Caler Bronns, the dour Evinthei Forum Commissioner, licked his finger delicately and turned the page. He had already read the document twice, but he was spinning this out as much as he was able before he needed to give a reply. He was still not quite able to believe what he was seeing. Not only had Aeslin submitted a humble, concise request to be returned to active duty, she had an incredible strategy laid out here. A surviving lapidtalos, some prime intelligence gathered about one of Borden’s allies, the chance to avenge the injury of a notable officer…

“This reads like one of the Entourage stories.” Fifa Azera’s voice cut through the dense, reading silence of the conference room. As always, listening to her was like being shoved under a cold shower. “The kind children get told before they’re old enough for school. Lessinger spins a tale to save his honour, and our illustrious future leader swallows it whole.”

“You think Lessinger was lying about his attacker?” asked Greidon Corvini, sounding surprised. “He’s not the type to spin a yarn, and the medical staff have compared his X-rays to Archive records. They say his injuries are consistent with being attacked by a lapidtalos.”

“Perhaps it was an Earthborn and Lessinger couldn’t see it properly.”

“An Earthborn? What was it using, a bag of cement?”

“Then maybe he fell down the stairs and is excusing himself,” said Azera more sharply. “He seems possessed of remarkably bad luck recently.”

“But a lapidtalos?” wondered Corvini. “That’s a thing I never expected to have on our hands. A survivor from the Scorpieth attack - a witness, a living witness, maybe even one who saw Jayton Ember in the flesh… ?”

Bronns rapped on the conference table. It was just the three of them today; himself, Azera the prosecutor, and Corvini, the soldier whose achievements never quite made up for his humble background. Nandie Harpeti wasn’t here, no doubt slaving over a hot petri dish somewhere. Archivist Tayner was absent too. Just as well. They had become Adree Aeslin’s champions, and he wanted to discuss this with the other two without interference. “Forget about Lessinger and this lapidtalos. It’s Aeslin we should be concerned with,” he told them. “Look past the surface. It’s interesting how she phrases this; it’s clear she doesn’t hold a grudge.”

“Not one she’s stupid enough to put on paper, anyway,” Azera pointed out.

Bronns turned the pages of the report. “I wonder if Aeslin has been studying Borden’s manuals.”

Azera snorted. “So much for being conservative…”

None of them needed to clarify which Borden they were referring to. In his younger days, Tobias Aeslin had had a tight circle of friends, mostly from the intelligentsia of the Evinthei, not unlike a more intellectual version of the Entourage. One of his closest friends had been the Evinthei’s prize tactician at the time, who eventually wrote half a dozen strategic texts that had become part of the Evinthei core syllabus. He had been such a good friend to Tobias that their children had grown up together. However, after his son had defected and turned against his own people, Edrick Borden’s name had become something of a bone of contention amongst the Evinthei. His work was brilliant but some people had questioned how much they wanted to study the writings of a traitor’s father.

“This smacks more of her own work,” said Corvini, dismissive. “Look, wherever it came from, she’s built a good strategy we can use. And the prize is worth it. Not only Borden but his allies, and an actual, factual lapidtalos? Ember’s blood, imagine what we could learn!”

“You want to hand this over to Aeslin?” Fifa Azera wanted to know.

“Why not? She could pull this off!”

“And if she does, that closes off the entire succession question once and for all,” said Bronns. “She’ll be the darling of every officer and commoner from here to the coast, and they’ll never hear a word against her election as leader. Do you want that, Corvini? Already there’s mutterings about how the families of the Entourage are getting too much preference. Tobias Aeslin should have named one of us, or Harpeti, or one of the Upper Forum, not his untried daughter. Are we going back to Amtino’s days, when someone’s blood counted for more than their experience?”

Corvini looked defiant, or tried to: the expression didn’t sit well on him. “Then what do you want to do? Throw out a great plan because you don’t want to risk that it might work?”

Azera steepled her fingers. “I think the issue here is Adree herself. She claims to be able to carry out this plan with very small numbers, maybe even just her and that aide of hers, what’s his name, Heston Robbes. Doesn’t that raise the possibility that she might be prone to… indecisiveness when faced with Borden again?”

“What are you suggesting?” Corvini wanted to know.

“We send along another officer,” said Azera. “One hand-picked by us. To show this is an Evinthei effort and not wholly Aeslin’s, and to keep her attention - focused. Someone whose loyalty is assured, who can… be relied on to report back to us.”

“Wait a second - you want to plant a spy?” Bronns asked, affronted. The Evinthei were a clan as well as a militia; many of them were distantly related. Because of this, and the fact Nones was such a dangerous place, Evinthei intelligence was distributed between the entire clan except in exceptional circumstances. Knowledge saved lives. Spying on any officer - treating them as untrustworthy or not sharing vital information - was treading on dangerous ground. Spying on the Evinthei’s future leader while she carried out a vital mission, even under these circumstances, was…

Corvini leaned back in his chair. “Fifa, you’re crossing a line.”

