Adree came back to the matter at hand. “If the Commissioner would be good enough to explain his grievance more clea –“

“You were given a mission, Commander Aeslin, to locate and kill Athellus Borden, or cripple him and bring him back to stand trial for treason. You were given that mission on the understanding that you were the best qualified – you knew Borden better than anyone else, you knew his habits and you had the ability to lure him…”

“My father gave me the task,” Adree answered, hoping her voice didn’t sound as shrill and angry as she heard it, “with, I thought, the full support of the Forum and his –“

“We were consulted,” Bronns interrupted again, “and we had our doubts, but General Aeslin persuaded us. Now, however, I’m beginning to think we were right to begin with.”

He pointed to Adree’s report. “By your own admission you’ve had Borden in your sights twice now. Both times you could have killed him without interference. Both times he’s somehow… slipped through your grasp. First time you escorted him as a prisoner, then let him be rescued – and not without casualties. Two dead, at least one shot and injured. The second time you sat and watched him through a sniper rifle, and just let him walk out of your sights.”

“I gathered vital intelligence for -”

“If you’d shot Borden, we’d have had the intelligence anyway,” Fifa Azera put in, “as well as his corpse. And the value of that intelligence is yet to be proved.”

Adree bridled. “The woman Borden’s travelling with was able to operate the Librais and emerge unscathed. Discover how she did it, and we’ve got a Zodiac Engine at our beck and call. If that’s not important I’d hate to see what is!”

“The issue isn’t some… theoretical tactical advantage,” Bronns said. “The issue is that Borden is still at large, armed, wreaking havoc, when he could have been in our hands, one way or another. By your own admission you’ve effectively let him go, twice. So what are we to think?”

Adree stared at them, feeling rage beginning to boil her blood. The suspicion would have been obvious even without the benefit of her telepathic talent; it hung over the table like a haze.

“Are you suggesting I’m somehow in league with Borden? That I would plot against my own people?”

“Of course not,” said Luso Tayner, the Archivist, before anyone else could speak. “You’re the daughter of our general, and his protégé. Tobias Aeslin would never have sanctioned your involvement if he didn’t trust you. No reasonable person would say that, Adree.”

Commissioner Bronns glowered at Tayner, as well he might – not only had he spoken out of turn, he had, Adree thought gratefully, practically said that any further accusations like that would be unreasonable.

Greidon Corvini knocked on the table, as if trying to make peace. His large knuckles sounded like an army walking on a bridge. “I think the issue is not Commander Aeslin’s integrity. I think the issue is that she acted, or thought she was acting, for the greater good.”

“What greater good?” Fifa Azera wanted to know. “We have some scattered data, nothing concrete. We already knew Borden had turned banru, and as for the rest of it – “ She turned to a copy of Adree’s report, turning the pages as if she was touching something nasty. “We have a description of some woman, possibly with cybernetic implants, the same one who apparently used the Librais. Maybe she’s simply a Sundered that Borden found and chose to recruit. And another man –“

“I fail to see how this individual is relevant,” said Commissioner Bronns. “You said yourself that he’s no kind of threat. It’s Borden who –“

“If you read the report,” Luso Tayner interrupted, “you might see the passages Adree thought to underline. Something even you should recognise, perhaps – the words she reported from Lailenus Street.”

Bronns swept this away. “So he’s had some instruction in our doctrines, or Borden told him. He had a balladeer’s training –“

“Strange.” Nandie Harpeti spoke for the first time. He had a librarian’s voice, clear and quiet. “If the stranger’s not one of us –“

“Then a civilian with delusions of grandeur.”

“What civilian would go across the river to the southern ruins?” Harpeti wanted to know. “What civilian would risk allying with Borden when we’re hunting him?”

“What else could it mean?” Bronns demanded, irritably. He turned back to Adree. “Well?”

“It’s not my place to work out what it means.” If you want me to be a mindless robot who fights and kills without thinking, you shouldn’t demand strategic analysis from me in the next breath! “I mentioned it in my report because it struck me as important. My father thought –“

“Your father is a good man but he is often unwell,” said Harpeti, in a voice that might have been meant to be kind. “It’s our job to sift through the information we have and provide him with our best judgement.”

“The final word is still his,” said Adree, tightly, “and I don’t see him here to condemn me.”

“He’s still in the medical unit,” said Fifa Azera. “His last treatment took him hard.”

So you convene without him, without his guiding hand, his voice of reason.

I’m not stupid – I know what this is. You, who resent the fact you were passed over to be heir to the Evinthei… you would seek to bring me down. You lost your chance before; I was fighting for my right to be recognised, building alliances, and I won. Now you think this will be enough to finish me and you don’t want to lose your second chance. Tayner is my ally, and Harpeti is anyone’s guess, but you three…

I know you, Bronns. You’d seek to end our expansion, citing ‘safety and security’ and keeping us north of the river, as if the Earthborn in the ruins and the paradigm flux will go away if we ignore them. Azera… if there’s anything more than ice water in your veins, I’m yet to hear of it. I think you would sacrifice the civilian population in our favour if it came to that, and if you do, the Evinthei will be wiped out and rightly so. Greidon, you’d do all right for a while, you have the proper respect for our past, and you’re a good man. But – I think you’re too concerned with being a great man. You want too much to be Jayton Ember. Thoughts like that are what make men dangerous.

I might not be as old as you’d like, or as conservative as you’d like. But put Nones in my hands… and I’ll serve my city, my people, and my ancestors, loyally and well.

If I have the chance.

“What is your verdict, then?” Adree demanded. “I believed I was acting in the greater good. Killing Borden would have served us today. What I discovered may serve us tomorrow and onwards. Once the DNA sample I collected has been analysed –“

 

 

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