The niceties had to end at some point, Leta thought, as she reached across the table and seized the bottle of wine to refill her dwindling glass. She, Ren and Fiearius sat around his dining room table, empty plates around them, flames from the candles casting dancing shadows along the walls. Leta sipped her second glass of wine, hoping it would smooth over her edgy mood: the longer they talked, the more she couldn’t help but feel they were headed toward rocky waters.
“ … So I help around here where I can,” Ren was saying, his eyes resting on Leta for a moment before he tore them away and answered Fiearius. “Mostly I read a lot. Write sometimes. Help the other people who live here.” He shrugged. “Nothing that thrilling. It’s a relaxing life. Just what I needed really…”
“I bet,” said Fiearius, and, to Leta’s surprise, she couldn’t detect sarcasm in his tone. Before today, Fiearius and Ren had never exchanged more than a few words. There might as well have been a brick wall between them: Leta suspected Fiearius did not forgive Ren for leading them all to the Baltimore, and she suspected Ren did not forgive Fiearius for all that had happened with Leta.
And even besides that — they couldn’t have been more different if they’d tried. Ren was bookish and academic; he’d been in law school once upon a time, and now he desired a private life away from the war. While Fiearius was leading it.
But first Fiearius had displayed actual gratitude and humility for Ren allowing them into his home, and now he was making expert small talk? Leta wasn’t even sure this was the same person she’d walked in with. It couldn’t be. The Fiearius she knew couldn’t go two minutes without snarky comments or dry, needless wit.
And yet, he didn’t sound snarky or witty when he said, “You’ve recovered from ARC though, haven’t you?”
“Mostly. I have relapses and — bad symptoms sometimes … but it’s manageable. Carthis was very kind to treat the immediate effects and they were thorough. Just…after a while, I felt it best I leave and seek my own methods. Their treatment started to feel — ” He grinned, and heaved a sigh, “imposing.”
Leta couldn’t help herself from mumbling, “Like everything Carthis does,” into her wine glass. When both of them looked over at her curiously, she just shrugged. “What? Someone in this room has to be honest.”
Ren cracked a smile, then turned back to Fiearius. “Well, I’m sure you didn’t come all the way here to learn about my latest chess tournament with the neighbor downstairs.”
Fiearius gave a laugh that must have been fake, but sounded so real Leta started to question it herself.
“You’re right, I didn’t,” he admitted. “I’m sure you follow the news closely?”
“Of course,” said Ren. “I may have distanced myself from your war, but I can’t ignore it, or —
“It’s our war, Ren,” said Leta suddenly. “Yours too. All of ours.”
Ren gave her a swift, searching look through narrowed eyes. A look she recognized, one she certainly hadn’t missed. The one that made her feel like a child who’d spoken out of turn on a subject she didn’t understand.
“Maybe we’d better debate this another time,” he said slowly, and Leta sat up straighter.
“What’s there to debate?” she demanded. “They unjustly imprisoned you. They took over our home. They killed — gods, how many of our people?”
“Leta–” Ren warned and it only made her angrier.
“How can you even say it’s just ‘our war’? After what they did t– “
It was Fiearius this time and when she caught his eye, ready to argue with him too, she stopped. It wasn’t anger clouding his face, it was pleading. And worry.
Ren stood up and walked into the dining room to retrieve another bottle of wine and in his absence, Fiearius, his eyes still locked on hers, mouthed, “We need him.”
Leta glared back, resilient, frustrated and annoyed that these two men, both so passionate and open and honest when she knew them, were now suddenly preferring to dance around and play this stupid game with one another instead of getting to the root of things.
Rolling her eyes, she reached for her wine glass.
“As I was saying, yes, I keep up with the news,” Ren went on suddenly, rejoining the circle, but this time he did not sit down. “I’ve read quite a lot about what you’ve been up to, Admiral.” And now, where before there had been only kindness, there was the tiniest hint of malice in his tone.
“Don’t believe everything you’ve read,” said Leta.
“So you didn’t lead a group of mercenaries into a civilian zone? Or sign off on the air strike over a populated city? Tell me, Admiral, have you visited the refugee camps? The people that your actions put in those camps?”
Leta scoffed. Wine or simply Ren himself was making her crave argument. Especially since Ren didn’t know what he was talking about. He wasn’t there. He didn’t have the information Fiearius had sitting here in his cabin in the woods away from everything. She was about to tell him as much when Fiearius beat her to it.
“I have. I do. Often,” Fiearius admitted. “And I don’t like them any more than the people who live there do. I don’t like the camps, I don’t like the air strikes, I don’t like raids or battles and, though everyone seems to believe otherwise, I do not like to kill people who at one point were friends simply because of a mark on their skin.”
“Then why do you do it? If you really hate it that much, why not end this sham of a war?” asked Ren.
“Sham?!” Leta cried, indignant.
“Everyone knows it’s just Carthis’ play to gain territory,” said Ren darkly. “That’s been obvious since day one. They say they want to defeat the Society, free the people, but they just want the clusters and all the resources that come with them for themselves. It’s a sham.”
“It is,” Fiearius admitted before Leta could get another word in. She was so surprised to hear him say it that she was stunned to silence. “Of course it is. Why would they sink so much money and energy and lives into something that’s not gonna come out with them on top?” He shrugged. “On Carthis’ part, the whole liberation thing is a total sham. But not on mine.”
Fiearius stood up then and crossed the room to meet Ren face to face. “This matters to me. Not because I’m gaining anything. But because it matters. I wanted to see Vescent freed. I want to see Ellegy freed. I want to see Exymeron freed. I want no one ever again to live the life I lived on Satieri. So you ask why I do it, I have to do it. I have to fight this war. Because someone has to.”
Ren stared at him. Seconds passed. Leta was certain he wasn’t buying this. He certainly didn’t look convinced. But apparently he seemed convinced enough for Fiearius to take his shot. “Look, I want this to end just as much as you do. More, even.” He frowned. “A lot more. But that’s exactly why I’m here.”
Without hesitation, Ren said, “You want my research on the Councillors.”
When both Leta and Fiearius regarded him with surprise, he furrowed his brow. “Why else would an admiral visit me? Not like I have anything else of value.”
Fiearius stumbled, but he recovered smoothly, “With that research, we can hunt them down. Cut off the head of the Society. We can stop plowing through towns and cities and people and get straight to the source and end this once and for all. You’re the only person out there who might know their identities. With your help, we can finish this war.”
Ren nodded solemnly, gazing down at his hands. Then he looked up, met Fiearius’ eyes, and said, with a strange manic edge that hadn’t been there before, “No. I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
“What?” said Leta softly.
“I won’t dive back into my research. Yes, I know how important it is!” he added, when Leta opened her mouth to retort. His eyes had suddenly grown wider, even scared. Breathing faster, he said, “Listen to me. What I know about the Councilors? It won’t help you win this war. It’ll just get you killed. You killed one of them, Leta, and you won’t get lucky again. Either of you.” He shot a look toward Fiearius.