11 Thargelia 3364 AR (17 January 2198), T’Soni Lineage Estates, Armali/Thessia
One could learn a great deal about Liara T’Soni’s social circle, simply by examining the kitchen of her beach house: one of the largest rooms on the ground floor, adjacent to an even larger dining area. One detail stood out. It was the only asari kitchen Miranda had ever seen that included a state-of-the-art coffee grinder, and an elaborate two-pot percolator.
That immediately says that Liara has a lot of human guests. I’ve never seen Liara drink coffee. Even if it’s of high quality and prepared properly, most asari can’t stand the stuff.
Which meant that Miranda had to do a double-take, when she stepped into the kitchen that morning and saw an asari standing at the machine. Pouring herself a cup of bitterly strong black coffee.
“Good morning, Vara,” she said, sitting down at the kitchen table. She tossed her head, an unconscious gesture, to settle her braid properly down her back.
The petite commando nodded a greeting. “Can I get you a cup?”
Vara pulled a second ceramic mug down from its hook, poured, and handed the full cup to Miranda. Then she sat down at the table, holding her own cup in both hands as if to appreciate the warmth.
“So, just what was Liara doing in the Eurotas district last night?” Miranda asked casually.
Vara gave her a sharp glare over her coffee mug. “You’ll have to ask her about that.”
“Not denying the fact, I see.”
“I won’t insult your intelligence. It was just bad luck that you and Kelly crossed her path. Although I might have known you would see through the Kalliste Renai disguise.”
“I saw intel reports about the false identities Liara used, while I was still with Cerberus.” Miranda gave Vara a disapproving glance. “She should know better than to re-use a persona like that. So should you.”
“It wasn’t a serious application of the identity,” said another voice from the doorway.
Liara padded into the kitchen on bare feet, wearing only a white silk wrap that exposed the upper curve of her breasts and fell no further than mid-thigh. She made a face at the coffee-drinkers, and opened the refrigerator to find something more to her taste.
Miranda caught herself staring.
I’ve never seen Liara so casually dressed. Or undressed, in this case. It’s . . . rather striking. Somehow she looks more appealing this way than a trained asari dancer might look wearing even less.
Which is strictly an aesthetic judgment, of course.
“She just needed to look like someone else, while she was on the streets,” Vara agreed, not noticing Miranda’s momentary confusion. “Nobody looks twice at a few maidens in commando gear, out late at night. Certainly not in the Eurotas district.”
Liara sat down at the table, popping open a bottle of red fruit juice. “You have need-to-know on this, Miranda. I went downtown to meet with some of the most influential dissidents. That includes students and faculty from the University, a few artists from the entertainment industry, and at least one very powerful hetaira.”
Miranda smiled slightly, covering her flash of amusement by sipping her coffee.
Only among asari would a high-class prostitute have that kind of political clout.
Well, be fair. Even among humans, with our mucked-up gender politics, it’s been known to happen. At least with asari, you’ve never had half the population forced to dance attendance on the other half just to get anything done.
Liara’s gaze caught Miranda’s for an instant. She made a small smile as well, as if she had guessed the human’s thought.
“It was a productive meeting,” she continued. “The students did get to present their demands yesterday, but by evening the board of archons had rejected the whole manifesto. A few students even went to see Matriarch Kleitho at her residence last night, and although she made sympathetic noises, she refused to take any action. All asari need to work together in this difficult time, she said.”
Vara snorted in derision.
“Right,” said Miranda, scornfully. “There never is a good time to seek reforms, when you happen to be at the top of the heap.”
“Just so,” Liara agreed. “The dissidents have decided to escalate. Until now, there hasn’t been a unified movement, just individual leaders who had influence with one group or another. Last night, they decided to join forces and work to a common strategy.”
“Pronoun trouble,” said Vara.
Miranda cocked an eyebrow at the commando.
“I beg your pardon?” Liara inquired.
“Despoina, you keep using the third person plural,” Vara observed. “They decided to escalate. They decided to join forces. They will work to a common strategy.”
Suddenly, Liara looked down at the table-top rather than hold her acolyte’s gaze. “Well . . . I may have made a few suggestions, during the discussion.”
“Did the others reject any of your suggestions?”
