Chapter 28: Substitute

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“I have to say — ” Fiearius pushed open the door, flooding the dark war room with light from the station hallway. He held it open for Leta to pass through. “There’s nothing that makes these meetings more enjoyable than you shutting Arsen down in front of the entire council.”

Leta smirked. “I didn’t mean to embarrass him so much.” She noticed Fiearius’ skeptical brow raise and admitted, “Okay, maybe a little.”

Truthfully, Chief Strategist Arsen made her want to tear out her hair since she was recruited into the war council a week ago. He had made his opinion on her presence there known from day one and if it wasn’t a personal grudge that was making him talk over her and shoot down everything she said, she wasn’t sure what it was.

“What?” she snapped, as Fiearius eyed her closely. “His plan was bad.”

“Terrible,” Fiearius agreed with a solemn nod.

“If we’re going to take Ellegy, we can’t pull the same thing that worked on Vescent,” Leta went on, her tone rising a little in frustration as they crossed through a busy hallway. “They’ll see it coming. We’d never make it to the ground, the whole thing would go up in flames before it even began.”

“I would also argue that it only barely worked the first time.”

She wasn’t entirely listening anymore as they continued down the hallway. “I appreciate his expertise, of course, and the gods know I’m hardly versed in military strategy, but seriously, some of it’s just common sense.”

“It is.”

“I know Carthis is doing its best in the face of a pretty near impossible battle, but pulling stupid ideas out of the air and pretending they’re quality is hardly productive and if I’m going to be a part of this council, to hell if I’m just going to sit idly by as–”

A heavy hand dropping onto her shoulder pulled her out of the rant and she stopped walking and looked up at Fiearius who was straining to hold back a laugh. “Alright, fireball, calm down. We got it.”

Leta frowned. “All I’m saying is, he doesn’t deserve his title.”

Now, he actually did laugh. “Welcome to the bane of my existence for the past few years.”

Fiearius continued on down the hall and Leta followed, pursing her lips thoughtfully. “I’m actually surprised you’re not throwing more of a fit in there. It’s unlike you.”

“Don’t need to when you’re doing it for me.” He flashed her a grin. “Seriously, this is the first break I’ve had from yelling at moronic Carthians since we started down this damned road. Keep it up.”

“You’re using me as your substitute?!”

“Let’s call it a relay,” he suggested, lifting a hand carelessly. “Pass back the baton whenever you want.”

Leta considered the notion for a moment, considered Arsen and his stupid smug face and holier-than-thou attitude. “I’ll keep it a while longer,” she decided at last. Ahead of her, Fiearius let out a barking laugh.

From another hallway, her name rang out.

“Leta!”

There was a time in her life when Leta didn’t jump at the sound of someone suddenly shouting for her. She could remember it. It was long ago though, now.

The initial reaction of panic subsided quickly when she caught sight of Liam approaching her. It was replaced by a wide smile growing on her face.

“Hey, I just happened by,” he said, bringing his hand warmly to her arm. “Totally not waiting around here for you to get out of your big important meeting so I could ask you to lunch or anything. Definitely not that.”

“After the meeting I had, I wouldn’t even mind if you were,” Leta admitted with a sigh as Liam looked up at Fiearius who had hung back at the interruption.

“Admiral,” he greeted politely.

“Hammerhead,” Fiearius greeted back, just as cordially.

Liam tilted his head thoughtfully. “Hammerhead…Yesterday it was Great White. The day before, Nurse. I’m sensing a pattern here.”

“It’s amazing how many types of sharks there are,” Fiearius pointed out with a wry grin.

Liam let out a laugh and Leta inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. A week ago, she had been quite sure that Fiearius and Liam would never be able to stand in the same vicinity without one of them (one particular one of them) starting a fight. But by some miracle, after the events of the fundraising gala, they actually seemed to, dare she hope, get along. Well, at least get along in Fiearius’ way of getting along with people which more often than not, looked otherwise. But Liam seemed fine with it.

