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Icarus, Burning

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Prologue

'...Because you had him first, and you would let the world
break its own neck if it means keeping him...'

- Caitlyn Siehl, 'Start Here'

When Jay was twelve and living on Catta, a family moved in next door.

He remembers their faces now in a dim, distant, way: the sweet smile of the husband, the kind hands of the wife. The cheerful, mischievous face of their son. He was younger than Jay and brimming with curiosity.

For one whole summer the boy followed Jay around, apparently fascinated by a human who was seven cycles older than him.

All that Jay remembers next is this: the smoke and screams that woke him from his bed. The way his mother wouldn't let him near next door. The way the neighbourhood stood together and honoured the wife and husband who had run back into the house to save their son.

The way the son was never found.

*

The outreach programme is meant to foster some goodwill between two species that were, until very recently, trying to kill one another with extreme prejudice.

Jay is standing in a line with four other men. Their backs are straight, their uniforms crisp and he is fully aware that none of them have moved their eyes away from the four creatures standing opposite them in the hangar. Off to one side he can hear the diplomats talking – words like ideals and learning are being thrown around. If he hadn't been trying to kill these creatures three weeks ago, he might be more open to such ideas.

If they hadn't been trying to kill him three weeks ago.

Minutes pass and he is becoming more and more aware of the creature standing opposite him. It is examining him, gold eyes bright with curiosity in the face of a handsome, petulant, boy. At its hip its salzon sword is sheathed, but Jay knows this means nothing. One wrong move, one unfortunate turn of phrase by politicians too stupid to realise the danger, and that blade will flick from its sheath and decapitate the nearest two people before anyone can draw breath. He's seen it before and he's achingly aware that he is closest.

The idea of the outreach programme is simple: without giving away military secrets, four pairs of humans and Sirens will live and work together in a secluded compound. This will foster a better understanding of each other and all eight humanoids will act as ambassadors in the years to come. It is a simple, clever plan. From the smallest of starts, great relations may grow.

But the boy is still watching him and an itch is beginning to build under Jay's skin.

Jay realises that calling the creature a boy is probably foolish. He is young – younger than Jay by at least five years – but it is clear he has killed and it is equally clear he has reached adulthood, based on whatever strange and obscure rites Sirens hold to. He wouldn't be here if he hadn't.

As the boy's gaze has not left him, Jay decides it is unlikely to start an intergalactic incident if he studies him in return.

The boy is taller than Jay by at least a head. His hair is a mop of curls and he has a lean, tanned face. His posture is relaxed and he is dressed from neck to foot in the traditional black of the Lenian army. He is wearing a faint expression of amusement, evident only in the corners of his mouth and the tilt of his head.

Almost absently Jay shifts his jaw slightly, dropping his eyes to stare hard at the dip between collarbones, where the boy's pulse beats light and fragile in the hollow of his throat. Sirens are alien: incomprehensible and vicious and almost terrifyingly human all the same. Jay can feel the translator wedged in his ear and is unbearably glad for it. He has seen men go mad from the sound of an unfiltered Siren voice – has watched as comrades and friends took up their guns against their own kind, helpless and blank in the face of the fundamental urge to obey a song that told them to.

Jay is stronger than his rage, his hate, of these creatures. It is why he has been chosen and why he is here now. But it doesn't mean he has forgotten and he is certainly not planning to forgive.

Almost against his will his gaze drifts up again and this time it snags on the look the Siren is giving him.

Slowly, deliberately, the creature winks.

*

Mornings on Mas-Hain are cool, the heat of the day not yet risen to an unbearable degree.

Jay stands in the meadow gardens, bare toes curled into the earth as he breathes slowly. There is a mist still lingering and the dew on the grass has not yet evaporated. Through the soft linen of his shirt, he can feel the gentle kiss of a breeze against his skin.

“How can you expect me to resist you,” a voice says close to his ear, “when you are looking so delicious this morning?”

Jay releases a slow breath and closes his eyes for a brief moment, praying for patience.

“Try,” he says curtly.

Samiel laughs, low, and doesn't move away. Jay can feel the heat of him against his back now, and resists the urge to step forward and place some distance between them. The spot between his shoulder blades itches and his instincts are telling him to turn and face his enemy.

Samiel is not an enemy, he reminds himself. Samiel is... is...

“I could devour you,” Samiel says gently, and Jay can feel the heat of his words sinking into his translator. “Won't you let me, pretty human? I'd make it ever so good for you.” His voice is intimate, filthy, that of a lover; of a predator that has caught its prey.

“Go away Samiel,” Jay says. “Go and talk to Grant. He'll let you get away with this nonsense.”

Samiel laughs and his heat finally moves away from Jay's back. “You're no fun, my master,” he says.

The nickname is a honeyed insult; barbed wire in a velvet glove. The first time they had spoken – properly spoken and not just eyed one another cautiously from opposite sides of a hangar – Samiel had asked Jay what he did.

A pilot, Jay had said, and, when needed, a soldier.

Oh dear, Samiel had replied. A bit of this, a bit of that. No true calling. A jack of all trades; a master of none.

The nickname had stuck.

There is a rustle of cloth and Samiel moves into view. He is still wearing the customary black of his order, but in deference to the rising heat of the day he has forgone a shirt and is in only his tunic and leggings. His shoulders look wider when not buried under a layer of fabric and Jay scrubs his palms against his trousers in a moment of unaccustomed nervousness.

“What do you want?” he asks and watches as Samiel tilts his head, curls falling across his forehead and into his eyes.

“You promised you would take me to the waterfalls,” he says.

There is an underlying reason for this request, but what it is Jay can't see. In the weeks they have all lived together he has learnt that, out of the four of the Sirens on the base, Samiel is most likely to have an ulterior motive. He is sharp, clever, and, from the one occasion Jay has happened to be in the practice room at the same time as him, clearly incredibly competent with his salzon. In the privacy of his own head Jay admits that if he was pushed – really pushed – he would not be able to swear with complete confidence that he would win in a fight against Samiel.

“I'm not taking you anywhere,” he says at last. “And I promised no such thing. If you want someone to play tour guide go and ask one of the others.”

The width of Samiel's mouth curves into a smile and Jay's heart beats faster at the sight of it.

“Oh, my master,” he says, “why would I do that?”

*

“No,” says Samiel from where he is sitting cross-legged at the edge of the practice mat. “Do it again.”

Jay uses the sleeve of his shirt to wipe sweat from his forehead and glares at him, breathing heavily.

“I am not designed for this,” he says, resting the tip of the salzon on the floor. He watches, trying to calm his breathing as Samiel scoffs and gets to his feet. The Siren's nose wrinkles slightly as he steps into Jay's space.

“You stink,” he says as he wraps his fingers around Jay's and corrects his grip on the salzon. He is uncomfortably near, as usual, and his chin brushes Jay's temple as he speaks. Two weeks ago this would have made Jay far more irritable than it does now. Now, he has watched Samiel's open delight at the sight of the Gellion Falls, has eaten with him, trained with him and argued with him.

“This is payback for the shooting range last week, isn't it?” Jay asks.

Samiel chuckles against his ear and then taps the inside of Jay's ankle with a bare foot. “Feet wider,” he says. “And I have no idea why you'd think that.”

“Of course not.” Jay adjusts his stance and raises the salzon again. “We've been at this for hours and you've been relentless. Not a punishment at all.” He steps carefully into first guard, waiting for Samiel to correct him. When he doesn't, Jay moves into second.

“Breathe,” Samiel reminds him after a moment. His tone carries all the superiority of someone younger and not at all wiser. “Inhale with the step, exhale with the lunge.”

“Right.” Jay retreats to first guard and tries again.

He makes it to third guard this time and pivots, moving into the first set of attacks Samiel has shown him. The blade hums over Samiel's head and he ducks the swing and steps gracefully out of range. He is laughing, even as Jay bares his teeth in a triumphant grin, pleased at making it so far with so few corrections this time.

“Better?”

“Better, my master.”

Samiel retreats to the edge of the mat and sits, folding his long legs under him. Jay waits until he is properly settled and then begins again.

This time it is different. The forms sing through his body with no proper direction from his mind. He lunges, then steps sideways, carrying the salzon with him in the basic sets he has been taught. For a brief moment Jay enjoys the steady exhale of his own breath, the quiet tempo of his heartbeat and the precise, delicate arc the salzon makes as it glides through the air. There is nothing but the quick movement of his own feet and the strength of his own arms.

He moves again, flicking the blade into the final form and glances towards Samiel to see if he has anything to comment on.

Samiel is staring at him. His hands are clasped loosely in his lap. The collar of his undershirt is open and his head is tilted slightly up as he watches Jay, exposing the long, tanned line of his throat. His eyes are a bright, curious gold. His lips are slightly parted, as though he will speak. For one brief moment he and Jay look at one another.

Then Jay stumbles, tripping over his own feet in the final movement and dropping the salzon in the process.

There is an almost imperceptible pause and then Samiel smiles.

“Not quite,” he says and gets to his feet again. “Here, let me show you again.”

*

“We may have problem,” Yram says sometime during week six. He and Palek are sitting together at a table in the canteen. Yram is watching the opposite corner of the room.

“I think you're worrying about this too much,” Palek says, shovelling food into his mouth as though he is expecting it to be taken away from him.

“Am I?”

Palek pauses in his eating, fork halfway to his mouth, and looks again at the opposite corner.

Samiel is leaning across the table, eyes glowing with amusement as he waves a spoon in the face of the human. Commander Jason Lane is laughing, ducking his head as he tries to avoid the pile of unidentifiable mush hovering in his eyeline.

“Maybe not,” Palek acknowledges, watching the distasteful display of emotion. “A Severne should know better than this.”

The two Sirens watch as Lane grasps Samiel's wrist, pushing the spoon away. Palek suppresses a frown at the way Samiel's expression changes, his gaze softening as he presses his wrist into the touch.

“Do we do something?” Yram asks, deferring to Palek's judgement in this matter.

Palek looks away from the pair opposite. This is not in their orders. Compliance is expected, an effort at diplomacy has been agreed. This is...

“Not yet,” he says. “We wait. If this regrettable behaviour continues, then we tell her.”

“Alright,” says Yram. “But you are going to be the one making the call.”

*

One of the things that no one – not even the cultural attachés or diplomats – had warned the four humans about, was meshala.

The first Jay knows about it is when Samiel thoughtfully presses one long, strong finger into the dimple of Jay's chin, over a game of bakesh one afternoon.

“You haven't shaved today,” he says.

After nearly four months of sometimes uncomfortable personal observation and contact, Jay is used to Samiel invading his personal space. He knocks Samiel's finger away and looks back down at the board. He 's losing, but isn't quite prepared to give up without a fight.

“Well observed,” he says. He moves one of his counters and sits back, satisfied that he has at least staved off defeat for the next three turns.

When Samiel fails to make his next move, Jay looks up. He is being observed from under the thick fringes of Samiel's lashes with surprising intensity.

“Me not shaving can't be that much of a shock,” Jay says dryly, when it becomes apparent that Samiel isn't intending to either take his turn on the bakesh board, or follow up on his observation with another cryptic remark. “You've seen this before. Adult human males can, in fact, grow facial hair when they put their minds to it.”

“Did you know you have red in your stubble when it catches the light,” Samiel says which is, quite frankly, a non-sequitur as far as Jay is concerned. “It's in your hair, too.” He smiles slowly. “Plain-haired Jason, hiding those surprising details.”

“I think,” Jay says mock seriously, “you are reading far too much into this.”

“Am I?” Samiel is still smiling. “I don't think I am. You have hidden depths.”

There is something off about the way Samiel is looking at him now; a strange intensity in his eyes. Jay scratches his cheek uncomfortably and shrugs.

“If it provokes this much of a reaction from you, I'm shaving tomorrow morning,” he says lightly.

Jay always forgets how fast a Siren – how fast Samiel – can move. In a blink he is out of his chair and has pinned Jay's wrist to the table with one hand; his other hand grips Jay's chin in firm fingers, tilting his head back to meet Samiel's gaze.

“Don't do that, my master,” he purrs. He is still smiling and Jay is beginning to become unnerved. He tries to move the wrist pinned to the table and feels Samiel's fingers flex their hold and then tighten, almost to the point of pain.

Something is not right.

“Let go of my arm,” he says calmly.

There is a brief ripple of confusion across Samiel's face, before his expression smooths again.

“Why?”

“It's making me uncomfortable.”

“Is it?” Samiel's grip is unrelenting. “Do elaborate.” He leans closer, even as Jay leans back, and there is an odd look of hunger in his eyes.

Jay wrenches his wrist free and moves to stand, but Samiel is faster and hands are clamping down Jay's shoulders, pushing him down into his seat before he can move more than an inch.

“No, my master,” Samiel says and his lips are brushing the thin skin under Jay's ear. He presses closer still and Jay can feel his heart beating faster – knows Samiel can feel it too. “Stay still,” Samiel murmurs. “Don't move, my darling. Of course it was you; it was always going to be you.” There is a low, helpless quality to his voice, even as his grip stays tight on Jay's shoulders.

Jay swallows hard and turns his head away. “What are you doing?” he asks, amazed how evenly his voice comes out. He wants to lean in, to pull Samiel close and this is... this is not right. His translator is still wedged in his ear; there is no explanation for the hot, dizzying swoop in his stomach, for the vibration of Samiel's voice against his throat.

“Tell me,” Samiel says and – oh – he is sliding slow and heavy onto Jay's lap. He is taller than Jay; must look faintly ridiculous from the way his legs are too long to perch comfortably. But the solid heat of him is...is... “Would you let me?” he asks, nuzzling the side of Jay's face, his curls tickling Jay's nose. Then he answers his own question. “Of course you would, pretty man.”

They are having two different conversations, Jay thinks, and finds he cannot breathe properly with the whisper of Samiel's mouth against his.

“This is nonsense,” he says, not turning his head away again; not even trying.

“Of course it's not,” Samiel says, the crest of a thumbnail running the length of the tendon in Jay's neck, making him shiver uncontrollably. “Of course it's not.” His lips brush Jay's and his lashes flutter closed. “Just let me, my darling. Let me, please.”

His mouth is warm and wet. Jay cannot help the way he sighs, lips parting to let Samiel lick blood-hot into him, humming contentedly. This is madness: there is no other word for the way Samiel melts against him, fingers tight in his hair as he guides the kiss. He is devouring him and Jay is going willingly, fingers clenched tight in the softness of Samiel's tunic, even as the movement of their mouths slows briefly.

Samiel catches Jay's lower lip between his teeth and tugs carefully, with an aching tenderness. “My master,” he says between gentle, painful kisses, and the sound of his voice makes Jay's toes curl, makes him gasp for air. “The things we are going to do together.” There is a promise there, dark and certain, and Jay doesn't understand it, doesn't care, he just wants more of the slow, tender press of lips against one another; the slide of Samiel's tongue against his teeth, his palate; the way he can breathe air that is not his own and stay dizzy with the lack of oxygen.

The door to Jay's room crashes open, causing the pair of them to flinch back from one another in surprise. Palek is standing in the doorway, his expression uncharacteristically furious.

Samiel,” he hisses, gold stare unforgiving and angry. “Pritaya caresh no matta.” He is talking too fast for Jay's translator to catch up.

Samiel hisses and it is a formless, sinuous sound of rage. Wordlessly, helplessly, Jay presses his palms flat against Samiel's chest. He can feel Samiel's heartbeat thundering under his fingers and clarity is returning to him with painful and embarrassing intensity.

His behaviour is not normal. This situation is not normal. Samiel has done something to him, even with the translators and the training they have all undergone.

“Get off me,” he says quietly and Samiel tears his furious gaze away from Palek to look at him. “Get off of me right now.” He shoves Samiel once, ineffectually, and drops his hands to his sides.

Samiel sways closer, as though he will kiss him again and Palek lets out a growl of warning.

With another frustrated hiss Samiel stands and the loss of his warmth is almost shocking to Jay in the cool of the room. Before Jay can open his mouth Samiel is gone, and Jay and Palek are left staring cautiously at one another.

There is an uncomfortable silence.

“Are you alright?” Palek asks at last. “He didn't...bite you, did he?”

Jay frowns. “Bite me?”

“It's...” Palek rubs the back of his neck, looking awkward. “It's...meshala. Mating.”

It feels as though someone has poured a bucket of ice down Jay's spine. For a moment he can't breathe, can't speak. All he can hear is the way Samiel had said Of course it was you; it was always going to be you. It makes a sickening kind of sense.

“I think you had better come in,” Jay says at last, “and tell me everything.”

*

In the end they have three more weeks.

Three weeks of Samiel avoiding him; ducking out of the room when Jay approaches; turning his back and talking loudly to someone else whenever Jay draws breath to speak.

Three weeks and not enough time.

All Jay will remember later is this:

“I'm sorry,” Samiel says against his mouth. His gaze steady and his hands careful. “I'm sorry, I was meant to kill you too. I couldn't, of course I couldn't.”

The air is thick with the smell of hot ash and burning flesh and Jay cannot think, cannot speak beyond the pain. He can feel the slow, searing drip of blood from his side and the pressure of Samiel's fingers on his face.

'I hate you,' he wants to say. 'Look at what you've done, I hate you.'

He can't. He is choking on blood and that awful smell.

“I have my orders,” Samiel is saying, and out of all of Jay's pain, it is the careful press of Samiel's fingers on his cheek that makes him flinch back. The agony in his side roars with the movement.

“Stay still!” Samiel says, hands firm as they push him into the dirt. “Stay still, please don't move.”

Jay closes his eyes, summons his strength. “Leave me alone,” he says, around lips numb with pain. “Go. The next time I see you, I am going to kill you.” He is empty. There is nothing left in him but an aching void where, until three hours ago, there had been tentative hope.

Samiel inhales sharply, once, and Jay remembers nothing more.

*

The massacre on Mas-Hain causes a diplomatic uproar, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the start of the Carrion Wars.

There is only one survivor on each side – Samiel by design and Jay by strange accident. The Sirens blame the humans, the humans blame the Sirens and the tension in the galactic Parliament grows to almost unbearable levels. Each side circles the other, waiting for a show of weakness, a slip, that will allow fighting to break out with legitimate excuses.

In those first painful months after, Jay ignores all news and shuts himself off. Once he is recovered enough he volunteers for a peacekeeping mission in the outer belt, then spends the next six months juggling diplomatic details between a group of Medusae and Galtics. The pistol strapped to his hip is a comforting weight and the reliance on his training and own good sense goes a long way towards restoring his confidence.

The mission is such a success that he is almost immediately assigned to another peacekeeping effort and the next three years are spent staying well away from any Sirens and throwing his not-inconsiderable efforts into being exactly what the Air Force wants him to be.

Chapter Text

Interior Circle – Three Years Later

Commander Kate Hird is tall, robust and with the kind of jawline and dimpled chin that people could break bricks on.

She is currently standing on the command deck of the Banshee, with part of her crew ranged behind her, and is eyeing Jay with a level of suspicion he usually only encounters from angry locals. But this mistrust coming from a fellow officer is also not unusual to Jay anymore, and he returns her stare evenly.

“Wing Commander Lane,” Hird says politely. Jay is painfully aware that although her hands are on her hips, her fingers are dangerously close to her not-at-all-regulation Terrack pistol.

He sighs. “Commander Hird.”

Hird's synthetically purple eyes don't move from his face as she tilts her head. “We were expecting you tomorrow. Mission briefings indicated that –”

“I was faster than I assumed I would be.” Jay would almost feel guilty about interrupting her, were it not for the way her stance has still not relaxed.

“I see.” Hird examines him carefully, then shrugs her shoulders. “Despite your early arrival, we still can't leave until tomorrow. We're not expected on Lenia for another four days. I doubt they're going to give us docking clearance any earlier.” Her lips twitch slightly in what, were this another officer, Jay might call a wry grin. “And Ambassador Lault has not yet arrived.”

This, Jay thinks, is probably a blessing in disguise. Lault has a reputation for being exacting in his standards, and at present the Banshee and her crew hardly seem in a fit state to welcome an Ambassador and the rest of his entourage. The command deck is most definitely not spotless and the crew's current lack of proper attire is a sharp contrast to the members of the crisply dressed ground team, who had waved Jay onto the Banshee.

“I suppose this does give you time to settle in and meet the rest of the team,” Hird continues. She is, Jay notes, apparently unbothered by the thought of Lault. This is particularly evident in the way one of her crew members seems to be wearing an oil-stained t-shirt, a grimy pair of overalls and very little else.

From the stir of interest from behind her at her announcement it seems, Jay thinks wryly, that 'the team' are most definitely curious to meet him.

“Heard all about you,” the Synth in the crew line up says, when Hird indicates he should step forwards. He is grinning insanely as he pumps Jay's hand. “That last mission of yours on Vosnia was fucking amazing, mate. Made the news and everything.” He drops Jay's hand and snaps the sloppiest salute Jay has ever seen. “It's an honour to have you on board, Sir.”

“Fucking is it?” the man next to the Synth mutters. He is, according to his hastily put together uniform, the pilot.

“Con,” the Synth says. “Con, Con, Con. This man talked down a battalion of Creets. A battalion. Next time you talk down a battalion of Creets armed with only your pistol, I promise to be honoured at your presence.”

“Right.” The pilot pinches the bridge of his nose. “Shut up now.” He drops a slightly smarter – and far more insincere – salute in Jay's general direction. “Flight Lieutenant Confidence Guide, Sir.”

“You're a Morian?” Jay asks, recognising the naming structure. “How did you end up in the Air Force?”

“It's a long story,” the Synth says before the Flight Lieutenant can open his mouth. “It all started when –”

“Subtle, no.” Flight Lieutenant Guide holds a hand up. “Don't say another fucking word.”

The Synth – Subtle – shuts his mouth with an audible click.

“You don't want to hear that story, Sir,” Guide says. “It's long and not very clever.” His gaze is cool, and Jay gets the distinct impression he has been weighed and found very wanting. “All that matters is I ended up being Synth-linked to pilot the Banshee and I haven't looked back since.” He raises his chin, almost defiantly, and manages to give the impression of looking Jay square in the eye despite being half a head shorter. “I'm proud to serve in the Air Force.”

“Right.” Jay runs a hand through his hair awkwardly. “I didn't mean to cause offence, Flight Lieutenant.”

“If you've got something to say, Guide, spit it out now,” Hird says. She is propped up lazily against one of the flight consoles and is most definitely looking amused now.

“No Commander, can't say there is much to speak of.” Guide gives an almost insolent shrug. “Just don't like diplomats much. Fucking waste of space.” Jay, looking over Guide's shoulder, can see the sharp quirk up of Hird's eyebrow. Whether she's still amused, he can't tell.

“Right,” Jay says again in lieu of a proper answer. He hadn't been sure how Subtle and Guide had ended up neuro-compatible before. Now he can sort of see it: no filter between brain and mouth. “Would it help if I said I'm not an official diplomat, I'm only a cultural advisor on this trip?”

“That just makes you a spy, Sir. That's worse.” Guide jerks his thumb in the direction of the cockpit. “Commander, we've got to go get sorted for when the Brass get here. Steve's already up there, setting up.”

“Alright,” Hird says. “Dismissed.” She watches the pair of them shuffle off in the direction of the flight deck and then tilts her head in Jay's direction. “I'd also like you to meet Circus One, Ami Martell, Doctor Marreck Belaro, our Flight Medic, and Commander Kami Patel, my second.” She indicates the rest of the crew lined up as she speaks. “Any questions, Wing Commander, just ask one of us.”

Jay, noting the varying levels of boredom evident on the crew's faces, wonders how the hell Hird manages to keep the lot of them operating smoothly. Especially with the likes of Subtle and Guide at the helm of a Class Two ship like this. He shudders just thinking about the chaos those two could cause if let loose.

But they must work, he reasons, or the Air Force would have kicked them out a long time ago.

“Subtle and Guide do work well together,” Steve – Wing Commander Ede – assures him when Jay asks a few hours later. “They just need a little...help from time to time.”

What Steve means by 'help', Jay comes to discover in the next few days, is that Confidence Guide is a terrible pilot and Subtle is a terribly behaved Synth and it takes Steve to actually fly the Banshee and leave Guide to navigate.

“It's a team effort,” Steve explains, halfway through the H.O.P. to Lenia, when Jay can't sleep. Jay has ensconced himself in the co-pilot seat to help Steve navigate, whilst Guide and Subtle are off doing... whatever it is they do.

“How has Hird ended up with so many different people under her command?” Jay asks, instead of pursuing the thought of Guide, Subtle and Steve's system any further. He's not sure his tired mind is up to the challenge.

Steve shrugs. “Hird is unique. Half of us are overqualified; the other half are under qualified. Hird kicks all our arses and pulls the whole team together.” He smiles, blue eyes tired in the light of the H.O.P. filtering through the port-side view screen. “I think Brass just trust us to get the job done at this point. It's why we've been sent with you and Ambassador Lault. Lenia isn't exactly safe for our kind and you're going to need all the help you can get.” The sidelong glances he flicks in Jay's direction heavily implies that the 'you' in that sentence is definitely singular and definitely refers to Jay.

Jay sighs, thinking of everything he doesn't want to.

“You're not wrong there.”

*

Lenia is beautiful: lush and verdant against the backdrop of its twin suns.

The walls of the palace in the capital of Maa-Tarek are composed of a cool, white marble and the eyes of every Siren in the place follow the small delegation from Earth with blank gazes when they descend the docking ramp of the Banshee.

“I don't like these masks,” Ambassador Lault mutters to Jay sometime later. His head is bent close as he, Jay and Hird wait in an antechamber for their audience with Queen Deneira, Third of Her Name.

Lault is a neat, well-dressed little man, with sharp eyes and an even sharper mind. Rumour has it, Jay remembers as Lault scans the room with interest, that he was responsible for the ceasefire on Gehm two years previously – a feat most had thought impossible at the time.

“It's cultural,” Jay explains quietly. He makes sure his hands are folded carefully and obviously in his lap as he sits, back straight. He can feel the guards watching them. Behind Lault, Hird is pacing like a caged tiger. The scarlet of her hair is almost eye watering against the blue of their ceremonial uniforms.

“I am aware,” Lault says, “and I still don't like them. It is extremely difficult to connect or have empathy with another sentient being when you can't meet their eyes.”

“What's the point of them?” Hird asks abruptly.

“They're for ceremonial purposes,” Jay explains. “The concept, as I understand it, is that displays of emotion are not acceptable. The higher your rank, the more control you're meant to have over yourself. The masks are for official occasions and when out in public. The only exception I know of to this is the queen – she maintains a standard of total control whilst bare-faced.”

“At least they apparently have voice synthesizers embedded in them,” Hird snarls, still pacing and not bothering to lower her voice. “Not that I'm taking my translator out for one second around these bastards.”

Over the last four days, during the H.O.P. to Lenia, Jay has learnt that Hird is deeply suspicious of anything related to the Siren's: their language, their culture and – in particular – their voices. It's an unsurprising attitude. From what he has gathered from her service record, she has been waging war almost exclusively against them for the last ten years.

“Please, Wing Commander,” Lault says, holding up a restraining hand. “We are all on strict protocol observations here.” He frowns. “Although, I understand Lenian soldiers don't wear masks.”

There is an aching moment where Jay recalls with absolute clarity the way in which none of the four Sirens he had lived with wore masks. He pushes the thought aside. “No,” he says. “It would be foolish to give up a tactical advantage with a voice synthesizer in battle. And a mask is always going to restrict your view of the field, not matter how good you are.”

Lault hums thoughtfully. “To coin a phrase then, I believe we need our best poker faces here. We don't want to give an obvious display of emotion away, do we?” His gaze flickers almost imperceptibly to Hird, who has still not stopped her constant movements and looks one breath away from baring her teeth at the guard standing by the door.

“I don't like this place,” Hird says, instead of addressing Lault's pointed remark directly. “It's making me itch.”

Jay understands what she means; there is a stifling air to the palace. Every Siren they have met up until now has been formal, but blank. A terrifying slate that is wiped clean at the sight of a human in their midst. The unsettling lack of reaction from anyone is making him more and more cautious. The diplomat in him, that appreciates cultural differences, is at war with the solider who likes to know what an enemy is thinking.

It hadn't been that way with –

No. He shuts the thought down forcibly. Three years is a lifetime ago, and he is no longer the man he was. Looking back, and comparing what is in front of him now to what he knew then, will help no one. He is better than this; has learnt far more since then.

“Honourable Ambassadors,” a musical voice says from the doorway, and Jay notes that Hird's hand jerks towards where her pistol should be, before she can stop herself. “Queen Deneira, Third of Her Name, the Grace of Lenia, will see you now.”

This is it then. Jay draws a deep breath as he stands, smoothing the sleeves of his dress uniform.

The three of them follow the Siren who has been sent to collect them through the hallway outside of the antechamber. Out of one of the vast windows, Jay catches a glimpse of the royal gardens – the green so bright after the last week spent in space, that it is almost enough to hurt his eyes. The carpet underfoot is Cannydian silk, thick enough to deaden the sound of their footsteps. For a brief moment, Jay allows himself to marvel at the splendour of the palace.

He glances at Hird to gauge her reaction. She is still scowling, even as they enter the vast opulence of the throne room.

The rumble of voices that had preceded their entrance stops abruptly. The silence is uncomfortable and Jay is acutely aware of the way every single head in the vast room has turned in their direction, as they make their way towards the dais.

Three steps from the bottom of the dais, he recites to himself. No eye contact until she greets you. Please don't let Hird start a diplomatic incident before the rest of us can even open our mouths. From this angle he can just see the pale hem of Deneira's dress and the delicate point of her shoes peeping from underneath it.

There is a brief, uncomfortable silence that feels like it lasts a small eternity.

“Ambassador Lault,” the Queen says at last, acknowledging them. “Welcome to Lenia.”

There is a brief ripple of movement from the crowd – a faint release of tension – and Jay breathes a little easier as he raises his eyes to look at Deneira.