“They – all right, we – ended up modifying one or two of them.” Liara’s color deepened. “Vara, you know how I feel about this. This has to be something the people of Armali do for themselves.”
“You’re a citizen of Armali,” Miranda said gently.
“I know, but I’m also the Shadow Broker, and everyone knows that. They expect me to bring all that off-world power and influence to bear. Last night, some of the dissidents kept hinting at what someone might be able to do with a well-placed assassination or commando raid. Then they would glance at me, out of the corner of their eyes.” Liara shook her head violently. “I keep telling them, that’s exactly what the more reactionary Matriarchs expect me to do, and they’re certainly ready to respond in kind. We have to find a different way.”
“If you don’t act, despoina, sooner or later the Matriarchs will,” Vara muttered angrily.
“Then the moral burden will rest with them.” Liara watched her acolyte, her eyes suddenly full of compassion. “Erato was there.”
Vara frowned. “Of course she was. With your permission, despoina, I need to attend to the watch roster.”
Liara nodded. Vara rose from the table, abruptly drank the last of her coffee while standing, set her empty mug in the sink, and stalked out of the room.
“Who’s Erato?” Miranda asked quietly, once the commando was out of earshot.
“A junior instructor at the University,” Liara murmured. “She teaches undergraduate classes in history and political science. She is also one of the more outspoken dissidents. She and Vara have been lovers for about a year now.”
Miranda nodded silently in understanding.
“Vara has a great deal on her mind these days. My work as the Shadow Broker, our effort to help recovery throughout the galaxy, all of this takes up a great deal of her time and energy. Now she must also worry over what is happening in Armali. She has lived most of her life here. She has many friends in the city, on both sides of the dispute. Most of all, she fears for Erato. She is afraid that her lover’s courage puts her in grave danger.”
Miranda sighed in weary disgust. “I once thought the Reapers were the worst thing we could possibly face. Now that we’ve beaten them, can’t we find anything better to do than the same old bloody squabbling?”
Liara glanced away, a shadow crossing her face. “Just because the Reapers have gone, doesn’t mean we all get to turn into saints.”
“No, I suppose not.” Miranda took another sip of her coffee, frowning to herself.
Something odd about Liara’s phrasing, just now.
She shook her head when the thought refused to come clear, and glanced to the side, out a big bay window and down the shallow slope to the ocean. “Liara, there’s something I’ve always wondered about, and maybe you can explain it to me.”
“What is it?”
“Well, we keep referring to the Matriarchs as the opposing side in this political dispute. The Matriarchs are reactionaries. The Matriarchs have too many privileges. The Matriarchs are posing a threat to the rights and liberties of other citizens of Armali.” Miranda set her cup down, so she could make a confused gesture with both hands. “I don’t understand how being a Matriarch is so fraught with consequences for your position and outlook. Doesn’t it just mean you’ve gone through . . . I don’t know . . . the asari equivalent of menopause?”
Liara laughed. “Yes, that is part of what it means. Sometime in her eighth century, an asari normally undergoes a series of physiological and psychological changes. Her body and face change shape slightly. She is no longer able to easily conceive and bear children, although it does sometimes happen, as with my own mother. Her biotic abilities reach their peak. She becomes more cautious and conservative. She develops greater empathy for others, more ability to guess what they are thinking through nonverbal cues. She gains greater inherent areté – you might call it greater charisma – and younger asari are much more likely to defer to her opinion.”
“I understand all that.” Miranda leaned back, frowning, as she struggled to articulate her confusion. “It just doesn’t seem to be enough. Asari have had libertarian democracy for thousands of years. It seems so natural for you. It’s strange to hear of any asari polity that doesn’t have some form of rule of law, and a citizen assembly as its highest sovereign authority.”
Liara nodded, one hand reaching back to fiddle with her crest. “Well, there’s Illium, but that’s something of an outlier. For that matter, even on Illium we have rule of law and a sovereign citizen assembly. It’s just that there are almost no laws, and only twelve citizens who count.”
“Of course, even on Illium, most of the Twelve are Matriarchs.” Miranda shrugged. “How is it that the same small minority of your population always seems to end up in charge?”