“I look forward to which variety I’ll be next,” he chuckled as Fiearius started down the hall again and Leta followed. Until Liam spoke up again, “Oh–eh, I wouldn’t go that way.” Leta cast him a curious glance to which he explained, “Fair warning, the entire Carthian press core is through that door. They still want to talk to you. About–you know…”

Leta eyed the door they had been about to walk through with the kind of relief you only got from very narrowly avoiding absolute disaster. It was a disaster she’d only narrowly avoided all week. “Gods, why don’t they give it up?” she breathed.

“Probably because they’re not satisfied with the ‘it’s all fine, that murder was protected under some old war secrets law’ story,” Liam muttered and she shot him a glare.

“Well they’re not getting anything else,” Fiearius growled. “Tell ya what, take the back passage, I’ll handle these fuckers.” He jutted his thumb over his shoulder at the door. “Give ‘em somethin’ real interestin’ to talk about.”

Leta looked up at him, gratitude flooding through her. “Thank you. Really.” After a week of the media hounding her, she was starting to understand Fiearius’ grudge against them. He’d been sympathetic (and also incredibly defensive of her) through the whole process which she could not have appreciated more. But at the same time, she got the tiniest inkling that he was almost glad to have someone else taking journalist heat in lieu of himself…

Though he’d probably never admit that.

“‘Course.” He waved her off and headed towards the den of lions. “You two have a nice lunch now.”

Leta smiled as she took Liam’s arm and lead him back the way they’d come to take the alternate route out of the council chambers. As she did, she felt Liam glancing back over his shoulder.

“Wait…what did he mean ‘give them something interesting to talk about?” he asked at last, sounding rather alarmed. “He’s not going to — he wouldn’t hurt anyone would he?”

Leta paused. She took a moment to consider Fiearius, in his entirety. At last, she just shrugged.

———————–

It wasn’t the most romantic of lunch dates, considering it was in a crowded, noisy mess hall with cafeteria provisions. But it was still a moment away from Carthian brass, away from the press, away from responsibilities, so Leta was grateful to steal away and find a table in the corner of the room with Liam.

“I doubt I’m technically allowed in here,” Liam said absently, his eyes scanning through the hall. “Imagine the kind of dirt I could overhear … “

Leta smiled around the rim of her mug of tea. “Carthis has bigger problems than you at the moment.”

“And I have bigger problems than Carthis,” he finished. A grin drew over his scruffy face, then faded. “Speaking of which, I need your help. My editor’s pissed at me.”

Leta could not imagine how she factored into this problem. “So you want me to take him out for you?”

Liam afforded her another grin, but he went on briskly, more business-like. “I do, but it’s more complicated than that. For one, he’s upset with me for staying on the station so long instead of fighting for stories on ground.” His eyes lingered on her face, making it clear she was the reason he stayed on the station so long. The feeling was both pleasant and uncomfortable.

“He’s getting impatient. He wants what any editor wants,” Liam went on. “A good story. Specifically, something worthwhile and long form, something new and exciting, to break through all the Society noise.”

He paused for effect. Leta waited curiously.

“I want to interview Soliveré,” Liam said at last. After a few seconds, Leta — she couldn’t help it — actually laughed.

“Are you nuts?”

“Well, I am a reporter,” Liam agreed.

“You’d have better luck getting the Councilors themselves to sit down for an interview, Liam. There’s no way Fiearius will give you a second of his time.” She paused. “No offense.”

“None taken. And it’s true, you’re right. He wouldn’t agree to it. But you’re one of his oldest friends. Possibly you could nudge him in the right direction?”

“There’s no nudging Fiearius,” said Leta, but even as she said it, she knew that wasn’t true. Cyrus could steer Fiearius toward something, he’d done it plenty of times. And so she could she. Raiding the Baltimore, fighting the Society, teaming up with Carthis. He’d made a lot of major life decisions with her substantial nudging.

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