She is younger than he expected, with a pointed face that is painted almost porcelain by cosmetics. The sharp red of her lips is an odd, bloody, contrast to the white of her skin and her black hair is wrapped high and intricately around the circlet of her crown. The silver of her dress is magnificent, but it fades into insignificance when compared to her clever gold eyes.

He realises with surprise that she is studying him in return.

“Ambassador Lault,” she says, the precise, flat tones of her voice ringing clear across the throne room, even as her gaze doesn't shift from Jay. “Please present your companions.”

“Most Exalted Majesty,” Lault says with a low bow, “may I present Wing Commanders Lane and Hird, who have kindly agreed to act as my assistants during our negotiations. The rest of our diplomatic staff have waited onboard our ship, as requested, until talks begin.”

“Wing Commander Lane,” Deneira repeats. Behind her, one of the hooded Severne acting as her bodyguard shifts, as though sensing a threat. “I do not think it wise, Ambassador, to bring a man into our midst accused of treason against Lenia, do you?”

“Unfounded allegations,” Lault says calmly, even as Jay's heart begins to thunder in his chest, because no one had told him about this. “Never proven, and Wing Commander Lane is best placed to assist me with cultural knowledge given his experience. He has also been afforded diplomatic immunity for the duration of these talks, as previously agreed with your ambassador in the Galactic Parliament.”

“Indeed.” The Queen's gaze does not shift from Jay's face; her expression remains perfectly still. “Then let us hope these talks are more productive than our last attempt at diplomacy, three years ago.”

“That is our wish as well, Most Exalted,” Lault says. “I would hope that all parties involved are both older and wiser.”

One of Deneira's handmaidens, ensconced on a small chair on the lower part of the dais below the queen, raises delicate fingers to the lips of her white mask. She almost looks as though she is trying to suppress her amusement. The Siren next to her, Jay notes, has turned his head away despite the anonymity of his own mask.

“My understanding is that age does not necessarily mean wisdom, Ambassador,” Deneira says. “However much one may wish this to be true.” She inclines her head gracefully. “Nevertheless, you are our guests for the next three months as we attempt to build a new path towards a better future.”

It is a pretty sentiment, Jay thinks, wrapped up in no real promises or commitment on her part at all.

“I thank you for your gracious welcome, Most Exalted,” Lault says, in lieu of a further response.

She raises her hand in graceful dismissal. “Thank you for your time, Ambassador. I propose we begin negotiations in the morning; Pyrrhine will bring you the itinerary.” She indicates the handmaiden with the white mask. “I trust your accommodations will be satisfactory. One of my guards will show you to your rooms.”

It is a clear dismissal, as the Queen beckons the Severne who had twitched. He bends his head towards her. Even shadowed by the hood of his robes, the black mask across his eyes reflects her dress. Deneira says something to him that is too low for Jay to catch from the distance they are standing, but the Severne nods once and descends from the dais. He beckons the small group of humans, who all back up the requisite five paces from the dais, and they follow his long strides down the throne room and out into the antechamber.

“Well,” Hird says on an exhale, as they trail after the tall figure of the Severne, who does not appear inclined to slow his pace or wait for them. “I suppose that didn't go too badly, right?”

“No,” says Lault and shoots her a quelling look behind the Severne's back. “It didn't.”

Jay closes his eyes briefly, resisting the urge to rub the back of his neck where tension has settled into his bones from the Queen's comments. Treason against Lenia, he thinks, and this time there is no avoiding the overwhelming sense of bitterness that comes with the memories of what happened on Mas-Hain. He sends a quick prayer that Samiel is nowhere near this side of the galaxy, then tries to push his thoughts to one side to be dealt with later in the privacy of his room. He cannot afford distraction. Not now.

They are being led further and further from the throne room and Jay tries to pay attention to where they are going. In an emergency they will need to know how to get out – how to get back to the Banshee and be gone before anyone misses their presence. The path the Severne leads them on though, through the palace, doesn't seem to have any rhyme or reason to it and despite his best efforts Jay is soon lost.

Finally, in a quiet, sunlit corridor the Severne pauses, then turns. His presence is incongruous with the gentle harmony of this wing; his black hooded figure standing out painfully against the soft cream of the interior stone walls.

Without a word he points at Lault and then at the door he is standing by. He then repeats the gesture with Hird to the door opposite and finally gestures sharply for Jay to follow him.

Lault steps forwards, clearly keen to enter his room after the long afternoon of waiting. “Wing Commanders,” he says, one hand on the keypad of his door, “I propose we meet tomorrow morning before negotiations begin, to discuss the itinerary.” His proposal is, of course, an order.

“Yes sir.” Hird snaps off a smart salute and opens the door to her own room. “See you both at eight tomorrow.” Both she and Lault disappear, leaving Jay alone with the Severne.

“Is my room the next along?” Jay asks cautiously, unsure of protocol when addressing a Queen's bodyguard.

The Severne tilts his head and then gestures impatiently. He has not, Jay realises, spoken at all. This is despite the fact the opaque visor covering the upper half of his face ends on the bridge of his nose, above the long, generous curve of his lips. Maybe that is why. Perhaps he's not allowed to talk to the humans, in case there is an accusation of undue influence on negotiations, in spite of the translators everyone has implanted.

Jay trails behind the Severne as he is led further down the corridor, until they stop outside of a room three doors down from Hird's. Here, the Severne taps one finger against the grain of the wood and then motions Jay forwards.

There is something almost familiar about the Severne, now that Jay is paying proper attention. It is in the way he moves; the width of his shoulders and the strength of his spine. Perhaps the familiarity is because of the training all the Queen's bodyguards receive – they are fluid in motion, combat ready and precise.

Or maybe, Jay thinks, he is just being paranoid. There is the deep and abiding fear of meeting someone – anyone – that he knew from before lurking at the back of his mind, and it is rearing its head again now; making him see ghosts.

“Thank you,” he says, instead of asking anything else like Who are you? Or: Do I know you? He brushes past the Severne and places his palm against the keypad.

As his door slides open, the Severne's gloved hand snaps out from the sleeve of his robes and grasps Jay's wrist. Startled, Jay tenses, but the Severne's grip relaxes and he simply turns Jay's hand palm-up. Long, leather-clad fingers trace the length from Jay's wrist to fingertips once, and the Severne bows briefly.

He then drops Jay's hand, turns on his heel and walks away, leaving Jay standing, bemused, in the corridor.

*

Jay spends a restless night trying to acclimatise his sleep patterns to the Lenian rotation and mostly failing. He is awake before dawn and knocking on Hird's door just before eight.

When Hird finally answers she does not appear to have slept any better than Jay, if the tired circles around her eyes are any indication. She is still finger-combing her hair and yawning as she shuts her door behind her and they both make their way to Lault's room.

Lault is, of course, impeccably dressed and most annoyingly awake. Jay feels a small spark of resentment at the put-together picture he makes, sipping pomis juice in the early morning sunshine, as he reads over the briefing documents they've all been given.

“You need to tell us your secret Sir,” Hird says, moaning gratefully when Lault hands her a steaming cup of saff.

Lault laughs gently. Even that is elegant, Jay thinks irritably. “Practice, Commander,” he says, “and a hefty dose of very exciting reading before bed.” He indicates the linkpad with the briefings on it.

“What time is the rest of the delegation getting here?” Jay accepts his own cup of saff and takes a seat alongside Hird on the sleek sofa, which is nestled by the synthscreen door. A quick glance out shows that Lault's view is not as nice as his own and Hird's: they both back onto a tasteful courtyard garden, whereas Lault is facing one of the squares surrounding the entrances to the palace. It makes Jay a little uneasy: Lault is far more accessible than he and Hird, and far more valuable as a hostage.

“Shavaine will be meeting us before our first session,” Lault says, settling back comfortably in his chair, “and the others will be joining us this afternoon.” He shoots Jay an amused glance over the rim of his glass. “I also hear some old friends of yours will be joining us as witnesses to the negotiations.”

“Who –”

“Archon Ssafyr and her entourage.”

“Ah.” Jay rubs his chin briefly to cover his embarrassment. “Yes, I have met the Archon.”

“That's not exactly what I heard,” Hird chuckles, sipping her saff. “I heard the Archon offered two million drachmae to Brass to keep you on Raxia for a year and a half after your mission ended.”

“That's an exaggeration,” Jay says, uncomfortably. “It was nowhere near two million.”

“Oh ho, so she did offer for you?”

“Well yes,” Jay's admits. “But it was only as a demonstration of her appreciation, you understand. She didn't mean anything by it.”

“Quite,” Lault says, a twinkle in his eye. “Rumour has it she was very appreciative of your skills, Commander.”

“Ambassador,” Jay says, “please. It was absolutely nothing like that.”

Although Hird is still watching Jay with wicked amusement, Lault relents. “Alright, Commander. We'll take your word for it.” He picks up his linkpad again, his mind clearly already on the day ahead.”To business then. Have you read the considerations yet?”

“I don't like the stipulations about the colony on Elysium,” Jay says, leaning back and taking a sip of saff, relieved at the change of subject. “The demands are too high. They can't expect us to move over seven million residents on the understanding that, if we do, they will consider opening up the Critien highway for our trade vessels.” He taps the edge of his mug with one fingernail, thinking. “I don't think that was put in with a realistic prospect of it being ratified.”

“Agreed,” Lault says, looking slightly surprised. “I think this is an opening feint, designed to distract, don't you?”

“Maybe not distract; more like place us in the difficult situation of refusing, and then making us waste energy trying to avoid looking as though we aren't shutting down avenues of negotiation by doing so.”

“What about offering them a trading foothold in Elysium?” Hird asks. “Surely that's a valuable concession without having to move an entire colony of people?”

Jay shakes his head. “That won't be enough for them,” he says. “They claim sovereign rights over Elysium as a territory. Simply offering trade with a colony they officially consider to be an illegal occupation isn't going to work.” He bites his lower lip, thinking. “On the other hand, what about an offer of tacit financial recompense in the form of tax alleviations on the Kitian route?”

“Could work,” Lault says, frantically tapping at his linkpad. “Not a direct means of compensation or an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their claims, but an olive branch without opening up further discussion at present on Elysium.” He pauses, lowering the linkpad to look at Jay. “We'd need approval of course, but at the very least if the issue gets raised in the next few days we can stall by indicating we need ratification by Parliament for any proposed deal.”

Hird sighs. “If you're waiting for Parliament to agree anything, Ambassador, we may as well apply for Lenian citizenship with the length of time we'll be here.”

Lault chuckles. “Commander, I have no idea – ”

A sharp rap at the door interrupts them.

“Ambassadors,” says a muffled voice, “Most Exalted has asked me to provide you with the itinerary.”

All three of the humans glance at one another and Hird gets up and heads for the door. Lault shuts off the linkpad with a quick flick of his finger as she ushers the Queen's handmaiden from yesterday into the room.

The female is small – at least a head shorter than Hird – and now she is standing it is clear she has a slender, delicate frame. The white mask is still carefully in place, but thick brown hair curls out around the edges. The deep blue of her gown is picked out with golden thread and her movements are quick and precise as she bows to the room at large.

“Ambassadors,” she says again, and holds out a linkpad of her own. “I am Pyrrhine Medala, First Handmaiden. I have come to offer you the itinerary for your negotiations. If you have any questions or wish to discuss any possible amendments, you need only ask.”

“Ask, but you may not get,” a voice says from behind her.

Jay has been so busy studying the Queen's chosen servant that he has missed the man – the Siren – who has followed her into the room. Hird, of course, has not and is currently looking as though she would very much like to forcibly eject the interloper with her bare hands. Jay is a little concerned she actually might.

“Venndred Liesen,” the newcomer says and bows. As he does a piece of dark hair flops rakishly over his forehead. “No, no,” he says, waving a hand as Lault opens his mouth. “Let me guess: Ambassador Lault?”

“Yes.” Lault holds out his hand and Venndred shakes it enthusiastically. His face, Jay realises with no small amount of surprise, is completely bare.

“Which makes you Wing Commander Lane,” Venndred says, advancing on Jay to shake his hand with just as much fervour. He then turns to look at Hird. “And Wing Commander Evi?” he asks, squinting at the initials embroidered on Hird's uniform.

Hird glowers. “No,” she says scornfully.

For the first time since he entered the room, Venndred's expression falters. He is disturbingly animated for a Siren, Jay thinks. It is as though no one has ever taught him to control his expressions. In comparison to the cool white of Pyrrhine's mask, it is as though every thought is visible marching across his angular face.

Venndred is also not as graceful as so many of his species. His limbs are almost too long for his body and he apparently lacks the careful control evident in the rest of the court. He is awkward, almost boyish, as he shuffles his feet and glances embarrassed at Hird.

“EVI is the squadron motto,” Jay explains, almost feeling as though he has to take pity on Venndred. Hird apparently isn't going to, if the way she watching the scene with narrowed eyes is any indication. “It stands for Eternia Vittoria Irascia: Eternal Victory Is Ours.”

“Oh.” Venndred waves a hand awkwardly. “Sorry. I wasn't at the introductions yesterday.”

“You never are, Psyke,” Pyrrhine says and there it is again, Jay thinks, that faint note of amusement in her body language that had been evident yesterday. “Most Exalted always invites you and you never come.”

“I'm sorry,” Lault says. “Forgive my ignorance, but what is 'Psyke'?”

Venndred blinks. “I'm Psyke,” he says, as though it is obvious. “In Standard I suppose it means something like 'The Breath of Souls'. It's an honorary title.”

“Right,” Hird says. “Not at all pretentious then.”

A light dusting of colour appears on Venndred's cheekbones. He looks flustered and not at all sure as he watches the way Hird crosses the room. She places herself directly in front of Lault – conveniently blocking the direct line of sight between the two Sirens and the Ambassador. Jay silently prays that Venndred is not someone easily offended by Hird.

“Why are you here?” she asks.

“Well, I – that is, I – ”

“He's here because he wanted to meet you,” Pyrrhine says. “And I couldn't say no when he asked.”

“Why, because you'd get into trouble?” Hird's tone shows no small amount of contempt at that idea.

“No, because he asked politely and I had no reason to refuse.”

It seems that the First Handmaiden is not above dishing out a polite reprimand, Jay thinks. It's just no surprise that Hird chooses to ignore it.

“Lady Medala,” Lault says, before diplomatic tensions can rise further. “Thank you for the itinerary.” He moves so he is visible around the width of Hird's shoulders. “I understand our first appointment is a ten. We will, of course, be in attendance and ready to begin negotiations.”

Sensing the attempt to pre-empt Hird from getting another word in Pyrrhine bows, her hands clasped together.

“Thank you, Ambassador,” she says. “We are all looking forward to this meeting. When you are ready, we will escort you.”

*

The twin suns of Lenia are well into the sky by the time all the dignitaries are gathered together in the same room.

The hall set aside for negotiations is nowhere near as big as the throne room or its antechamber, but the white marble walls have similar veins of silver running through them. The high ceilings offer relief from the mid-morning heat and jugs of water and juice have been placed at strategic points around the long, polished table.

Amongst the humans and Sirens gathered together there is also a party of Medusae – Archon Ssafyr had nodded at Jay from across the room earlier – and, surprisingly, representatives from the Tammoll Federation. Their short, round figures barrel around the legs of the other species' as they make their way across the room. From what Jay has overheard so far, they are here to act as scribes and archivists to the day's events. Their presence also, he reflects, implies heavily that the Galactic Parliament is keeping a close eye on things despite its neutral stance.

Hird has wandered further down the room, but Jay and Lault are already sitting side by side as the final members of the Lenian negotiation team arrive. The whole room has to stand again as Deneira enters the room with them, flanked by two of her guards. Today's dress is red, Jay notes, and just as sumptuous as yesterday's. Her face is still a mask of white cosmetics and her eyes are no less intelligent as she surveys the gathered diplomats before she sits at the head of the table.

“Honoured Ambassadors,” she says, her voice ringing clear across the room as they all take their seats again. “It is my pleasure to welcome you all here to mark the beginning of the long road to peace. May our discussions be fruitful and our intentions honourable.”

There is a murmur of approval from around the room at this sentiment, but a Siren sitting opposite Jay snorts under his breath. The noise is audible through his mask.

“Lord Athannus,” Lault says to Jay, in a voice just barely above a whisper of sound. “Commander of the One Hundred and Fifth Legion. The Queen's cousin and next in line to the throne. Quite popular with the troops, very unpopular with the court.”

“So I've heard,” Jay says. “He and Archon Ssafyr don't exactly see eye to eye over the policing of the Causality Spire either; she mentioned him once or twice.” His gaze flicks further down the table, to where the Archon is listening to the proceedings with a studied air of neutrality, her hands clasped in her lap.

“Yes,” says Lault, amused. “I have heard of the Archon's legendary outburst over the Malandin riots in the Spire.”

“Before we begin, I would like to ask the forgiveness of the honourable Ambassador,” Deneira is saying, and they both turn their attention to the head of the table again. “I have asked for one further member of court to be present today, as I feel it is vital we avoid misunderstandings where at all possible in these proceedings.” She inclines her head in Lault's direction. “You have brought your own cultural advisor, Ambassador, and it has been recommended that I do the same.”

“What's this then?” Lault murmurs softly, straightening slightly in his chair. Further down the table, Hird is frowning, her eyes fixed on the Queen.

“To that end,” Deneira continues, “I have requested one of my Severne advise and act on my behalf in aiding both of our parties, so that we may gain a greater understanding of one another. Whilst this has not worked in the past – ” Here, her gaze flicks in Jay's direction, “– I am confident that our renewed attempts will succeed, as we strive to find ways forward during these talks.”

An unpleasant feeling is beginning to crawl its way up Jay's spine at her words. He looks at the two Severne behind the Queen. Both are tall, lean and wide-shouldered under their hooded robes. They could be anyone, their faces hidden by the anonymity of their visors. He thinks he recognises the Severne from yesterday, standing at the Queen's right hand, but he couldn't swear to it. Both of them remain still, their postures implacable even as the eyes of the room all turn in their direction.

“Most Exalted,” Lault is saying as Jay's unease grows. “Whilst I recognise your intent, surely you require a person of intimate knowledge to advise you in this manner? I do not think your honourable Severne, no matter how capable, will have the first hand experience required to advise you on our cultural differences.”

Jay is still watching the pair of guards. One of the Severne is smiling, he realises. The generous curve of his lips is now terrifyingly unmistakable and familiar and he is smiling.

No, he thinks, horror dawning. No, it's absolutely not possible. She wouldn't be that stupid. It would cause a diplomatic incident the talks couldn't recover from.

But Deneira would, he knows. She has. An eye for an eye. If Lault brings the only human survivor of the massacre on Mas-Hain to these talks – which are meant to broker a peace treaty – then the Sirens will bring their only survivor too.

“Ambassador Lault,” Deneira says, “of course he has experience.” She turns her head to look at the Severne, who steps forwards.

Jay's fingers are gripping the hands of his chair now; his heart is in his throat.

No, he thinks again, as though he can wish away the truth of what is in front of him. No, please

“Samiel,” Deneira says. “Please do sit down.”

Chapter Text

For a moment there is utter silence as Samiel takes a seat next to Deneira.

Jay's fingers are gripping the arms of his chair so hard they are going numb. He is breathless, lightheaded with pain. How had he not seen this coming? Three years of experience in the field and still an idiot when it comes to looking past the end of your nose, he tells himself bitterly. Of course Samiel would be here, and of course he should have anticipated this. He can feel the attention in the room shifting slowly from Samiel towards him, as though everyone is waiting to see if he will be baited into doing anything rash.

“Most Exalted,” Lault says, before anyone else can bring themselves to speak. “You are well within your rights to request assistance from anyone you so choose, but do you not think it may be more appropriate to select a... different advisor?”

Deneira inclines her head, acknowledging the statement but clearly not agreeing. “I have not done anything that you yourself did not do first, Ambassador.”

And no one can argue with that, Jay knows. Because here he sits, living proof that there are two sides to any story and whilst the humans have one, the Sirens definitely have another.

He drops his gaze and can't bring himself to look at Samiel again. He wouldn't see much anyway he reasons, between the robes, the visor and the hood. But just being in the same room as Samiel is bad enough. His presence is like a sharp ache; pain burning in a wound Jay had long since thought at least slightly healed.

“Is there any formal objection to this matter?” Archon Ssafyr asks, the sibilant hiss of her voice cutting through the slowly building static in Jay's head. Next to her one of the Tammoll is frantically recording everything, its claws clicking as it taps fast-paced at the keys of its commlink.

Lault shrugs. “I would like it noted that the Human Delegation followed proper protocol in ensuring Wing Commander Lane's presence at these negotiations was formally agreed well in advance. The subsequent actions of the Siren Delegation, in bringing Severne Tremark into these talks without warning, could be seen as provocation.” He pauses and steeples his fingers together. “However, as Her Majesty has pointed out, we must learn from mistakes made previously, and therefore in the interests of these talks proceeding I will not be lodging a formal objection at present.”

There is an almost inaudible sigh of relief from around the table. Jay tries to relax his hands and raises his gaze. Across from him, Athannus is jotting something down on his linkpad. As Jay looks up he clearly spots the movement and nods once, briefly, in his direction. The nod seems almost sympathetic in nature, Jay notes. Perhaps Athannus has been on the wrong end of his cousin's machinations in the past as well.

A possible ally? Jay wonders, forcing his attention away from Samiel as hard as he possibly can, and trying to move his thoughts onto more productive pathways. He breathes deeply once, twice, and attempts to pull himself together and stay focused.

And this is how he tries to remain for the rest of the morning. Jay has always found that the easiest way for him to get out of his own head is to throw himself into work. He is good at negotiation; enjoys the little details of diplomacy that make treaties work, and this is what he applies himself to now. After that first painful rush of emotions he mostly barricades his feelings away, ignoring the occasional flinch of pain when he accidentally looks too long towards the head of the table.

Despite his best intentions, however, there is a constant thrum of tension lurking just under his skin. He does his best to swallow it down, and listen instead to the talks. He can be stronger than his grievances, he thinks; better than his want for revenge. Right now the most important thing is ensuring diplomacy does its job.

So he participates and learns, and to his surprise even the Sirens take note of his suggestions when he offers the occasional remark.

“Of course they do,” Hird says when they break for lunch. “The reason you were sent is because of your reputation, Lane. Don't doubt that.”

Jay rubs a hand wearily across his face. Now that they are out of the initial fray, the task of negotiations ahead seems long and almost impossible. But there's hope he reminds himself, as Hird passes him a glass of water and a plate of various delicacies.

“I'm just surprised is all,” he says. “Given my apparent current standing with the opposing factions.”

“You do realise that's just fucking politics, don't you?” Hird asks, watching Lault. The Ambassador appears to be in his element, talking in a corner with Archon Ssafyr and Ambassador Reeliss. “You're accused of treason because they need a nice big juicy reason to hate our guts more than they already do.” She pulls a face. “And then they have an excuse to act so reasonably as they look down their noses at us for it.”

“Yes thank you Hird, I am aware,” Jay says. “I just don't think a reputation, no matter how valuable, is worth antagonising either side at the moment.” He frowns. “But I wasn't given a chance to voice my concerns before I was sent here.”

“That's Brass for you,” Hird says, shoving a pastry into her mouth with absolutely no delicacy. “Orders are orders, Lane. Doesn't matter what they are.” She chews, swallows and grins at him. “I heard you were asked for specifically.”

“By who?”

“Don't know – didn't get that much information. I just looked into you a bit when I heard we were doing a protection detail with you.” She pauses, considering. “I can ask Subtle to try and find out, if you like.”

“No,” Jay says, “don't worry. It wouldn't matter anyway. I'm here now and we've all got to get on with sorting this mess out.”

“You're not worried then?” Hird asks.”Even with him here?” She tilts her head in the direction of the hooded figure standing talking to Pyrrhine. “I mean, no one really knows what happened on Mas-Hain, Lane, but shit this has to be uncomfortable for you.”

“It's –” Jay sighs. “It is what it is.” He tries to tamp down on a small flutter of anxiety as he glances at Samiel out of the corner of his eye.

“Oh that's pathetic,” Hird says, shovelling another piece of food into her mouth. Flyboys, Jay thinks, watching her, we're all the same – food should be eaten as quickly as possible, in case shit hits the fan.

“Pathetic, yes,” he says, instead of teasing Hird about her love of Lenian canapés. “But practical. I can't change this, Hird, so I've got to work with it.” He ignores the tightening in his gut that comes of thinking about working at all with Samiel.

“Alright,” Hird says dubiously. “But for the record I'm against having that karak var arsha anywhere near negotiations. Not that anyone will listen to me.”

“Me either,” Jay says. “But hey, what do we know?” He picks up a piece of fruit, intent on eating as much as he can before the afternoon session begins. “Hey, Hird?”

“What?”

“What's a 'karak var arsha'? My translator won't pick it up.”

Hird snorts at his ignorance, but the look in her eye is decidedly friendlier than it was, even this morning. “You don't want to know, Lane.”

*

The negotiations last long into the afternoon and evening, and Jay's head is pounding by the time he goes to bed.

The talks had gone about as well as could be expected at this stage – which was to say there was half a step forwards and then twenty steps back. Still, he thinks, some progress is better than no progress at all.

The night is warm despite the temperature controls in his room, and he tosses and turns, trying to fit angles of negotiation together in his head to create a proper picture. Nothing is adding up right so far: the Sirens had requested opening negotiations towards a peace treaty, after years of apparent disinterest. Now, by all appearances, they seem to be at least somewhat invested in making the talks work. This, in spite of Deneira's opening gambit this morning and the sometimes openly hostile emotions around the table. But there is no rhyme or reason for this sudden desire for peace – no significant victories on either side, or drastic changes in diplomatic support from human or Siren allies.

Jay groans in frustration, no further forwards with that line of thinking. He rolls onto his back, head still throbbing, and stares hard at the ceiling.

And then there's Samiel. And him. If he was putting together a team to broker a peace treaty, he would most decidedly not be including the only two people on either side who were infamous for destroying the last attempts at a ceasefire. But someone had asked for him and here he is.

And here is Samiel.

He can't avoid thinking about him any longer.

It had only been six months that he had spent with Samiel, really. Six months and not enough time. He had been stupid, Jay thinks, to even begin to believe that he had he really known Samiel at all. Of course he hadn't. Six months wasn't enough to truly parse someone's character, even if that someone had spent nearly every waking moment with you. But hindsight is perfect and his past self probably wouldn't have listened – too full of optimism.

This is what stings now: here, because of Samiel, he is not the man he once was.

Out of everyone – out of the eight of them on that base – it had been Samiel he was drawn to and Samiel he had connected with and Samiel who had destroyed everything. Had it all been a ploy? Had Samiel even found him good company; or had it been, like everything else, another lie?

It's three years later, Jay thinks wearily, and he still has no answers. All that's left is cynicism and a hefty dose of regret. Perhaps, he reflects, what hurts the most is the bitter sense of almost that permeates the memories of those six months.

The idea of a cultural exchange that had almost worked.

The way peace had almost been lasting.

The way there had almost been...something.

Enough, Jay tells himself sternly, sitting up and throwing back the covers. Enough self-pity. This maudlin self-examination is not helping you or anyone else.

Wide awake now and slightly annoyed with himself, he gets out of bed and wanders over to the synthscreen door leading out into the courtyard garden. Opening it, he exhales in relief at the cool night air that comes creeping through.

You need to focus, Lane, he thinks. Now is not the time for thoughts of 'should-have-been', or 'what if'. You are here to do a job and a job is what you will do.

Still, the thought of Samiel burns and once – just once – Jay wishes he had got the opportunity to bite back, to make Samiel hurt as he did. Absently he rubs his side, feeling the scar running the length of his torso.

No revenge, he thinks crossly, dismissing the idea almost immediately. You are better than this. It is a mantra he has learned to live by, and one he swears he will not deviate from now.

He stands there breathing deeply, trying to calm his thoughts and cool down enough so that he can sleep.

Just as he is thinking of returning to bed, a rustle of movement comes from his left. A figure is moving slowly across the courtyard, and it is only when Jay catches sight of moonlight gleaming on red hair that he realises it is Hird.

Apparently she can't sleep either, he realises ruefully, watching as she comes to a stop under one of the sturdy jiliss trees that are laden with blossom.

A moment later he smiles to himself as Hird – apparently fed up with nice soft beds – begins to climb the tree. She quickly disappears from sight and no one would be any the wiser about her presence, if it weren't for the occasional rustle of leaves as she moves through the branches.

It's not a bad idea, Jay thinks to himself. It's cooler in the courtyard and, although sleeping in a tree is decidedly uncomfortable, it is very easily defensible. The only down side, he supposes, is if you happen to fall out. Hird is clearly not going to, if the way the rustling of the branches has died down is any indication. Presumably she is safe and secure up somewhere near the top.

Shaking his head at the thought of Hird spending all night outside, Jay quietly closes his door and goes back to bed.

Sleep, he tells himself. Or you will be no use to anyone in the morning.

*

The next two days pass quickly and not very productively, but the itinerary for the fourth day leaves the morning free for all diplomats, followed by an afternoon visit to a temple of some sort. Presumably, Jay thinks cynically, this is so that everyone can get good pictures of themselves actively engaging in cultural appreciation, then send them back to their respective offices to be distributed to all known media outlets.

Let loose for the morning, Jay weighs the idea of hunting down Lault and going over a couple of the finer points of yesterday, or finding a training room and venting some of his frustrations.

The idea of letting off steam wins and, after a few directions from a nearby guard, he manages to find a moderate sized room tucked down a side corridor.

The room has vast windows, which let in the bright sunshine of another beautiful day. There are mats neatly laid out across the floor and several training dummies sitting along the length of one wall. Opposite these there is a rack filled with practice blades. Before he can think twice, Jay has picked one of them up.

