“Right now they’ve got Fiear’s fleet holding the skies above the planet, not that anyone’s contested it, while Carthis is organizing more troops on the ground for a systematic battlefront like they did on Ascendia.”
Liam shot her a grimace. “They’re willingly comparing it to Ascendia? So bloodshed, bloodshed, and more bloodshed.”
“From the sounds of it. The whole operation turned into a mess.”
“What I don’t understand,” Liam posed thoughtfully. “Is why the Ellegian rebels who have spent, gods, years fighting the Society, would suddenly rejoin them in the midst of battle. I know Carthis kind of screwed them by leaving them out of the plans, but that doesn’t sound like a reason to completely change their tune.”
Leta regarded him sideways, her lips pursed and a frown creasing her brow. She couldn’t tell Fiearius what she had uncovered about the battle of Ellegy, not yet, as much as it was killing her not to. But she could tell Liam, couldn’t she? He’d proved enough times over that he was trustworthy with information and frankly, she needed this off her chest before it burst. So though she knew she probably should have stayed quiet, she instead said, “They didn’t. The Society did.”
Liam turned to her and tilted his head. “How do you figure?”
Well she was into it now. No going back. She took a deep breath, swung her legs up onto the couch and turned towards him entirely. “You know about Desophyles Cordova?”
“He’s not–” Leta faltered. Gods, she was sounding like Fiearius. “Yes, him. He was on Ellegy during the battle. Fiear–” She cut herself off suddenly and narrowed her eyes. “This is off the record, by the way. All of this. This can’t get out, I–”
Liam waved off her concern. “Of course, it always is. I’d never publish anything you told me in private. So go on. Fiearius….?”
She drew in another breath. “Fiearius invited Dez to help him with the Councillor mission. They met up on the planet and he went with him for a while, but Dez had this other agenda. One that included blowing up half the city…”
Liam’s mouth fell open in shock. “I thought that was the rebels.”
“It was. Sort of. When Carthis cut them out, they teamed up with him and his followers. The explosions were all part of this convoluted plan they had to distract Carthis and the Society enough to take prisoners as leverage against each.”
“Oh yeah, I heard something about that. They’re in negotiations to get them back.”
Leta nodded and muttered, “Yeah, update on that, Carthis isn’t willing to give them anything they want…So that’s not looking very promising.”
“It wasn’t the only plan though,” Leta confessed, her voice getting even quieter. There was no chance anyone was listening, but she could never be too careful. It just didn’t feel right to say any of this so loud. “Dez was working with this woman, Ophelia Varisian, I think I told you about her?”
“The blonde psycho arsonist?” Liam put in and Leta couldn’t help but smirk a little.
“They’ve been working together for a while, though with the shit she pulls, you’d hardly know it. She’s been still following the orders of the Society Council all this time, but I guess collaborating with Dez as well, passing him intel, helping him out where she could. She was supposed to reach the Ellegian Councillor before Fiearius did and use her to gain access to the system and call off the Society’s attack. Which was coming. Quickly. The Ellegian fleet destroyed the CORS and turned right around. If they’d arrived, Carthis would have been overwhelmed and lost the air battle too. Our forces would be decimated.”
“But you told me this Varisian was killed,” Liam pointed out hesitantly. “And the fleet still didn’t return…”
“Because there was a second contingency.” Now, Leta glanced over her shoulder. Just in case. “He used Fiearius’ Verdant chip to command the fleet and tell them to turn around.”
Liam’s eyes grew wide. “And the ground troops? He–”
Leta nodded. “Ordered them to join with the Rebels.”
The news had hit her just as hard as it hit Liam now. He stood up from the couch and started pacing back and forth, his hand on his head. “Are you telling me…that that terrorist…is in command of the entire Society arsenal?”
“No no,” Leta assured him, leaning forward. “Only those that listened. A lot are still loyal to their Council over their Verdant of course, but I guess whatever he told them was compelling because the half that didn’t head immediately to Exymeron on the remaining Councillor’s orders did as Dez asked.” Before Liam could rephrase his question, presumably to ask if that terrorist controlled half of the Society’s fleet, Leta added, “And he doesn’t have the chip anymore anyway.”
Liam stopped pacing to look at her. “Who does?”
Leta grimaced uncomfortably and raised her hand a few inches in the air. “But I’m not using it. I’m giving it back to Fiearius as soon as he’s on his feet again.” It was Dez’s only condition to returning it to her caretaking and one she had little trouble agreeing with. Despite Fiearius losing the CID, it was still his as far as Leta was concerned. As for what to do with it–
“Then you have to give it back now,” Liam said suddenly. “Give it back and make him put it to good use. He can call off the Society troops on Ellegy and end the bloodshed before it begins.”
But Leta shook her head. “In his current state, I’m not risking that. The wrong stimuli and he could destabilize, go back to the seizures. We’ve already lost him before, I’m not contributing to that happening again. Even so, he would never do what you’re suggesting. Calling off the Society would mean Carthis plows through the rebels and takes Ellegy for themselves. For once, Dez actually did something kind of helpful.” The words tasted bitter in her mouth even as she praised him.
