, bringing with it a piece of jewelry for Liara to contemplate. It was a plain obsidian band, hanging around her forearm, usually kept under her clothing and away from prying eyes. Her bonding bracelet, Miranda knew. A gift from Shepard.

“No,” said Liara at last. “I suppose I’m unusual in some respects. For a long time, I thought I lacked any innate interest in eros. Shepard taught me otherwise.”

“And since he’s been gone?” Miranda murmured.

“It’s been too soon.”

“You’re still mourning him.”

Liara sighed, resting her hand back on Miranda’s body, the obsidian bangle cool against their skin. “I think I always will be, somewhere in the back of my mind. He was such a remarkable person. I loved him beyond all reason.”

“I know. Are you sure it still isn’t too soon?”

“Not if it’s you,” Liara said simply. “Miranda, you’re the closest non-asari friend I have. I’ve never said it before – I know how uncomfortable you are with praise or admiration – but I’ve been attracted to you for a long time. I love the passionate conviction you bring to everything you do. I love the look in your eyes when you face a challenge. I love watching your mind work. From there, well, I’m asari. For us, that kind of attraction-to-personality leads naturally to eros.”

Miranda squirmed slightly, proving Liara’s point. It is hard to listen to praise, even when the cause has nothing to do with the traits Henry Lawson selected from a bioengineer’s menu. Still the same old self-esteem issues.

“As for Shepard, it’s been over a decade since he . . .” Liara hesitated, then forged ahead. “Since he left us. He made me promise not to turn down love, if the opportunity ever arose. I don’t know if he ever thought it would be you, but I think he would have approved.”

Miranda lay quietly for a few moments, just enjoying the warmth and closeness of their embrace. She caressed Liara’s hand idly, then touched the bonding bracelet with her fingertips.

“It’s strange,” she murmured at last. “One would think Shepard would come between us.”

Liara made an interrogative noise, her eyes closed in calm relaxation.

“There was a time when I resented the hell out of you, Liara.”

“I know.” Liara opened her eyes, looked guilelessly up at Miranda’s face. “You spent years reconstructing his body and mind, actually improving what he was before, producing the man who could lead us through that horrible war. You spent so much time with him, you knew him so intimately, and he was just the kind of man to appeal to you. No wonder you loved him. Then he slammed the door on any possibility of fulfillment for those feelings. Because of me.”                               

Miranda shrugged slightly, and laced her fingers with Liara’s. “I got over it. Even before he died, I think. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we shouldn’t.”

“Hmm.” Liara frowned, looking away for a moment. “Miranda, there’s something you should know, if you want to take this thing of ours any further.”

“What is it?”

“There are things about Shepard, things that no one knows but me. Not even you, who knew him well enough to rebuild him.” She looked back, holding Miranda’s gaze. “If we’re intimate, if we go through the joining, those are going to be your secrets too.”

Miranda shook her head slightly, frowning in confusion. “I can’t imagine what you could tell me that could possibly change my opinion of him.”

“It’s not that kind of secret. It’s not something I can just tell you, anyway. You would never believe me. You’ll have to see it for yourself, experience it for yourself. After which you may find that it changes everything.”

“Very mysterious.” Miranda thought about it for a moment, then shook her head again, this time in determination. “It makes no difference. Bloody hell, Liara, you’re the Shadow Broker. I’m going to get a lot more of your secrets than that, if you’re willing to go the whole distance with this. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Liara moved then, rising on the cot, her bare breasts sliding against Miranda’s body. She looked down into Miranda’s face, close enough for their breath to mingle, her own expression suddenly full of possessive hunger. Fingers burrowed into Miranda’s hair and found the sensitive spots on the nape of her neck.

“Nothing ever frightens you,” Liara murmured. “I love you, Miranda.”

I love –

Miranda’s throat locked on the words. Whether it was because they were so unfamiliar, or because Liara’s fingers had just done something startling with the nerve endings around the back of her neck, she couldn’t be sure. She moaned quietly instead, and let her body go limp and boneless on the cot. She felt warm breath on her throat, lips brushing across her skin, moving downward.

God. Now?

Then there came a sound at the door of their shelter, a quiet knock. “Despoina?”

The two of them froze, ice-blue eyes staring into cobalt-blue in sudden disbelief. Then the Shadow Broker giggled, the moment thoroughly broken.

“I swear to God,” Miranda whispered, “I am going to strangle Vara.”

“Don’t do that,” said Liara, a wicked grin on her face. “You know she’s the one to interrupt us because no one else has the courage. Something urgent must have come up.”

“Something urgent was about to come up. Never mind. Let’s get untangled from this cot.”

 

An image, taken from a high vantage point.

Downtown Armali. The Plaza of Explorers. Every street leading away from there, out into the city for over a kilometer in every direction. Filled with people. A sea of them, eddying slowly, lanes held open in their midst for the occasional quick transit. Some of the people held signs and placards. Most of them were simply present.

Miranda realized that there was something else different about a throng of asari, when seen from above. Even at a distance too great to make out faces, there was a grain to the crowd, the result of a million asari crests all pointed in the same direction. All focused on the government buildings at one end of the Plaza.

