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Leave of Paradise

Chapter Text

There was an indulgent sense of tradition in meeting on a lush world to apportion another. The matriarchy had spent the last few years echoing the potential of Ryasus, their precious emerald glistening under the mists of interminable waterfalls and giant dew-heavy aroids. In the right hands, they said, Ryasus would become a second Nevos within half a century. Its exotic vistas would attract renowned filmmakers, mountain peaks penetrating the canopies would stroke egos of business executives opening new branches at lofty heights, and tourists wading into the shallow crystalline oceans would rather lose themselves than turn back to shore. 

Aria’s judgement of the generous optimism was it being a bit out of proportion. She only agreed with their rhetoric insofar as expansion onto that beautiful, yet undefiled planet was discussed as a symptom of corporate success, and therefore encouraged. Beyond this, all the commotion had brought too many interested parties flocking in to petition the asari government for permits. It seemed as though every household name company in asari space was vying for the largest chunk of untamed tropical splendor they could get their hands on.

The elevator Aria and her two bodyguards stepped into was a cuboidal space, strictly glass on every side save for the floor and the wall attached to the lifting mechanism that sent it crawling up the spine of the tower hugging the cliffside. It was commodious enough to transport a dozen individuals comfortably, and was furnished with a square arrangement of low sofas and palmed plants in each corner. Light instrumental music played in the room, its airy, distant ambience complimenting the evolving landscape the glass walls framed.

Aria led her guards to the furthermost wall. While they faced the room, Aria stood gazing out at the river-cloven forests of Nevos, to where its green was engulfed by hazy gold at the horizon. The left wing of the building curved along the cliff face. Bright red birds darted past countless glinting windows on stratified white. 

She could also faintly see reflected in the glass the overwhelmingly asari population periodically entering and exiting during their ascent, tourists and businesspeople alike. Upon noticing the surly batarian and asari accompanying Aria’s mysterious figure, they would fixate on the identity of their charge. Aria’s civilian apparel, however expensive and expertly tailored, kept them guessing. None could divorce her from the powerful iconography she had established, and none dared approach her for a better look. 

After several minutes, Aria saw a few matriarchs superimpose themselves on the idyllic scenery. They were looking at her, saying nothing aloud for fear of being overheard, but Aria could tell they recognized her. She fitted her hands on her hips, content to ignore them. 

Aria was not enchanted by their dreams of paradise. She dreamed not of velvety flowers and beaches, but of rich, dark soil. She dreamed of fragrant batarian tobacco fields stretching on and on for endless kilometers under a yellow sun, and broad buttery leaves to be dried and rolled into a new brand of luxury cigars with whom she would partner. 

* * *

Productive use was made of the two spare hours before their appointment. Aria met her consortium at a restaurant on one of the tower’s highest levels, where whey assembled in a booth out on the balcony to enjoy their breakfast with cigarettes. Stories below, a waterfall poured vigorously from the cliffside and washed over one of the vertical elevator lanes before feeding a channel tamed by infrastructure. At their great altitude, cool moisture in the air might have condensed into clouds about their heads at any moment.

Among those present was Senaya, the matron owner of a hydroponics startup; a somewhat stocky individual with enthusiasm and a highly professional fashion sense. At the moment, Aria was favorably disposed toward her. She had good business sense and took pride in her product. It had been Senaya’s own designs and innovations that uplifted her company from obscurity and made it a quick favorite of agricultural contractors from a certain niche of floral nurseries. Recently, she had secured her first client from the Traverse.

Beside her was the middle-aged president of an agricultural producer, Enoln. The fading of his once vibrantly russet skin tone was accentuated by the glowing youth of his asari spouse, Nisani, a maiden not even two hundred years of age. 