“Ah,” says a familiar voice from behind him, “I wondered how long it would take you to find this place.”

Jay smiles and turns. “Archon Ssafyr,” he says, holding out a hand in greeting.

The Archon takes his hand in one of her own and bows over it in the traditional greeting. “Wing Commander Lane, it is very good to see you again.” She smiles, revealing razor sharp teeth as she examines him from head to foot. “You are looking much better than the last time we spoke.”

“The last time we spoke, Archon, I had just come off of nearly a week with very little sleep and a rather interesting encounter with several of your Raxian rebels.”

Ssafyr hisses. “They were not my rebels,” she says. “Which should have been quite clear from the way you helped me to get rid of them.” She drops Jay's hand and moves towards the middle of the room. The bright sunlight is unflattering on the grey of her skin, but she is imperious; regal in a way that Deneira, Jay thinks unkindly, is not. “But it is very good to see you again,” she says.

“You too.”

It is the truth, Jay acknowledges, as he watches Ssafyr walk across the room to the rack of practice weapons. He has missed their uncomplicated friendship. He smiles as Ssafyr picks up two daggers and weighs their balance. Her poisonous green li'it writhe, their lengths tangling on her head as she hums her appreciation for a well-designed weapon.

“Tell me,” Ssafyr says, indicating the training blade still clutched in Jay's hand, “are you still keeping up with your little hobby?” She spins one of the daggers she is holding and raises an eyebrow, her black eyes bright with mischief.

It is an invitation and Jay drops into first guard, grinning. “Hardly a little hobby when it saved your life, Archon.”

“Don't be foolish, Silvertongue,” she says, pleased, as she prowls closer across the mats. “It never did that.” She lunges at him fast, testing his reactions.

“We must recall events differently,” Jay says, darting to one side and blocking her attack. “I distinctly remember you and I, back to back, fighting off a troop in the pouring rain. That Gundark would have killed you, if it wasn't for my salzon.”

“Please,” Ssafyr says, hopping back as Jay disengages their blades and feints left. She blocks his strike and tries to duck under his guard. “You shouldn't even know these forms. It was pure luck you pulled the guts from that Gundark with your foolish little practice blade.”

“I may not have a proper salzon, but in a pinch I have found a practice one will do when disembowelling Gundarks.”

Jay grunts as Ssafyr rams him with her shoulder and they drop back, circling one another.

“Well, you never did tell me how a human ended up knowing the correct salzon forms,” Ssafyr says, darting right and trying an underhand strike. Jay skips sideways and parries her blade, moving fast to keep up with her. He laughs, breathlessly.

“Luck, Archon, and finding someone willing to teach me for the last couple of years.”

“These Sirens will not like it,” Ssafyr says, looking delighted as Jay nearly slices her arm. “They are very particular about who learns things like this.”

They lose the rhythm of the conversation when Jay scores a hit on Ssafyr's hip, and their practice bout begins in earnest. Where Jay is elegant tactics Ssafyr is wiry determined strength, as they fight around the space of the room. Jay sometimes gains ground and other times finds himself having to scuttle out of range of the wicked edges of Saafyr's knives. They are both panting hard by the time Ssafyr takes a swipe at his leg and he steps back, tripping on the edge of a mat.

Sensing weakness Ssafyr pounces, lunging for the other leg. Jay huffs his frustration, unable to recover from being unbalanced, and ends up flat on his back with Ssafyr crouched over him, a knife to his throat. His salzon falls to the floor and he raises his hands.

“I yield, I yield,” he says, and Ssafyr laughs, her tongue flickering out to taste the air.

“You did well for a little human,” she says graciously, rolling off of him and offering him a hand up. “If you were one of us, I would offer for you again – you would serve in my legion.”

“A high honour,” Jay says, accepting her hand and letting himself be pulled to his feet. “But next time consider that I may have let you win, Ssafyr.”

Ssafyr scoffs. “Don't lie, Silvertongue. You would not let anyone win if you saw a way to victory.” She pats him on the back. “But I accept your offer of a rematch.”

“Yes, well,” Jay says, putting the salzon back in the weapons rack, “I was going to make a joke about allowing age to win over beauty, but I think you'd gut me.”

“Why? Because I am a century older than you and this is seen as an insult?” Ssafyr asks. “Or because you know that I do not find orange-haired humans with scruffy facial hair beautiful, and it is therefore amusing?” She grins as she dusts down her tunic and places her daggers alongside Jay's salzon.

“One,” says Jay, “I am not orange-haired, that is not what it is called – ”

“My mistake, auburn – is that better?”

And two,” Jay continues over the top of her as they head for the door, “I will have you know that Archon Ssinia herself offered for me on the basis of my facial hair.” He grins, rubbing his fingertips across the closely cropped hair on the edge of his jawline for emphasis.

“Archon Ssinia is a wide-eyed gazecriff,” Ssafyr says, amused. “She would offer for any man she thought would increase her social standing, silly hair or no.” She clasps a hand to Jay's shoulder. “Still, your beard is very neatly trimmed,” she says peaceably. “If you chose to live with us, I am sure someone would offer for you eventually.”

“I would,” says Samiel.

The sound of his voice is like a knife being unexpectedly held to Jay's throat and his good mood shatters. He stops dead in the middle of the floor, heart pounding.

Samiel is leaning against the door frame, arms folded. He is wearing his robes and tunic, but his hood is pushed back and his face is painfully bare of any kind of mask.

“Severne Tremark,” Ssafyr says, “it is good to see you.”

Is it? Jay thinks numbly. I don't think it is.

Samiel has not aged much in the last three years; in fact it is almost as though he has not aged at all. Every painful detail, that Jay was not aware he had remembered until now, is exactly the same. From the long length of his legs to the burnt-sugar colour of his curls, he is achingly familiar in a way he should no longer be. The only difference is a thin scar running the length of his neck; the white of it is a sharp contrast to the gentle tan of his skin.

He is still so beautiful, Jay thinks, despairing, that it hurts.

He mentally gives himself a shake, panicked that this is his first gut reaction upon seeing Samiel at close range again. Samiel is beautiful in the way fire is beautiful, he reminds himself: tantalising and warm until you get too close.

“Archon,” Samiel is saying, as Jay glances desperately at the door, alarmed by his own thoughts and frantic to escape. “I believe Ambassador Reeliss was looking for you. You may wish to find her.”

Ssafyr glances between Jay and Samiel. “I am not sure it is appropriate to leave the two of you alone together,” she says carefully. “Rumour has it that the last time that happened, two civilisations very nearly went to war with one another again.”

Samiel smiles and, yes, there is another thing Jay has forgotten until now: the way one side of his mouth tilts up further than the other when he is truly amused.

“I am sure Wing Commander Lane and I will be able to control ourselves,” he says pleasantly.

Ssafyr looks at Jay. “Commander?” she asks, and whilst her tone is polite, her gaze is concerned.

Jay appreciates that she has reverted to formalities in this moment. He is not sure how Samiel would react to the knowledge that he and the Archon are friends – particularly when the Medusae are here as a neutral party. There is also a small, petty side to him that does not want to share anything about himself with Samiel unless he has to.

“I...” he says, and has to swallow around the dryness of his mouth. “I am sure we will be fine, Archon. I was going to return to my room anyway.”

“There, you see?” says Samiel. “Nothing to worry about.” He steps pointedly to one side and bows to Ssafyr. “After you, Archon.”

With a last dubious glance at Jay – and what expression his face is currently showing, he dreads to think – Ssafyr goes.

Silence descends.

Jay takes a deep breath, then another, and crosses the room.

As he passes Samiel he is close enough for contact, his fingers just brushing the edge of Samiel's robes as he walks by. Before Jay has registered it, Samiel moves, grasping his arm to stop him going any further. Jay closes his eyes briefly, despairing. The pressure of Samiel's fingers through the fabric of his sleeve burns. He can feel his own breath coming faster, though whether in anger or sheer panic, even he can't tell.

“Despite everything,” Samiel says quietly, into the intimate space between them, “it is good to see you again, my master.”

Stung, Jay jerks away. “Don't,” he spits out, “don't you dare call me that.”

He takes two fast paces away from Samiel, moving quickly until he is safely out of the room and on the other side of the corridor, heading away from any further confrontation.

He's not sure what he'll do if he stays.

As Jay walks away he glances back, once, over his shoulder. Samiel is watching him go. There is something odd in his expression: a quiet sadness in his eyes and a strange vulnerability in the way he is holding himself. It makes Jay unsure, makes him doubt his own anger a little.

“Why not?” Samiel asks quietly, and Jay is not sure if he is meant to hear this at all. “You will always be my master.”

*

The encounter stays with Jay for the rest of the morning, through a quick shower and a much longer discussion with Lault about the possibility of opening up further areas of land on Elysium for resettlement.

By mid-afternoon they have hashed out the basics of a few key proposals and he, Lault and Hird have assembled in one of the palace's primary courtyards, waiting to be ushered onto one of the nearby shuttles.

“Well I don't like this,” Hird grumbles, as they finally climb onboard and strap in. “All the little humans in one nice neat package, ripe for shooting down.”

“No one would be that foolish,” Lault says from where he is leaning back in his seat, eyes closed. “There's no sentient species in the galaxy that would believe it was an accident if we all died in a shuttle crash.”

“Still a tempting target, though.”

“Pessimism, Commander, will get you nowhere.”

“Is it pessimism if it's the truth?” Hird retorts. She shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “Do you think they'd let me fly this thing?”

“No,” Lault says.

Jay tunes them out for the rest of the journey, watching the landscape blur past as they fly low-level through the desert.

Lenia is an odd, beautiful planet full of sharp contradictions. Its lush gardens and graceful buildings give way abruptly to harsh desert and stunning rock formations. Its natural wildlife, he recalls, is both extremely ornamental and mostly incredibly dangerous. A little like its people, really.

Unbidden, the thought of Samiel creeps into his head again and he sighs, watching their destination loom in the distance. Their first proper meeting had not been what he expected. To be brutally honest he hadn't known what to expect, but it definitely wasn't... that.

Just stay away, he tells himself. Don't buy any more trouble; you've already done that once. Easier said than done, when they're going to be in each other's company nearly every day. But that doesn't mean they have to talk to one another, he reasons.

After about an hour's flight the shuttle slows, turning as it descends, and Hird nudges him.

“We nearly there?”

Jay squints down at the landing pad. A small delegation is apparently waiting to meet the congregating diplomats; their white robes are brilliant in the fierce sunlight. At the head of the group he spots a familiar face.

“We're here,” he says, just as the shuttle jolts to a stop. “And it looks like Venndred Liesen is too.”

Hird growls under her breath. “That idiot,” she mutters. “Far too excitable for a Siren.”

“Weren't you complaining earlier that you didn't like the lack of emotion in everyone?” Lault comments mildly, as they unbuckle themselves from their seats and make their way towards the shuttle door.

“No,” Hird says in a bare-faced lie. “That definitely doesn't sound like me.”

Jay squints against the glare as they step out onto the landing pad. This far out into the desert the sunlight is fierce – far hotter than the moderated climates of Maa-Tarek. The pad is situated at the front of a temple, which is carved into the rose-coloured stone of the canyon wall. It climbs high above their heads, its facade intricately carved and stunningly beautiful.

“Hello,” Venndred says cheerfully, apparently just having finished greeting Deneira and her entourage. He darts towards them, nearly tripping over the hem of his robes. “It's good to see you again.” He smiles at Hird, who raises a cynical eyebrow in return.

“Lovely to see you again, Psyke,” Lault says, smiling as he reaches out to greet him. “I take it you are to be our guide?”

Venndred shakes his hand. “Yes, yes,” he says, beaming. “But only one of them. My apprentice, Retter, will be helping as well.” He points to a teenager, lurking shyly at the edge of the landing pad. “Since there's so many of you today, I need all the help I can get.”

“Where are we?” Jay asks, as they follow Venndred towards where the rest of the diplomats are waiting, standing at the columned entrance to the temple. The party, he notes, apparently does come complete with an official photographer, ready to document this momentous occasion. Within the main group Deneira is accompanied by Samiel – masked and hooded once more – and two of his fellow Severne. All four of them are lingering together, standing at the top of the temple steps, slightly apart from the Medusae and the other Sirens.

Stopping for a moment, Jay turns his back to look in the opposite direction, staring out over the temple forecourt. From this angle he can see a good distance down the length of the canyon. The naturally carved rock walls loom sheer on either side and further away there seems to be a small cluster of outbuildings, also chiselled out of the canyon rock. Up on the edge of the canyon something flashes in the sunlight, but as he cranes his neck to get a better look it disappears from view. He shrugs and turns to follow the others.

“You're at the Naos,” Venndred is telling them, as Jay hurries to join the rest of the group. “The Dwelling Place of Souls.” He bows, once. “And I am the High Priest.”

You,” Hird blurts out, before anyone can stop her. “You're a priest?”

“Not just 'a' priest,” Pyrrhine Medala says, joining their little group. “He is the priest. The Keeper of Souls, the Gate Guardian.”

She waves a hand, indicating they should stay with her as Venndred starts to lead the entire party into the main body of the temple. “It is one of the highest positions one can achieve on Lenia.”

The sudden drop in temperature as they step into the antechamber is a relief after the baking heat of the suns. It takes Jay's eyes a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, but when they do he inhales deeply, surprised.

Where the outside of the temple had been unadorned save for the intricate stone carvings, the interior is a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured mosaics and tiles. Beautiful rugs are scattered across the floor and tasteful screens are situated in discreet alcoves, away from the main thoroughfare of the antechamber.

“What is the Naos, exactly?” Lault asks, as they follow Venndred and the rest of the group into another, bigger, chamber. Up ahead it appears Retter has overcome at least a little of his shyness, and is talking politely with Archon Ssafyr and Ambassador Reeliss. Deneira and several other Sirens have joined them, and the Tammoll representatives are chattering excitedly amongst themselves as they examine several statues.

“It is the place we keep our last songs,” Pyrrhine says, and there is something bittersweet in her voice. “Once in our lifetime, when we feel it is right, we make a pilgrimage to this place. Here, we record our...” she struggles for a moment, trying to find the right word. “It is called 'threnodia'.”

“We have a similar word,” Jay offers. “Threnody?”

“Yes.” Pyrrhine nods. “That. We tell the tale of our life and the Psyke records it and keeps it. It is our legacy to future generations, so they do not make the same mistakes that we do. We have recordings here going back thousands of years. Of course, the original threnodia were only written; now we use Galtium crystals. They are placed here, in the archives.”

“I've seen one of those once,” Hird says. “They're beautiful little pieces of tech, both literally and figuratively.”

“Yes,” Pyrrhine says, “very useful, too.”

“Can anyone access the threnodia?” Jay asks.

“No, only those who have a direct claim to that person's ancestry, or permission from a descendant.” Pyrrhine shrugs. “The Psyke will sometimes make exceptions, of course, but those circumstances are extremely rare. The threnodia are there to unburden our souls and pass our wisdom to our children's children; they are not there for the amusement of anyone looking to pass the time.”

“I'm sorry,” Jay says, “I hope my question didn't cause offence.”

Pyrrhine touches the back of his hand, briefly. Jay gets the impression that if she had not been wearing her mask she would have been smiling. “You didn't, Commander,” she says. “I am just trying to impress upon you the solemnity of these archives.”

“And you've put Venndred Liesen in charge of all this?” Hird asks dubiously.

“I think if you took the time to know him, Commander, Venndred would surprise you very much.” Pyrrhine tilts her head towards the Siren in question, who is pointing out a particular mosaic to some of the group. “He is extremely wise, despite his age, and he does not ever judge. He is a very good man.” There is something deeply fond in her voice. “He has helped many people during his time here and he does not abuse his power as some may be prone to do.”

“Right.” Hird seems a little nonplussed by her answer.

They continue the tour, sometimes lagging behind the main group as Venndred leads them on a circular route around the temple. Jay is fascinated by the quick glimpse they are given of the archives – shelf upon shelf of brightly glowing crystals, stretching off into the vast darkness of the vaults – before the heavy doors are closed and locked again.

There is a gentle peace here, despite the number of people making their way through the vaulted halls and corridors. Nobody appears to be hurrying, or raising their voices, and the quiet hush of muted noise is almost soothing as Jay stands, examining a mural. Out of the corner of his eye he sees several pilgrims muttering amongst themselves, their gazes fixed on Deneira as she makes her way slowly back towards the entrance.

No one has bowed to her, Jay realises, not even when they have quite clearly recognised her.

He asks Pyrrhine about it when he rejoins the main group.

“In the Naos there is no status,” she tells him. “When we journey here we bring only ourselves. Status, wealth, power, none of it matters. This is a place of the soul; it is not for the trappings of ordinary life.”

“Does that make the temple a politically neutral zone?” Lault asks, interested.

“Of course. Politics should never be brought into the Naos. The Psyke is not allowed to favour any one party or person over another; he is free of judgement.” Pyrrhine raises a hand in greeting to another pilgrim, who has stopped to watch their strange little entourage.

“So what would happen if someone tried to kill their political rival in the temple?” Hird asks, curiously.

It is clear from the sudden stiffness of her shoulders that had she not been so well trained, Pyrrhine would have recoiled at the thought. “That would be death,” she says. “No exceptions.”

“Interesting,” Hird says thoughtfully. “And how far does this 'no violence' zone extend?”

“To the top of the temple steps.”

“Ah,” says Lault. “It's like the idea of sanctuary in a church.”

“Yes, very much so,” Pyrrhine says. “No violence within the temple walls is permitted and anyone who seeks safety here is welcome.”

“They should have a sign: murder outside the temple only, please,” Hird says mischievously, as they make their way back outside and towards the bottom of the temple steps.

Listening, Jay wonders how likely the odds are that he can convince Lault to have a beneficial word with Hird – see if he can get her to stop winding up Pyrrhine, who seems to be one of the few prepared to voluntarily spend more than five minutes in their company. Not good odds, he concludes. Lault seems to harbour a cheerful affection for Hird and, where he is far more exacting in others, apparently tolerates her behaviour with aplomb.

As they wait for the official photographer – and yes, Jay thinks wryly, he had been correct in thinking everyone would want a photo opportunity – he realises they have come to a stop just behind the royal party.

He tenses and takes a small step back, keen to stay out of Deneira's line of sight. For one afternoon, he would quite like to avoid being the centre of a political showdown.

As he does, the strange glimmer of light he saw earlier appears on the lip of the canyon. He frowns, squinting as he tries to make out what it is. It flashes once, twice, and then disappears briefly before returning in a slightly different place. It almost looks like the sunlight reflecting off of glass, and without thinking he steps out from behind Deneira's entourage to get a better look.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Samiel tense, looking in the same direction.

In a horrible moment of clarity, Jay realises what he is seeing.

Get down!” he and Samiel both shout at the same time.

The next few moments are a blur – Jay throws himself at Deneira, acting on instinct.

And the world explodes around them.

Chapter Text

Consciousness returns in pieces.

The first thing he is aware of is grit pressing into his cheek, from where he is lying on the ground. Then comes the heavy ache of needing to breathe and not being able to get enough air into his lungs. Finally, he finds he has half landed on something soft and there is a weight on his back.

He stretches out slow, clumsy hands until his fingertips touch delicate fabric. Ears ringing and increasingly dizzy, Jay opens his eyes.

The first thing he sees is Hird crouched in front of him, looking utterly furious. She is covered in dirt, the blue of her uniform near grey with it. A nasty gash to her temple has streaked her face with blood and she seems to be shouting something, if the rate her mouth is moving is anything to go by.

“I can't,” Jay mumbles around a heavy tongue. “I can't hear you.”

Hird says something that looks an awful lot like 'for fuck's sake'.

Blinking carefully Jay moves, dragging a deeper breath into his lungs until he coughs, choking on the dust still lingering in the air. The weight on his back stirs, the vibrations of a pained groan rumbling against Jay's spine.

Jay moves again and the weight rolls off.

Carefully Jay turns his head, ignoring Hird who is looking increasingly frustrated at his apparent failure to get to his feet quick enough. Next to him, Samiel is lying on his side, eyes closed, hair trailing in the dirt as he takes in quick, shallow breaths. One hand is pressed against his ribs in an apparent attempt to stem pain.

Thinking is still hard, and it takes an age for the thought to form fully in Jay's head.

If Samiel is next to him, then that means...

Gold eyes peer up at him, when he looks down.

Up close Deneira is still impressive; but where before she was a sculpted figure – a perfect idealisation of a queen – now she appears almost painfully commonplace. The circlet of her crown has been knocked loose and is half hanging off of her head. Her robes are covered in grime and her make up – usually pristine – is smeared. She looks odd, dishevelled, as she observes him.

“Oh,” Jay says awkwardly, around a still-numb tongue. “Sorry, Most Exalted.”

Slowly, painfully, he eases himself off of her and rolls to the side, narrowly missing Samiel, who has flopped onto his back and is now staring up at the sky, dazed.

Impatient fingers grab his arm and Hird – apparently now too annoyed to check if he has any serious injuries – hauls him rapidly to his feet.

The aftermath of the explosion is still ringing in his ears as he stands, and Jay can't do anything but watch as one of the remaining Severne rushes to the aid of the Queen.

Hird lets go of Jay's arm. Out of the corner of his eye he can see her all but vibrating with impatience, her fingers twitching by her hip as though she would very much like to pull her pistol. She is scanning the horizon, the look on her face almost daring another attack.

Lault is behind her, Jay realises, and he exhales a quiet breath of relief. He's not sure what would have happened if the Ambassador had ended up killed in an explosion on Lenia. Nothing good, that much is certain.

Deneira and Samiel are both on their feet as well now, and Venndred is standing with the pair of them. The expression on his face is not one Jay has seen before: cold, furious. It is almost incongruous next to the brightness of his robes, and a sharp contrast to his usually pleasant demeanour. His posture is rigid as he gestures towards the top of the canyon, and from his clipped movements Jay ascertains that a search is apparently underway to find the would-be assassin.

Hird touches Jay's shoulder to get his attention, startling him from his observations. When he looks at her she jerks a thumb at Lault and then at their shuttle, before tapping her wrist. The message is clear: Time to go. And that is... that is sensible. The first rule is to get Lault to safety as fast as possible; if witness statements are needed, that will come later.

Protocol is kicking in and Jay is remembering his priorities. He nods his agreement and Hird signals again, asking if he's alright to walk. At his nod she starts to lead the way to the landing pad.

Jay hesitates before following, glancing back to check everything is still alright.

Deneira is still talking to Venndred. The pair of them have their heads bent together, although how Deneira can hear what he's saying is anyone's guess.

Samiel is standing behind them, his eyes fixed on Jay, watching him go.

*

Three hours later, Jay's ears are still ringing.

“I'm fine,” he tells the medic a little too loudly. “The worst I got was a bit of shrapnel in my shoulder.”

The medic shoots him what probably would have been an unimpressed look, were it not for her mask, and adjusts his bandage.

“Be quiet,” she says. “You are fine when I say you are fine.”

Sitting across from Jay on a once pristine bed – which her clothes are currently making filthy – Hird grins at the pair of them. She is getting her head wound stitched, and seems supremely unbothered by the needle flashing perilously close to her eye.

“Didn't your mother ever teach you not to argue with the doctor, Lane?”

“No,” Jay says. “Because she trusted me to use my own judgement.” He grunts as the medic rotates his arm.

“Soldiers,” the Siren grumbles, “you are all the same. Stubborn and silly.”

“Speak for yourself,” Hird says as her medic finishes up. “I know when to get my wounds checked.” She winks at Jay's doctor.

Hird is now in a remarkably good mood for someone who has just witnessed an attempted assassination, Jay reflects. Her temper is even more extraordinary when coupled with the fact that Lault could have been injured and they all could have been killed.

“Oh that's easy,” Hird says when Jay asks her what has prompted the change of heart. They are walking back towards their rooms, Jay's medic having grudgingly agreed that he could leave as long as he promised to return at the first sign of concussion. “I just like knowing what's going on. Someone trying to blow me or my team up is par for the course; it happens every day. The whole thing's pretty straightforward – you know where you stand when someone's trying to kill you.”

“I'm probably going to regret asking,” Jay says, “but where do you stand when someone's trying to kill you?”

“Easy: behind them with a bigger gun.” She laughs at Jay's exaggerated groan. “But seriously, someone trying to kill us is life as usual, you and I both know that for a fact. It's politics that's the tricky bit. Violence, well, there's only one response to that.”

“There are several philosophers who would disagree with you,” Jay says dryly. “But I get your point.” He sighs, pressing a hand to his aching shoulder. “What bothers me is I can't work out who the intended target was.”

“My guess? Clearly the Queen.”

“Maybe, but there were an awful lot of people on those steps. Really they could have been after anyone.”

“And who cares about the collateral damage?” Hird hums thoughtfully. “You may be right. From everything I've seen, Sirens don't tend to go in for damage limitation when they've got their minds set on something. If our would-be assassin was even a Siren.”

“True.”

“So they could have been after Lault,” Hird says, as they round the corner into the corridor separating their rooms. “That makes life more difficult then.” She groans. “Damn, Lane. Why did you have to go and ruin my nice, uncomplicated, intended-victim theory with your dreadful politics?”

“Sorry,” Jays says, amused. “Shall I keep my theories to myself?”

Hird points an accusatory finger at him. “You can shove it and you're lucky I like you. If you were any other diplomat I'd be leaving you to nurse your concussion on your own right now.”

“Hey,” Jay says, offended, “I'm not a diplomat.” He frowns as Hird shoots him an incredulous look. “I'm not,” he says, “I'm only here as a cultural advisor.”

“Sure, this time,” Hird says. “But Lane, I wasn't kidding when I said I looked into you, when I knew the Banshee had been assigned as protection detail to this mission. Your record speaks for itself. I heard about you and the Creets, and not just from Subtle; I've got a buddy in the Callium Rifles who was there when you faced down the Prime and negotiated a ceasefire. I've also heard what Archon Ssafyr says about you. And about that mission on Nemenia two years ago with the Praxium Consortium.” She whistles, expressively.

“That's not – ”

“Listen, I get it. You're still a flyboy at heart. But you must realise why you're here, you're not an idiot.”

“Thank you, I think,” Jay says.

“You're welcome,” Hird shoots back without missing a beat. “Lane, I'm the muscle in this operation. They got me in because my team are the best at what they do, and nobody needs any fuck-ups on this mission, you see? They got you in for the same reason. My expertise is dealing with a military crises with extreme prejudice; yours is talking your way out of anything, even if you do happen to be holding a gun at the time.”

“Alright,” Jay says, holding his hands up in surrender, “I get it. On this mission I'm an honorary diplomat, although we'll have to disagree on the whole 'best' bit.”

“Modesty is for idiots,” Hird says, clapping his bad shoulder a little harder than necessary. “But don't worry: if it comes to it I'll still let you shoot something when it all goes to hell.” She smiles graciously as Jay coughs to cover his amusement.

They are nearly to their rooms when Jay notices a masked figure loitering a little further down the corridor. He nudges Hird, who raises an eyebrow.

“Friend of yours?” she murmurs.

“Not someone I immediately recognise, no.”

Hird sighs, expressively. “Marvellous. Because I didn't want to just go and sit down with a mug of saff and a trashy book whilst you nursed your concussion.”

“I don't have a concussion,” Jay protests quietly.

Hird rolls her eyes at him. “Irrelevant to my point, Lane.” As they both slow to a halt outside Jay's door she eyes the figure appraisingly, her hands hanging conspicuously loose by her sides, within easy reach of the pistol at her hip.

Jay wonders briefly if Hird enters every conversation with someone she doesn't trust with the intention to shoot them if they make a wrong move. He rapidly decides he doesn't want to know the answer.

“Hello,” Hird says to the Siren. “Can we help you?”

As the Siren turns, Jay catches a glimpse of a familiar white mask and exhales in relief. “It's alright,” he says under his breath to Hird, “it's the First Handmaiden.”

Pyrrhine bows to the pair of them, her hands clasped together. “Wing Commanders,” she says. If she notices the way Hird gradually slides her fingers away from her pistol, she obviously decides not to mention it. “I apologise if I startled you.”

“It's fine,” Jay says. “I hope you'll forgive us for being a little on edge. This afternoon has been... very long.”

“Yes,” Pyrrhine says. “I – ” She pauses, then gestures to Jay's door. “Forgive me, but may we talk inside?”

Without waiting for Jay's agreement, Hird slaps the keypad with her palm. Jay watches, slightly bemused, as the door opens. “I thought that was encoded to my palm?” he asks, as they go in.

“It is,” Hird says. “And I got it encoded to mine, as well. It's no use if you're being murdered and I can't get in to rescue you. I wouldn't be much good as security for you then. I got the encryption changed on our second day here.”

“You've put an alarming amount of thought into this,” Jay tells her.

“Of course I have,” Hird says, flinging herself down onto the sofa. “It's my job.” She looks at Pyrrhine, who is hovering just inside the door. “What's the problem?”

“No problem, Wing Commander. Well, not exactly.” Pyrrhine touches the edges of her mask with careful fingertips. “Forgive my forwardness, but would you mind if I took this off?”

“Please,” Jay says. “I hope you know you're among friends here.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Pyrrhine says. “That is most generous of you.” Carefully, she releases the silver clasps and gently removes the mask from her face.

She is not at all what Jay had expected.

Inasmuch as he had considered what Pyrrhine would look like at all, he had imagined someone older. As it is she is young, beautiful, with a sharply intelligent face and an almost mischievous slant to her brows. The gold of her eyes is deeper than Samiel's, Jay realises; the colour almost hazel in the evening light. Her dark hair is a thick halo of tight curls against the pale of her skin. She is smiling as she watches Jay cataloguing the details of her.

“I assume I am not what you were thinking of,” she says.

The sound of her voice is still filtered through the translator he is wearing, but Jay notices there is a different quality to it without the constriction of her mask. It is richer, sweeter, less mechanical and much warmer.