“What’s more important: the security of Nones or Adree Aeslin’s feelings?” Azera wanted to know. “We’ve got a traitor on the loose, a lapidtalos around in the city, some inhuman woman with her own agenda. These are extraordinary times. We need extraordinary measures. General Aeslin will see that, he’ll sign off on this.”

Bronns thought this over. “You… It makes sense. I suppose. Corvini?”

“I don’t like this. It’s dishonourable. Adree is one of us. And if she finds out she won’t let this lie. Don’t think she’s not capable of retaliation.”

“I think she understands what her position is,” said Bronns. “She has popular support, but she’s not there yet. You’re right, Greidon; she’s one of us. She’s like her father. She knows what duty is. If her mission is so vital, can she really complain if we want to… take precautions?”

“There’s one more thing you’re both forgetting,” said Corvini. “Adree is partially telepathic. She will be able to tell she’s got a plant in her team.”

“Not if the individual themselves isn’t aware,” Azera replied. “All we need is someone loyal, perhaps not too bright, but eager to please. Maybe someone with leverage, just in case we need it.”

Corvini looked down at the table, then finally raised his head. “Okay. Then the last question is: who do we send?”

 

“Three. Four… five.”

“Okay, add three more,” said Adree, not looking up from her workbench. “More biomarker ampoules than bullets. I don’t want to go unarmed but I don’t want to start a war out there either. Quick and quiet.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Heston Robbes, her aide, reached up to the shelf.

Adree glanced dubiously down at the two packs on the ground as she finished screwing the case back on. The two of them were in the equipment stores, putting their supplies together; they’d only been at this for about twenty minutes, and those packs were looking heavy already. She’d already stripped her weapons down to the bare minimum, sticking to a light sidearm and her sniper rifle. Robbes never went heavily armed anyway. She wasn’t looking for a fight. As long as they could defend themselves, she had more important things to carry than ammunition.

Like this.

Adree tightened the last screw and held up one of the Evinthei radios. They were usually smaller and more sophistcated than the model she was holding. This was an old one she’d salvaged from stores, but it was still a powerful device running on a digital signal: in a city where new buildings could appear without warning and disrupt communications, analogue signals were useless. With the modifications she had just done, the radio should be able to hack into any active communications device and put her in touch with this young man, ‘Dax’, but because it was an older model, it worked on different frequencies to the clearance crews’ radios. Whatever they had to say to each other, it would definitely be a private conversation.

Thoughtfully, Adree tapped the antenna against her teeth. This, and Avaughnian’s Riddle if she could solve it… those were going to be her real weapons out there. But her tactics were going to be the same as always. She knew she was going to have to be charming, and smart, and totally ruthless to pull this off successfully.

She tucked the radio in a pouch at the side of her backpack. Beside it was a sealed case that Nandie Harpeti had given her. The little device inside was the other half of her plan.

“We’ll keep analysing that woman’s blood sample while you’re gone,” Harpeti had told her before she left, when he handed it over. “You’ll still be in communication with us, so I’ll pass on any information we can piece together.”

“Adree,” Luso Tayner had added, “remember that whoever or whatever this woman is, the data was strictly classified. You know how dangerous she is, you’ve seen her. Watch your back out there. We’ll watch it for you here.”

“Thank you. Both of you.”

Adree straightened up just as the door to the equipment stores opened and Rachelle Telcane came inside. “Hello, ma’am, Lieutenant Robbes.”

“Rachelle,” said Adree warmly. “How’s Lessinger holding up?”

“He’s doing much better,” said Rachelle, happily. “He’s sitting up, he was even out of bed for an hour. The doctors say he’s looking really well. They even say they could study his injuries and add them to the Archive’s lapidtalii files.”

“I’m sure he’s thrilled to hear that,” smiled Robbes.

Adree was pleased to hear about Lessinger, but she did have work to do. “Rachelle, no offence, but I need to finish my mission prep. Is there something else you needed?”

“Actually that’s what I came to ask you,” said Rachelle. “Didn’t… the Central Forum send a message? I’ve been assigned to this mission with you.”

Adree glanced over to Robbes, getting a sinking feeling. She had planned this mission for the two of them, not with an untried lieutenant in the mix. “Did you hear about this and not tell me?”

“No ma’am, absolutely not. I’d have passed it along.”

“It’s okay, isn’t it, ma’am?” Rachelle Telcane asked, nervously. “I mean, I’m sure the Central Forum know what they’re doing.”

 

 

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