Aria understood their bonding was not founded in love, but in pursuit of financial success. In bonding with an asari, the salarian had been adopted into her bloodline and therefore permitted certain privileges granted to citizens of the Republics, including the right to purchase land on their worlds, whereas most aliens interested in asari land were consigned to renting. All Nisani had to do was to wait for her ephemeral husband to die to inherit the bulk of his company and fortunes, and she could spend the rest of her pretty maidenhood days shopping, traveling, and owning too many houses. 

Aria knew her riches would not survive a hundred years. Nisani would, quite undoubtedly, squander her opportunity with her myopic addiction to spending. Aria could see all the hallmark symptoms manifesting in her glamorous furs and rings, and the way she ordered the restaurant’s best sparkling wine while they were only gathered for a brief conversation. It was excess without replenishment, the liberal drawing from a well of limited water. It was smart of Enoln to have included a clause in his will that denied Nisani a bequest if his death were ruled accidental or involved foul play. When he once revealed this in passing to Aria, she laughed not only because it was morbidly delightful, but also because Nisani’s intemperance was so easily judged as holding the potential to mutate into impatience. The girl knew no subtlety.

The most favorable of all present company was Parem Igrahal, a batarian corsair recently turned Omegan entrepreneur. The distinction was not so meaningful to Aria, who considered herself employed to both professions to the point of symbiosis, but Parem claimed to enjoy her departure from nomadism. 

Above all differences, Parem was a woman of such prodigal class, cunning, and calculated aggression that she felt like estranged kin to Aria. For this disposition, as well as her deep connections to Khar’shan enterprises both legitimate and illicit, Aria had forged a rare treaty with her. It had been a very good investment. Currently, Parem served as the avenue through which Aria had dealt with the fifth party and crux of their consortium, who was only present in the good spirit of a polished wooden case of premium cigars rolled with the genetic strain of tobacco they sought a new home for. 

When Parem slid the cover back to reveal half a dozen cigars arranged in a perfect row, she stated, “A gift from my cousin. He regrets his necessary absence, but he is thoroughly confident in us knowing what he wants for his company’s expansion. He sends his best wishes and good luck to the future partners of the Ryasus branch of Ta'balor.”

Each received a cigar from the box. Before cutting and lighting them, they raised their glasses to toast. 

“So,” Aria began. She reached into the interior pocket of her light jacket and retrieved a lighter. “Let’s review.” As she placed the cigar between her lips and flicked a small flame to life, those at the table opened their datapad portfolios.

“Partner shares, post-merge,” said Aria. She opened a thin leather-bound portfolio to consult her own documents. Across from her, Senaya lifted a hand to muffle a cough after clumsily sampling her cigar, and sipped from her drink. To Aria’s experienced palate, she found the taste of hers as smooth and full of subdued spice as she remembered.

“Five percent for us,” reported Enoln. “Well, two and a half from both of us. We’ll constitute a single vote during partner meetings since our agreed upon requirement is three percent and we’d only exceed that together.”

“You’re confident you’ll share the same opinion every time?” Aria lifted a skeptical gaze. 

Enoln had yet to light his cigar. He kept it along with his dining utensils beside his plate. “We’ll work it out, I’m sure. There will be one vote submitted from us each time, even if one of us has to concede to the other.”

His bondmate was pleased by the answer. “I look forward to working with you,” she said, turning a lingering stare upon Aria in particular.

Aria returned it with cold intensity until Nisani finally looked away. She tapped her fingers against the table’s surface, left to wonder when and where Enoln had his spine surgically removed and along with it, his dignity. While he reserved the right to partition some of his partnership to his spouse, he was still president of his humble company, meanwhile Nisani had contributed no executive work to it. Yet here she sat in Aria’s fold, sampling their cigars, wine, and common ambition; luxuries that were far beyond her earning. Aria suspected one too many plans being kept from her. 

She strategically decided to set aside her disdain and not press them on the issue. Right now she only needed their compliance. After the merge she could sort out all the complications without worrying about any single component deciding to dissent and ruin their chances of acquiring adequate land. 