“You surpass any imaginings I may have had,” he tells her honestly, and watches in surprise as she wrinkles her nose when she laughs.

“Smooth,” Hird says, “you devil, you.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Pyrrhine says. “And I thank you for allowing the gift of sight.” Here, she touches the skin of her face with her fingertips for emphasis. “It is difficult to trust, and even more so after what happened this morning. I know you could have refused me, and I am sensible of the gesture of allowing me to speak to you face to face, with no filters between us.” She taps the smooth surface of her mask, once, then places it carefully on the side table.

Hird shuffles sideways on the sofa. “Speaking of this morning,” she says, “would you care to enlighten us as to what happened? I have one theory, Lane has several others.”

Pyrrhine gestures to the other end of the sofa. “May I?” she asks. At Hird's nod she settles herself down. Jay, who is beginning to feel the loud protests of his body following the afternoon's events, lowers himself carefully onto one of the small chairs bolted to the floor by the desk. His back twinges slightly in protest, and he covers his grimace by looking at Pyrrhine.

“What happened?” he prompts gently.

“Firstly,” Pyrrhine says, “you must understand the Queen has sent me with her most express thanks. Were it not for your quick actions this afternoon, Wing Commander, the planet could well have been in mourning tonight and all hope of a peace treaty would have been lost. She wishes to meet you in three days for a formal acknowledgement of your services to the crown.”

“No thanks are necessary,” Jay says. “I am only sorry for the distress this must have caused your Queen and her people.”

Pyrrhine bows her head, acknowledging the point. “Secondly, what I now say, I say as myself and not as First Handmaiden: these are troubling times on Lenia.”

“Unsurprising,” Hird says bluntly. “You've been at war with us as long as we've been at war with you. The fighting isn't popular in the Interior Circle in the slightest, so I doubt your people are wildly keen on it either.”

“You are correct,” Pyrrhine says. “The people of Lenia are tired of fighting – there was no end in sight until now, and discontent is growing amongst the populace.” Her expression tightens, as though she is stifling her concern. “Most Exalted has been a fine wartime leader, but some people are now calling for her to step down.”

“Can a queen step down?” Hird asks.

“An elected one can,” Jay says, “which Queen Deneira is. She rules with the approval of the government, is that right?”

Pyrrhine nods. “Yes, for each new reign a king or queen is chosen from one of the eleven ruling families. Each candidate has to prove their worth to the government before a majority decision is taken. Often the competition is fierce; sometimes it is violent.” She bites her lip then continues, carefully, “Most Exalted's reign has been long and glorious, but her critics are calling for her exile. They say she is no longer fit to rule. It is one of the reasons she has agreed to these negotiations – to prove she will always listen to the will of the people.”

“Is the political unrest enough to force her to abdicate?” Jay asks curiously.

“No, not yet.”

“But there's enough unrest to cause an assassination attempt,” Hird says. There is a shrewd look in her eye as she examines Pyrrhine. “Which is what happened today.”

“I believe so, yes.”

“If the Queen is bowing to the wishes of the people and suing for peace, why try to kill her now?” Jay asks. “Surely she is doing as directed?”

“I couldn't say for certain, but I believe the rebels are denouncing the peace talks as a sham,” Pyrrhine says. “They are accusing the Queen of playing to the press to satisfy discontent.” Despite the tranquillity of her expression there is a faint line between her brows, as though she is trying not to frown. “This is a lie, of course. The Queen's desire to create a lasting peace is genuine.”

“Of course,” Jay says politely. “Then surely her actions will speak louder than words.”

“People also do not like the taxes she has imposed to pay for the war,” Pyrrhine says. “Even though they were ratified by our government. They blame her when she does not make these decisions alone and when she tries to act only for the good of the planet.” She sighs, once, and smooths a delicate hand over the blue of her dress. “I am telling you this, Wing Commanders, because I fear this will not be the last attempt on the Queen's life and there are some who would profit handsomely from her death.”

“Athannus,” Jay says carefully. “You are talking about Athannus.”

Pyrrhine's expression flickers briefly. “Perhaps,” she says.

“Was anyone else injured in today's attack?” Hird asks. “Because if any one of the other ambassadors was harmed, your queen is going to be facing a whole new raft of problems very rapidly.”

“Two of the scribes from the Tammoll Federation were killed.”

“Damn, you're going to have difficulties with that; the Galactic Parliament will not be happy.”

“Most Exalted has already sent a message to the Federation of the Interior Circle, asking for forgiveness and offering a full investigation,” Pyrrhine says. “We are awaiting a response.”

“The response you may get is a Federation warship,” Jay says, “depending on how important those scribes were within their respective clans.”

Hird pulls a face. “And if you think we're bad, wait until you've pissed off the Tammoll Federation for real. They look cute and fluffy, but believe me they aren't.

“I know.” Pyrrhine tilts her head and looks at Jay. “And that is why I am asking you to do everything within your power to ensure these talks succeed, Wing Commander; even with the losses we have suffered today. Lenia is an old enemy, but I would like to prove to you that she can change, and for the better. We – all of us – want peace. I feel that here, now, we can achieve something miraculous between our two peoples if we only try. Humans and Sirens could finally become true allies, and I think the chance to make that a reality is worth fighting for, even if the Tammoll Federation causes problems.”

It is an almost impassioned speech from her and Jay pauses, considering the sincerity of her words. Peace has been almost impossible until now, and whilst Deneira's motives for opening talks are becoming clearer and are obviously self-motivated, Pyrrhine is right when she suggests this is an opportunity to actually achieve something. It may be the only opportunity, he amends mentally. Because if the Tammoll Federation declare war, then Parliament will have no choice but to become involved. If that happens, then it is more than likely the human representatives within Parliament will seize this opportunity to back further military action against Lenia.

If nothing else, he reasons, letting the situation play out here shouldn't cause any harm.

“Alright,” he says at last. “You have at least got my attention, First Handmaiden. But why not go to Ambassador Lault with this?”

“Because you and I are not the figureheads of our particular sides,” Pyrrhine says, and now there is something mischievous in the slant of her eyes. “We are the ones who go out and do things, Wing Commander Lane. And I would like to get things done.”

“Given the circumstances,” Jay says, “I think you had better call me Jay.”

*

A three day period of mourning is declared, following the attack at the temple.

On the one hand this delays the talks still further, but on the other it gives all of them a chance to regroup. Whilst Jay thinks this is valuable time to do a bit of digging following their discussion with Pyrrhine, Hird is most definitely not pleased that they are spending even more time on Lenia.

She disappears off at least three times on the first day to check on the Banshee, and to make sure her crew haven't accidentally started any fires. (This is what Jay tells himself, at least; he wouldn't put it past Subtle and Confidence to actually blow up their own ship.) She also leaves several officers scattered conspicuously around the wing housing the human delegation, and even offers to loan a couple out to the Medusae. To Jay's relief Archon Ssafyr receives this offer in the spirit it is intended, and simply politely declines.

By the second day, however, having checked that Lault does not require him for anything in particular, Jay is at something of a loss as to what to do. His injuries are mostly healed and Hird clearly still has security covered, if today's run of suspicious looking humans loitering in the corridors is anything to go by. The rest of the diplomats are keeping to their own wings of the palace, so there are no meetings – informal or otherwise – scheduled to take place until the mourning period is over.

The Queen is still in seclusion with her government – although, Ssafyr informed him yesterday that she is apparently also talking to the Tammoll Federation about the ongoing investigation – and most of the official Siren delegation are nowhere to be found, Pyrrhine included.

Bored and at a loose end, Jay follows his instincts and wanders out into one of the main courtyards just to escape the atmosphere of the palace.

Outside the air is far less stifling and he breathes deeply, enjoying the sounds of the surrounding buildings humming with activity, and the noise of Maa-Tarek from beyond the palace walls.

Which, now that he thinks about it...

Glancing around, Jay can't spot anyone paying him particular attention. The few people he sees hurrying across the courtyard are Sirens, clearly intent on other business. All is quiet.

If there was ever an opportunity to get out and see a bit more of Lenia, this would be it. He's not likely to be allowed back here again, and being an anonymous face in the crowd, as opposed to part of the human delegation, might help him gauge the mood of the local populace a bit better. If what Pyrrhine says is true, people outside the palace walls are not likely to be complimentary about the peace talks, but what they have to say is going to be far more useful than anything Deneira and her team are willing to give.

Mind made up, Jay slips across the courtyard and towards one of the side gates of the palace. He sends a silent prayer of thanks that Hird hasn't yet gone so far as to assign him a bodyguard. She had handed him a spare pistol the day before, though, with terse instructions that since he knew how to use it, he had bloody well better if the situation called for it.

It occurs to him as he loiters inconspicuously by the gate, waiting for the guard to finish his discussion with another official, that it is going to be best to keep a low profile when he goes outside. What that may mean in real terms is no talking.

Because if the eyes don't give me away, he thinks ruefully, the voice certainly will.

The guard finishes his conversation, and one brief scan of Jay's identity chip later, he is free with surprisingly little grief.

It occurs to him that he really shouldn't be able to just leave the palace the way he is, and his more cynical side wonders if Deneira left standing orders he be allowed out, in the hopes he gets attacked by an angry mob.

Ruthlessly squashing the thought and resigning himself to worrying about the matter later, after he's had a good look around, he sets off at a fast pace.

Almost at once it is a feast on his senses. Compared to the sterile environment of the Palace, Maa-Tarek itself is vibrant and bustling. Hovers are shooting by on either side of the fly lanes, avoiding the no-go zone and around the diplomatic buildings. People are crowding the pavements, their elaborate robes trailing on the gleaming synthetic floors as they go about their daily lives.

To Jay's surprise only a few of the locals are wearing masks, and as he ventures further out of the complex fewer and fewer Sirens seem to be in formal dress of any kind. This will at least make him a bit less conspicuous, he thinks with relief, watching as two women hurry past, talking at such a speed his translator only picks up every third word from them.

The air is also richer out here, filled with the smells of living: exhausts and perfume, the flowers in the artfully arranged beds and the thick scent of bread baking. The last in particular gently reminds him that he hasn't had any lunch, and he turns out of the main business area and begins to make his way into the depths of the city.

From around him he catches snippets of conversation and he makes an effort not to focus in on any given one in particular, not wanting to draw attention to himself. He doesn't hear any mention of the attack at the temple, which surprises him, but there is plenty about the human delegation currently in residence at the palace. To his mild amusement opinion seems split between deep suspicion and cautious optimism. The latter at least gives him hope that there is no outright hostility boiling over towards Lault at the moment.

Smiling, he sidesteps a father carrying his child, as he makes his way further from the main thoroughfare. This earns him a startled look for his efforts.

Right, he thinks, eye contact. He realises ruefully that, in hindsight, perhaps it really would have been better to acquire a spare mask from somewhere before venturing out. Still, the Siren he has dodged doesn't say anything, just shoots him another cautious glance and goes on his way.

Jay continues onwards and before long finds himself in a square, with stalls set out in the middle and a little restaurant tucked away into one corner, underneath some blossoming jiliss trees. From the looks of it, he has just missed the lunchtime rush, and half the outside tables are empty.

Digging in his pockets he discovers he did at least remember to bring his credit chip with him, and since standard currency is accepted almost anywhere, he thinks it may be worth attempting some food. If the worst comes to it and he's refused service, he reasons, he can at least leave quickly if he doesn't sit inside. The heavy weight of the pistol holstered at his hip helps as well and, mind made up, he takes a seat.

He doesn't have to wait long before a server comes bowling over.

“Drink?” she barks out, poised to select his order on her pad. With no choice but to respond, Jay opens his mouth to order a cup of saff. The server raises a disapproving brow at the sound of his voice, her eyes skittering over his painfully bare face and obviously green eyes. Her mouth twists in something like disapproval and her expression darkens slightly. “Food?” she asks curtly, and if her tone was unfriendly before, it is positively icy now.

“Do you have barilla?” Jay asks, determined to stick this out if he possibly can. There's no doubt she's at least identified his species, but her hostility might not be enough to push her into driving away a paying customer.

“Baked or fried?”

“Baked, please.”

“Fried is better,” says a low voice in Jay's ear, and long fingers press down on his shoulders as he moves to stand. Without looking, Jay knows on an uncomfortably instinctual level who is behind him. It must be engrained in his psyche, he thinks to himself, resigned. He watches as the server pales slightly, lips pressed together as her gaze flicks between Jay and Samiel.

“What are you doing here,” Jay asks, not bothering to temper his tone or look around.

“Apparently, meeting you,” Samiel says. His lips brush Jay's ear. “Just sit still, darling.”

There is an awful, dark part of Jay that wants to bare his teeth and snarl at the endearment. He doesn't; instead, he grips the edge of the table and swallows the first three things that want to come out of his mouth. I just wanted one afternoon, he thinks. One afternoon with no politics.

“What can I get you?” the server asks, and where before she was outright hostility, now she is nervous compliance as Samiel takes the seat opposite Jay. His movements are a little stiff, Jay notes; probably from his injuries at the temple. His face is bare of his mask and his expression is carefully neutral.

“Saff,” Samiel says, gaze never leaving Jay's face, “and I'll have the barilla as well. Fried.”

When the server has left, shooting a worried glance at Samiel over her shoulder, Jay raises an eyebrow. “I thought I made it clear I wanted nothing to do with you?” he asks. “Was I not obvious enough the first time?”

“Perfectly.” Samiel's fingers drum briefly against the tabletop. It is an old, nervous habit that Jay remembers from Mas-Hain. It pains him that these details still stick in his mind.

“Then why are you here?”

Samiel's gaze flicks once around then courtyard and then returns to Jay. “I happened to be walking past and saw you,” he says.

“You're lying.”

“I'm lying. I followed you when you left the palace.”

“What do you want Samiel?” Jay asks, frustrated and trying not to show it. “Why are you doing this? After all this time, why can you not just stay away? We're trying to work toward peace here, and you and I being left together on our own is clearly something that will not help with that.”

“I – ” For a moment his confidence wavers and Samiel looks torn. He bites his lip and seems to hesitate, weighing what he wishes to say. “I just wanted to see you,” he says finally, helplessly honest. “That's what it was, to start with. It's been three years and I just...” He trails off, and for the first time he lowers his gaze to the tabletop.

“It's been three years,” he says again, abruptly. “Do you know? Three years.”

“I know,” Jay snarls and this stings – oh, it stings – that Samiel is doing this here, now. “I am very aware of how long it has been. You think I just forgot about everything? You think I haven't spent the last three years making up for every single fucking mistake I made in those six months?”

“I know,” Samiel says quietly. “I know. But – ” He pauses again and licks his lips nervously. “You've got laughter lines,” he says at last. “Did you know? Here,” he indicates the corners of his eyes with his fingers, “and here. Your freckles have multiplied and your stubble's grown in and they're all things that remind me of how long it's been.” He exhales a short, sharp breath, as though frustrated with himself. “But your eyes are the same colour and the smile you give when you're lying hasn't changed and everything about you is old and new at once.”

It is hard to be angry at someone who is not fighting back, but, Jay thinks, he is certainly going to try.

“And what's your point?” he asks. “I've got older? That was inevitable.”

“The point is that it is like meeting you for the first time again and I didn't realise how painfully unprepared I was for it. You are almost like a stranger to me, my master.”

“I told you not to call me that!” Jay hisses. “If you do nothing else, you will not say those words to me again.”

“And then there you really are,” Samiel says, leaning back in his chair. His face is blank; the expression in his eyes is cautious. “Just when I think you are not familiar at all, you show me this. You have parcelled yourself away under your politeness and diplomacy and look at you when you lose control – you are everything you should be.”

“I don't – what does that even mean?” Jay asks. He can feel his fingers curling on his lap and he tries to straighten them out – to smooth away his anger. If anyone looks over it will be painfully obvious that their conversation is hostile, and this is publicity he can't afford.

“It means you shouldn't hide behind the walls you have built,” Samiel says, and the sheer gall of it has Jay nearly grinding his teeth in frustration.

Three years, he thinks, and I had forgotten how irritating he can be.

“There are no walls,” he says, instead of all the things he would very much like to. “Perhaps you shouldn't be arrogant enough to assume you know me so well any more. I'm a different person now.”

And there is it, the faint trace of a smile on Samiel's face as he watches Jay. “Liar,” he says with painful gentleness.

The worst of it is, that even with the anger, even with the way he is itching to throttle Samiel, Jay is uncomfortably aware that buried underneath it all is that same undeniable attraction, especially when Samiel smiles. He looks good – he always does – and sitting opposite him in the sunshine, he looks like every dream Jay is never going to admit to having had since Mas-Hain. That is the painful truth, but attraction does not mean he has to act on it, and it certainly doesn't mean he has to stay and put up with any of Samiel's nonsense.

“Right,” says Jay, abandoning subtlety and pushing his chair back. “I'm sorry, but enough. I'm not staying here and listening to any more.”

As he goes to stand, Samiel leans forward. “I wouldn't leave, if I were you,” he says, and if there was ever anything of the vulnerable young man Jay had once known in him, it is gone in that moment. His gaze is sharp, clear, as he glances over Jay's shoulder and then back again.

“And why not?”

Samiel smiles and leans back in his chair again, by all appearances completely nonchalant.

“Because there are three men waiting in the road outside of the square, and they are here to kill you.”

Chapter Text

“That's ridiculous,” Jay says, although he doesn't move. He can't. It's as though his feet are rooted to the floor.

He is not unfamiliar with people trying to kill him – it's one of the hazards of the job – but he wasn't expecting it right now. There is a small, critical part of himself that is currently pointing out he probably should have seen this coming: that there is always going to be mistrust between humans and Sirens. The optimism he had felt when he first left the palace is rapidly dying in the wake of that thought.

It is clear that Samiel is not lying; or at least believes that what he is saying is the truth. Jay can see that from the steady way he is watching him, leaning back in his chair and apparently supremely confident that he has now got the upper hand.

“It's not ridiculous,” Samiel says, “it's the truth.” He tilts his head, curiously. “How could you not have considered this outcome, when you decided to leave the safety of the palace?”

“Because I stupidly didn't think any of your people would decide that killing me was the way to ensure successful peace talks,” Jay bites out. “Astonishingly, I was under the impression it is illegal to murder a member of a diplomatic envoy.”

“It is.” The sweep of Samiel's lashes is clear as he looks at the tabletop, thinking. “I just believe these men have decided it's worth the risk of being caught.”

“How do you even know it's me they're after?” Jay demands.

Samiel shrugs, eloquently. “Because they were following you, I was following them, and it became quite clear what they had planned when I saw the guns they were carrying.” The small, lopsided smile makes another appearance. “Not that you aren't armed as well, of course.”

“Of course,” Jay echoes. He runs a frustrated hand through his hair and looks around.

There's clearly not much foot traffic in the courtyard at this time of day, as it's mostly empty. There's no sign of the men Samiel is talking about, but that doesn't mean they aren't waiting to ambush him as soon as he leaves. His options are either stealth or violence, and neither sounds greatly appealing. Stealth is risky because there is a high probability of him getting caught anyway, and in all likelihood it would be in a less easily defensible environment than this. Violence is worse, because he dreads to think what the news outlets would make of things if he is caught brawling on Lenia. At best he'd be sent home in disgrace, with no chance to explain himself.

“I don't suppose there's a back way out of here?” Jay asks, hopelessly.

“No,” Samiel says, “and if there was I'm sure they'd have set someone to watch it.” He tilts his head, watching as the server approaches with a tray. “Ah, and the food's here. You may as well eat first.”

“I'm not hungry any more, thank you,” Jay says. It is the truth. His appetite has taken an alarming dive for the worst as he considers the political ramifications his afternoon stroll may have caused. “I think I'll just have the saff.”

“Suit yourself,” Samiel says, digging into his food with alarming enthusiasm. “But the barilla's really quite good, especially fried.”

“Are you not worried about this?” Jay asks. “Do you not have any idea what might happen if this all goes horribly wrong?”

“Well it's not going to,” Samiel says around a mouthful of food. He appears to be focussed on his plate, but from the way he tilts his head Jay can tell his attention is fixed on him. “I'll tell them to stop loitering and send them on their way.”

“And when your arrogant plan gets you killed in a fight in the street?” Jay asks. “Because that's going to look just as bad, and honestly I very much doubt they're going to listen if you tell them to go away.”

“Oh so you do care what happens to me, at least a little,” Samiel says, shovelling another forkful of food into his mouth. “How nice to know.”

Jay can feel himself flushing, and silently curses his fair skin. “That's not what I'm saying at all. What I am trying to point out is that if you or I get caught brawling in public, the political ramifications are extremely severe. It becomes even worse if we get caught together because, let's face it, you and I should be kept at opposite ends of the planet.”

“It's so touching that you feel we can at least be on the same planet at last,” Samiel says, setting down his fork. His tone is sharp; the look he shoots Jay could draw blood. “After all, until last week you were making quite sure we were on different sides of the galaxy.” He bares his teeth in something that could, if one were feeling charitable, be called a grin.

Jay is not feeling charitable.

“”No,” he says. “No, we are not doing this now. I am not having this discussion with you when I have three men trying to kill me.”

“Which implies we would be having the discussion at another time,” Samiel says. “When clearly we wouldn't be.”

“You're right,” Jay says, standing up. He is not having this conversation, not now, not ever. “You know, you're absolutely right. We're not going to be having that discussion, not ever. So if you'll excuse me, I think I am going to talk to the people trying to kill me.”

He ignores the look on Samiel's face, turns on his heel and marches out of the square.

Outside, he pauses and scans the street. It is not immediately obvious which Sirens Samiel was referring to. Footfall is still relatively heavy in this part of town, as afternoon heads gently towards early evening. The rush of people disguises the identities of his would-be assassins and for a brief moment he hopes Samiel is mistaken.

However, just as he begins to think he might be in with a chance of getting back to the palace without causing an international incident, he spots them.

It is unsurprising he overlooked them as he wandered around Maa-Tarek; they are almost completely innocuous in their plain clothes. They are not wearing masks and are not even obviously loitering. One is chatting idly to a street vendor; another is standing to one side of the main thoroughfare, apparently examining something on his linkpad. The last is currently sketching the architecture of the ornate offices on Jay's side of the street. The only thing that gives them away is the way they are standing. All of them are military straight and expressionless in their professionalism.

They are good, Jay admits to himself, as he begins to walk away from the exit to the square. It is only long years of hard-won experience that have let him pick out the small inconsistencies in their appearance; the giveaways anyone with less knowledge would have missed.

He is making this up as he goes but his plan, insofar as he has one, is to lure them away from the busy streets. The less witnesses the better, he reasons, whatever the outcome of this confrontation. He doesn't look back to check they are following – they will be – but he keeps his pace steady and his shoulders loose.

It is with some surprise he realises that he is not afraid of the upcoming encounter. The way his mind has processed this is as another challenge to overcome. He has come through worse, in his time, and there is something familiar and refreshing in relying on no one but himself. Sink or swim it all depends on his words, and for once there will be no endless politicking around the subject. His heart is beating faster, but it is in anticipation, not terror; at last, here is something he can work against, something tangible.

He turns into a little side street, which is both bereft of hovers and people. The walkway rapidly narrows, until the buildings are pressing in on one another. The back of his neck prickles with awareness; sound is slowly muffling now they are away from the main streets, and all he hears is the occasional scuff of a shoe to indicate his pursuers are still following him.

Here, he thinks. If it was me, I would do this here.

So, the element of surprise it is, then.

Without pausing he turns around, startling the Siren who has been gradually edging closer to him.

“Can I help you?” he asks, pleasantly.

Up close the Siren is not as tall as Samiel; does not move with his assured grace. In fact, looking at him, he seems almost hesitant. There is something familiar about his face, though – a vague sense of the known that Jay finds in the lines of his jaw and the shape of his eyes. They are nearly of a height, and the Siren's gold eyes examine Jay carefully, his hand already straying towards his belt, where his gun is holstered.

That in itself is another clue, Jay realises. None of the Sirens are carrying a salzon, which means they are either no longer part of the military, or this is not an officially sanctioned murder. The thought absurdly makes him feel better – these three men are quite clearly aware that if things go wrong they are going to be left on their own, with no hope of their sponsor coming to their aid.

“You're Jason Lane,” says the Siren.

“Yes.”

The Siren's expression twists in disgust, and it is odd to see such a strong reaction coming from someone who is not Samiel or Venndred. Absurdly, Jay has almost become used to the repressed emotions of the court.

“You're the butcher of Mas-Hain,” the Siren says, his feet shifting as though he is trying not to move into the opening stance of one of the forms.

“No,” Jay says, calmly. “That was not me, no matter what you were told.”

The Siren spits at his feet. “He said you would say that,” he says. “Scum. You can't even own up to your actions. Three innocent men died that day.”

“No,” Jay says, although he would desperately like to ask who 'he' is. “Six innocent men died that day, and I should have as well.” He holds his hands out, palms up, demonstrating that he is not going for his weapon. Over his accuser's shoulder he can see the other two men approaching. From the look on their faces, this confrontation had not been part of the plan, and his attacker is plainly going off-script.

“Then why didn't you?” the Siren asks.

“I don't know,” Jay says honestly. “I have no idea why I wasn't killed as well.”

“Liar,” says the Siren.

“I'm not lying,” Jay says, “and I'd like to talk to you.”

“Why?”

“Enough,” hisses the second Siren, who is now close enough to grab at the first one's shoulder. “Don't talk to him, kill him.” Interestingly, he does not make a move for his own gun, even as he shoves the first Siren, roughly. “Just finish the job.”

There is reluctance here, Jay realises, and that realisation crystallises into sharp focus. All three of them came armed to kill and at least two of them are not as certain about the path ahead of them as their behaviour initially suggested. Hesitance is something Jay can work with and he takes a slow, deep breath to centre himself.

“Look at me,” he says gently. “I'm armed, but I'm not responding to your threats, I'm not violent.” To emphasise his point he carefully spreads his hands wider. “I am not trying to attack you; I am not trying to harm you. I am not your enemy.”

“Shut up,” hisses the first Siren, and something in the raw anger of his voice sparks remembrance in Jay's brain. He has seen this rage before, on a different face, in a different time, for a different reason.

“Palek,” he says, and watches as the first Siren jerks in shock, hand straying to the gun apparently concealed under his jacket. “You are related to Palek.”

“How would you know that?” The Siren's expression twists again, surprise and no small amount of fear marching across his face.

“I knew Palek,” Jay says. “You look like him, a little.” He pauses, unsure how his next words will be received, but aching to give them just the same. “I'm sorry. I am so sorry for what happened to him. He didn't deserve that.”

“Then you shouldn't have killed him!” The Siren shrugs out of his comrade's grasp and takes two steps forward.

Jay doesn't move. “I didn't,” he says. “Look at me, of course I didn't.” He won't take his eyes off of the group of men in front of him, but he does lower his head, in acknowledgement. “He was a good man.”

“You're lying, you killed him,” the Siren says again, but this time it is almost rote; there is doubt in him now, uncertainty sown by Jay's words and his sincerity. Behind him, the other two shift uneasily.

“Isen,” one of them says cautiously, then flinches, alarmed as he realises what he has just let slip.

At the flinch Jay realises that if he is not careful, he is going to lose control of this situation very rapidly. The little group is starting to panic now, he can see it. They hadn't counted on Jay recognising anything about them, and now they have exposed a name – something he can follow up on later. The only way to ensure he doesn't is to kill him.

He needs to act, to defuse this, and so he keeps his hands spread wide. Slowly he drops, first to one knee, then both, until he is kneeling on the hard ground. He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on Isen's face. The nape of his neck prickles with the feeling he is exposing himself to greater physical threats, but he ignores the tension.

“Look at me,” he repeats. “I am not a danger. I am here, on this planet, to try and stop anything like that ever happening again. I understand you are angry; I understand you want revenge. If you choose to take it I cannot stop you, but understand you will be shooting a man who will not fight back. Whatever monster you have imagined in your darkest dreams of revenge, I am not it. I was not responsible for Palek's death. But I would like to honour him by finishing what he had started, and ensuring peace between our two races.”

It is another gamble, but he has spoken honestly. He can only trust that Isen will be able to read this in his voice, in his face.

“If you didn't kill him,” Isen says into the long, heavy silence that follows Jay's words, “then who did?”

Jay opens his mouth; closes it. If he says it is Samiel there are only two likely outcomes: either he won't be believed or he will be creating more problems by pointing their vengeance in a new, and suicidal direction. It is no easy thing to admit, but Samiel is better than the men in front of him. He is more clever, cunning and likely much quicker with his blade, having completed his Severne training.

“I know who killed Palek,” he says at last, “but I don't know why. I am trying to find that out.” It is a truth, of sorts. He has not asked Samiel why before, it has not mattered, but he could ask now. “If you will allow me to look into this, once I know the full truth I swear I will tell you everything.”

“Your reputation across Lenia is one of a murderer and a coward – why should we trust you?” asks the second Siren. The third, next to him, nods grimly. “We have no reason to.”

“No, you don't,” Jay says. “But look at me. I am here, with nothing else to offer. You can kill me if you wish and I cannot stop you, but that will not give you answers. In the spirit of the peace I am trying to help negotiate, I am offering this to you. I don't want anything in return: no favours, no promises, I just want to help.”

“You just want your life,” Isen says, but Jay can see the anger on his face fading as he moves a step closer.

As Isen shifts on his feet, Jay notices that some way down the street, behind the group of Sirens, a tall, black-robed figure is standing, watching the drama unfold. Its right hand is grasping the hilt of a salzon sword and it is tense, as though anticipating the need to intervene.

Of course, Jay thinks, exasperated. Of course he followed me and doesn't trust me to sort this out, and his solution to this mess is violence.

He looks back at Isen, who hasn't noticed his minor lapse in attention. “I do want my life,” he says, “but that doesn't mean my offer is not genuine.” Cautiously, he holds out his wrist. “Here, unstrap my commlink. You can take the digital codes for it. That will let you contact me whenever you wish, so I can speak to you. If you are not happy when I have provided you the answers you are looking for, we can meet again.” He carefully doesn't promise that next time he will not be caught unaware, and is relieved when the others do not seem to pick up on this.