“Oh, it’s even worse than you think.” Liara smiled. “The asari lifespan is divided into three stages, and we spend roughly the same amount of time in each, right? You might expect Matriarchs to be about a third of the population.”
Miranda frowned, biting back an immediate response.
“Right. You know it can’t be that simple. Asari don’t all live to be a thousand! In fact, one-third of all asari die before they even reach the matron stage. Less than half survive to become Matriarchs at all.”
“I looked at the statistics once. I wasn’t certain I believed them.”
“Believe them. Even in peacetime, an asari maiden is far more likely to die of accident or violence than a young human might be. Maidens tend to be hot-headed, risk-prone and ready for a fight.”
Miranda stared across the table at her friend, slowly cocking an ironic eyebrow.
Liara made an uneasy smile. “Well. I may not be hot-headed, but I’ve still put myself through some rather astonishing risks. Not to mention racking up an enormous body count, as my father once pointed out.”
“Maybe it comes from being one-quarter krogan,” Miranda suggested slyly.
“That’s Aethyta’s theory, certainly.” Liara shrugged. “In any case, it’s not that even our maidens are all that much more accident-prone or violent than, say, humans. In any given year, our death rates due to accident, suicide, or violent assault are only slightly higher than those of a typical human society. It’s just that we live such a long time, and our death rates due to natural causes are so low. It’s not until an asari reaches her ninth century that the probabilities shift, and her most likely cause of death becomes age or disease.”
“I’m afraid I don’t see the point of this line of reasoning.”
“Patience, Miranda. So, Matriarchs aren’t as common in the asari population as you might think. No more than about one in eight of us, on the average. The next thing to realize is that not all Matriarchs are equal. You think Matriarch and you imagine someone like Benezia, at the height of her power: hundreds of sworn acolytes, guaranteed speaking privileges in the ekklesia, millions of asari who considered her their political representative. But most Matriarchs aren’t like that. They’re more like my father, before she got an unexpected surge in influence during the war. Ordinary citizens, with purely nominal matriarchal privileges, not a single acolyte in their following, and no political power to speak of. Can you guess the difference?”
“Money,” said Miranda flatly.
“That’s exactly right. Money.”
“It makes sense. Before the war, your civilization was monumentally stable. You’re technologically advanced, but the rate of innovation, the arrival of new technology, has been slow for centuries. You don’t colonize new worlds very often. Your population growth is normally very slow, less than one-tenth of a percent per year.” Miranda spread her hands out flat, palms down, as if to hold something in place. “Which means that your economy is almost a closed system. There’s very little opportunity for anyone to build new wealth, only to struggle for some of the wealth that already exists.”
Liara smiled. “You’re quoting old Cerberus intel assessments.”
“We believed in understanding our potential enemies.” Miranda took a sip of her coffee, only to find that it had gone cold. She set it aside with a grimace of distaste. “Human economists have understood the dangers of a situation like that for a long time. Since your economy is stable and nearly closed, it tends to operate like a zero-sum game. For one person to gain, someone else has to lose. Unless some pressure exists to redistribute wealth, it tends to accumulate in fewer and fewer hands. The best way to come into a large fortune becomes to inherit it, rather than to build it from scratch, and that makes the wealthy increasingly aristocratic and reactionary.”
“Which brings us to the intersection between wealth and political power,” said Liara quietly. “You humans and your representative democracies have some experience with this. Very wealthy humans can afford to buy the attention and favor of their political representatives. Ordinary citizens are priced out of the market, and get ignored. Laws get written and enforced in ways that rig the game in favor of the already wealthy.”
“But you don’t have representative democracy,” Miranda objected. “Every asari citizen can take part in the Assembly. Nobody can bribe the entire electorate.”
“Yes, they can! Surely I don’t have to teach a former Cerberus operative about the benefits of propaganda.” Liara shook her head ruefully. “A little populist flattery, a little misinformation, a logical fallacy or two, plenty of appeals to emotion . . . asari aren’t any less susceptible than humans to this kind of memetic manipulation. I’ve done research to determine the return-on-investment a Matriarch can expect, when she buys influence in the ekklesia. The figures are startling. It’s one of the best and most reliable investments any wealthy asari can make.”
Miranda grunted in surprise. “I always thought your people were . . .”