“Seven percent,” declared Senaya. Her voice ran weak, still clinging to the end of a cough. “And you won’t touch us? We’ll keep most of our autonomy?”

Aria nodded. “You’ll have it. They’ll be parent to you but your company stays as is. Granted, you’ll be answering to performance expectations, but you’ll also have more resources available to you. If any conflicts arise we’ll address them as they come. Agreed?”

“That sounds good.”

With Senaya fully on board, Aria turned to Parem.

“Five percent,” said Parem. “Honestly I may sell down to two-point-nine within a few years. I’ve a lot of new ventures already and a position on the board may stretch me too thinly. I want more mobility here.”

“Just hire some recorder to brief you at the meetings.” Aria dismissively waved a hand. Her brow knit as a breeze sent the table’s smoke wafting across her eyes. “Hell, get a VI drone. The more people familiar with Khar’shan we have on this branch, the better off we’ll be when we have to negotiate what we want from them. And you’re his family. That’s a lot of pull we can't afford to throw away.” 

Parem canted her head at her. “You know as well as I do that you can’t be in bed with everyone at once. It causes problems, jealousy…” She made a rolling gesture with the hand holding her cigar. “The interests of businesses are dynamic. Sometimes they conflict with one another depending on who they’ve acquired. You know what I had on my hands once? You think a pharmaceutical and a food producer have nothing in common until they’re fronting rival drug rings. It was cataclysmic.”

“You want to know how turn a profit off a quarrel like that?”

“I already know. You abscond with your gains before they take very personal offense at the inevitability of you stabbing one of them in the back on behalf of the other. You need to have your favorites. Being a serial ally reduces the gravity of your friendship because you give it out too easily. You trivialize yourself. Do you see what I mean?”

Aria pivoted in her chair to better face her and folded one leg over the other. “If you can make them play nice with each other, you’ve made two friends into one.”

“Yes, and tell me all about how easy it is to broker an alliance between two gangs who’ve been at war for half a century.”

“You offer something pleasant," said Aria. "Something they both want and can have if they get along. Then, alternatively, you offer to kill them.”

Everyone expressed visible concern at the idea of being overheard by other tables at brunch. Aria allowed her cigar to freely smolder between her fingers as she continued, “If you take the money and run neither will respect you. They’ll see you as just another flaky corporate opportunist, same as the one to replace you after you cut ties. ‘Work for me or else’ leaves a much stronger impression.”

“Assuming you have the resources to back the threat,” Parem pointed out. 

“That’s why you’ve made all your friends. They’ll support you without even flinching, because you’ve already helped them. Haven’t you?” After a short drag, Aria’s gaze flitted down to where she lowered her cigar and rolled its head of ashes against the side of her plate. “My friendships don’t trivialize me. They make me essential.”

Parem conceded the argument. While it had not been Aria’s intention to embarrass her in front of their future partners, Parem had challenged her, believing her headstrong and frankly erratic approach to business to be superior to Aria’s centuries spent building investments through indebted allies and displays of immovable might. Aria did not think less of her. Parem Igrahal was young and susceptible to misconception, but she would not be forever. Aria saw nascent worth in their alliance and was willing to wait until Parem became nearly as shrewd and foresighted as herself. 

But the destiny of their friendship was grim. There would soon arrive a day when Parem expired from age, violence, or by Aria’s own hand, and the ominous trajectory of their relationship would then see Aria’s syndicate devouring hers either by posthumous will or right of force. An empire to-be, growing ever more corpulent from the flesh of outlasted allies. 

For the moment, however, Aria simply enjoyed smoking with her after the partners had adjourned. The pair were content to be quiet. Nearby, their bodyguards dealt hands of cards at their table in one corner of the balcony, gambling discreetly.

Parem broke the silence once their cigars had receded to half their original lengths. “So, Aria. Be honest with me. Do you really think our people are going to be able to woo the matriarch panel?”