Dubiously, Isen takes his wrist and unstraps the commlink. He backs away a couple of steps and begins to programme something into his own link, glancing in Jay's direction every once in a while, as though for confirmation he is still there.

“Are you sure about this?” the second Siren asks. “We can't trust him.”

Jay is trying desperately not to look past the group to see what Samiel is doing. His knees are starting to ache and he has the horrible feeling he is running out of time before Samiel intervenes. “You can't yet,” he says. “I hope this will at least go some way towards proving I am trying to help.”

“Alright,” Isen says, handing Jay his commlink back. “I've got your link code.” He pauses, his face tightening as he eyes Jay unhappily. “I came here fully prepared to kill you,” he says. “We've followed you most of the afternoon.”

“I know.”

“I – ” Isen's lips compress into a thin. “He spoke about you, once,” he says, and Jay looks at him in surprise. “He said of all the humans he had met, you were the first one he had spoken to who liked to learn, just for the sake of learning. That you were very unusual. From him, that was a compliment.”

Jay closes his eyes, briefly. He can't help himself, the pain of those six months is never too far away and it is a raw bruise right now, with the ghost of Palek in Isen, and the man who killed him standing half a street away and looking ready to do it again.

“Thank you,” he says hoarsely. “I was proud to have known him.”

“Maybe,” Isen says.

Jay opens his eyes. Behind Isen and his friends, he can see the way Samiel's posture has changed, the core of him lower, more balanced in gravity, as he tenses. He is probably three breaths from intervening – too far away to hear what has happened and apparently responding to Jay's submissive posture and obvious pain.

“You need to go,” Jay says. “We won't be alone much longer; I'm sure people are looking for me.” He looks at Isen, who nods. “I'll stay here, like this, for a count of sixty. That way I won't be able to see where you go.”

“I really don't think – ” the third Siren says, still eyeing Jay suspiciously.

“No,” Isen says with a curt gesture. “You don't think. The human is right: we're leaving.” He jerks his head past Jay. “Go that way. Now.”

Grumbling, the other two Sirens shoulder their way past Jay, who is uncomfortably aware he is still kneeling on the floor. Isen moves past too but pauses, briefly, by Jay's shoulder.

“We'll see each other again,” he says, more of a promise than a threat, and leans down until he is nearly level with Jay's ear. “And next time, make sure your pet Severne is on a tighter lead.”

Jay blinks, surprised. He hadn't thought Isen had noticed Samiel.

Before he can respond Isen is gone, his light footsteps dying away rapidly into the background hum of Maa-Tarek.

Left with only his promise to wait, Jay stays where he is silently counting to sixty. By the time he has reached thirty, Samiel is approaching him, any hesitance long since gone.

“Are you alright?” he asks, circling Jay's kneeling figure. “I thought they really were going to kill you.”

“I'm fine.” Jay allows himself a small flicker of satisfaction at the way there is something like respect in Samiel's voice. “They only wanted to talk, after all that.”

“No they didn't,” Samiel says, still pacing. “You don't have to cover for them. I recognised Isen Kallat. He is – was – Palek's brother.”

“I know,” Jay murmurs. “I worked that out.”

“Of course you did.” Instead of concern there is rich approval in Samiel's voice. “You're far too clever for your own good.” He stops in front of Jay and his gaze is warm, intent. “You are magnificent,” he murmurs. “Look at you, on your knees and yet you still dominated the entire situation.” Almost unconsciously he reaches out, tracing the line of Jay's jaw. “My clever, clever, master.”

Jay flushes, hard. “Do I need to tell you again – ” he begins, half frustrated with Samiel and half angered at the way his own heart lurches in his chest at the praise and at the trail of warmth spilling down his throat as Samiel's thumb brushes his lips.

“No,” Samiel says softly. “You don't need to tell me again, but at least give me this. I've just watched you kneel before three men who aren't fit to lick your boots and you still wrapped them around your fingers.” His mouth twitches in half-repressed frustration. “I could have killed them for forcing you to kneel,” he says. “You should let me.”

He slides his fingers slowly up again, until he is drawing them gently through Jay's hair and this – this is not what Jay expected. He was expecting aggression, maybe gloating, but there is nothing of that. Samiel is intent, watching him, and there is soft, terrible part of Jay that is responding to it, to the low hum of mine simmering in Samiels's eyes and the wicked curve of his lips. Jay is on his knees and vulnerable, and Samiel is standing over him with possession writ clear in the lines of his body and it's – it's –

“You're not killing anyone,” he says on a low breath. He scrambles to his feet, and feels a pang at the loss of Samiel's hand. “I think you've already done enough of that, don't you?”

Samiel raises an eyebrow, acknowledging the point. “Perhaps,” he says. There is something dark in his expression; something dangerous and wanting that raises the hairs on the back of Jay's neck, makes his breath come faster. “But we both know I would do far worse if you asked. Anything to please you, my darling.”

“No.” Jay points a finger at him, taking a step back, because he will not be held responsible for Samiel's actions. “You'd do anything to please yourself, Samiel.”

Samiel smiles. “That too. But consider: pleasing you pleases me. In this way we both win.”

It is times like this that Jay really and truly hates Samiel. He is tired, knees throbbing and brain spinning as he tries to parse what Samiel wants from him. Instinct informs him that Samiel is telling the truth; logic dictates that no one should be this attached, this disturbingly possessive over someone they met once, three years ago, for very little time at all in the scheme of things. This is not normal, but here they are. Samiel had followed him this afternoon; had been ready to intervene if things went wrong. He has been infuriating and dangerously sharp. In spite of himself there is a rotten core to Jay that has missed the intense focus of Samiel's attention up to now; the way it is as though the rest of the world ceases to exist when it is the pair of them. And Samiel is so, so lovely right now, with honest, terrifying want written across his face.

Jay swallows once, twice. No, he tries to reason with himself. I cannot do this now. But how many times, he asks himself, frustrated, has he thought that this afternoon? This week? Always it is 'not now'. For one painful moment he wants to reach forward, to fist his hand in the softness of Samiel's tunic and say instead: Alright, just this once. But what 'just this once' means, he doesn't know.

He can't, though. That is not who he is.

Jay takes a second step back, then another.

“I'm going back to the palace,” he says, instead of anything more dangerous, because in the end, he is still himself and Samiel is still Samiel and there is a great difference between dangerous want and sensible need, and he has to remove himself from this situation. “Do whatever you want, Samiel.”

*

How could you be so fucking stupid?” Hird roars, incandescent and looking ready to murder him.

She is towering over Jay, who is sitting on a low sofa, rubbing his forehead with tired fingers. Hird had collared him the moment he set foot in the palace grounds and marched him straight back to the wing that housed the human delegation. She is now making it quite clear how unhappy she is about his impromptu trip into Maa-Tarek.

Behind Hird, Venndred is perched on the edge of the desk, long legs crossed at the ankles as he watches the scene unfold with a carefully neutral expression. The strong, awkward lines of his youthful face belie the solemn look in his eyes, as his gaze darts between Hird and Jay.

“I'm sorry, Hird,” Jay tries, “I was only – ”

“I don't give a fuck what you were doing!” Hird shouts, jabbing a finger in Jay's face. “I am your fucking security detail in the middle of a hostile planet, the entire population of which hates your fucking guts. And instead of giving me any kind of hint – any kind of warning – that you might go prancing the fuck off into the great wide world out there, you just piss off and don't tell me! It took me four sodding hours to realise you were missing!”

Her language, Jay notes, gets far worse and much less creative the angrier she gets.

“Hird,” he tries again.

“No, no, you shut the fuck up Lane, and listen to me. This is not a game. This is not your standard diplomatic mission, and your usual modus operandi will not work here. We've got one chance at this peace treaty and if you shaft us all by getting your stupid self killed, I will dig up your grave and piss on your corpse, do you understand me?” Hird slams a hand down on the arm of the sofa. Behind her Venndred raises an eyebrow, looking impressed.

“I'm sorry I didn't tell you where I was going,” Jay says. “It really was a spur of the moment decision.”

Hird honest-to-god growls at him at that. She throws up her hands and rounds on Venndred. “You talk to him,” she snaps. “Because if I have to listen to much more of this, I'm going to wring his fucking neck.”

Venndred clearly suppresses a smile – and it's a blessing Hird doesn't spot this, Jay thinks – before he folds his arms. “She does have a point,” he says. “I know up until now you've mostly only been exposed to the court, Wing Commander, but you are...infamous, on Lenia.” He holds up a hand as Jay opens his mouth to protest. “I'm not saying it's wrong to want to see the sights, to read the mood of the people, but you should have told Wing Commander Hird where you were going, don't you think? She could have at least provided discrete protection.”

The words Hird and discrete don't really belong in the same sentence, Jay thinks, but now is probably not the time to argue that particular point.

“Look,” he says with a sigh, “after a... recent conversation with a member of the court, I thought it might be an idea to gain a better understanding of the public's opinion on this peace treaty. Particularly given that someone appears to be trying to kill your queen, and she is the one we're negotiating with.”

Hird opens her mouth – no doubt to point out that at no point did Pyrrhine mention anything about leaving the palace – but Jay shoots her a stern look. Surprisingly, she shuts her mouth again, but from the narrow-eyed glare she send in his direction, he can tell she is still ready to throttle him.

“And I understand that,” Venndred says. “I really do. You should never have been caught in the crossfire of Lenia's politics, yet here you are. But that is not the point of the conversation. The point is, that if something had happened to you, I think we can all agree that this peace treaty would have been dead in the water.” He smiles. “Now, thankfully nothing happened this time. But will you be so lucky next time, Commander? I am probably the biggest hypocrite for urging you to do this but, please, if you do this again, think, and tell someone where you are going before you leave.”

“Or I'll break both your fucking legs,” Hird interjects, darkly. She stomps over to an armchair opposite and throws herself into it, still glaring at Jay. “You're only lucky I spoke to His Worshipfulness here, before I sent four teams out to track you down. He did my job for me and spoke to the guard on the gate.”

That explains why Venndred is here, Jay realises. It surprises him that Hird voluntarily accepted his help, but maybe she had considered him the lesser of two evils. The alternative would have been to report Jay missing to Lault, who would have spoken to palace security. Then Jay's afternoon out would have become an interplanetary incident. He sighs and rubs his eyes.

“You're right,” he says to both Hird and Venndred. “I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking sensibly and I really should have considered the ramifications of my actions properly before I did something like this.”

Hird snorts. “Cut the shit, Lane,” she says. “Stop speaking like a fucking diplomat.” Venndred laughs gently at her, but manages to contain himself when she turns a glare in his direction. “I just want you to swear to me that you won't do it again, and that I'm not going to have an internal investigation breathing down my neck because you went out into the city and murdered a bunch of people. Apparently again.”

Jay flinches at that, her caustic comment hitting a little too close to home. From the vicious expression in Hird's eyes, the jab had been deliberate.

Venndred leans forward, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Evi,” he murmurs quietly.

Hird shrugs his hand off and drums her fingers against her thigh. “Sorry,” she says after a moment, her jaw still tight. “That was below the belt. I shouldn't have said that even if I am hacked off with you.”

“It's alright,” Jay says. “I get it.” He exhales and shoots Hird a weak smile. “I promise I haven't caused any incidents.”

“Yet,” Venndred says, and when Jay glances at him, his expression is open, friendly. He is clearly trying to lighten the mood in the room, at least a little. “Did you run into any trouble at all?”

Jay pauses. If he tells Hird and Venndred about this afternoon's events, he runs the risk of Isen Kallat getting taken in for questioning. If that happens, Samiel's presence this afternoon will be revealed, and that is going to be bad no matter which way you spin it. It will either look like conspiracy, or Jay looking for revenge, and if he's honest, Jay's not entirely sure he can explain the whole thing as it stands, anyway. He needs time to think on what has happened, to work out the details and decide how to use this.

“Nothing much,” he says at last. “Just a server that didn't particularly want to give me grilled barilla.”

Venndred shudders, delicately. “I can't blame them, it's vile stuff.” He raises an eyebrow at the two pairs of incredulous expression aimed in his direction. “What?”

“Talk to me about vile when you've eaten canteen rations,” Hird says, and Venndred grins.

There is a new, tentative camaraderie between Venndred and Hird, Jay realises. It is probably born out of the afternoon's events and he privately hopes it will last. Hird could use an ally on the planet, and Venndred seems willing and able to provide support.

Hird sighs and crosses her arms. “Spoilt priests,” she says to Jay, ignoring Venndred's amusement. “Don't know how good they've got it.” She sets her jaw, pinning Jay with a severe look. “But I mean it, Lane. Anything could have happened and you're lucky it didn't. For someone allegedly so clever, you did something really bloody stupid today. You can't do it again.”

She's right. Jay can admit that to himself. The part of him that rails against the restraint of being trapped inside the palace for an extended period of time, is tempered by logic, and he knows today could have been a disaster. He should have seen this afternoon's events coming, should have anticipated it, and he didn't. He can't afford to take the risks he usually would and he needs to remember that.

“I know,” he says. “And I'm sorry, Hird. I'm not trying to make your life more difficult. I won't do it again.”

“Good.” Hird points a finger at him. “Because I will knock you out and drop you on the least inhabited planet in the Exterior Circle if you do it again.”

“You are... alarmingly violent,” Venndred says, looking anything but concerned.

Hird shrugs. “Only when it helps to solve a problem,” she says. The implication that Jay is the problem in this scenario does not go unnoticed by anyone in the room.

“Terrifying,” Venndred murmurs and Jay watches, vastly entertained, as Hird scowls at the floor and refuses to meet his eyes.

“Be quiet,” she mutters.

The commlink on Venndred's wrist pings as he is about to reply. He looks at it, the expression of amusement dying as he reads the content of his message.

“Oh,” he says softly.

“What?” Jay asks, sitting up straighter. His back aches and he's starting to become unbearably tired – it's been a very long day – but he doesn't like Venndred's tone.

“It's the First Handmaiden,” Venndred says, dropping his wrist and looking at Jay and Hird with wide eyes. “She's sent a message from the Queen.”

Jay's stomach drops. This can't be good news. A message from Deneira could spell all sorts of trouble.

“Well, what does it say?” Hird demands.

“She wants to see Wing Commander Lane. Now.”

The feeling in the pit of Jay's stomach gets worse.

“Alright,” Hird says. “Let me just get a couple of men to act as security detail and – ”

“Alone.”

Chapter Text

The corridor to Deneira's suite of rooms is long and well-guarded.

Hird escorts Jay to the main doors and leaves with one last warning look that says don't fuck this up. Venndred's smile behind her back is wry, but when he glances at Jay he winks reassuringly. Jay watches the pair of them round the corner and disappear from sight before he turns to the nearest Severne guarding the door.

Taking a deep breath he nods a greeting, and the Severne on duty lets him in.

Deneira's rooms are composed of delicate grey-veined marble and graceful white furnishings. Rich rugs, similar to those Jay had seen in the temple the other day, are scattered across the floor, softening the cool austerity of the room. Natural light filters through the vast synthscreen windows and the view out looks directly onto the skyline of Maa-Tarek.

As Jay glances around he spots Pyrrhine standing in one corner, her hands clasped carefully in front of her. She is wearing her mask again and the impassive lines of her posture make it clear she is very much on duty at the moment.

Deneira is sitting in a low-backed chair at a desk. Her make up is once more perfect. The rich red fabric of her dress is spotless. It is strange seeing her like this after the forced intimacy that had resulted from the attempted assassination. Then, she had appeared almost painfully alive, dishevelled and vibrant; now, she is a porcelain doll, placed perfectly in the setting of her own rooms as she watches Jay's observations.

Aware that he may be edging dangerously close to a lack of protocol by failing to acknowledge her quickly, Jay bows carefully. As he does his shoulder twinges painfully, reminding him it has not been long since he took some shrapnel to it, and that it has been an eventful day, to say the least. He can't address Deneira directly until she actively acknowledges him, but given the circumstances he hopes she doesn't keep him waiting too long.

“Wing Commander Lane,” Deneira says at last.

Jay hadn't particularly been expecting a warm reception, but the tone of her voice is as blank as ever. If anything, the only sign of an expression she gives is faint hint of distaste etched into the corners of her mouth.

Or maybe he's just imagining things.

“Most Exalted,” he says carefully. “You asked for me.”

“Yes.” Deneira turns her head to look at the Severne standing watch in the corner opposite Pyrrhine. As she does, the white diamonds resting on her brow catch the evening light. “Leave us,” she says.

The Severne bows and disappears from the room; Pyrrhine stays where she is. Jay is painfully aware that he is now all but alone with the Queen of Lenia, a Siren who has absolutely no reason to trust him and every reason to want him conveniently displaced from the current negotiations. Whether Deneira is aware or not about what happened three years ago on Mas-Hain, it can only benefit her to have Jay's disruptive presence curtailed, and any involvement he may have with negotiations kept to an absolute minimum.

He tries hard not to tense at the long silence that follows the Severne's exit, and instead keeps his gaze pointedly on Deneira's face. It is a poor display of protocol, he knows, but to his surprise Deneira is the first to look away, glancing down at her desk and placing graceful fingers on the papers she has scattered across its surface.

“I asked you here to offer my thanks following your actions at the Naos,” she says. “Were it not for your quick intervention the situation may have ended very differently.”

What ending that might have been she does not explicitly say, Jay notes with some cynicism. This is not to be an open acknowledgement, then, that he had probably saved her life. Her statement makes it clear that there will be no official recognition of his actions from the Siren delegation. To demonstrate publicly any understanding of how he might have aided Deneira, would mean the delegation admitting that there was a responsibility on their part to concede that perhaps not all humans were warmongering maniacs. Worse still, having to admit that Wing Commander Lane in particular may not, in fact, be intent on killing Sirens just because, would leave them in a weaker diplomatic position than they currently are.

“Thank you, Most Exalted,” Jay says, and hopes his tone is bland enough to keep Deneira from noticing his thoughts on the matter. “But I am sure that anyone else would have done the same in my position.”

Deneira watches him, barely blinking. “Modesty,” she says. “How unexpected in a man with your reputation, Wing Commander.”

“I'm sorry, I don't understand Most Exalted. A man with my reputation?”

“Yes.” She glances once at Pyrrhine and back again. “I have heard a great deal about you.”

“Oh.” Jay considers this for a moment. He does not want to pursue the line of the conversation – it is clearly what Deneira is after, and he is not sure if her intention is to praise or wound if they continue this discussion. In either case the outcome is unpredictable and he doesn't like the odds. He is still acutely aware that Deneira has dismissed all witnesses apart from Pyrrhine, and if any accusation is made regarding his behaviour, he is without recourse to prove his innocence. His reputation on Lenia is not something he would like to discuss, and certainly not with a hostile head of state. Time then, he thinks, to end the encounter as quickly as he can.

“If that is all, Most Exalted,” he says, “I thank you for arranging for this meeting and I would ask permission to withdraw.”

“No.” The low hum of Deneira's voice cracks across the space between them, making Jay's back straighten almost of its own accord. As he watches, she stands. In anyone else he would call the movement abrupt, except Deneira's movements are too fluid for that. From the corner of his eye he sees Pyrrhine shake her head in a minute gesture of warning.

“Very well,” he says. “How may I be of further service?”

Deneira raises her chin, managing to look down her nose at him even though she is nearly half a foot shorter. “I need your help,” she says.

Jay can't help himself: he startles, badly. “Excuse me?” he manages, incredulous. This had not been what he was expecting; not at all. The last person on Lenia he would have thought might ask for help from him would be Deneira. Her attitude certainly does not lend itself to the belief she is asking a favour of him.

As he struggles to overcome his initial surprise, he realises there is a cautious prickle at the back of his mind warning him to step carefully. If Deneira needs his help then something is going badly wrong, and a politician such as her will be at their most dangerous when cornered. He watches cautiously as she rounds her desk to stand in front of him; a careful three feet of distance is maintained between them at all times.

“Your actions at the Naos proved that you act with integrity, Wing Commander, even when it may suit your purposes to look the other way.” Deneira's eyes gleam in the light from the window as she observes him. “I cannot ignore the evidence that if your sole intention during these talks was to sow discord, then you would have been better served allowing me to be killed.”

“I don't think I can state clearly enough, Most Exalted, that my role in these negotiations is, and always has been, to act as nothing more than an advisor to Ambassador Lault.”

“As you say.” Deneira acknowledges his point but, from what Jay can see, does not necessarily believe him. She crosses to one of the synthscreen windows and looks out. Behind her, Pyrrhine gestures emphatically for Jay to stay put, and so he is left, marooned, in the middle of the floor.

“Lenia is...not well,” Deneira says, when the silence has become almost unbearable. Her back is still turned ad Jay seizes the opportunity to school his expression into polite surprise – it would not do for Deneira to realise he already possesses this information.

“I hope you are sensible of the trust I am showing in admitting this to you,” Deneira continues. Her fingers twitch once, as though she is suppressing the urge to bury them in the folds of her dress.

“Of course,” Jay says, wondering where the conversation is going now and liking it less by the second. He does not want to keep information from his colleagues and this is exactly what Deneira is asking him to do by confiding in him.

“Our planet has always been headed by a democratic monarchy,” Deneira is saying, “and recently there have been calls for a new election.” The line of her shoulders tenses momentarily, as if she is giving a minute shrug. “There is nothing wrong with this – it is the will of the people and should be honoured. My concerns run deeper. There is a faction of mostly anonymous individuals within our society, who are more interested in imposing their ideas of a new regime on my people than in working to ensure Lenia's stability. These persons have no respect for democratic processes and will use force to back up their ideology.”

At last, she turns to look at Jay again. “I am used to my life being under threat, Wing Commander,” she says. “I am content to live with the reality of this, and if I die ensuring Lenia's safety, then I will pass into the starlight safe in the knowledge I have fulfilled my purpose. What I dislike is the way my people are being harmed by this group's actions. Bombings, assassinations, political unrest and an attempt to overthrow centuries of hard won stability. I will not stand for this.”

“Forgive me,” Jay says, and the prickle of unease he had felt earlier is turning into alarm. There is a horrible realisation dawning that he knows what Deneira is about to ask of him. “I am truly sorry that Lenia is experiencing such hardship, Most Exalted, but I fail to see – ”

“I need your help,” Deneira says again, plainly. “And I am asking you to privately assist me.”

And there it is. Jay closes his eyes briefly, despairing. “I cannot think of anyone less qualified to help,” he says, trying hard not to anger Deneira with refusal. “And I don't see how I can be of any assistance in this matter.”

“You are an unknown quantity,” Deneira says. “A new player on this board, if you will. You are not loyal to me, or to Lenia. It is well known that there is absolutely no trust in you on this planet. Because of this you are perfectly placed to help me. No one would believe I would ask you for aid, but I know I can rely on your integrity, at least in part. You saved my life when you didn't have to, and you didn't stop to consider the political consequences of doing so.” She touches her fingers to the base of her throat.

Despite her lack of emotion, her request seems genuine, and Jay has the awful suspicion that, no matter his protests, Deneira is set on this course of action. Worse still, he can't even deny her request for aid. To do so would mean political insult following the confidences she has imparted to him, and if that happens there is absolutely no chance of a peace treaty being agreed.

His heart sinks. For the first time in a long while, he is uncomfortably aware of how much hinges on his next words. If he refuses Deneira, how many more people on both sides will die when the peace talks inevitably fail? He knows she is holding him to ransom with her request; worse, he knows she knows this as well.

“What would you have me do?” he asks at last.

“The region of Maa-Ilia is supposedly harbouring some of these rebels,” Deneira says. “They are loyal to my cousin, Athannus, and likely quite vocal about it. I would very much like to send you on a sightseeing tour of the area as part of a cultural exchange.” She flicks a hand at Pyrrhine, who bows and passes her a linkpad.

“Most Exalted, I very much doubt any of your people are going to confide in me,” Jay says, aware as he does that he needs to contain and manage any insult that even the prospect of his refusal might bring. “I am not the best person to uncover conspiracy on Lenia.”

“Of course not.” Deneira taps something quick and efficient on the linkpad and places it on her desk. “However your presence may be enough to stir panic amongst the rebels – they may even reach out to you, to gauge the human delegation's feelings on a change of leadership on Lenia.” She regards Jay, her gaze as sharp and clear as the diamonds on her brow. “And even if they don't, a human delegation is a good excuse to send along additional security with you. They can investigate the area whilst you draw the attention.”

It is not a flawless plan, Jay thinks to himself. In fact, it seems more of a desperate attempt to shake the tree and see what falls out in terms of rebellion. Either Deneira is scrambling in the dark over these rebels – and if she is, that is not a good sign for her continued leadership – or she is confident that Jay's presence alone is enough to rattle her opposition into making a fatal mistake. Either way, the result is not going to be painless, and Jay likes even less that the situation may resolve itself by ending with a member of the Lenian royal family on the proverbial chopping block. His hands have already been painted bloody by being accused of one mass murder; he would like to avoid a second.

But the balance to this is the potential for proper and lasting peace between Sirens and humans. If he succeeds – if he helps in even some small way – this may mean that Deneira throws her weight properly behind negotiations.

“If I do as you ask,” he says carefully, “I hope this would demonstrate the human delegation's commitment to ensuring peace between our two races.” Behind Deneira he sees Pyrrhine tilt her head, and the small gesture instils him with a little more confidence. “I would request that if I am successful in providing aid, you allow proper and careful negotiations to take place.” The implication, he knows, is that up until now Deneira hasn't.

“That's all you wish?” Deneira asks.

“Yes.” Jay swallows, straightening his posture. “I do not ask for anything else, Most Exalted.” He hasn't clarified what will be classed as his success, he knows. Although this may leave him open to Deneira's refusal to provide support later, it does also allow him room to manoeuvre in return around the wording of their agreement.

“I accept your terms,” Deneira says and Jay is aware she is watching him for any sign of relief; for weakness. He keeps his gaze level and his expression calm.

“Thank you, Most Exalted.”

Deneira sits at her desk once more, still watching him even as she begins to sort carefully through the documents in front of her. “You may discuss this with Ambassador Lault,” she says, “but no one else. If I discover that this conversation has been repeated outside of the Ambassador's rooms, I will deny all knowledge of it, and you will have no support.”

Jay bows. “I understand, Most Exalted.”

“Good.” Deneira turns her head in clear dismissal. "Transport will be arranged within one standard day for your travel to Maa-Ilia. I will be sending a representative with you, although you may bring your own security as well, if you so choose. Inform Ambassador Lault you will be gone for two weeks.”

There is nothing Jay can say in response to this. From the short deadline, it is clear she had already weighed his response before the conversation had even begun, and had gambled on the fact he would agree. He can't find it in himself to be annoyed – were he in her position, he would have done the same.

He bows. “Thank you,” he says again. “I will prepare for my departure.”

He can't say anything else, really.

*

“On a scale of one to ten,” Hird says, “this is rated a twenty on the bad ideas scale.”

She, Jay and Lault are clustered around the table in Lault's room. Jay has just finished relating the discussion with Deneira. He is hunched over, trying hard to look like he is still properly awake and not desperate to snatch a few hours of sleep before he has to get up and take a shuttle half way around the planet.

“Whilst I appreciate your sentiment Commander, I disagree,” Lault says, drumming his fingers on the table top as he watches Hird. “In fact, this may be the opportunity we need for a breakthrough.”

Hird holds up a finger. “One,” she says, “if Lane fails we are on our own when negotiating this treaty – in fact I am fully confident that woman will do everything in her power to stall talks entirely. And two,” she continues forcefully, as Jay opens his mouth to protest, “she has picked the one person in our delegation almost guaranteed to receive a hostile reception wherever he goes on the planet. Lane's risk of getting killed is increasing by the minute here, and if someone actually gets to him, we are all going to have a galactic-sized political crisis on our hands.”

“She's not wrong,” Jay says tiredly, looking at Lault.

“I'm never wrong Lane, you should know that.”

Lault looks amused as he catches Jay's eye. “As much as I appreciate your paranoia Wing Commanders, I think you are also failing to realise what a political coup this would be if we can win the Queen's backing.”

“Which Deneira knows,” Jay points out, “and is dangling over our heads like the proverbial carrot.”

“Yes, but look at it another way: despite her threats, the Queen cannot afford to have her conversation with you getting out. If she tries to renege on your deal, there is the potential for a severe backlash amongst the general populace if it becomes known she tried to make a deal with you, Lane. Her opponents will fall upon the opportunity to ruin her reputation; she will not survive if rumours begin to circulate that she is making deals with hated human anarchists.”

“Hey now,” Jay protests.

Lault spreads his hands expressively. “I'm sorry, but for the purposes of this scenario, it's true. Couple this with the fact the Queen is going to be fending off a full investigation by the Tammoll Federation in the very near future, and I think her position is not as strong as she would like it to appear.”

“Which still leaves us with the problem of Lane going halfway around the planet, on a mission with unclear success criteria, accompanied only by Sirens who already hate him,” Hird says. “I'm sorry Lault, but this is still not a sensible idea. I meant it when I said he's at risk, and the words 'political shitstorm' won't even begin to cover it if something happens to him.”

“Which is why you will be going with him,” Lault says calmly.

Hird shakes her head in immediate denial. “Absolutely not. If you think it would be bad if Lane got killed, you can multiply that by a million if something happened to you, Sir. I can't afford to be thousands of miles away if something goes wrong.”

“Wing Commander Ede is perfectly capable of maintaining my personal security and reporting directly to you as the need arises,” Lault says reasonably.

Hird's face tightens in displeasure. “With all due respect I am not prepared to force Steve to set up base down here on the planet. He will not operate at his best under such conditions.” What those conditions supposedly are, she doesn't say.

