“No, I’m not telling you that.”
“Because you don’t need to know.”
“Sure I do. For medical reasons.”
“Medical reasons? Medical reasons?”
“Just tell me.”
“Fine.” Fiearius groaned, relenting at last. “It’s Exzalion.”
Predictably, Leta let out a ringing laugh that filled the infirmary. “Fiearius Exzalion Soliveré?” she repeated, stating each word meaningfully and raising her eyebrows in amazement. “That’s a hell of a middle name. What’s it mean?”
“I don’t know,” Fiearius grumbled good-naturedly, wondering how they had even gotten onto this topic. “It’s some word in old Ridellian. I barely know modern Ridellian, let alone all that crap.”
Fiearius leaned over and plucked the whiskey bottle from her hands to take a long swig that burned down his throat. The bottle was nearly empty now, and he was feeling warm and woozy … when had this happened?
Sometime in the past hour, the tone of the room had lightened. Darkness and guilt and shame were still hanging uncomfortably over his shoulder, lingering just out of sight, ready to pull him in, but a distraction had arrived in the form of conversation, laughter and the woman seated next to him.
Frankly, he was surprised Leta was still down here at all. She’d looked ready to bolt after treating his wounds and he couldn’t blame her. But perhaps he wasn’t the only one hiding from something: to his surprise, she too had taken a long swig from the whiskey bottle and sidled up on the bench beside him, swinging her legs to the floor and making herself comfortable, like they were out at a bar and it was the most natural act in the world.
Fiearius was just tiredly admiring a particularly dark stain of crimson streaked across her blouse — was that his blood, or hers? — when she started chanting his name curiously, as if trying the word on for size and deciding she rather liked it. “Exzalion. Exzalion. Exzalion. Interesting. So did you get teased for that in school?”
“Teased?” he repeated incredulously, pulling his eyes away and smirking lopsidedly at her. “Please, I grew up on Satieri. Nearly everyone had crazy old Ridellian names. Hell, my parents actually did me a favor with Exzalion, I knew a guy whose first name was Sna’il. Didn’t help that he was the slowest runner in the whole class.”
Leta snorted, then leaned forward to reclaim the whiskey bottle from his hands. “Well he should’ve done what I always did in school, and skipped gym and recess.”
“Ironic,” he remarked thoughtfully. “Since now you’re, you know, a doctor, specialist in health and all that…”
Leta took a tiny sip of the whiskey, then smirked wryly around the rim of the bottle. “Oh you’d be surprised. Health care professionals can be very self-destructive.”
“Yeah I can see that,” he muttered, eyeing her thoughtfully through the slight alcohol-induced fuzz in his vision. He lost track of the conversation for a moment, until he said, “Suppose being from that planet of yours doesn’t help much, huh?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know, with how cold and dreary and,” he grimaced in disgust, “wet that place is. No wonder you can handle your liquor so well, growing up in a depressing place like that.”
“Depressing? Vescent is one of the most beautiful places in the span!” she yelped, throwing out her hands. Pink flushed her cheeks brightly as she went on, clearly impassioned, “You can’t even imagine what the Inner Harbor looks like at night. Or what the gardens look like in autumn. The city is all white stone architecture … and on the shore, all these quaint beach towns … not to mention, we have the best food,” she informed him with satisfaction. “It’s peaceful, it’s not depressing.”
She scowled at him, a storm cloud in her face. But a moment later, the storm dissolved and she admitted carefully, “Although it is — it is changing. The main city is changing. Since the Society started growing there … “
Fiearius figured as much. He had become well aware over the years of the Society’s effects on a place. “Yeah I can certainly understand that. Though I guess I haven’t really seen the change personally,” he admitted after a pause. “Satieri was infested with the Society long before I was born.”
“And that was a really really long time ago,” she pointed out, arching her eyebrows significantly as she barely held in a snort.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” he scoffed. “I’m only 27.”
“You’re almost 30, your birthday’s in July, I looked you up,” she said without missing a beat.
Fiearius blinked. Looked him up? “Wait, wha–” he began, but before he could ask, she cut him off.
“So did you like growing up on Satieri?”
Fiearius regarded her suspiciously for a moment, feeling particularly confused about what had just happened. His head was just a little too sluggish to figure it out though so he relented and replied, “Oh yeah. I loved it. Have you been? She’s gorgeous.” He spread his hand out in front of him and narrowed his eyes into the distance. “Just miles and miles of desert and then these huge shining metropolises, it’s incredible. Nice warm sunshine-y days, crisp cold nights. And Paradiex itself is the best damn city in the span. Can’t ever run out of things to do. Every day’s a new experience.”
A happy lilt caught in his voice — he couldn’t help it when he talked about home. But when he looked to the side again, he found Leta tilting her head at him curiously, much too curiously, and he knew at once he was about to be asked one of the dreaded questions.
“So why’d you leave then?” she wondered.
A heavy sigh released from his chest. “I didn’t have a choice.”
She continued to stare at him unabashedly, unapologetically eager, and Fiearius had to grumble, “Is there any chance I’m getting out of answering this?”
She blinked her wide green eyes and said, “No.”
He groaned and ran his fingers over his forehead. “Fine. But you can’t ever repeat this, okay? I’m serious. Not to anyone. There’re only like three people in the span who know and if anyone else finds out–well, we’ll all be fucked, okay? So not a word. Not even to Corra. Promise?”
“I … okay,” she agreed slowly, looking startled.
He kept her stare a moment longer before he exhaled sharply and leaned back on his palms. “They gave me a promotion,” he replied simply and for a long moment, left it at that. There were only so many words, after all, and this was not an easy thing to explain. Tentatively, he glanced at her. “Your planet’s got a Society following now. You know who the Verdant is?”
Leta’s eyes were wide and shining with curiosity, reflecting the lights overhead. “No?” she guessed, sounding uncertain.
“What, seriously? Gods, don’t you pay attention to anything?” he groaned, rolling his eyes and ignoring the fact that anyone not within the system likely wouldn’t have a clue. “The Verdant is the Society council’s contact. They’re sort of this faceless voiceless entity that no one has access to for security reasons. No one except the Verdant, that is. Its the Verdant’s job to be the interface between them and the department heads. The Verdant knows everything that’s going on in all branches of the Society at all times. It’s a–well it’s a pretty big responsibility. And more than a bit dangerous. So guess who they tried to give the job to.”