Fiearius put his palm on the floorboard and pressed. For a moment, nothing happened. Gods, it better not have broken. But finally, the board shifted. It lowered just enough to then slide underneath the board beside it, revealing the small dark space hidden beneath it. And inside? All the heavy bound documents, printed copies and miscellaneous evidence Aela had left there.
“Guess she was right,” Fiearius remarked, mostly to himself as he crouched down and pulled out the first thing that met his fingertips, a stack of records relating to an Internal agent going undercover on Ascendia. “No one ever found it.”
Leta crouched down beside him and reached her hand into the hole to fish something out. “Department of Health Incident Report on the Transport of Wellian Virus Specimen–” she read and then looked up at him in alarm. “This is about the outbreak on Vescent. The one that killed the Senate.”
Fiearius shrugged. “She knew what she was looking for in terms of blackmail, that’s for sure…”
“This is about–Rebeka Palano.” Leta continued to sift through the documents. “Arleth Morgan? All the Councillors, they’re all in here. The takeover of Vescent. ARC?” She looked up at him in alarm. “Fiear, she knew everything…”
The revelation didn’t surprise him exactly. Of course, if anyone had uncovered the identities of the Councillors and the unsavory actions of the Society long before anyone else, it would be Aela. But even so, having the proof in his hands didn’t comfort him. If she’d known about all this–why hadn’t she told him? Sure, she’d stored all her evidence in a space under their bed that he had access to, but–she’d made it sound boring. “It’s all just paperwork and accounting,” she’d said, essentially discouraging him from ever bothering to look.
Above that, even, it changed the context of–well, everything. Aela had always been pushing them to leave Satieri, start a new life elsewhere, but she had never given an exact reason. But if she knew, if she knew all of–this? Did she–
“Alright, hi, here we go.”
He hadn’t heard that voice in over a decade. He’d last heard it pleading for the life of their son, desperate and cracked and strained. But now it sounded calm, collected, the same logical woman who had asked him to marry her once upon a time. For just a second, he thought it was a ghost.
But the thought passed as quickly as it had come. The voice had come from a tablet Leta was holding in her hands and hurriedly paused. She looked over at him in alarm and then grimaced an apology before handing it to him.
And there was her face on the screen. Her dark skin, her sharp green eyes, the freckles that dotted her cheeks that he could still mark the constellations in. It had been so long since he’d looked at that face and yet every inch of it was familiar, right up to the top of the orange sundress that hung from her shoulders. It was her favorite dress on a warm spring day, she wore it constantly. She wore it when she died.
Hesitantly, he pressed play again and her voice once more filled the room.
“If you’re watching this, it means–” She heaved a sigh. “Something went terribly wrong. Which, as you might imagine, given what you probably know now, is a little difficult to talk about.” A fleeting smile passed across her face. She was nervous, her eyebrows knit together in worry. “I guess I’m dead. Which–really sucks. I’m–or by the time you watch this, I was–really trying to avoid that. Something must have happened, I maybe made a mistake or there was another factor I didn’t think about or–”
Beside him, Fiearius felt Leta start to get to her feet to leave, but he reached out a hand to her. “No, stay,” he ordered. Leta sat back down without a word.
“Okay, I’m sorry, this is not how I should be doing this.” Aela shook her bushy red hair and crunched her eyes shut like she always did when she was concentrating. “Alright, let me start over.”
There was a long pause before another deep breath and then she looked straight into the camera and smiled. “Hi, F. If you’re watching this, it means I died. And I owe you an explanation. A few, really. I’ve owed you explanations for a long time, but you never asked for any. You’re too trusting, you know that? You don’t think you are, but you are. And–it’s not fair to you.” She nodded solemnly. “You deserve to know.”
She shuffled a little in her seat and settled in. “I’ve done some things that I regret. Who hasn’t, I guess? But mine, it started many years ago. We hadn’t met yet.” She spoke so calmly, so plainly, like she was reading off a teleprompter. “I was approached by a man named Dorrion E’etan. At the time, he had just become the Verdant of the Society. You’ve seen him, you know who he is now. This was before then. Before he was everywhere. And he gave me an assignment. The assignment was to get to know you.”
A brief flash of a grimace passed over her face before she hurried on, waving her hand in front of the camera, “This sounds terrible, I know. But hear me out, okay? I was an up and comer in Information, I’d been working towards investigator, this guy, this really important guy tells me that I’m perfect for this really important job, of course I’m going to take it without a second thought. So now you know. That’s why I was at that party I had no business being at all those years ago. That’s why I sat right where I knew you’d see me. And that’s why I didn’t totally write you off when you delivered that absolutely terrible pick up line.” She cocked a brow knowingly. “Seriously, dear, I know you’re single again now, but never use that again.”