Jay watches curiously as she and Lault lock gazes across the table. Hird's mouth is a grim line of defiance and Lault looks blatantly surprised at her refusal to follow his suggestion.

“Why is it that when someone says 'with all due respect', what they actually means is 'fuck off'?” Lault says at last, plaintively. The polite, delicate tones of his proper voice using those words makes even Hird crack a small, grudging smile. Her stern gaze wavers in the face of Lault's gentle attempt at humour.

“Because that's my polite way of telling you exactly that,” she says.

“Nevertheless,” Lault says, “I fully expect you to arrange an alternative security detail for me and accompany Lane to Maa-Ilia.”

“Could I not travel on my own?” Jay suggests. “The Queen has made it clear she is providing her own security for me.”

“And if one of them has a grudge against you?” Hird asks. “I'll say it again Lane: political shitstorm. And no,” she adds, as Jay opens his mouth again, “I am not sending Subtle, Guide or any of the rest of my crew with you. They're good at what they do, but security isn't it. You're actually better than them if it comes to a straight fight. They'd probably be more hindrance than help.”

Jay – who had been about to suggest just that – shrugs. “Then I think the Ambassador has a point,” he says. “Either I go alone, or you send Ede with me and stay here, or vice versa.”

Hird's expression sours. “You don't know what you're asking of Steve,” she says. “And I am not prepared to compromise the well-being of one of my crew on the whim of you, or that sorry little maggot monger of a queen.”

“Commander Hird,” Lault says. By the tone of his voice, Jay realises, it sounds as though he has finally been pushed too far by Hird's insult to Deneira. Hird apparently realises it too, as she folds her arms and glares at Lault – clearly squaring up for a fight.

“I have explained to you,” Lault continues, “that I believe Lane's task to be necessary. I am not asking you to place one of your team in a difficult position for no good reason. I am, however, ordering you to place the best interests of two entire races of peoples above the emotional distress of one man.”

“If you knew what you were asking – ” Hird begins.

“I do. I read the reports of the Yven Three mission, Commander. I am fully aware of what Wing Commander Ede has been through. However, he has been declared fit for active duty and as such should be eminently capable of merely standing in the corner of a room during some very dull negotiations.”

“Yes,” Hird says darkly, “because everything up until now has been that straight forward.”

Jay is half tempted to ask exactly what happened on Yven Three, but the look in Hird's eyes says she is very close to strangling someone. Since Lault is technically under diplomatic immunity, Jay realises he is the only viable option left in the room, and he doesn't fancy his chances if it comes to a straight up hand to hand with Hird.

“Could we not keep in long range contact?” he asks instead. “That way you can at least check in with the Banshee on a regular basis?”

“All long range communications will be monitored,” Hird says scornfully. “Come on Lane, you can't be naïve enough to think they're not tapping our linkpads.”

“No, but there's nothing to stop us using an innocuously worded code.”

“And you shouldn't be further than six standard flying hours from here,” Lault adds. “In the scheme of things, that is not much distance.”

“Not until something goes wrong.” Hird holds Lault's gaze for a long moment. Finally, her shoulders slump and she throws up her hands. “Alright, fine. I don't have a choice and I can't violate a direct order from my superior officer on this trip. I'll go with Lane and we'll see what happens. But I want it made quite clear in the reports that I have advised in the strongest possible terms against this course of action.”

Lault stands, brushing creases out of his trousers as he does. “Noted. And I will also include in my communications with the Foreign Office that I have overridden your objections. If anything happens, Hird, it will not be your fault.”

Hird groans under her breath at that. “You had to say it,” she grumbles at Lault. “Now you've jinxed it.”

*

The morning light streaming into the hangar bay is painfully bright, as Jay tries to rub sleep from his eyes.

After the meeting with Hird and Lault broke up the previous night, he had gone to his rooms to try and sleep. Four hours later, with thoughts still marching through his head of all the ways everything could go wrong, he had reluctantly concluded his only hope was to try and snatch some sleep on the flight to Maa-Ilia.

Yawning, he squints against the suns and wonders how long before the rest of the crew arrive, so he can get his head down on the shuttle.

“You look like shit,” Hird says, almost as though she has been summoned by his thoughts. She slams her kit bag down next to him and drops to her knees to rifle through it. “No sleep?”

“None,” Jay says grimly. “Wrong head space, you know?”

“I get it.” Hird retrieves two pistols and zips her bag back up. She stands, tucking one into the holster at her waist and offering the other to Jay. “Here, you're going to need this.”

“I hope not.” Reluctantly, he accepts the pistol.

“Yeah, well.” Hird shrugs expressively and glances around. “Expect the worst and then you won't be fucking surprised when it all goes tits up.”

Her mood hasn't improved much, Jay notes, and he keeps a cautious eye on her as several Sirens begin to filter into the hangar.

Not wanting to appear too obvious about his observations he looks around, taking in the open space in front of them. Docked in one corner is presumably their transport – a standard YS class shuttle. Its boarding ramp has been lowered and is open for access. Next to it, two Sirens are loading several bags into the cargo hold.

Hird follows his gaze and grunts disapprovingly. “If that's what we're going in, I'm going to go and run a security screen on it,” she says. “Who the hell knows who's had access to it since it's been sitting there.” She kicks her kit bag with one foot. “Look after this.”

Not waiting for a reply, she wanders off towards the shuttle. Jay watches her go and debates the merits of following her.

Before he can make up his mind whether he has enough energy to wrangle Hird at her most obnoxious, a hand on his shoulder makes him startle.

“Morning,” Venndred says cheerfully.

He has a kit bag slung over one shoulder and instead of his usual robes, he's wearing a pair of light trousers and a comfortable top. The top, Jay notes with some amusement, is a little too short for him – the bones of his wrists sticking out well beyond the edge of the cuffs. Either Venndred's borrowed it, or hasn't bothered to purchase any new clothing in quite a while. Out of his finery he could almost pass for human, were it not for the gold of his eyes and the timbre of his voice,

“Morning,” Jay replies, turning back to look at Hird, who is walking the length of the shuttle bay doors, scanner in hand. “I'm guessing from the bag that you're joining us on this little excursion.” He wonders what Hird is going to have to say about this.

Venndred shrugs. “I couldn't miss an opportunity to escape the palace,” he says. “Besides, you need someone to act as cultural liaison on behalf of us Lenians, and Most Exalted has made it very clear that I'm the best man for the job.”

“Sorry,” Jay says apologetically. “The idea wasn't to inconvenience anyone just because I decided to see more of the planet on a whim.”

Venndred hums ambivalently, watching as Hird digs through several bags in the hold. “I also thought it might be a good idea to have someone relatively... neutral to show you around. Someone who hasn't got a particular stake in who you are and where you're travelling to.” He smiles lopsidedly as Jay shoots him a curious glance.

“I hear security is being sent with you – besides your aggressive guard dog, that is. But security doesn't mean someone able to help you out if you run into any political trouble with the locals.”

“Thank you,” Jay says. “To be honest I'm grateful – we could use the help.”

“Well,” Venndred says comfortably, “I won't deny Wing Commander Hird is eminently, and terrifyingly, capable; but from everything I've seen her strengths lie in the most aggression in the shortest possible time.”

“You're not wrong,” Hird says, overhearing their conversation as she makes her way back to them, apparently satisfied with the security of the shuttle for now. “I learnt the hard way that often it's best to let your pistol do the talking.”

“And yet,” Venndred says, “here we are in the one place you really can't let that happen.”

Hird scowls at him. “Try me,” she says, and turns pointedly to Jay. “What's he doing here, anyway?”

“Coming with us, apparently,” Jay says.

“Oh good.” Jay wouldn't have thought it possible, but Hird's expression sours further. “Because I didn't have enough to worry about on this trip.” She jabs a finger in Venndred's face. “Anything happens, you are not my priority; so you'd better hope the locals are more friendly to us than I'm anticipating. Any problems and I'm leaving you to fend for yourself.”

“Which I am perfectly capable of doing,” Venndred says, gently pushing her finger away from where it is hovering dangerously close to his nose. He looks down at her, smiling. “I was a soldier before I became the Psyke, you know.”

Hird grunts disapprovingly, removes her finger and shoulders her kit bag. “Fine, then if you get killed it's your own fault.” She raises an eyebrow at him. “And shouldn't you be looking after your temple, rather than gallivanting around the planet with Lenia's Most Wanted?”

“I left Retter in charge.”

“Oh good going, you left a kid in charge of your important mystical duties,” Hird says with heavy sarcasm. “Good job. Glad to know you're in charge and can delegate so well.”

“Retter is perfectly capable,” Venndred says with admirable patience, “which you would already know if you'd bothered to pay attention when you visited the Naos.”

Watching the pair of them bicker, Jay smiles, feeling a little lighter than he has so far this morning. Although the trip to Maa-Ilia is not ideal to say the least, and the political fallout if it goes wrong may be catastrophic, it is nevertheless a pleasant idea to think that for at least a couple of weeks he will be well away from the atmosphere of the palace, in the company of two people he mostly gets along with.

He picks up his bag and begins to follow Hird and Venndred, who are now making their way towards the shuttle still sniping at one another.

As he crosses the bay, a door on the far side slides open, and Jay glances distractedly over. He stiffens, good mood slipping as two Severne enter, flanking a tall figure in an ivory mask. Although he doesn't recognise the Siren, he does recognise the mask: Lord Athannus.

The Commander of the One Hundred and Fifth Legion has been surprisingly absent the last couple of days. From what Jay can recall he was not in attendance during the trip to the Naos, and was not sitting around the negotiating table before that. Considering the stakes, and considering his alleged inclination to see his cousin lose further popularity with the court, he has been disturbingly almost non-existent in the political arena.

Jay watches as Athannus crosses the hangar, a vague sense of alarm creeping across his consciousness as Athannus completely ignores Venndred's greeting as he passes, instead heading straight for him.

“Wing Commander Lane,” Athannus says, his voice flattened by his mask and the synthesizer embedded in it.

“Lord Athannus.” Jay drops his kit bag and bows, carefully. Around him, he can feel the engineers and hangar bay staff pausing in their activities to watch the scene unfolding. Even Hird and Venndred have stopped talking.

“I understand you are taking a trip to Maa-Ilia.”

“Yes.”

“Interesting.” There is no change in Athannus's tone or posture, but Jay gets the impression he is being scrutinised from head to toe.

“I have heard the region is beautiful,” he says carefully, “and I wanted to see for myself.”

“A little strange to be going sightseeing during such important negotiations, isn't it?”

Jay shrugs. “I'm not the human ambassador, and my superiors have suggested that it may be a better way to understand the Lenian mindset. It's far more useful to see how ordinary people live, to better understand another race's culture, don't you find?”

“Really,” Athannus says flatly. “How very forward thinking of you. And your sudden desire to see our world had nothing to do with the conversation you had with my cousin last night?”

Jay doesn't blink. Athannus is here for a reason, and he had sensed the question coming. It is clear that the Commander is digging, without any real idea of what he is trying to find.

“Nothing at all,” he says politely. “The Queen very kindly invited me to speak with her so that she could extend her thanks following the events at the Naos.” He allows a small smile to flicker briefly across his face. “Although you were not there, Lord Athannus, I am sure you have heard of what happened.”

Athannus inclines his head. “I did, and it makes me most anxious for your safety, Wing Commander.”

“Mine?”

“Yes. How do you know it was not you who was the intended target? Or your Ambassador? You were all standing on the steps as well.”

Jay glances briefly at Hird, who is watching the exchange with interest. As their gazes meet, she raises an eyebrow and shrugs. Grudgingly, Jay has to concede that as theories go, Athannus's suggestion is not entirely outside the realms of possibility, however unlikely it probably is.

“I don't believe whoever it was intended to hit me,” he says at last.

Athannus tilts his head. “My point still stands, Wing Commander.” He clicks his fingers and both Severne step forwards. “As a gesture of my concern, I have petitioned directly to the Supreme Council to provide you with additional security during your trip. These men will accompany you.”

“I thought the Severne answered only to the Queen?”

“No,” Athannus says. “They guard the Queen; they are answerable to the Supreme Council. If the Council gives them an order, they are expected to follow it as any soldier would.”

“Such additional security is very much appreciated, my Lord, but really not necessary,” Jay says. He is not sure where Athannus's sudden concern has sprung from, given he has had no interaction with the man until now, but he has the sneaking suspicion it has something to do with a watch being set on him to find out what Deneira is up to.

“Nonsense,” Athannus says, and there is a note of steel in his voice now. “If nothing else, they will allow your security detail to take some rest on this trip as well.”

Jay hears, rather than sees, Hird's low growl at the implication she will be taking a break, and holds out a hand in a restraining gesture before she can interject. “Thank you,” he says hastily, seeing no way out of the situation without politically snubbing both Athannus and the council. Colloquially speaking he has been outmanoeuvred, and he has to grudgingly admit that if nothing else, Athannus is a master of the game. “I accept your kind offer.”

“Good.” Athannus nods in the direction of the shuttle. “Safe travels, Wing Commander. I will leave you in Tremark and Littien's capable hands.”

His words are a sharp, unpleasant shock and Jay's eyes fly to the face of the taller Severne. He has not bothered to pay much attention to either Severne until now, but yes, there it is: that familiar half smile hidden in the depths of a dark hood, the light barely catching on Samiel's visor as he tilts his head. How, Jay wonders, has he missed this? How has he failed to recognise the familiar tension of Samiel in a room?

“I don't think this is a good – ” he begins, wanting to stop this disaster before it happens.

“Nonsense,” Athannus says, already turning on his heel and leaving. “You are being looked after by the best.” There is something darkly amused in his tone, Jay thinks resentfully. “Of course, if you have any concerns, you may raise them with the Council.”

Fuck, Jay thinks, watching Athannus head to the door. He bites his lip, hard, to stem the invectives he wants to let loose. Athannus clearly knows what he is doing and is intent on making trouble. Worse, he has managed to convince the main political body of Lenia – and how, Jay would love to know – that the most suited person to provide security to humans in a vulnerable situation on a hostile planet, is the person who has previously been accused of spitting in the face of diplomacy and murdering political envoys.

He lets out a low growl of frustration, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tries to stem the headache he can feel building. Gritting his teeth, he looks back at the two Severne standing in front of him, wondering what the hell he is supposed to do now.

As he watches, Samiel steps forward, blithely ignoring the glare Jay is levelling at him. When he speaks his voice is low and for Jay's ears alone.

“Well, I think this will be interesting, don't you?”

Chapter Text

They board the shuttle in uncomfortable silence.

Hird is visibly fuming, her jaw tight and her eyes narrow as she stares at the two Severne trailing their movements. To her credit Severne Littien at least seems a little uncomfortable facing Hird's wrath; Samiel is displaying no such concerns.

“I think it's best if we strap in for departure,” Venndred says, and Jay could kiss him for at least trying to break the tension. “These shuttles are notorious for their difficult engines if they haven't been properly prepped before take-off.”

“Perfect,” Hird says darkly. “Exactly what we need: a convenient shuttle crash.”

As Jay watches, hovering in the space between the shuttle's passenger seats, Samiel lowers his hood and removes his visor.

“There won't be a shuttle crash,” he says, and Jay is surprised at how calm he sounds when faced with the wrath of Hird. “I'll be piloting.”

Hird folds her arms. “No, you won't. You think I trust you to fly us out of here safely?” She scoffs, unimpressed and cynical. “If anyone's flying us, it'll be me and Lane.”

“And neither of you know how to get to Maa-Ilia.”

“There is an astonishing thing called a nav computer, Tremark. You plug in the coordinates and off you go.”

“Yes.” Samiel examines his nails, casually. “If only you knew what the coordinates were.”

“I can look them up.”

“How?”

Hird digs into her jacket pocket and retrieves her linkpad, brandishing it at Samiel. “Amazingly, I can use the 'net.”

“Except all communications are severed when on board a sealed shuttle.”

“Then unseal the shuttle and – ”

“Could we maybe just go?” Venndred interrupts plaintively. “I'd like to get there sometime this week.”

“Not without someone else piloting the shuttle,” Hird says.

Samiel's gaze flickers once in Jay's direction before his expression smooths into habitual blankness. “There's a co-pilot seat,” he says. “Would that satisfy you?”

“Only if I get to sit in it,” Hird says.

“On the contrary, I think Wing Commander Lane should sit in it.”

Even Venndred glances uneasily at Jay at Samiel's words. Jay can feel his expression slipping at the air of surprise amongst the group. The way neither Samiel nor Hird are apparently willing to behave like rational adults and sort the matter out reasonably isn't helping, either.

“I'm not letting Lane anywhere near you,” Hird says vehemently. “Not after the shit you've pulled.”

“I agree with the Psyke,” Littien interjects. “Can we please just go?”

“Lane in the co-pilot seat or we're not going anywhere fast,” Samiel says silkily. “I don't think my request is too unreasonable, given that I am trying to meet you halfway, Wing Commander Hird.” There is a hint of steel in his voice, and Jay realises with a sinking feeling, there's a spark in Samiel's eyes that means he's really about to dig his heels in.

“Fine,” he says, before Hird can protest. “Alright, I'll do it.” He holds up a hand as Hird opens her mouth. “You can keep an eye on the Psyke.”

In the interests of peace and actually getting off the ground, he thinks grimly, he's going to have to swallow six hours of contact with Samiel.

“I am meant to be keeping an eye on you!” Hird's fingers are gradually curling themselves into fists as she glares at Jay. “That is the whole point of me being here, Lane. This is why I was sent in the first place, despite my protestations.”

“And I can handle myself against one man,” Jay says, ignoring the way Samiel's mouth is beginning to curve, triumphantly. “So I'm trusting you to watch my back.”

Hird groans. “Fine,” she says tightly. “Sit up the front with Severne Tremark.” She almost spits the last two words in disgust. “I'll stay here and babysit the priest.”

“Hey now,” Venndred says, “I'm not entirely helpless, you know.”

“Of course you are. Look at you, you're like a stork.” Hird jabs him in the ribs. “All arms and legs and barely any muscle on you. I could snap you like a twig.”

“I'm going to begin pre-flight checks,” Samiel says, ignoring Hird and Venndred. His eyes are fixed on Jay. “When you're ready you can join me in the flight check.” He nods once at Littien and turns on his heel.

Venndred, having successfully evaded Hird's pointy fingers, watches him go and shakes his head. He looks at Jay, his expression slowly morphing into concern. “Be careful with that one, Wing Commander, he's got stardust in his veins.”

Littien grunts in agreement and Jay looks between the pair of them puzzled. “Stardust in his veins?”

The corner of Venndred's mouth twitches and he shrugs. “Sorry, an old saying; I forget you probably don't know it. One of our more popular beliefs is that, like all beings, our souls are born from the universe. When we die we return to it. The atoms of ourselves decay, and who's to say where they end up? It's not a religion, per say, more of a belief that eventually we return to dust, following the paths of light across the universe. Tracing the wake of stars.” He tilts his head, apparently a little self conscious. “Basically we roam the galaxies after death.”

“That's a... surprisingly beautiful thought,” Jay says honestly. “But I don't understand – the way you said 'stardust in his veins', it made it sound like a bad thing?”

“It's not, necessarily. It means someone who wanders, who burns their own path whilst they still live.” Venndred's expression is a little troubled, his eyes unusually serious as he watches Jay. “Someone touched by the brilliant madness of the universe.” He apparently senses Jay's unease, because his expression softens as he reaches out to clasp Jay's arm reassuringly. “It just means you treat those with stardust in their veins with caution, Commander.”

Jay would love to deny that Venndred's description sounds anything like Samiel, but he is at least honest enough with himself to admit that there is some accuracy there. Samiel is, and always has been, someone who shines painfully brightly in comparison to nearly everyone else in the room. The magnetic pull of him is something Jay is all too aware of, even now.

“I'll be careful,” he says with a small, uncomfortable, smile and watches as Venndred exhales in relief. “I think I can safely say I've learnt my lesson there.”

He raises an eyebrow at Hird, who is watching the exchange. She jerks her head in the direction of the flight deck. “Get up there,” she mutters, “before that half baked rancid goat's piss manages to fly us into the sun or something. I wouldn't put it past him, stardust or no stardust.”

Jay nods, relieved at the change of subject, and doesn't miss the quick wink Hird gives him – a peace offering before she turns to Venndred. “Now you can strap in and keep quiet,” she tells him as Jay leaves the cabin. “And if I hear one terrible joke out of you, I'm tossing you out of the airlock.”

In the flight deck it is cool and dim, the half muted hum of the engines submerged under the gentle sounds of Samiel completing pre-flight checks. He has discarded his robes over the back of his chair, and is clad only in the soft, dark tunic of the Severne order.

Jay pauses for a moment on the threshold, watching the graceful movement of Samiel's fingers across the controls; the way they light catches on the curls at the nape of his neck. It is intimate, this space, he realises uncomfortably. Six hours is a long time to spend in close proximity to Samiel, and he is starting to regret his impulsive offer to act as co-pilot. He will have to bite his tongue and keep his distance. They haven't spoken properly since Jay's trip out into Maa-Tarek, and the list of topics Jay doesn't wish to broach with Samiel feels like it is heading into the hundreds at this point.

“Stop hovering,” Samiel says without turning his head. His tone is more relaxed now, amused rather than intractable. “We need to get moving soon; our docking clearance only lasts so long.”

“Alright.”

Cautiously, Jay takes the other seat and begins his own pre-flight checks. The systems look good, and despite Venndred's criticism of the YS class shuttle, the take off is the smoothest Jay has experienced, apart from on the Banshee.

“We're clear of Maa-Tarek air space,” Samiel says at last.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jay looks at him. The light from the early morning suns is bathing Samiel in a rich golden glow. His expression, when he turns to look at Jay, is almost calm – or as calm as Samiel seems to get, anyway. For one moment, Jay's heart thumps painfully against his ribcage as he studies the familiar striking lines of Samiel's face.

“We're about five and a half hours from Maa-Ilia,” Samiel continues. He tilts his head, and this time Jay can't help but meet his eyes. “So what inspired this sudden trip, exactly?”

Jay shrugs and fixes his gaze on the viewscreen. “I wanted to see more of the planet.”

“Liar,” Samiel says. “I know you – you'd far rather be around the negotiating table than gallivanting across continents.”

Jay bites his tongue and tries his hardest not to rise to the bait – to not say something like: you don't know me at all. “Perhaps I've been instructed to participate in cultural engagement,” he says tightly, instead. “Have you considered that?”

The grin that spreads across Samiel's face is amused, and slightly wicked. “You could always engage culturally with me,” he says.

Jay can feel his grip tightening painfully on the shuttle controls and he tries to relax. He inhales slowly once, then twice, and wonders how badly it would detract from the peace talks if he threw Samiel out of the closest airlock. Probably quite drastically, he admits, and mentally resigns himself to nearly six hours of this nonsense.

Samiel leans closer, across the small divide between the two seats. He is near enough now for Jay to see, out of the corner of his eye, the familiar sweep of his lashes; the small, faint scar on the corner of his jaw.

The smell of him is achingly familiar – the soft scent of cleanser, undercut by the faint tang of oil from the blade of his salzon and the deeper sweetness of his skin. This is another thing Jay shouldn't remember; shouldn't find warmly comforting in spite of himself. He shifts in his chair, moving away slightly and still trying not to make eye contact, even as he can feel the rapid beat of his pulse at the way Samiel's gaze skims across his face.

“Are you sure you don't want to tell me what this is really about?” Samiel asks.

“I've already told you: cultural engagement.”

Samiel hums ambivalently, sitting back in his chair with a minute shrug. “Alright, suit yourself. But you may need to tell me eventually.”

“Why were you chosen to accompany us?” Jay asks, desperate to change the subject and latching onto the first question that springs to mind. “Of all the Severne, why were you picked?”

“I don't know.” For once, Samiel isn't teasing. His voice changes, his tone serious, and the rarity of this makes Jay look at him in surprise. He is staring at the console in front of him, gaze distant and a small frown etched between his brows. “I will confess I wasn't expecting it.”

“Did your Queen ask you?”

“No.” Samiel's fingers begin to drum a quick rhythm on the arm of his chair. The frown stays put. “In fact, she asked for Littien to accompany you. It was probably,” he admits, “the much more sensible choice. No, Athannus was put in charge of selecting the other member of the Severne to accompany you and he asked for me.”

Jay bites his lower lip, thinking. “He didn't say Deneira had chosen Littien. In fact, he heavily implied that he was responsible for ensuring any security came with us at all.”

“Well that's definitely not true,” Samiel says. “Littien had already been assigned before Athannus even took his concerns to the council.”

“And that's another thing.” Jay can't help himself: he turns to look fully at Samiel. “Why are your council involved? Surely if the Queen has decided to provide additional security, this would be a matter for government?”

Samiel shakes his head. “Parliament deal with the political matters; the supreme council deal with military matters. You should know this, my master.”

“But we're a political matter, not a military one.” Absently, Jay chews on his thumbnail as he considers this. “There's no reason for the military to be involved at all.”

“Of course there is,” Samiel says. “Have you not considered, my darling, that you are seen as a hostile entity?”

“The human delegation is not – ”

“No, not the human delegation. You.” The smile Samiel gives lights up his face. It is warm, approving, his concern melting away under the appreciation Jay can see building in his expression. “You are considered a dangerous force, you must understand this. Word of the dreadful things you have done against Lenia have been spread far and wide by our press.”

“And whose fault is that?” Jay jerks back, stung. “It was you that – ”

“No. No, my master. I'm talking about the rest of it. The Medusae, the Galtics, the Gundarks and the Raxians. How many rebellions did you spoil? How much have you aggressively advanced the human cause with your actions?” Samiel wets his lips, intent on making his point. “We all saw the pictures of you, on your own against a battalion of Creets. Do you have any idea what that does to a people you are fighting against? How do you stand against someone that has no concept of fear?”

“That's ridiculous,” Jay croaks. “Utterly ridiculous. Of course I was afraid; of course I thought I was going to die.”

“Well you didn't look afraid. Sweetheart you looked magnificent. Untouchable.” Samiel tilts his head, and there is a strange, fervent light in his eyes. “You can't kill an idea, and the thought of you is a terrible one.”

Jay closes his eyes, despairing. “And I'm meant to be trying to achieve peace,” he mutters.

“You will,” Samiel says, unexpectedly. When Jay looks at him, he shrugs. “It may just be with the sword, rather than words. It's what we're all expecting of you.”

“Perfect. Just perfect.”

*

The rest of the shuttle flight goes surprisingly quickly, almost in spite of the company, and although Jay is itching to ask a few key question of Samiel he restrains himself. It is far more prudent to catch Samiel by surprise, he reasons, and Samiel would most definitely have been expecting Jay to demand answers from him about his actions, his intentions and his opinions as soon as they were alone.

Instead, Jay deliberately turns the conversation towards lighter topics, after that initial opening volley, and watches with some satisfaction as Samiel slowly starts to relax his guard over the course of the next five hours.

It hurts, sometimes, to swallow his accusations and keep his opinions to himself, but, he reasons, it is better for the long term plan of finding out what the hell is going on in Maa-Tarek.

When they finally land, the governor of Mas-Ilia is expecting them. Unfortunately he has apparently been given enough warning to prepare a very lavish greeting, and before Hird can open her mouth to protest, they are being taken on a tour of the local offices.

Five hours later, all of them tired, the suite they are finally shown to is grandly impressive.

Hird disappears almost immediately to drop her bags and do a perimeter sweep, whilst Venndred collapses onto the nearest sofa. Jay, watching him, deposits his bag on the floor and wonders what the hell he does now. Exhaling a long, slow breath, he deliberately lets the line of his shoulders begin to slowly unwind, waiting patiently until Hird emerges from one of the bedrooms and pronounces herself satisfied with the accommodations.

“Thank goodness,” Venndred murmurs, almost to low for Jay to catch. “If she'd made us move rooms I'm not sure I'd have found the willpower to get back up. And I don't fancy her dragging me across the floor.”

“Wuss,” Hird says, and sits down next to him on the sofa. “Carpet burn is good for the soul.”

Venndred cracks an eye open and peers at her. “I'm sometimes not quite sure if you're joking,” he admits. “It's a little terrifying.”

The grin Hird shoots him is full of teeth. “Wouldn't you like to know?”

The two Severne are hovering cautiously in the doorway. Venndred, apparently not deigning to respond to Hird, waves a hand at them. “Please come in and stop loitering,” he says, “you're making me nervous just standing there.”

Samiel's visor and outer robes are now firmly back in place, but he is still easily recognisable by the height he has over Littien and the way he moves. He crosses the room and sits, carefully, on the other end of the sofa, closest to Jay.

“There won't be a formal dinner tonight,” he says, voice bland. “Governor Mirret has informed me they will be holding a banquet tomorrow to honour your presence here in Maa-Ilia.”

“Honour,” Hird says dryly, “is that what it is?” She shrugs when they all look at her. “Did no one else notice the governor sweating bullets as he walked us around?”

“Maybe you make him nervous,” Venndred says, amused.

Hird bares her teeth at him. “Maybe it's you.”

“I think perhaps it is Wing Commander Lane,” Littien says carefully, from where she is standing in a corner. She tips one shoulder in a slight shrug when Jay looks at her. “Sorry, Wing Commander, but I feel it is the truth.”

“You're probably right,” Jay says wearily. “Unfortunately, we weren't offered any alternative accommodation, and I somehow think I'll make the situation worse if I inform the Governor I'm not staying in his house.”

Venndred flails, trying to sit upright at that and nearly smacking Hird in the eye. “You definitely can't do that!” he says emphatically. “It would offer great insult to Governor Mirret and word would get back to court that his hospitality was not up to the standards of a human.” He flushes brilliantly when he realises what he has implied. “No offence.”

“Oh, none taken,” Hird tells him. “We human are used to living in the gutters, after all. Down with the rats where we belong.”

“That is really not what I meant,” Venndred protests. There is a mischievous look in Hird's eyes as she watches him grope desperately for a proper explanation.