“Gods.” Liam gazed into the middle distance, looking so struck that Leta reached out to take his hand. He sucked in a deep breath, his eyes glassy. “I wish you hadn’t told me this.”
It was not the response she expected. “What?”
He started to laugh, quiet and strained, a little manic. “It’s just gonna make it so much harder.”
“Make what harder?”
Liam looked down at her and tightened his jaw, as though he was considering something very serious indeed. Finally, he nodded to himself and drew a tablet out of his bag. He switched it on and handed it to her. “Read this.”
Leta took the device, curious as to what this was about, and began to read the document open on the screen. It was a news report about Ellegy, but none of it was right. It described the battle that had taken place a week ago, but it read so wrong Leta barely recognized it, painting Carthis as saviors from on high and the Ellegian rebellion as treacherous scum out to get them every step of the way. The article ended abruptly, like it hadn’t been finished yet, on a line that outright blamed the people of Ellegy for the noble Carthian lives that had been lost.
The words left Leta stunned.
“What is this?” she breathed.
“My latest piece,” barked Liam bitterly. “What do you think?”
She looked up at him, her eyes round. “You’re joking,” she said flatly, not even as a question. Of course he was joking. There was no way this was real. No chance that this was truly his work.
“I wish I was.” He turned away from her and made a circle around the coffee table. “Obviously not done though. Just wait til I put in Gates’ interview.” He laughed again, even more panicked this time. “It really puts the nail in the coffin, you’ll see.”
Leta got to her feet. “You’re not publishing this.” He didn’t meet her stare. Perhaps couldn’t. “You can’t publish something like this. We need peace between Carthis and Ellegy. Not–” She shook the tablet towards him. “This will just give people another enemy to hate.”
“Oh yes,” Liam agreed, spinning around to face her finally. “That’s entirely the point.”
This didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Liam knew the delicate balance of politics in this war. He and Leta were on the same page. They agreed. That’s why they had gotten along so well in the first place.
“I don’t understand.”
He met her gaze sadly for a moment and then sighed. “The outlook out there is bad right now. Ellegy was a series of mistakes and everyone knows it. The upper Carthian brass want the media to turn public opinion in their favor. They contacted my editor who contacted me and now–” He gestured towards the device in her hand. “Well you can see the results.”
But Leta was already shaking her head. “You can’t publish this,” she said again.
Liam let out an exasperated laugh. “I don’t really have a choice, Leta.”
“You do. You could not write it.”
His eyebrows shot up on his forehead. “Oh I can just not do it? Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” He rolled his eyes and paced around the coffee table again.
A spike of anger ran through her. “You can just not do it. You should just not do it! Why are you doing it?”
“Because they’re forcing my hand!” he snapped. “It’s not that easy, Leta. Even if I didn’t do it, somebody else would.”
“Fine, but it doesn’t have to be you!”
Liam let out a groan and put his hands over his face. “You don’t understand. This is my job. My career. I can’t just not do it. My editor asks me to write? I write. I don’t write, I don’t get paid. It’s pretty non-negotiable.”
“Non-negotiable?” Leta couldn’t believe her ears. “Liam, these are lives at stake here. This whole war is hanging in the balance right now, one little tilt and everything could fall apart. Everything we’ve worked for. You can’t just let that happen, gods, contribute to it because,” the words fell out of her mouth dripping in spite, “your editor told you to.”
He groaned again, louder this time and tore his hands away to look at her squarely. “Yes, actually, I can. And I will.” Leta opened her mouth to argue, but he cut her off, “Look, it’s all nice that you can stand up on your moral high horse and tell me what’s right and what’s good, but those of us on the ground don’t have that option, okay? At the end of the day, I need a paycheck and a promise of more paychecks so I can just survive.”
“So you’re just willing to completely sell yourself out,” she accused, crossing her arms over her chest and regarding him with disgust. “Sell out all of Ellegy. So you can get paid.”
“Yeah, Leta, I am,” he spat back. “Because some of us still have to actually work and get on with our lives through this war. Not all of us are lucky enough to just get taken in and taken care of by the Carthian military because their ex-boyfriend is an admiral.”
Leta’s mouth fell open in shock. The anger she’d felt suddenly turned to rage. “Excuse me?!”
“You know what, just forget it,” he growled, reaching out and seizing the tablet from her hand and turning towards the door. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh I understand.” It was pure fury keeping her going now as she chased after him. “I understand that you’re a coward. I understand that you’re willing to sacrifice your integrity at the drop of a hat. I understand that–”
“You–” he snapped suddenly, turning on his heel and pointing at her. “You really need a reality check, you know that? Or actually–you know what? Maybe I’m the one who needs a reality check.” He barked a single humorless laugh. “I thought you were passionate and caring and focused. Turns out? You were just self-righteous.”
Before she could get another word in, he swung open the door and walked out. It slammed shut behind him, leaving Leta alone, her mind racing, her chest heaving and her hands at her sides trembling.