Aria exhaled irately. “They’d damn well better.”

“The girl Senaya doesn’t have the stomach for tobacco. She takes no interest in it. And Enoln is afraid of his wife. Afraid of her!”

“I know.”

“Nisani’s going to have his partnership within several years. Is that really who we want to work with? Maybe we should do something.”

“We can fire her and keep her from making administrative decisions,” said Aria, “but we can’t take away her partnership. We’d have to buy her out of it, and that’s only if she’s willing to sell.”

“Don’t we have a more… traditional way of solving this problem?”

Aria shook her head. “It’s not that easy here. The Republics are liable to investigate something like that. And how much effort are we willing to invest to keep it looking clean?”

“Getting rid of her may be worth any cost. You’ll see, once she’s rotting us from the inside.” The wooden cigar box clicked shut as Parem closed its lid and removed it from the table. “I can’t stay for the petition, Aria. Did I tell you?”

Aria dipped her chin to nod once. She hadn’t wanted to stay long either. With a baby at home on a station under the control of her eccentric lieutenants, Aria found minimal pleasure in remaining to herd the partners over the course of the week. The gorgeous business tower and conjoined resort mitigated some of those stressors, but it was not nearly enough to placate her.

“I know you’ll keep everything on track,” said Parem. “My cousin was only so confident in our consortium because you were the one heading it.”

She said nothing. An upward gust brought a fine mist from the waterfall to the balcony, so delicately dappling her skin that Aria repressed a shiver erupting from the fine muscles in her hands.

“I’ve been receiving requests from suitors.”

A brief raise of her brow marked Aria’s interest. “Anyone you like?”

“None. I hate looking at their faces. They only remind me of people like that salarian president who would surrender his life work to the woman he doesn’t even sleep with. I keep wondering, what if I mistakenly choose an insect like him? It will be a colossal waste of my time. I can have sex with as many strong and beautiful men as I want without having to marry them. The only thing they have ever offered me that I cannot obtain myself is children, and still, I do not need to be married for that.”

“Well, I think you’ve got the right idea about things. You seem sure of what you want.”

Parem slowly nodded. Then a curiosity struck her, but it was charged with dissatisfaction when she asked, “I know you generally prefer the company of women, Aria, but have you ever slept with a batarian man?”

“Are we that familiar now?”

“Humor me, please.”

Aria turned away to face the other tables arranged across the stone-tiled balcony, her expression neutral and unchanging as she considered her answer. There was a wind chime mounted above the door leading back into the golden glow of the restaurant, softly ringing. “I might have.”

“They’re selfish. Greedy. They touch you like they touch a marinated roast.” 

Aria’s shoulders shook with soundless amusement. With a smile she replied, “Then I guess I’m lucky,” and lifted her cigar to her lips again.

“I suppose I should be more… amenable,” Parem admitted as her outlook improved, seeming to find Aria’s reaction contagious. “And conscious of possible benefits. There is something to be said about companionship. To be close to someone you see as an equal, someone to mutually respect and trust. Acquiring that just might be worth all the trouble of finding a good husband. I am not sentimental, but I can see the value in it.” She sipped from her glass of wine. 

“Then you’re looking for a confidant.”

“Perhaps. I think I am not quite immune to the existential desire to be… understood. I think all creatures desire this on some level. To feel connected, your thoughts and secrets given a place to live outside yourself. What about you? Do you desire such a thing?”

“Me?” Aria gave a small shrug while replying with an absurdity, “I am an open book.”

Parem laughed. “Aria, you are the most personally isolated individual I have ever met. I don’t know how you do it. How there are so many people who know of you, who have admired or hated you, but know nothing about you. Do you really require that little maintenance for your soul?”

Aria did not answer immediately. She reclined in her seat, folded her hands in her lap, and regarded Parem with a posture of calm superiority. “Some people,” she slowly began, “don’t crave the approval of others.”