“They’ve been gathering since early morning,” Vara reported. “Coming in from all over the city, even from the suburbs. On foot, most of them. The city is completely shut down. General strike. Nothing’s moving except emergency services.”

“Law enforcement?” asked Liara quietly.

“City militia, standard gear and rules of engagement. No violence that we’ve seen. No sign of the Black Hand.”

“All right. I’ll take the call.”

Liara turned to face the big screen hanging at one end of the operations center. Miranda edged aside, sat down at an unoccupied work station, so as watch from a position outside the camera’s field of view.

The screen flickered, and then an asari face appeared.

Miranda felt her eyes widen in surprise. She knew the stranger was a Matriarch, so she had half-expected an aged face, weathered but full of personality. Instead, this Matriarch appeared youthful and strikingly beautiful: oval face, high cheekbones, a long, straight nose, full lips with a dark-blue half-stripe, and subtle markings around her eyes that emphasized their length and shape. The eyes themselves looked much like Miranda’s own, glacial blue and very intense.

“Matriarch Ariadne,” Liara murmured in greeting.

“Dr. T’Soni. I am pleased to see you well.”

Safely anonymous, Miranda rolled her eyes in exasperation. I can see both sides of this conversation are going to be playing this for the cameras. All smiles, all politeness, but ready to sink in the knife at the first opportunity.

Liara simply made a diplomat’s smile, apparently sincere but utterly lacking in warmth. “I appreciate your concern for my well-being, Matriarch. May I inquire as to the purpose of this call?”

“You have seen the situation in the city?”

“I have.”

“What do you intend to do about it?”

Liara cocked her head. “Matriarch, I intend to participate in the political process, in my capacity as a citizen of the polis of Armali. As is my right.”

“Do not dissemble, Doctor. You are not involved in this crisis as a simple citizen of Armali. Your position as this so-called Shadow Broker gives you access to information and resources no ordinary citizen can match. You have a responsibility . . .”

Abruptly, Liara raised a hand to interrupt the Matriarch, a surprisingly imperious gesture. “Matriarch, I am fully aware of my responsibilities in this matter. As a citizen, it is my duty to use any information and resources available to me in the interests of the people of our polis, in accordance with the law and as my informed conscience may dictate. All the people, Matriarch. Not a limited and self-selected class, not a few individuals who have grown accustomed to doing as they please with state sanction. The people are sovereign.”

Ariadne shook her head, her impatience barely concealed. “You cannot deceive me with the political catechism you learned in primary school, young one. I can see where this is leading.”

“Where might that be, Matriarch?”

“More power for Liara T’Soni, of course. The pleasures that come with power. The ability to decide who will prosper and who will decline, who will enjoy freedom and who will be confined, who will live and who will die. The flattery and adulation that come with that power, as your inferiors compete for your favor. The growing following of acolytes, ready to kill or die at your command.”

Now that’s an example of massive projection, if I’ve ever heard one, Miranda thought.

Liara laughed aloud. “Is that an example of a Matriarch’s wisdom, empathy, and insight? I already have far more power than I ever wanted, Matriarch. More than enough for any personal ambition I might ever have held. I assure you, it is not a pleasure to carry. I live for the day when I can set it aside.”

“What prevents you?”

“I doubt you would understand the answer to that,” said Liara, still apparently unconcerned. “As for the situation on the streets in Armali? It is the people who are on your doorstep, Matriarch, presenting a petition to their government, as is their right. I have done my best to provide them some of the data they need to make informed decisions, but I have no command over their actions. I suggest you negotiate with them.”

Ariadne nodded. “Perhaps I and the other archons shall do that. You realize, of course, that it will make no difference in the long run.”

Liara said nothing, but her face took up an inquiring expression.

“Come now, child, your analytic skills must surely be up to such a simple challenge.” Ariadne shifted in the screen, as if she prepared to lecture. “Assume that nothing significant changes in the social or political structure of the Asari Republics. Assume further that no setbacks occur, no further disasters on the level of the Krogan Rebellions or the Reaper War. Then we may project economic growth of about one percent per year for the foreseeable future. At that rate, we will return to pre-war levels of prosperity in about one hundred and fifty years.”

Liara nodded patiently.

“Do you see? Long before then, all asari will have been lifted out of poverty and into a state of material and social comfort. As a result, Dr. T’Soni, they will forget. They will forget the suffering of the war, the dissatisfactions of this brief moment in history. They will forget the principles they currently espouse so passionately. They will be content to return to their everyday lives, leaving government to those who have always had the talent and the outlook for it. In other words, the foremost of the Matriarchs.”

“Matriarch,” Liara objected, “if the reforms we propose are enacted, then the economic recovery will move more quickly.”

“You are doubtless correct. Of course, by crippling the ability of the Matriarchs to provide asari society with wise guidance, you risk a higher level of instability, a greater probability of serious setbacks. Still, the average rate of growth might well be better. I will stipulate a rate of two percent per year. In which case, the return to pre-war levels of prosperity will only require about seventy years . . . and the point at which the people will forget will come that much sooner.”