Jay feels slightly sorry for the man, who is visibly trying to find some way of explaining himself without opening himself up to further teasing from Hird. Nevertheless, he can't help the soft pang of amusement that prompts him to say, “I think that he means if reports get back that even someone of my reputation isn't happy to stay in the Governor's household, it would damage the man's political standing.”

“Yes! Wait – no! No that's not what I mean either!” Venndred says. He looks accusingly between Hird and Jay. “I feel like I'm being ganged up on, here.”

“You are,” Hird says, and pats his hand condescendingly. “The horrible humans are being mean to you.”

Venndred opens his mouth; closes it again. Next to Jay, Samiel lets out a tiny breath of amusement. “Shall we discuss sleeping arrangements?” he asks, apparently deciding to intervene before Venndred can become any redder.

“Sleeping arrangements?” Jay feels his amusement vanish, and notes with interest that Hird's expression wipes itself clean as she turns to look at Samiel as well. “What sleeping arrangements?”

“You are a foreign diplomat in the middle of hostile territory,” Samiel says. “You are going to need a full cycle of protection, including when you sleep. Wouldn't you agree, Commander Hird?”

Hird looks like she would very much rather swallow her own tongue than agree with him. Unfortunately, Jay can see, she also knows Samiel is right.

“Yes,” she says grudgingly. “I propose eight hour shift patterns.” She raises an eyebrow as though expecting Samiel to protest. When he doesn't she looks a little disappointed, as though she had been looking forward to the argument that should have followed.

“I can take first shift,” Littien says, moving away from her corner and towards the centre of the room. “From what I understand, the Governor has proposed a sightseeing flight tomorrow, Wing Commander Lane, to allow you to view more of the region.” She inclines her head respectfully towards Hird. “And I am certain you will wish to attend that, Wing Commander Hird. I would be honoured to take the night watch.”

Hird's reluctance is palpable, but she nods. “Agreed, thank you Severne Littien.”

“Right then, that's sorted.” Venndred staggers slowly to his feet with a gentle groan. “What time is the sightseeing, in the morning?”

“I believe the Governor mentioned ten standard,” Jay says.

“Alright.” Hird stands as well, dusting her hands off on her trousers. “Severne Littien, thank you for your kind assistance. Lane, you're in the room over there.” She jerks her head in the direction of a door tucked away on one side of the sitting room. “I'm going in the room next to you. Everyone else, please yourselves. Severne Littien, where will you be stationed if I need you?”

Littien nods towards the main entrance to the suite. “I will watch from there,” she says. “It is a good vantage point.”

The group disperses and Jay goes into his room and shuts the door behind him. For a long moment he leans against it in the dark, resting his head back on the cool wood. He shuts his eyes and listens to the low hum of muffled voices coming from the main sitting room, breathing deeply.

He is so tired. Night upon night of broken sleep, followed by days of frantically scrambling to keep one foot ahead of everyone else around the negotiating tables – it has worn him down. Even here, now, he's exhausted. What should have been a quiet six hour shuttle ride had turned into a delicate step by step dance of avoiding everything he desperately wanted to say to Samiel. Worse still, he's going to have to repeat it over and over for the next two weeks. Then he's got to find these rebels of Deneira's and somehow gather enough intelligence to give her, so that she will throw her support behind the negotiations.

Jay sighs and rubs his eyes. He pushes away from the door and gets ready for bed.

Of course, once he's in bed, it's almost impossible to sleep. His brain is humming – running over and over all the things that could potentially go wrong on this trip. His mattress is too soft and the room Hird has put him in doesn't even have a window. He feels stifled, trapped.

Even as the noises from the other side of his door gradually fade away into the deep silence of late night, he can feel himself gradually waking up more and more.

He's always had this problem to some extent, he knows. When he's on a mission he can't switch his brain off – quite often, he can't afford to – and he ends up running on adrenaline and saff by the end. But he can't afford to do that now, he tells himself sternly, even as he rolls onto his back, dragging a weary hand across his face. In the morning he's going to have to exchange polite pleasantries with half the officials of Maa-Ilia and then gather enough interest to go on a sightseeing tour of the region. He needs to sleep.

He can't.

He stares at the ceiling for long minutes, feeling the night start to slowly slip away from him. The more he tries to calm his mind – to quiet his thoughts – the more he finds himself circling over things again and again.

In the end, he gives up. It's no use.

Cursing under his breath, he throws back the bed covers and gets to his feet. He pads to the door and listens intently, to check no one is left in the sitting room.

Everything is silent.

Slowly he eases the door open, praying everyone else is in bed. The sitting room is in darkness, which is a blessed relief.

As he edges forward, intent on getting a glass of water and maybe sitting on the sofa with his linkpad for a while, his bare foot brushes something soft.

Alarmed, he takes a step back and squints down in the darkness.

There is a shadow slumped against the wall outside his bedroom door. In the darkness, he can't make out individual features, but he can hear the soft, steady breathing which indicates that, whoever it is, they are still alive.

Slightly concerned that someone has decided to sleep in front of his door to stop him escaping, Jay crouches down, careful not to move too quickly and disturb the sleeper. Gently, he reaches out to slide careful fingers along the wall, trying to ascertain what the sleeper is wearing. If it's anything but the rough robes of a Severne, it is likely to be Hird or Venndred. If it's woven fabric, it is more than likely Littien, who has changed her guard position.

His fingers encounter robes, but the moment he touches soft curls at the nape of the sleeper's neck, he pulls his hand back as though burnt.

It is not Littien.

Standing, Jay takes one quick, quiet step away from Samiel, heart pounding as he stares down. Why on earth is Samiel asleep outside his door? Why has he not gone to his own room? Littien must be around somewhere, so why is Samiel apparently keeping watch as well?

Concerned he turns, making his way by memory towards the sofa and sinking down onto it. Movement in the corner of the room translates itself into Littien pacing along the front hallway, and Jay slumps down further into the shadow of the sofa, not particularly wanting to engage in conversation.

It is cooler out here and although he can't use his linkpad as he wanted to, he finds his thoughts are now more than enough to occupy him. His foremost concern right now is what exactly Samiel's plans were in sleeping by his door. Had he suspected Jay may go snooping in the middle of the night? If he is supposed to be stopping him, then he is a very poor guard dog.

Jay folds his legs under himself, absently rubbing a hand along his jaw as he thinks.

Is there a further threat he hasn't been warned about? Has Deneira been withholding information and has asked both her Severne to keep a closer watch on the two humans in case the rebels make another move?

He could, he concludes wearily, also be over thinking this whole thing. Samiel may potentially be as poor a sleeper as Jay. He might find floors more comfortable than beds and he just happened to sit outside Jay's door.

“Ridiculous,” Jay mutters dismissively, and if he's not sure if he's referring to himself or Samiel, well, it's late and he can be excused.

As he sits, the cooler air of the sitting room and the monotonous sound of Littien's footsteps slowly lulls Jay towards sleep. If his thoughts don't exactly stop, they do at least begin to quiet until he shuffles sideways, resting his head on the arm of the sofa and letting himself drift into a light doze.

Hird is going to kill him in the morning, he thinks, resigned. He has left the safety of the carefully selected cupboard she has assigned him and is sitting out in the open of the suite, completely vulnerable to anyone who happens to break in. She'll just have to be satisfied that Littien is on watch – he can't go back to that awful bedroom.

His last thought as he slips gently towards sleep – his mind still puzzling over rebels and politics and Samiel – is that maybe he will be awake in time to get back to his room before Hird spots him.

When he wakes in the morning, he discovers he isn't, and Hird is already grumbling in a corner about her security protocols.

Jay watches her sleepily, eyes narrowed against the bright sunlight filtering through the windows. He has the strangest sensation, he realises half-listening to Hird, that at some point during the night, there was the sound of movement and the soft press of lips against his forehead.

He is, he realises slowly, now wrapped in a black robe that smells faintly of sunshine and salzon oil.

*

“Well this is a disaster waiting to happen,” Venndred says cheerfully as they all stare at the flightbikes.

Hird snorts. “You don't say.”

“When the Governor said 'sightseeing', this isn't quite what I had in mind,” Jay says drily. “I assumed he probably meant by hover, or shuttle. Not this.”

“They're perfectly safe,” Samiel says, from where he is circling the nearest bike with interest. In the bright sunlight he is an incongruous patch of shadow in his robes and visor. “I've ridden one several times – it's an enjoyable way to see part of Maa-Ilia.”

“Until someone shoots at us,” Hird says.

“The Governor has informed me the airspace has been cleared as far as the Caltian mountains,” Littien's cool voice interjects. Although she was on duty for the whole of the night, she had insisted on accompanying them this morning and, whilst the rest of them had been exchanging pleasantries with the local dignitaries, she had swept the hangar. Jay can reluctantly admire her strength – despite her long night and early start, her posture is still perfectly upright and she is a picture of attentiveness as she watches the rest of the group.

“I've also been assured that both bikes have been checked thoroughly,” she adds to Hird, who is looking dubious.

“Is anyone else coming with us?” Venndred asks.

“No.”

Jay watches as Samiel walks back towards them. There is something looser in his posture here, Jay realises; the long lines of his body are more relaxed and he moves with an unconscious grace. Without thinking, Jay rubs his forehead, thinking of familiar black robes. He twitches, uncomfortable at the direction his thoughts are taking, and looks away.

“There's only two bikes,” he says, to distract himself.

“Which means only four of us can go,” Hird says. She shoots a narrow-eyed glare in the direction of the hangar doors. “I'm assuming none of the bigwigs are accompanying us.”

“If only four of us can go, with your permission Wing Commander Hird, I will wait on the shuttle,” Littien volunteers.

“Alright, try and get some rest,” Hird tells her. “You were up all night.” She claps Littien on the shoulder, and for one brief moment the Severne's mouth twitches in surprise.

“You,” Hird continues, looking at Venndred, “you're coming with me.”

To Jay's surprise Venndred visibly brightens at this. “Does this mean I get to fly the thing?” he asks, already rolling up his sleeves and making his way towards the nearest bike.

“No.” Hird reaches up and hauls him back by the collar of his shirt. “It means Lane and I need to be on separate bikes, so we're not one nice big target. That means I'm piloting, so if anything happens to either of us, I can deal with it.”

Jay can see the inevitable conclusion the conversation is heading towards, and he braces himself as Hird turns to look at him.

“Lane,” she says, “you go with Tremark.” She stares for long, uncomfortable moment at Samiel, lips pressed together as though she is regretting her words. “Don't let him pilot,” she says at last.

“I believe the Governor indicated the Mark Seven was to be Wing Commander Lane's flightbike for the duration of the trip,” Littien says, her hands folded into her sleeves.

“Yes,” Hird says, “I know. He told everyone at great length about the expense of importing it into the region specifically in time for today. We are now all fully aware that it costs upwards of twenty thousand to get a flightbike shipped halfway around the planet in twelve hours.” She sighs. “Which is why I'll be using the Mark Seven and Lane will be on the Mark Five.”

“That will insult the Governor,” Samiel says, head tilted. “It will be an embarrassment after the expense he has put into providing this bike.”

Hird looks at him as though he is a particularly unfortunate insect. “Yes,” she says slowly. “And everyone knows exactly what bike Lane will be using. Ergo, anyone who might be thinking of harming him will know exactly what to aim for.” She rolls her eyes and starts towards the Mark Seven, strapping her safety harness and emergency parachute on as she goes, Venndred following obediently.

She has a point, Jay admits to himself. The Governor had been extremely vocal when he had done the rounds with them in the hangar bay earlier. He sighs and reluctantly heads for the Mark Five, Samiel trailing along behind him like an unfortunate shadow as they both strap into their own safety harnesses.

“Are you sure I can't pilot?” Venndred asks Hird as she settles onto her bike. He slides on behind her and, ignoring her warning growl, props his chin on her shoulder. “I am perfectly competent, you know.”

Hird doesn't answer – instead she flicks a quick look at Jay over her shoulder. “Come on Lane,” she says. “The sooner we get on with this, the sooner it's done.”

Slowly, Jay climbs onto the Mark Five. He waits, tense, as Samiel climbs on behind him and tries not to flinch at the deliberate, careful slide of Samiel's arms around his waist.

“Have you ever flown one of these before?” Samiel asks, as Jay flips the ignition and waits for hangar crew to give him the all clear.

“Once or twice,” he says tersely.

Samiel hums and settles back, the bike rocking gently as he shifts his balance. Jay can feel his fingers beginning to ache from where he has them clenched tightly around the handlebars and he takes a deep, fortifying breath and tries to relax slightly.

Hird and Venndred leave the hangar first, the Mark Seven a much smoother ride from the looks of things than Jay's vehicle. Jay follows them, careful to keep a steady distance between the two vehicles as they begin the slow climb over the plains of Maa-Ilia.

There is, Jay can admit to himself about twenty minutes into the flight, something undeniably beautiful about Lenia from up here. On one side the vast grasslands stretch away down towards the distant sea, and on the other, the brilliant peaks of the Caltian range climb breathtakingly high into the distance. They have an average upper limit of about eight thousand feet before the oxygen begins to dwindle and the higher they climb, the more stunning the view becomes.

“This is...” Jay says, breathless and forgetting for one shining moment who he is sharing his flightbike with. “This is indescribable.”

“Yes,” Samiel says, his lips brushing against Jay's ear as he moves close enough to be heard above the rush of air as they speed along. “Lenia has always been beautiful.” For a strange moment, he sounds almost wistful.

As they continue on, Jay feels Samiel's arms tighten briefly around his waist, the warmth of him pressed close along the length of his spine. He hesitates, all thoughts of the view shattering. There is a small, painful part of himself that want to press back into that heat; to listen to the soft purr of Samiel's voice in his ear and just luxuriate in the closeness. He can't. That way lies madness – he's insane to even be considering it.

He shakes himself off and tries to sit up straighter, away from Samiel. “Why – ” he begins to ask, trying to think of something, anything, to say to change the track of his thoughts.

Lane,” Hird shouts, from some twenty feet across from them.

Startled, Jay looks up, feeling Samiel jerk behind him in surprise.

A horrible rending splits the air, as Hird's bike starts to spiral out of control, heading straight for the ground.

Chapter Text

They are thousands of feet up in the air, and it gives Jay enough time to react.

He wrenches the flightbike around, accelerating down after Hird and Venndred. Samiel's arms tighten around his waist as the engine screams and, above the howl of the wind and the noise of the bike, he can hear the stream of invectives Hird is letting loose as she wrestles with the controls of her flightbike.

“Pull your parachute cords!” he shouts as they near the failing bike. “Hird! Pull the fucking cords!”

“We've tried,” Venndred shouts back, as Hird lets loose several more choice words and begins frantically trying to jump start the engine. “They're not working!” His usually tidy hair is whipping around his face and into his eyes. Although he sounds calm given the circumstances, Jay can see there is barely controlled panic lurking just under the surface.

“The engine's just fucking cut!” Hird roars, wrestling to stop the bike from going into a tailspin. “You need to get clear, because we're going to hit the ground.” She looks sick, mouth pressed into a tight line as she tries again to start the flightbike. “Lane, get clear.”

Jay ignores her, accelerating closer and trying to keep his bike steady as they all continue to dive. They are dropping rapidly, and he can feel his heart hammering as he ignores the plains of Lenia rushing up to meet them.

“Try the manual override key,” Samiel shouts, loosening his hold on Jay's waist to point at the left hand side of the bike. “Flip the switch and hit the propulsion unit pedal.” He leans over, dangerously close to overbalancing their own bike as he tries to get as near as he can to show Hird what he means.

Hird's fingers fly across the keys, smacking the override as she stomps on the propulsion pedal. The engine coughs once, twice and then dies again with a whine that sets Jay's teeth on edge.

“Shit. Shit.” Hird yanks at the steering again as her bike tries to pull left, nearly crashing into Jay and Samiel's until she straightens it. “The power's not getting to the propulsion unit.” Her gaze is fixed on the ground. They can't be more than two thousand feet from impact now, and her expression is grim.

“Lane,” she says without looking at him, “pull up! That's an order!”

Venndred's arms tighten around her waist and he looks across at Jay and Samiel. “Do as she says!”

“Wait,” Samiel says. “Wait!” He is frantically wriggling around behind Jay, knocking them both off balance again until Jay rights them, still trying to keep pace with Hird and Venndred. “The chutes. Jason, the – ”

“It could work,” Jay shouts back at him. “Do it!” He feels Samiel let go of him completely, relying only on his own balance to stay on the bike as he starts to wrestle with his emergency parachute.

They are only going to have one shot at this, Jay thinks, and Samiel's parachute had better work. Even then, impact is nearing fast and there is only a small window left for chute deployment. “Venndred,” he shouts, steering as close as he dares and ignoring Samiel's elbow as it knocks into his head, “get rid of your parachute – get ready to take this one!”

Hird's head whips around so fast to look at him that she nearly sends the bike into a tailspin again. “Absolutely not!” she roars, “I've told you what – ”

“Got it!” Samiel shouts, one arm clamping back around Jay's waist, his parachute dangling from his other hand. Across from them, Venndred is ripping the straps of his own parachute open, disentangling himself from it as fast as he possibly can. “Now, get closer!”

Carefully, Jay edges their bike towards Hird's. She is gritting her teeth, fingers clamped tight on the handlebars as her gaze darts between them and the rapidly approaching ground. Jay can see her straining, trying to pull the bike up from its dive even as her foot stamps hopelessly against the propulsion pedal again.

Venndred pulls the last strap free on his chute and tosses the pack away. He leans over, trying to meet Samiel, who is reaching across the gap between them with his parachute.

“You need to get closer!” he shouts, as the straps whip through his fingers before he can catch them. Behind Jay, Samiel's body jerks in automatic response as he leans further out. Jay grits his teeth, pushing their bike as close as he dares to Hird and Venndred.

Venndred lunges for the parachute again, wrenching it out of Samiel's grasp. His movements overbalance the flightbike and Hird has to turn sharply, pulling in the opposite direction until they almost barrel roll away from Jay and Samiel.

“Got it!” Venndred shouts. “Now get clear!”

If this doesn't work there is nothing they can do. Heart in his mouth, Jay slows their own descent slightly, falling back as he watches Venndred pulling himself into the parachute harness. There is about a thousand feet left, if that, and he doesn't have time to buckle himself in properly.

Venndred says something to Hird that is lost in the rush of the wind, and Jay watches as Hird shakes her head vehemently. Venndred shouts something again, one hand pulling at Hird's shoulder.

“They're not going to make it,” Samiel says urgently. “He needs to pull the release cord now.”

Just as he says this, Venndred yanks on the release cord. At the last second Hird lets go of the controls of the flightbike. She twists around in an almost impossible move, shoving her arms through the front of the open harness wrapped around Venndred, and they are both pulled violently off of the bike and into the air.

Jay thinks he hears Hird scream but, as she does, the now-uncontrolled bike hits the ground. The explosion of it sends an updraft that leaves him wrestling with the controls of his own bike. He steadies its movements as he and Samiel circle rapidly around.

The parachute Venndred is wearing is not designed for two people, and it is certainly not designed for such late release. As Jay watches, it slows Hird and Venndred's descent enough that Venndred is able to steer them away from the flames of the bike, but the strength of the impact as they hit the ground themselves is obvious, even from a couple of hundred feet up.

They tumble over and over, Hird rolling limply as Venndred curls around her, both of them kicking up clouds of dust. At last they come to a stop, both of them unmoving.

Jay lands his own bike as quickly as possible, dropping them at such a speed he hears Samiel's breathless gasp in his ear. He flings himself off of it the moment it is secure and sprints towards the crash site.

Samiel is only half a step behind him as they both skid to a stop by Venndred and Hird.

Hird!” Jay says, crouching down.

It is difficult to make anything out with the dust and smoke, and the way Hird and Venndred are still tangled together in the parachute. They are both awfully still, and for one terrible moment Jay can't see either of them breathing.

Then Venndred coughs, body wracking with spasms as he rolls over, fighting for air. He flails for a moment, disorientated and confused, then groans, clamping a hand to his side.

“Ow,” he wheezes. “Ribs.”

“Hey,” Jay says, scrambling forwards and touching Venndred's shoulder. “Stay still, we're going to try to untangle you.” Next to him, Samiel starts tearing urgently at the thick material of the parachute with his salzon, trying to cut away as much as possible.

“Evi,” Venndred says, ignoring Jay and groping blindly with the hand not pressed to his ribs. “Where's Evi?”

“Hird? Do you mean Hird?”

“I've got her,” Samiel says, pulling away the last of the parachute. “Stay still, Psyke, I've got her.”

Jay looks up, still holding onto Venndred's shoulder, as Samiel gently rolls Hird onto her back.

She is completely unconscious and worryingly pale beneath the dust covering her. The head wound she received at the Naos has reopened and is bleeding freely. As Samiel carefully checks her pulse, Jay realises that one of her shoulders is completely dislocated, the line of it unnervingly malformed under the grey of her standard issue top. Her other arm is quite clearly broken, from the unnatural angle of it.

“Is she alright?” Venndred rasps, something wild and frantic in his eyes as Jay looks back at him. “Tell me she's alright.”

“She'll survive,” Samiel says. “But she's going to have a hell of a headache when she wakes up.” There is something strange in his voice – an odd note that Jay can't quite place. “She's lucky to be alive,” he adds, almost to himself.

“Oh.” Venndred gasps in relief and lays back, closing his eyes. His initial adrenaline is clearly wearing off and he seems more shaken.

“Breathe slowly and stay still,” Jay tells him, then looks at Samiel. “Do you have a communicator?”

Samiel digs around in his robes for a moment and produces one. He tosses it to Jay, who flicks it on.

“Any idea where we are?” Jay asks.

“About two standard along the coastline of the Meridian Sea,” Samiel says. He squints at the wreckage of the flightbike, which is still burning merrily. “Use frequency four seven one,” he adds. “Tell them it's gold protocol and immediate medical evacuation is required.”

Jay frowns, following the line of Samiel's gaze. “Alright,” he says. “And then I'm going to have a look at that bike, if I can get close enough.”

*

The hospital wing is light and clean. Under Samiel's coldly efficient direction, the entire floor has been cleared, save for the medical staff, Littien, and the two additional members of security Samiel had politely requested the Governor provide.

Jay had listened to that particular conversation when it happened. Samiel's request had been very civilly worded: the feral gleam in his eye and the bared teeth were decidedly less so.

Hird is propped up by several pillows. Her shoulder has been popped back into its socket and her arm has been operated on; the bone carefully melded back together again. Her scarlet hair is painfully bright against the cool white of the sheets. She is only vaguely awake and almost certainly high on painkillers. Her eyes are little more than narrowed slits as she watches Jay perch on the end of her bed.

“Someone really doesn't fucking like you,” is the first thing she slurs at him, and it is so Hird that Jay can't help the laugh that escapes him, relief bubbling in his chest at the sound of her voice.

She grins dazedly at him and fumbles her mostly good hand across the bed, patting the sheets at her hip. “Fuck's sake Lane, sit up here. I can't move and you're too far away to see properly.”

“That's the concussion,” Jay tells her, carefully sliding up the bed and trying not to jostle her more than he has to. “It'll affect your vision for a while.”

Hird lets out a slow, annoyed breath. “How'm I going to shoot straight now?” she mutters.

“It'll clear up in a couple of days.”

“Huh.” She licks her lips and blinks slowly. “What happened to Venndred?”

“I'm fine,” Venndred says quietly, from where he is slumped in the chair on the opposite side of the bed. He is wearing a borrowed top and a loose pair of hospital scrubs, both of which have been scrounged from the staff room. His ribs have been securely wrapped following his own surgery, and there is a hollow-eyed look of exhaustion on his face, even as he smiles at her.

Hird grimaces as she rolls her head to look at him. “Good,” she says, and then promptly looks annoyed at herself for saying anything at all.

Venndred's smile widens, and it is the first genuine expression Jay has seen from him all afternoon. “You saved our lives,” he says gently, instead of teasing her for her obvious irritation. “Thank you.”

“Did my job,” Hird tells him. Her blinking is getting slower already; her eyes beginning to slip shut again of their own accord. “That bike shouldn't have cut out,” she murmurs, three quarters of the way to sleep and only partially sensible. “Three people checked it.”

“She's right,” Jay says quietly as he and Venndred watch Hird drifting off into unconsciousness. “The engine should have been perfectly functional.” He sighs, rubbing a tired hand across his face.

“Did you take a look at the wreckage?” Venndred asks.

Jay shrugs. “Yes, but there wasn't much of it left.”

“The main engine links had been switched,” Samiel says from the door.

He is fully robed once more, visor firmly in place and a carefully neutral expression on his face. He tilts his head as they both look at him. “I had a look as well, once the parts were brought in.”

“What do you mean switched?” Jay asks, moving carefully away from Hird's bed so he doesn't wake her.

“The power line had been uncoupled from the main engine and tagged onto the emergency reserves. It's a backup grid: it would give you enough power to land safely in an emergency, but not enough for sustained flight over any serious length of time.” Carefully Samiel lowers the hood of his robes and removes his visor. His gaze when it meets Jay's is unusually troubled. “It's a simple enough trick to pull, if you know what you're doing.”

“And someone did.” Jay's mouth is dry as he watches Samiel nod carefully. “This was deliberate then,” he says, and it is not a question.

There is a slow, burning anger beginning to build in him at the realisation, and he closes his eyes, trying to suppress it. There goes his one hope that this mission might be slightly easier than he thought; that perhaps Hird was just being paranoid when she had warned him to be careful of his own safety.

Foolish optimism, Lane, he tells himself bitterly. When will you learn? When will you stop letting your idiocy get other people hurt?

“But who would want to kill you?” Venndred asks, mystified. “It doesn't benefit anyone.”

“The Queen, the Council, the Governor, the rebels, anyone with a grudge. Take your pick.” Jay pinches the bridge of his nose, and takes a deep breath. “I think we can safely say I am not exactly popular on Lenia.” He opens his eyes in time to see Venndred gaping openly at him. “Half the planet is probably out to kill me at this point, Venndred. Worse, other people are getting hurt because of it.” He glances involuntarily at Hird, who is currently oblivious to everything.

“You cannot blame yourself for someone else's actions,” Venndred says quietly.

“No?” Jay can feel his anger rising still, and he swallows, hard. “Well, you're right. But we all know who taught me that valuable lesson, don't we?” He doesn't look at Samiel.

“Lane – Jason,” Venndred says gently, slowly climbing to his feet.

Jay can feel his self-control slipping rapidly and he holds a hand up, stopping Venndred in his tracks. “Someone tampered with the bike,” he says stiffly. “Meaning it had to be someone who would know that bike was meant for me. We need to ask ourselves how many people knew about it, and out of those people who would benefit from my death.”

Across from him, he sees Samiel tense. He ignores him in favour of keeping his eyes on Venndred. “We need to find out who's behind this, because they're going to try again.”

“Alright,” Venndred says. “Alright. We will.” He forgets himself, takes a deep breath, then groans as his ribs clearly protest. “But not tonight, Lane.”

“No. Not tonight.”

“Let me help,” Samiel says unexpectedly. “I can at least get you access to any official investigation. Let me do this for you.”

“Why?” Jay asks, and he can feel the need to lash out building again. “How could it possibly benefit you?”

“That's not fair,” Venndred says gently. “I think we can safely say this is not a scenario in which Severne Tremark is going to benefit from helping you.”

“Isn't it?” Jay can feel his expression tightening, even as he struggles to stay calm. The rational part of his mind is screaming at him to stop: there is no logic here in wounding Samiel and he has, after all, actually helped today. But Jay is tired, and angry, and there are words sitting at the back of his throat that he desperately wants to say. He is finding it harder and harder to hold them back, but he knows that once they are said, they can't be undone. He knows he wants to hurt something, to blame someone and pick an easy target to destroy. The rotten, vicious part of him would very much like it to be Samiel.

Adrenaline crash, his logical mind supplies. It's adrenaline crash. Walk away.

But why? he asks himself viciously. Why should I? There are, after all, no politicians to impress here; no pretty words that need saying to sway people to his way of thinking.

He can't do this. He absolutely can't. He may be running on virtually no sleep, awake only because of adrenaline and very little else, but now is not the time to start speaking his mind.

He takes a slow, careful breath. “I think,” he says delicately, after a long pause, “that we should end the discussion here for today.”

“I think you are right,” Venndred says, and there is sympathy in his eyes.

Samiel says nothing, but the way he is watching Jay sends...something crawling down his spine.

“I'll be outside,” Jay says curtly. “Trying to find a bed to sleep in.”

He pushes past Samiel and leaves the room, walking away as quickly as he can.

He can feel the muscles in his neck and shoulders wound tight with anger and fatigue. He is never going to sleep like this, he realises, and there is absolutely no point in looking for a bed right now, despite what he has just said. So, instead of turning left and heading onto one of the wards in search of rest, he turns right and makes for the lifts.

Littien is standing opposite them when he turns the corner. Her expression is blank and her posture relaxed. She straightens a little as he comes into view and nods at him.

“Commander, where are you going?”

Jay opens his mouth. Closes it again. He has no idea what to say at this point, or where he's headed. His tired mind is almost running on empty.

“Are there gardens?” he hears himself asking.

“Yes,” Littien says cautiously. “They're on the roof. Why?”

“Because I'm going to the gardens.” Jay looks at her, and there must be something in his expression that gives her pause. “And I'd like to borrow your salzon.”

“My – ” Littien's hand flies to the hilt of her salzon. “I can't give this to you, Commander. I'm sorry, but I may need it if there's an attack.”

Jay unholsters the pistol Hird had given him two days ago. “Here,” he says, slapping it into Littien's palm. “Now you're armed in case of another unexpected assassination attempt. I trust you know how to use one of these?”

Were she not better trained Littien, he is sure, would have stiffened in offence. “Of course,” she says, her tone aggressively bland. “We are just more effective with our blades, Commander.” Reluctantly, she curls her grip around the pistol. “May I ask why you wish to borrow my salzon?”