“More enlightened? More sophisticated?” Liara made a cynical snort. “No. We’re just better at concealing this from outsiders, perhaps even from ourselves. Before the war, the top hundred asari fortunes controlled over two-thirds of the wealth on Thessia – and all but six of those hyper-wealthy asari were Matriarchs. Those are the real powers on this planet, and in the Asari Republics. Those are the people we’re really talking about, when we speak of the Matriarchs who are interested in ruling the asari for their own benefit. This isn’t anything new, either. The situation has been essentially unchanged for over a thousand years.”
“How can such a structure be so stable?” Miranda wondered. “Among humans, that level of disparity in wealth always leads to political upheaval.”
“Well, Thessia has been wealthy for a long time.” Liara acquired an abstracted look, as if she performed lightning-fast computations in her head. “We haven’t seen anything close to real poverty in over a thousand years, either. It might not matter so much if your wealthiest citizens can buy and sell whole planets, so long as Citizen Kleo has plenty to eat, a nice apartment to live in, and the ability to entertain herself as she pleases.”
“Aha!” Miranda leaned forward, her eyes glittering with sudden insight. “There is poverty on Thessia now.”
“Yes.” Liara nodded slowly, smiling as if pleased to see Miranda leap to the point. “The long-established rule of the Matriarchs has suddenly proven to be . . . not so good for the ordinary asari after all.”
“They kept your relationship with the Protheans a deep, dark secret. A few of them even knew of the existence of the Reapers, long before they showed up.” Miranda felt a surge of bitterly cold anger. “The war might never have happened, all those people might have lived, if not for a cabal of Matriarchs and their scheming.”
“Most asari don’t know about that,” said Liara, “although the time may be coming for them to learn. Even so, everyone can see that when the Reapers attacked, we stood back and refused to help our allies. We left Thessia completely unprepared. We crumpled under Reaper attack, faster than any of the other major powers. It’s a good thing the war ended when it did, or asari would be extinct now.
“And now that monumentally stable civilization we used to have has been shattered into a thousand pieces! All that patiently accumulated wealth has been scattered to the winds! We’re going to have to innovate – in technology, in our society, in our culture. We’re going to have to have a population boom, recover some of the numbers we’ve lost. We need to do all of that, if we want to stay relevant in the galaxy at all.
“The ordinary citizens of Thessia are starting to realize all that. They’re starting to understand the implications. Meanwhile, the Matriarchs are far ahead of the public on that learning curve, and they are terrified. They know our society is about to stop being that closed system, that zero-sum game. It means they might have to compete for their places, in ways they’ve never had to face before. They will do anything to try to turn back the clock, hang onto the privileges to which they’re accustomed.
“That would be a disaster for the asari people. Maybe for the whole galaxy, if one of the keystones of galactic civilization self-destructed. We can’t let it happen.”
Miranda stared across the table, watching Liara with astonishment. The asari’s voice had risen, filling with color and verve. She made broad gestures, looking as if she wanted to leap out of her chair at any moment. Her eyes shone and her face colored with genuine passion.
Somehow, I still tend think of her as a quiet and rather ineffectual little scientist. I tend to forget that she took over the Shadow Broker’s network, and ran it successfully even during the worst war in galactic history. I tend to forget that she played more than once against the Illusive Man – and against me – and won more often than she lost.
I really need to stop underestimating this asari. Especially when she becomes this . . . compelling.
“You know,” Miranda said, “your mother was one of the Matriarchs.”
Liara laughed, her moment of passionate conviction dispelled. “Yes, she was. Perhaps not on the scale of the great powers of Thessia, but she played the same game they did. Not to mention that she left me quite the fortune, to get me off to a good start when I finally chose to walk in her footsteps.”
Miranda let a trace of ironic humor creep into her voice. “So, T’Soni, I suppose that makes you something of a class traitor. As we humans would say.”
That got more of a reaction than the human had expected. Liara’s eyes flew wide, her breath caught in her throat, and she sat tensely still for an instant. Then she relaxed, and Miranda could see that it came as a deliberate effort of will.
“Well,” Liara said at last, putting whatever-it-was aside. “I believe the Matriarchs already agree with you.”