“Is that how you see it? Approval?”

“What else would it be?”

Parem pondered, looking out at the green forests sprawling endlessly below. “A place for your conscience to rest,” she decided.

* * *

Despite the elevated interest in Ryasus, the amphitheater-style seating of the large auction house embedded in the cliffside was only filled to approximately half capacity. Upon dissenting from the assigned seating map, Aria and her two bodyguards settled into a few chairs near the center, keeping equidistant from the black natural stone wall to their far left and the enormous glass windows to their right. Below was the stage, its preparation for the panel and petitioners nearly complete. 

Aria could see her partners seated in the section near the front. They were talking amongst themselves and exchanging datapads with finalized notes, but Aria knew better than most that they were stressing themselves for nothing. The opening day of the petitions was reserved for declarations of purpose, information dispensing, and other formalities that would inevitably waste Aria’s time. Yet she would not be remiss in her duty to ensure the partners did not embarrass themselves, and braced herself for several hours of torment. 

Fortunately, the seats were decently upholstered and each was outfitted with a desk-arm containing a tablet in its beveled surface. Aria accessed it after ten minutes of waiting in boredom and idly began sketching with her index finger a crude image of the panel assembling on the stage. Her attention to detail delineated the contours of a tasteless headdress, a pair of heels whose height rivaled those of her dancers, and more kindly, a little asari child in a dress holding her mother’s hand before she was transferred to the custody of her turian father. They soon left the building together.

“It’s like an elcor opera house,” Aria mused aloud to the guard seated behind her one row, at her shoulder. “But twice as dismal.”

“A very expensive nap for you, ma’am,” she replied, making Aria smile. 

Shortly before the petition commenced, Aria noticed in the periphery of her vision an unsolicited visitor. Although they approached, her guards took no cautionary actions save for their continued vigilance. In the absence of a threat, Aria opted to ignore them, even as they came to stand not more than a meter away. 

“I’m afraid you’re occupying my seat.”

The crisp elocution of a northern Thessian accent reached Aria with the auditory consistency of morning dew. But it was this very pleasantness, coupled by a conspicuous absence of annoyance, that made Aria suspect her of feigning civility. She denied the stranger even the smallest of glances, and instead dismissed her with a flat, “Move along.”

“I need to ask you to relocate.”

The persistence riled Aria. “And who the hell is asking?”

“Would it impress upon your opinion at all to know the asari councilor is asking?”

At last Aria turned to face her harasser in contempt. When she did, she found a face embellished intricately by stark white tattoos and austere cheekbones only made amiable by the serene set of her eyes. The face was immediately familiar, verifying the claimed identity.

Aria settled on a passing insult before turning her attention back to the stage. “I think Idras would turn over in her grave if she knew about the state of her office.”

“Idras would have never granted someone like you a visa,” said Councilor Tevos. Her arm was occupied by a portfolio, a few loose folders, and a datapad. “I see you’ve made use of the referendum I introduced.”

A scoff left Aria’s lips. “I can’t own land with it.”

“A necessary compromise.” Accepting that Aria was as immovable as a ton of stone, she asked, “May I?”

“Sure. Why not?” Aria made no effort to dull the sharp edge of her words. "Everyone knows my boundless love for politicians."

The councilor sat down, leaving a single seat between them. “Asari space is the collective inheritance of our people,” she said. She traced Aria’s gaze to the panel taking their chairs at a long table facing the audience. “All of asari descent should have easier access to our homeworlds regardless of citizenship. At the collateral expense of inviting people like yourself - I believe only due to your high profile mitigating your risk factor - I think we’ve done a great thing. But you raise an interesting point. Coincidentally, your landowning ability has been the topic of multiple conversations this morning.”

Bafflement and offense was Aria’s reflex. She could not understand why Councilor Tevos thought continuing to talk would bring her any pleasure.

“The matriarchs are trying to figure out which jockeys you’ve bet on, so to speak."