Ariadne took on a sympathetic expression, an elder breaking bad news to a child.

“Someone with your expertise cannot be unaware of this, Dr. T’Soni. It is one of the permanent features of asari history. Maidens, matrons, the run of ordinary Matriarchs, they never remain engaged for very long. Always and forever, they turn back to the everyday business of living, and choose to ignore the responsibilities of wise government. There is nothing you or I can do about it. So yes, perhaps my colleagues and I shall negotiate with the people in the Plaza of Explorers. In the long run, it will make no difference.”

“I see. Matriarch, at this point I am beginning to wonder at the reason for your call. It does not strike me as a wise use of your time to attempt to instruct me regarding such trivially obvious facts.”

Miranda smirked. She knew Liara well enough to recognize biting sarcasm in the asari’s voice when she heard it. It sounded a little like her own voice, when she was feeling particularly waspish.

“I hope to convince you to cease your interference,” said Ariadne. “Your involvement in this dispute, and the involvement of certain of your associates, has been most irresponsible. Certain parties have already felt the need to respond with violence. It would be regrettable if they felt compelled to react even more strongly.”

Liara lifted her chin and gave the Matriarch a bright smile. “I understand. Thank you for your wise counsel, Matriarch. I shall certainly give it all the consideration it merits.”

A small gesture of one hand, and the connection was severed. The operations center immediately filled with angry asari voices.

Miranda remained silent, watching Liara. Who did not appear even slightly concerned.

“Enough,” said Liara, after her people had their chance to vent their anger. “Nerylla, reality check. Did the Matriarch win that exchange?”

Nerylla, the oldest and most experienced of Liara’s acolytes, shook her head decisively. “Despoina, I’ve seen Matriarchs fence verbally for years without descending to overt threats. She just did it less than ten minutes into her first conversation with you.”

“She’s worried,” said Miranda, not sure what made her think so, beyond intuition. “Something is pushing her in a direction she doesn’t like.”

“The protests?” Vara wondered.

Liara frowned in deep thought, and then shook her head. “I don’t think so. She’s not actually wrong about the historical trends. Matriarchs are good at making concessions in the short term, expecting to walk them back later after the immediate conflict is over. Agreeing to limited political reforms, defusing the current situation, would actually be a good move for her.”

“Then why make threats against us? Why bother to talk to us at all?” Miranda nodded, suddenly more certain than before. “She’s on a deadline. She can’t just deal with the dissidents. She has to deal with us, with the Shadow Broker and her allies, and she’s afraid she doesn’t have the resources to do it in time.”

Liara nodded slowly, a smile spreading across her face. “It’s the Cerberus connection. Notice that she specifically mentioned my status as the Shadow Broker, and she hinted broadly about some of my associates. That suggests people like you and Kelly.”

“I could come up with any number of alternative hypotheses for her behavior,” Vara complained.

“So could I, but let’s work with this one for now,” said Liara. “Miranda, last night you said you were going to work your contacts. I never got around to asking if you found anything.”

Miranda saw it: Nerylla and Kelly, at least, suddenly trying very hard to suppress smiles. As if they knew exactly what Miranda had been doing all night. She sighed. “As a matter of fact, I did. I’m just not sure what it means yet.”

“Tell us, then.”

“A sheaf of message traffic among ex-Cerberus operatives in the Traverse, intercepted and decrypted. Mostly trivial stuff, minor logistics and planning messages, but there’s an asari word that turned up several times. Tevura.”

Liara’s eyes opened wide, as her mind went into high gear.

“I don’t get it. What’s a tevura?” asked Kelly.

“It’s not a what, agápi, it’s a who,” said Tania. “Tevura was the ancient Calydonian goddess of love, sex, travel, and the rule of law.”

Miranda blinked. “That’s an odd portfolio.”

“Not really.” Tania grinned. “Asari are very . . . what’s the term? We prefer to find mates a long way from home.”

“Exogamous,” said Kelly.

“Right. We’re that. A lot. So in ancient times, asari spent a lot of time traveling and looking for mates, which gives you the association between love, sex, and travel.”

“What about the rule-of-law piece?” Miranda inquired.

“Laws of hospitality,” Tania explained. “The whole system only worked if you could count on being welcomed, count on a fair chance to earn a living and find a mate, wherever you went. Most of our oldest laws and customs are all about what you owe people when you go to visit them, and how to treat the stranger who comes to live among you. All of which helped when we finally met non-asari.”

“That still doesn’t answer the question of why a pack of Cerberus operatives would be interested in this goddess,” Miranda pointed out.

“Because we named a planet after her,” said Liara. “The outermost major planet in the Parnitha star system is Tevura. There used to be a few scientific and mining outposts among its moons, but the Reapers destroyed those near the end of the war. As far as I know, no asari have been there ever since.”

Miranda nodded in understanding. “A perfect place for Cerberus to hide something.”

Liara nodded. “We may have a target.”

Beginning of Story: [Arrival]
Previous Chapter: [Retreat]
Next Chapter: [Ghosts]
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