She cleared her throat. “Anyway. At first I didn’t know why I had to stalk you. I would just report back to E’etan with whatever I had and he never asked for more. And eventually? He stopped asking for reports. No fanfare, no closure, the assignment just ended and I moved on. Of course by then, you’d kind of grown on me, doofy as you were.” The smile that twisted in her lips put a terrible knot in Fiearius’ chest. “And since you weren’t an assignment anymore? I think you remember the day I turned in my last report, let’s say.”
But her smile only lasted a moment before it changed to an expression much more tinged with sadness. Her eyes cast downward and her jaw tightened. “I wish that was the end of it. But. Like I said. I have regrets. And meeting you was not one of them. What was, however, was telling E’etan all that I told him. All good things, mind you. Competent, efficient, a good leader, loyal to a fault. Everything he was looking for–” She hesitated and her stare flicked back towards the camera. “–for his replacement.”
“This should come as no surprise to you, right about now,” she admitted. “If what I think is happening today happened already, you already know. But Fiearius–” She began to shake her head, slowly, painfully and then locked her eyes on his with a disturbing intensity. “You can’t. I don’t know what you saw, I don’t know how it went down, but I need you to understand this. You can’t stay here. You have to leave.”
“E’etan–once I found out his intentions for you, I reached out to him again. We’d been together a while, you and I. I needed to know what it meant. I’d read things in my work, discovered things that–well, they’re all here. You can read them yourself. You should read them, I’m sorry I told you otherwise until now. You had dedicated your life to the Society. They were your guiding light. I couldn’t just tell you that the Council you serve had been corrupted and had done horrible, awful things. I should have told you before. But I’m telling you now.”
Lifting her hand to literally regrasp her lost train of thought, she went on, “But E’etan, he already knew. He told me about being Verdant, he told me about the Council, who they were, how they acted. I was horrified. He was horrified. And when I asked about you, he–he told me about his plan. Why he had already sought out his replacement. He was already done being Verdant, he couldn’t do anything as Verdant. He was aiming for Councillor.”
Aela was breathing heavily now, there was a slight sheen on her eyes as the corners of them filled with water. “His plan–F, it wasn’t good for you. It didn’t end well for you. But I saw an opportunity and I took it. I agreed to help him. We launched an initiative behind the Council’s back. He was Verdant, they’d never find out if he didn’t want them to. It was foolproof.”
“The man was no idiot though,” she clarified, “he knew my intentions were to protect you, but he played along. We each made our moves. I tried, gods how I tried, to extract the both of us from the game. I tried to convince you to leave Satieri, when we got married, when Denarian was born, every chance I got–” Her voice cracked a little and she put her hand over her eyes. “If I’d just told you, if I’d just been honest–” Her hand fell away and when she faced the camera again, her expression was starting to break.
“I have regrets. I made mistakes. And today, if you’re watching this, no matter how good or bad I was at the game, E’etan outplayed me. I’m gone. But, gods willing, you’re not.”
Her hands reached out to grab the camera, but she may have well have reached out of the screen and seized his throat. “F, no matter what, you need to leave. You need to take Denarian and you need to leave. Take everything stored here and go anywhere. Remember that restaurant you always talked about opening on the shores of Paraven? Do it. Or go to Tarin. Yseltin will help you. Go anywhere, just get away from here as quickly as you can.”
Her tone deepened suddenly. “But F, if you killed him? If he succeeded and made you Verdant?” The camera, still held in her hands, shook ever so slightly. “They’ll never let you go. They’ll chase you across the Span. But E’etan was wrong.” And here, she frowned with determination. “The Verdant isn’t powerless. With all you know, everything you have, everything here? You don’t have to take it. You can fight back. You can make a life.”
There were tears now, running down her cheeks as her voice quivered. “I screwed up, F. But it’s not too late. Protect our son. Protect yourself. I love you so much and I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.”
The screen turned to black and she was gone, just like that. As gone as she’d ever been. Fiearius didn’t know what he was supposed to feel, but the reality was somewhere between getting punched in the gut by someone twice his size and complete and utter numbness. He still held the tablet in front of him and the planet must have been shaking. Or was that his hand?
“Fiear?” he heard Leta begin to ask.
“No,” was all he could say. “The answer is no.”
He felt her hand on his back for just a moment before she gasped and grasped at her gun. When Fiearius turned to look at what had shocked her, he was not at all surprised to find Dez standing in the doorway. Of course he was. He’d be more surprised to not find him there watching, waiting.
The room was still, none of them daring to move or speak. And then the planet did shake. A burst of light rained down from the skies above them and collided with the cityscape out the window. The blast was so loud it was silent and Fiearius’ ears were still ringing when he stood up to look out at the plume of smoke that followed it, dark and heavy and black.
“So,” Desophyles mused, leaning against the wall. “What now, Admiral?”