“And I’m supposed to thank you and tell you what I’m doing here?” 

Aria noticed her bodyguards tensely shifting in their seats. They knew enough to never confront a councilor, even one who was irritating their boss. It didn’t help that they remained ignorant of the location of Tevos’s personal security, who were more often than not, much closer than one surmised.

“I don’t expect you to thank me,” said Tevos. “I’m only sharing what I’ve heard.”

“Trying to make friends?”

“Avoiding making enemies, rather. I didn’t have to say anything about the matriarchs discussing your intentions. I could have kept the information to myself. I only thought it proper that someone take initiative to be honest with you.”

Aria, against her instincts, reunited her gaze with the councilor’s. “Then you’re trying to mediate.”

“How else am I to dissuade them from ejecting you from Nevos?”

Her interest in the conversation, which had previously straddled nonexistence, amplified tenfold. “On what grounds? I’m not representing a company, I’m spectating. This is an open forum.”

“Everyone realizes that is only half true.” Tevos calmly presented a hand to her. “You’re not one of our citizens, no. But you are within your rights to remain here, regardless of your business conspiracies. Which, I assume, would exploit legal loopholes rather than blatantly oppose the law. I found the onus upon myself to ensure you are treated justly while we ascertain the details of your involvement. It would reflect poorly upon my government if an incident occurred.”

Aria looked at the extended hand, but hesitated to take it. The councilor's incentive to maintain favorable public opinions toward her administration was sound, but Aria had yet to retire her doubts. “So I’m not in your seat. You were being deceptive.”

“Oh, you are. I meant to approach you at the end of today’s meeting, but I suppose you could say your disregard for our rules resulted in something serendipitous.”

“Serendipitous for whom?” Even as she challenged her, Aria accepted the gesture of peace. 

“For both of us,” answered Tevos, “if you’re proactive about it.”

Aria’s grip was firm about the councilor’s slender hand, asserting herself with as much vigor as she would to a krogan warlord. She knew she had discomforted her, and meant to. But the way Tevos’s hand yielded in her grasp without conceding any self-possession gave Aria pause. She could feel her tendons and bones shifting to accomodate her, how they collapsed and made no effort to restore their positioning. By the time she released her hand, the pressure Aria imposed had considerably relented. She had suddenly sensed danger, as though the councilor were a venomous creature to which she may certainly succumb if punctured.

It was the irrational spiking of an instinct. A response to something anomalous and unanticipated. The way she endured Aria and did not falter, as if to warn her that she could not be intimidated, provided insight into a temperament Aria rarely dealt with.

Still, she pressed her. "So you want to know what I'm doing here."

“Of course I do. But I won’t have you ejected from the petition hall if I cannot figure it out.”

The petitions opened with a speech commemorating the viability of Ryasus and the successful bureaucracy that led to its opening for colonization. A presentation followed. The lights of the amphitheater dimmed to show dozens of hologram images depicting the planet’s rainforests and brilliant cobalt seas, before transitioning to rendered concepts of how cities and parks might look situated amidst the scenic views. Aria, finding their idealization too far removed from reality for her tastes, turned her focus upon the councilor again.

“Why appeal to me?” she asked her, leaning in to project the lowered volume of her voice over the room's speakers. “Are you feuding with the matriarchy?”

“How direct of you,” Tevos replied. “No.”

After an uncomfortable pause, Aria said, “They originally sat me over there, near that matriarch.” She gestured with her head. “She looks like a cadaver. She even smells like vinegar.”

Tevos appeared as if she wanted to smile, but did not, and forced solemnity into her response. “She has a disease.”

Aria exhaled through her nose in dissatisfaction. 

“It’s congenital, but not terminal. I say this so your guilt will not perturb you too much.”

When she wryly faced Tevos again, Aria found that her smile had breached her will to efface it.

