“Luck isn’t what I’m concerned with,” said Fiearius, his tone low and his brow furrowed as he watched Ren start to shake his head a little too much, a little too fast.
“My research on the Councillors is what got me thrown in jail to begin with. If I look into it again, it’ll probably kill me.” Leta caught Fiearius’ look of alarm, but Ren went on. “But it’s not that — it’s the thousands of others that will suffer — ”
Leta got to her feet and took a step towards him. “We’ll help people, Ren,” she said gently, desperation clinging to her voice. “Your research will help. We need — “
“I KNOW what you need!” Ren yelled, voice exploding as he suddenly banged his fist on the table, making the glassware rattle and Leta’s wine glass crash to the floor. In a flash, Fiearius, his face dark and dangerou, stepped closer to put himself between Leta and Ren.
Ren was breathing hard, his eyes sliding out of focus as he dug his hands into his hair. “I’ve killed enough — I’ve killed enough, Leta, don’t you see? I can’t have any more blood on my hands. If you really care, if you really want the suffering to stop — end the war!”
Gasping for air, he pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and backed out of the room.
Hours passed, and the night wore on, and Ren did not reappear. The door to his bedroom remained shut and neither Fiearius nor Leta dared open it, though Leta had knocked and called to him a number of times.
In his absence, they passed the time quietly debating the war, discussing plans still in motion and eventually merely swapping stories about their daily lives. It was nearly midnight by the time Leta had seemed to give up; she was nodding off on the couch, eyes closed and breathing shallow. Fiearius sat in an armchair nearby, wondering to himself how the hell he was going to fix this.
He was toying with the idea of just kicking down Ren’s door and demanding he hand the information over when that very door opened and a figure slipped out.
Ren said nothing. He didn’t even seem to acknowledge that Fiearius was there. He simply stepped out of his room and headed straight for the balcony, closing the sliding glass door behind him. Fiearius gazed at Leta’s sleeping form for a few seconds and then rose up to his feet and followed.
Outside, the evening wind blew through the trees. Even in the darkness, it was a rather beautiful view of the foresty landscape, the tops of trees swaying in the breeze. Fiearius sensed Ren tense at his presence, but they stood by side, neither of them saying anything until Fiearius grunted, “Next planet I go to is gonna be warm. Gettin’ real tired of this cold shit.”
Ren glanced sideways, a vaguely amused glint in his eye. “What are you talking about? It’s perfect out.”
“Please, I just left where you grew up. Your definition of ‘perfect’ is clearly skewed.”
Ren snorted and looked back out over the dark expanse of trees. Again, they fell into silence, but silence wasn’t going to cut it. Fiearius took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry about earlier–”
“It’s fine. It happens.”
“Well it shouldn’t,” Fiearius said simply and Ren looked back at him, first in alarm and then in slow, dawning realization. His eyes narrowed.
“If you’re going to turn my illness into a message then–”
“One, it’s not an illness,” Fiearius corrected him. “And two, I don’t want to. I wanted to do this right and proper and nice, but the plain fact of the matter is that I can’t walk away from here with a ‘no I can’t help you.’ So if nice and good ain’t gonna work, we’re gonna need to try something else.”
Ren rolled his eyes and looked away.
“Listen. We need your help,” Fiearius went on. “If you don’t help me, we’re gonna lose this thing. All of it.” Fiearius took a step forward, leaning against the railing and trying to catch his eye. “And then there’ll be a lot more people with that ‘illness’ of yours.”
“That’s all very dramatic, Admiral, but as I said, I follow the news and you seem to be winning just fine,” Ren pointed out.
“Sure, technically we’re winning,” said Fiearius, crossing his arms. “But the thing is, no matter how much we win, the Society’s not losing.”
Ren regarded him sideways and Fiearius thought perhaps he’d piqued his interest. “They’re strategically sacrificing, that’s all. They know we can’t go after their major footholds, after Ellegy, after Satieri. We won Vescent only because they weren’t expecting it, but now, they’d see any big move coming. We’re stuck hacking away at bases, at supply stations, trade lines, small fish in a big big ocean. This isn’t a war to the Society. It’s a rebellion. A rebellion they’re just waiting to tire itself out so they can crush it.”
“So you want to kill the Council. Because it’s a big move they can’t see coming.”
“And it’ll shatter internal Society structure,” Fiearius added. “At least long enough to gain the advantage.”
“And how exactly do you expect to manage that? Even in all my research, I was barely able to scratch the surface of the Council. How do you expect to get close enough to murder them?”
Fiearius snorted and turned around to lean his back on the railing, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Oh don’t worry. They made sure I’m good at that.”
Another silence fell. Wind whistled through the trees. And then, out of nowhere, Ren barked a laugh — a genuine, if slightly pained laugh. When Fiearius raised his eyebrows, Ren said, “I just — it’s just funny, is all. That life has turned out this way. I’m hermitting in the woods, Leta shows up with the assassin she’s dating … ”
Fiearius let out a barking laugh. “I’m not an assassin, least not anymore,” he corrected. “And Leta sure as hell ain’t dating me.” He tilted his head and spared a glance at the sleeping woman on the other side of the window pane. “Not anymore.”
Fiearius could tell by the look on Ren’s face that he’d clearly surprised him.
“Really?” he asked after a moment’s pause. “Fooled me.”
Fiearius could do nothing but shrug. Ren went on quietly, “I owe her a lot, you know? Leta.”
“Yeah. Me too,” Fiearius agreed in the same hushed tone. They lapsed into silence until Fiearius cracked a lopsided grin and ventured, “Maybe you could repay that debt by helping us?” The glare he got in return was exactly what he’d anticipated. “What, can’t blame me for trying.”
But Ren let out a heavy sigh. “I want to help her, I do. But I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Fiearius asked seriously. When Ren didn’t answer, he pressed, “Look, what can I do to change your mind? You don’t want to look at the shit again? Don’t. Just hand what you have to us, we’ll manage it. Don’t trust Carthis? Great. Neither do I, they won’t see a word of it. No one but the Councillors will be hurt, I swear it. I’ll make sure of it. You’ll be saving — gods, hundreds? Thousands? Maybe you have no reason to trust me, but trust her.” He pointed towards Leta. “Help us.”
Ren met his eyes firmly for long enough that Fiearius almost thought he’d broken through. But just as quickly as he’d started celebrating, Ren tore his eyes away and marched across the balcony in frustration.
“I can’t,” he said for the thousandth time and it was all Fiearius could do to not groan. But then he went on, “Even if I would, and I won’t, I can’t. My research, my journals, you think I have them with me? What you need — I’ve no idea where it ended up. What I remember I can’t–” Here, he gripped the railing so hard his knuckles turned white. “I can’t–I can’t say. I can’t–” He tore himself from the rail and shook his head violently, as though shooing away a fly buzzing in his ear.
But unlike before, he managed to pull himself together. He stood up straight. He crossed his arms over his chest. And he said, “I’m sorry Admiral, I can’t help you.”
Fiearius met his stare straight on. He felt disappointment, anger, frustration, worry starting to stir in his chest. But before he could respond, Ren’s face crinkled unexpectedly into disgust. “Is that–do you smell smoke?” he asked suddenly.
Fiearius did smell smoke. Just as the building’s alarms detected it. Both men turned to the sliding door and even from there, they could see the warm glow of flames starting to seep under the door from the hallway.
For the first time in weeks, Fiearius forgot about the Councillors entirely. “Shit.”