They watched the presentation in silence. Aria labored to read her, but in a language she hardly knew; some ancient dialect lost to millennia of disuse. The councilor carried herself with unerring grace and composure of enigmatic origin that Aria could only ascribe to knowledge of something so consequential that the words of her acquaintances were diminished to dithering. Haughtiness, Aria might have concluded, had Tevos not observed civility despite their radically different backgrounds, and more importantly, transparency. Or what appeared to be transparency, as Aria was not so easily convinced. The more Tevos shared with her, after all, the more Aria would be inclined to believe she had received the whole truth - a deadly mistake in certain cases, and the result of complacency.

Beyond ulterior motives and surface behaviors, Aria judged the councilor as being born to wealth. Pristine mannerisms were indoctrinated in her, evidenced from the way she sat in her chair to the fine subtleties of her gestures. How she had emerged victorious from the recent councilor election was no mystery. Aria believed her dignified presentation alone could secure a majority, and if she was dually correct about her pedigree, Tevos needn’t have wasted time or money on a robust campaign at all. She embodied precisely what the asari as a people wanted in their Council representation. Qualifications be damned, although Aria acknowledged that Tevos was likely in copious possession of them.

One of the only favorable attributes the councilor possessed but could not be conveyed to her partisan support, however, was the perfumed scent of mulled berries plucked from the gelid north, fresh and clean and exquisite in its daintiness. It reached Aria at their proximity and set her jaw, made her leer at the holograms swirling about the stage while the light cast by images of paradise brought a sheen to the councilor’s skin and eyes, for she could not recall the last time she desired to know the motives of a rival not for her own measurable profit, but for fascination. Chasing diversions would only produce more work for her. But it was work she severely wanted to undertake.

A calculated risk was in order, to decipher her. And to vex her.

"I'll tell you what I'm here for."

Tevos looked to her at once while ecological data was being presented. Various figures and tables were forgotten in her anticipation.

"I'm here to grow batarian tobacco. Will that scandal the matriarchy?"

"If that's true, then no. It's not a problem as long as it's a legal strain."

"It is." 

"Then perhaps such an explanation would put their fears to rest," said Tevos. "They may not believe you, however. I'm not sure I believe you myself. There exists a possibility of that being true, but you may have elected to not disclose information about... additional strategies to accompany your legitimate enterprise." She sighed. "I was hoping you wouldn't say anything to me."

"You told me you were curious to know."

"Yes, but by my own discovery. Anything you say obscures or confounds the truth, even if you're meaning to be honest. I'd best forget you said anything at all." 

Aria tried not to reveal how pleased she was about using the councilor's own intelligence to undermine her. She wondered if Tevos was aware that she had intentionally sabotaged her reconnaissance, and had not acted randomly or was otherwise ignorant of her comment's effects. Hungry for due credit, she added with nonchalance, "Tomorrow is my birthday."

She watched Tevos's brow furrow as she processed the secret. The councilor was slower to regard her this time, and by the time she had, she did not appear happy. "You're toying with me."

The less mirthful Tevos appeared, the better Aria's mood reciprocally became. "That's what I like about my reputation preceding me. I can say anything I want about myself because I'd never do that."

"I'm starting to regret sitting here," Tevos lamented. "But at least you're somewhat amusing. I didn't think you would be."

Their whispering caught the notice of a few rows above. Someone shushed them, likely unaware of the source of the disturbance. While Aria rolled her eyes, Tevos corrected her posture against the back of her chair. Aria soon afforded the councilor a final furtive glance and decided she had grown to like the way she talked to her, and like the way her knees indented her dark red dress when she crossed her legs.

Further on, algorithm-generated light reflected off the pool water of a fantasized resort, and beautiful people in swimwear strutted by while carrying vibrant cocktails the color of the setting sun. But Aria could not catch the scent of briny seaside air, the cigarette ash in dim lounges, nor traces of loam in the shade of palm leaves, and found herself utterly disinterested.