“Practice,” Jay says shortly. “It's been a long day and I need to think.”

Something flickers in Littien's expression, some emotion darting across her face too quickly for Jay to parse. “You have been trained in the forms?” she asks.

“Yes.” Jay holds his hand out and, reluctantly, she complies with his unspoken demand. To refuse when a foreign diplomat has requested specific assistance would be a form of insult, and Jay has been banking on her recognising this.

He turns to summon the nearest lift.

They wait in silence, Littien staring straight ahead and Jay fiercely contemplating the lift doors.

When the lift arrives, he heads into it. As the doors begin to close, Littien clears her throat.

“Be careful,” she says. “It's raining outside, and I cannot be everywhere at once, Commander. My duty is here, looking after the Psyke and Commander Hird. I cannot protect you up there.”

“Noted,” Jay says dryly, as the doors close.

The ride up is swift and he emerges into a large, open garden, dimly lit and covered in grass and trees. It is a marvel, perched on the top of the hospital, open to the elements and the night sky.

It is raining, just as Littien said, and Jay tilts his head back breathing deeply. The air is cool against his skin and he lets himself relax just slightly, feeling the fresh breeze and the soft patter of rain. Up here, exposed to the elements, he closes his eyes. The events of the day feel muted – more distant and less unkind in the dark as he breathes out, surrounded by the soothing fall of water.

Impulse strikes him as he stand there, and he carefully props Littien's salzon on a nearby bench so he can take off his boots and socks. Then, reclaiming the blade, he moves carefully into the small open lawn opposite the lift entrance.

The lawn is ringed with trees and partially protected from the rain. The grass is soft against his feet as he walks to the centre, and he takes a moment to stand, absolutely still, as he empties his mind of everything.

Then, slowly, carefully, he shifts into the opening stance of the first defence form. As he moves, he inhales slowly and then exhales. Steadying his balance, he breathes out everything but the feel of a beautifully tempered blade in his hands.

Littien's salzon is made from Lenian steel, like all of them. One of the most precious metals in the galaxy, it is light and fine, wickedly sharp and capable of deflecting nearly anything. In the right hands, Jay reflects as he moves into second defence, a salzon is a thing of terrible beauty. Capable of cutting through bodies like butter, or creating the most beautiful patterns through air.

He moves quicker, snapping into third offence and then ducking backwards and into ninth defence. His muscles, tired after a long day, protest at the sudden movements. He ignores them, watching his footwork and the weave of his blade as he shifts, turning into the twelfth movement of the Maa-Trian form. He swings his salzon down in an overhead lunge before pivoting into second defence again.

For one perfect moment his mind is blissfully empty. All he can feel is the rain pouring down his face and the slick sensation of wet grass beneath his feet. His thoughts have been burned clear by the soothing repetitive motions of his practice as he lunges again, carrying through into third offence and back once more.

There is no Hird, no Samiel, no Venndred. There is no worry of opening his mouth and causing another three years of war by giving insult to someone who thinks themselves important. There is only the beat of his heart, the sound of his own breathing, and the clean cut of his blade as he reverses his grip and moves into the sixth form. The rain is heavier now, drenching his skin and he grins fiercely, enjoying the challenge of working through the elements as he whips into a flurry of attacks.

He has found in the last three years that practice with a salzon is a form of meditation in and of itself for him. The harder he works his blade and muscles through the quick, clever forms of defence and attack, the more his mind empties. Then, he can begin to unpick what is troubling him.

Until now he has not had a chance to do this. Ssafyr had been right when she said Sirens did not appreciate others learning their ways of combat, and he hadn't visited the training room again for fear of running into Samiel. Now, he can take the time to stretch; to run through forms until he can begin to order his thoughts into a more productive pattern.

With that in mind, he gently begins to work his way through the opening set of the Maa-Helian form, carefully piecing himself back together as he does.

Firstly, he thinks, there is the attack that happened on the temple steps. They had all assumed the target had been Deneira – the very fact she had been standing exactly where the sniper had aimed for was proof enough. But perhaps she had not been the only target. Even killing him would have at the very least derailed the peace talks, and if you were a rebel looking to prove Deneira was not a fit ruler, that would be the perfect outcome even if she had survived the attack.

Secondly, the attempt today really was directed at him. The thought makes the anger in his chest burn a little brighter, and he switches to the more aggressive Maa-Trian form again to compensate.

Whoever had tampered with the bike knew who he was. They knew which vehicle he was meant to be flying and they would have only had a limited opportunity to make their move. This means it has to be either one of the Governor's circle, or a mechanic. The switch between engine and emergency power supply had been cleverly done, and neither Littien nor Hird had picked up on it when they did a security sweep.

Jay grits his teeth and launches a compound attack as he examines this idea.

Deliberate damage to the bike and attempts to derail talks by killing him certainly means the rebels are operating in Maa-Ilia. By the very nature of the assassination attempt, there appears to be a tacit understanding between local government and the people out to destroy Deneira's rule. Clearly if anything unfortunate happens to a human diplomat in Maa-Ilia, there's going to be a fast cover up. The whole situation with the bike proves this. It had been beautifully engineered to ensure not much evidence was left behind, and it was only Hird and Samiel's quick thinking that had stopped people getting killed.

Jay sighs and shakes water-logged hair out of his eyes as he carefully begins to slow his movements, falling back into a defensive form again as he considers the implications of this.

The Governor has to be involved on some level, even if it's only because of staff within his administration who are helping the rebels. At best he's incompetent, at worst he's complicit. The whole situation had been set up to look like an accident and it had been far too cleverly presented for Jay's liking.

He frowns at the realisation, moving with careful, languid movements through the closing steps of the form. It means, he realises, that he's going to have to do more digging when they all finally leave the hospital, and he's going to have to be discreet about it.

By now everyone will know members of the delegation have been involved in an accident, but perhaps he can keep the rumours reduced to just that: an unfortunate technical fault. If he can at least lull his would-be assassins into believing him ignorant, it will give him the opportunity to get back to the garage and find out what happened.

Besides, he reasons as he draws into the last movement of the form, if he finds his assassins, he may find Deneira's rebels, and that is only going to help his cause.

He comes to a stop, breathing heavily. His muscles are burning – his arms aching fiercely – and he's waterlogged; but the practice has helped, as he knew it would. His anger is still there, bitter and bright under his new determination, but it is a contained creature once more. His resolve is stronger again, and he feels a little more balanced – calmer than he did half an hour ago. The tiredness he is feeling now is of a body well used, not the drained exhaustion of a man on the verge of despair and he relishes it.

The soft sound of movement behind him as he stands there has him turning; before he can think, his blade is already in first defence as he pivots. The tip of his salzon is a bright line of steel that slices air and comes to rest against the delicate, tanned skin at the hollow of a vulnerable throat.

Jay blinks, and then blinks again, surprised.

Samiel is standing there. The hood of his robes is pulled back, his visor is nowhere to be seen and his face is exposed to the elements. He is watching Jay with bright, curious eyes; his gaze unblinking despite the rain streaming down his face and the blade at his neck.

“What are you doing here?” Jay asks.

The corner of Samiel's mouth twitches. “Watching you,” he says. “Obviously.” He tilts his head slightly as Jay moves the tip of the salzon, pressing it into the vulnerable skin on the underside of his jaw. “I didn't realise you had improved so much, my master.”

“Don't – ” Jay begins, then gives it up as a lost cause. “Why are you really here?”

“I followed you,” Samiel says, and the echo of their conversation in Maa-Tarek itches under Jay's skin. “I know you: you are blaming yourself for what happened to Commander Hird.”

Jay can feel his grip tightening around the hilt of his salzon, his irritation spiking again as he meets Samiel's gaze. “As I've told you before: you don't know the first thing about me,” he says.

“I know you're feeling guilty; you blame yourself,” Samiel says, and there is a calm brutality to his words that annoys Jay further. “You think if it had been you on that bike perhaps it would have gone differently. You know that Hird's job is to protect you, and you don't like it. You are used to relying on your own strength and cunning, where the only person who might get hurt is you. In that way, my darling, you have a death wish. You would rather walk through the fire yourself, than watch someone else try to put it out and get burnt.

“You are frustrated at the thought the person behind this has got away with it for now,” he continues, as Jay opens his mouth to protest. “And you've already planned a way forward to find out who it is.” His eyes gleam in the low light and he leans towards Jay, ignoring the way the edge of the salzon presses into his skin. “And you know I'm right about all of this, and you desperately want to hit me for it.” He smiles, wickedly. “How am I doing?”

The frustration in Jay at his words makes him shiver; makes him tilt the edge of the salzon just so, until it is very nearly on the point of cutting digging into Samiel's neck and drawing blood. “You're right,” he says slowly, the admission being torn out of him in painful increments as his calm begins to crumble. “I would very much like to hit you.”

“Then why don't you?”

“It's not very civilised.”

“Don't you think we passed civility a long time ago, my master?” Samiel asks. “This is nothing, compared to the absolute worst we have seen of each other.”

“Alright,” Jay says, after a moment of careful consideration. “Alright. We'll do this your way. You want me to swing at you? Fine.” He steps back and assumes an opening stance. “Come on then.”

There is a beautiful, all-encompassing relief as he says it: a release of emotions he has held too long in check. He has wanted this opportunity for far too long to deny it now. “On your own head be it if I hurt you,” he adds.

Samiel grins, fiercely. Carefully he removes his robes and sets them aside, the rain quickly beginning to soak through his tunic. He draws his own blade.

“Promises, promises,” he says.

They circle one another, their feet making almost no noise in the wet grass. Where Jay is coiled tension, Samiel is loose-limbed grace, his movements predatory as he stalks Jay around the length of the lawn.

Jay grits his teeth and waits. Samiel will attack first, he is sure of it; he doesn't have the patience to wait Jay out. Already Jay can see the lines of Samiel's body shifting, his intention easier to read without his robes.

Their blades meet in a flurry of steel that rings clear in the night air. Samiel moves, using the Maa-Trian form ruthlessly as he parries Jay's careful defence, and tries to drive him backwards towards the edge of the lawn. Jay snarls and hangs on, deflecting Samiel's blade as he calls on every defensive form he can remember.

Their blades lock together and Jay twists his wrist, disengaging in a metallic hiss as he uses the opening to force Samiel back a step. He then goes on the offensive.

He is grinning, he realises, as the rain beats down on them and their feet churn the once beautiful grass to mud. His heart is pounding in his chest as Samiel lunges at him again and he sidesteps, neatly allowing Samiel to almost overextend until he recovers in time to block Jay's sideways blow.

Practice of the forms is all well and good, and it clears Jay's mind like nothing else; but the joy of a real opponent is something he has not often had the chance to experience, and Samiel is a wickedly inventive duellist. Jay experiences a fierce burst of pride as he blocks Samiel again, flicking the thrust aimed at his shoulder away with an ease that almost surprises him. In this moment, here, he allows his emotions to burn brightly; to viciously enjoy his own anger and the way Samiel looks at him in dark appreciation.

Samiel pivots, ducking under Jay's swing and away as he returns to first guard. He is panting slightly, his curls dripping with water as he pauses pacing up and downs as he assesses the threat Jay is turning out to be.

“You've definitely been practising, haven't you?” he says, wearing a line in the ground as he moves, his gaze never leaving Jay's face. “I'm impressed, my darling.”

Jay bares his teeth and steps closer. “Astonishingly, someone stabbing their blade through your side tends to make you a little paranoid. The motivation it provides for learning how to defend yourself against it happening again is truly remarkable.”

“Clever,” Samiel says approvingly, and dodges Jay's next attack. He uses the momentum to force them both into turning, Jay back on the defensive as Samiel strikes out at his legs.

Jay hops back a step and then blocks Samiel's next blow, which falls with relentless precision towards his neck. “I certainly thought so,” he says, moving back into the Maa-Helian form as he parries, then counters Samiel's move with one of his own that nearly slices Samiel's upper arm. He follows it up with a movement from the second form, and Samiel has to work to avoid being forced back towards the trees.

“But can you ever learn to defend against something like that?” Samiel asks, and it is the genuine curiosity in his voice that causes Jay to lunge in, until they are both caught together and the only way Samiel can stop his momentum is to grasp his other wrist, tightly.

“I don't know,” Jay hisses. “Why don't you tell me?” He pushes forward, trying to unbalance Samiel, who bends gracefully with the movement, then hooks his foot behind Jay's ankle, trying to catch him off guard. For one glorious, awful moment, the long line of his body is pressed against Jay's, and Jay shudders at the feel of it.

They break apart again, and the curiosity on Samiel's face has been replaced with a keen hunger as he studies Jay. “Have you got it out of your system yet?” he asks, instead of answering Jay's question. The taunt in his voice could not be clearer. “Do you still want to hit me, my master, or are you going to let go of this now?” He is not referring to the duel.

The ploy is obvious, the goading laughable, but Jay can't help himself – he reacts anyway.

He rushes Samiel, trying to surprise him into making a mistake, but Samiel is waiting for him, has anticipated this and is already moving in response. In three neat, efficient moves he disarms Jay and has him pinned to the nearest tree, the edge of his salzon tight against Jay's throat.

“You can calm down now,” he says, his voice a low purr next to Jay's ear.

Anger is still sitting hot and tight in Jay's chest. His close proximity to Samiel is not helping and the unpleasant realisation that at any point in their fight Samiel could have disarmed him makes bitterness rise up in him.

He is not willing to lose he realises, as they both stand pressed together. Samiel is a Severne, trained for years in the mastery of the salzon and one of the best. But he is, like so many Sirens, not necessarily as competent in the kind of fighting most humans do. Jay is. He's been down there in the blood, sweat and mud alongside the troops, when the only thing left is teeth and nails against an implacable enemy. He's shot people, stabbed them, beaten them with his bare hands and, when cornered, he has got back up and done it again.

Without thinking, he brings his knee up, ignoring the blade at his throat and kicking into Samiel's stomach. He follows it up with a punch that leaves his knuckles stinging and snaps Samiel's head back, splitting his lip.

Samiel staggers, and for one glorious moment there is something like surprise on his face. The vicious streak in Jay revels in it, as he watches the way Samiel licks blood off his teeth and grins as he tilts his head.

“Better, darling,” he says. “But you still don't have your blade, so what are you going to do now?”

Jay's response is to slam into him, ducking under the almost casual swing of Samiel's salzon. They both hit the ground in a flurry of limbs and Samiel at last – at last – drops his blade in favour of trying to grab Jay's wrists, as Jay tries to hit him again. Jay doesn't let him, and they roll over and over, kicking up mud and grass as they both struggle to gain the upper hand.

For the first time in a very long while, Jay absolutely and actively wants to really hurt someone, and he is not stifling the impulse. Where Samiel's body is the long, lean strength of a swordsman, strong shoulders and slim hips built to wield a blade, Jay is shorter but stockier, more undeniably human and grounded in a way Samiel is not. He flinches back as Samiel tries to headbutt him, taking the impact on his cheekbone for one painful moment and feeling a bruise blossom, before he twists, grappling until Samiel is flat on his back.

Jay levers his strength, straddling Samiel's hips and pushing his arms into the mud above his head. Samiel bucks, trying to twist Jay off of him, and Jay feels himself snarl as he slams Samiel's wrists down again.

“Don't move,” he hisses, half incoherent with anger and adrenaline.

Samiel stills under him. The capitulation is so sudden, so unexpected, that for a moment Jay's brain struggles to catch up, as his grip tightens on Samiel's wrists. He hesitates, staring down, as confusion starts to filter slowly through his rage.

Samiel is staring up at him. He is as filthy as Jay, covered in mud and grass, soaked to the skin and panting heavily. There is a fine tremor running through him, and Jay can feel the tension in his muscles. He meets Jay's gaze, and the look in his eyes is not cautious, or hesitant. There is a deep hunger there; a terrifying want that Jay is helplessly unsure how to respond to.

“I don't – ” Jay says, and watches the way Samiel tilts his head back, lips parting at the sound of his voice. “I don't – ”

Later, Jay knows, he will remember until the day he dies that it was his fault. He moved first.

Samiel's lips are soft under his, tasting sweetly of rainwater, and he sighs as their mouths brush against one another. Jay's breath hitches a little at the sound. He pulls back, just slightly, then kisses Samiel again, more firmly and with no hesitation this time.

This was not meant to happen, he thinks, dazed. This is not what the fight had been about. But Samiel is here; willing and almost pliant, save for the movement of his tendons as he curls his fingers against Jay's hold. And Jay can't resist; can't bring himself to pull away from the heat of Samiel's body, or the way Samiel opens easily to him when he slowly draws his tongue along the seam of Samiel's lips. The inside of Samiel's mouth is hot and deliciously wet; the movement of his tongue against Jay's sending a shiver of arousal down Jay's spine as they kiss, languidly.

Jay's anger is burning itself out, transformed and subsumed under the new and infinitely more satisfying feeling of victory, of desire. For one dizzying moment, it is as though they are the only two creatures in the universe. How had he forgotten what is was like to know this, he wonders. How had he not realised that he had missed the all-encompassing sensation of being the sole focus of Samiel's considerable attention?

Jay can't help himself, he presses closer at the thought, leaning down over Samiel as he kisses him again and again, until they are both breathless. Slowly, he relaxes his grip from around Samiel's wrists and trails the fingers of one hand down to grip his chin, his thumb resting against the line of Samiel's jaw. He uses his hold to pull Samiel's head up, pull him closer so he can kiss him more deeply.

He shudders at the sound Samiel makes; bites gently on his bloodied lower lip then runs his tongue over the hurt to soothe it, before dipping into his mouth again with pleasurable ease. Tension is building in his gut, and unthinkingly he rocks down.

Samiel growls, and there is a disorientating flurry of movement. Jay finds himself flat on his back, mud seeping into his clothes as Samiel looms over him.

“What – ” he says, dizzy and confused.

“Shh, my master,” Samiel says and dips his head to kiss him. “It's alright my darling.” The sound of his voice is intoxicating in a way Jay has not heard it for a long time. It takes him back to a different time, a different place. He remembers the gold of Samiel's eyes, the low helpless quality to his voice when he had said: “Don't move, my darling. Of course it was you; it was always going to be you.”

Caught, Jay lets the kiss happen; feels the low rumble of pleasure Samiel emits as he kisses back. Absently, without his permission, his fingers bury themselves in Samiel's curls, which are wet from the rain still beating down on them. Jay is dirtying them both, smearing Samiel's hair with the mud they have both been rolling in, and he can't find it in himself to be sorry. He uses his grip to haul Samiel closer, to kiss him again. His lips feel bruised; wet and swollen as Samiel swallows down the sounds he is making, sliding his tongue into Jay's mouth and fucking it gently, in a mimicry of what they are building to.

Jay's other hand scrabbles, sliding along the width of Samiel's shoulder, and palming the side of his neck as he takes control of the kiss, tilting Samiel's head so he can return the favour, licking into him in short, frantic movements that have them both panting.

“I want –” Samiel says, pulling back to look at Jay. He is a glorious sight, Jay thinks; his lips kissed raw, eyes half mad with a desire that belongs completely to Jay. “I want – ”

“Yes,” Jay says, and he doesn't know what he is agreeing to; doesn't care as he cranes his neck up to kiss Samiel. But oh, the noise Samiel makes when he says it. “Yes,” he repeats again when they part, just to hear that sound once more.

“My master,” Samiel says, and there is something frantic in his voice. He presses an open-mouthed kiss to the underside of Jay's jaw, lips catching on stubble as he lets out a small, helpless groan. His hips rock, once, against Jay's, and Jay can feel the pressure of his cock through their clothes. His own hips jerk in response, in a sweet, simulated fuck as they rub against one another, and Samiel bites down, hard, on his neck.

That's going to bruise, Jay thinks incoherently, and finds he simply doesn't care, as Samiel slides one arm under Jay's leg and hauls it around his waist so they are pressed closer still, Jay's bare heel digging into the small of his back as they rock together.

“Jason,” Samiel says, and the sound of his name in that beautiful voice has Jay clawing at Samiel's curls again, hauling him up so he can kiss him. “Jason, sweetheart, please.”

He could probably come from this alone, Jay realises. From the way Samiel says his name, and the sound of his voice. From the pressure of their cocks rubbing against one another, the pleasure muted by layers of clothing but toe-curling nonetheless.

“Again,” he says, voice cracked and not sure what he is asking for. He feels Samiel shudder at his words as he buries his face in Jay's neck, mouthing frantic kisses along his skin. “Again, please, again.”

“I – ” Samiel says.

Severne Tremark.”

The sound of Littien's voice breaks through the haze building in Jay's head, her voice like the crack of a whip as she storms across the grass towards them.

They both tense. For one brief, incandescent moment, Jay is filled with a terrible anger. How dare she interrupt this? How dare she come between Jason and what is his? Above him, Samiel looks little better, the wild light in his eyes transformed into a vicious snarl that speaks of bloodshed for the interruption. In that instant Jay wants to watch it unleashed – watch Samiel take apart the person who has dared intrude. Let it serve as a warning to others not to come between them. Not to –

Reality asserts itself, like a terrible slap in the face, and with it horror at his thoughts.

“No,” he says, gripping the neck of Samiel's tunic as he feels him tense when Littien comes to stand over them. “Samiel. No.”

There is an awful minute where Jay thinks he is not going to be listened to, but Samiel relents, the tension in his shoulders subsiding as he stares down at Jay. “Alright,” he says at last, voice low in the space between them. “Alright, my master, but only for you.”

“Get up,” Littien says, and either she has missed the interaction or she doesn't care. Her expression is twisted in disgust as she examines Samiel. Jay is horribly aware of the state they are both in as he watches Littien's eyes trail over the pair of them, but Littien doesn't seem to care about this either.

“Rutting in the mud with a human is not the way to conduct yourself,” she hisses at Samiel, and glowers as he snarls at her in return.

“What do you want?” he asks, lips peeled back from his teeth as he stays hovered protectively over Jay.

Littien's gaze darts to Jay, and some of the revulsion in her expression smooths away slightly, as though she is deliberately packing it behind a veneer of professionalism.

“The Governor is here to see Commander Lane,” she says. “And he wishes to discuss this afternoon's assassination attempt.”

Chapter Text

The ride back down in the lift is painful in its awkward silence.

Jay stares straight ahead, struggling to suppress the low hum of arousal fluttering just under his skin. He is achingly aware of Samiel standing behind him; a solid, angry presence at his back. He is equally aware of the way Littien is watching the both of them, sharp disapproval practically radiating from her. Her presence helps, reality starting to reassert itself as he breathes slowly, trying to pull the pieces of himself back into some semblance of sanity. He needs to be at his best, in this moment, and he is very certain that he is not.

They reach the floor where Governor Mirret has been temporarily installed in a meeting room, and their bedraggled little procession troops along the corridor.

“May I have a moment to tidy up?” Jay asks at last, as they come to a halt outside an innocuous looking door.

The gaze Littien flicks over him is dismissive. “No,” she says. “The Governor has already been waiting over half an hour whilst we tried to find you and Severne Tremark.”

“Right.”

“I'll go in with you,” Samiel offers, and it is the first time he has spoken since the garden.

The look Littien shoots him is bordering on derisive. “You will not,” she says. “I will accompany Commander Lane.”

“No,” Samiel says, “you won't.” There is an icy finality to his voice. He and Littien stare at one another, like - Jay thinks with a touch of exasperation - two snakes sizing up over a juicy mouse. As he watches, Samiel's lips peel back from his teeth in a silent snarl.

“Fine,” Littien says at length, her expression blank and her tone dismissive. “I'm sure you will be able to contain yourself and observe quietly.” She tilts her head in a curt gesture to Jay. “Commander, should you require anything I will be waiting with the Psyke and Wing Commander Hird.”

“Unless you happen to have a cup of tea on you, I think I'll be fine,” Jay says dryly, silently himself to an awkward meeting with the Governor.

Littien lets out a breath. “I will see you both later,” she says shortly.

Ignoring the way Samiel watches her walk away, his expression filled with mistrust, Jay turns on his heel and goes into the room to meet Mirret.

The Governor is sitting at the table, hands clasped loosely as he stares idly at the wall opposite. As Jay comes in he looks up, and his eyes widen in a moment of perfect horror.

“My goodness!” he exclaims, pushing back his chair as he stands. “Wing Commander, it is worse than I feared!”

Jay is humiliatingly aware of how he must look: he is soaked to the skin and covered in grass. He has a bruise blooming across his cheekbone from where Samiel had headbutted him, and he can feel the painful sting of teeth marks on his neck. His hair is gently drying into fantastical shapes, sculpted by mud and Samiel's enthusiastic fingers. In short, he looks like a wreck, but Mirret clearly thinks he hasn't bothered to clean up since the accident with the flightbikes.

“Sit down, sit down!” Mirret says, gesturing to the other chair and ignoring Samiel, who is lurking behind Jay, the hem of his robes dripping rainwater onto the floor.

Carefully, Jay sits. “You wanted to see me?” he asks, as Mirret reclaims his chair.

The Governor leans forward, the light catching on the threads of gold running through his tunic and on the silver in his hair. “Yes,” he says earnestly. “I heard about the dreadful accident, Wing Commander, and came as soon as I was able to ensure you were safe.” His mouth pulls at the corners and he reaches across to pat Jay's hand, ignoring Samiel's growl at the gesture. “I am so sorry this has happened.”

Cautiously, Jay pulls his hand back from Mirret's concerned fingers and considers his options. “I fear it wasn't an accident,” he says at last, going with gut instinct and watching with pleasure as Mirret's eyes widen. “I am telling you this in the strictest of confidence, Governor, but the bike was tampered with.”

“No!” Mirret gasps, his voice pitched high. As Jay watches he blinks, then blinks again, and slumps back in his chair. “No that's not – that's not possible. The flightbikes were checked.”

There is something off in his voice, a strange, hollow note, and Jay tilts his head, staring hard. Mirret is flustered, that much is obvious, but the surprise in his voice rings false, and the way his gaze flickers briefly to Samiel and back suggests he is more nervous than he is letting on. Either he is concerned he is about to be blamed for a near-fatal assassination attempt, or he is hiding something. In both cases it is evident that he at least suspected the incident with the flightbike was no accident.

“You already knew,” Jay says flatly, and feels more than hears the low hiss of displeasure Samiel emits at this.

“No, I – ” Mirret looks between the two of them nervously. “I didn't. How can you suggest such a thing, Wing Commander?” His voice is high, defensive, and he is a very bad liar. “If I had known, I would have shared this information with your delegation.”

Jay leans forward. “With who in the delegation, exactly?” he asks. “There are only two human representatives in Maa-Ilia at present, and currently only one of them is conscious.” He takes a moment to relish Mirret sweating nervously. “In which case, Governor, surely you should have spoken to me immediately, because we both know you knew about this.”

“This is utterly absurd,” Mirret says, a little frantically, and Jay wonders how on earth the man came to be Governor when he is so poor at hiding his emotions. “What makes you think it is anything but an accident? Why would you think I would know?”

“Because,” Jay says, holding his gaze, “you were the one who arranged for the flightbikes, weren't you? Surely you must have checked them as well, Governor? It's a very easy thing to change the power couplings, isn't it?” He smiles, pleasantly. “And the sad lack of evidence following such a catastrophic accident would surely be written off as an unfortunate casualty of the crash. So, I'll say this again: you knew about it and you knew you wouldn't get caught.”

As Jay watches, Mirret's shoulders slump a little. He drops his gaze to the tabletop, ignoring the way Jay is watching him and the tension rising in the room as Samiel steps closer to the table.

“Alright,” he says at last. “I knew. When I heard about the so-called 'accident', I knew something had happened and it was deliberate.” He sighs and passes a hand wearily across his face. “But it wasn't me, Wing Commander.”

“But you know who it is,” Jay says, and watches as Mirret jerks in surprise, before he can contain himself. Jay's accusation is another guess, but an educated one. For Mirret to be so adamant he is not responsible for the flightbikes means he has, if nothing else, some idea of who may be responsible.

“I don't,” Mirret protests and Jay sighs.

“Governor Mirret,” he says. “I am tired, I am cold and wet and right now I would kill for a cup of tea.” He watches as Mirret flinches at his choice of words. “I am rapidly running out of patience, and I will quite happily file a formal complaint with either your Parliament or Queen regarding your obstruction of an official investigation if you do not start talking to me.” He smiles sharply, as Mirret looks up at him, eyes wide. “Now, I will ask you again: who was it?”

“I don't know,” Mirret says and then learns forward, alarmed, as Jay sighs and starts to get to his feet. “I have no proof, I swear!”

“But you have some idea.”

“I – ” Mirret swallows nervously and his gaze flicks again to Samiel. “May we – can I discuss this with you alone, Commander?”

“Absolutely not,” Samiel growls, and Jay can feel his own expression tighten in displeasure at the thought.

“Why?” he asks. “Surely you may speak in front of Severne Tremark?”

“The information I have, it's...sensitive,” Mirret says desperately. “Commander, please. I ask only for some privacy.”

“I am not – ” Samiel begins in a low hiss.

“Be quiet,” Jay says, without glancing behind him, his gaze fixed on Mirret. He pauses for a moment, thinking. If he insists on Samiel staying in the room, Mirret is not going to give him any further information, that much is clear. If Samiel goes, there is going to be no official witness to anything Mirret may offer, and no way to confirm that he is not simply feeding Jay lies.

“Samiel,” he says at last, “you may leave.”

What?” Samiel asks, and Jay can practically feel the fury radiating off of him. “Do you honestly think I am going to – ”

“Leave,” Jay snaps. “Now.”

There is a long, painful moment where he thinks he is going to be completely disregarded. At last he hears Samiel shift. “Alright,” he says darkly. “But I will be right outside the door.”

Although Jay is not looking at him, Samiel must make some sort of signal to Mirret, because the Siren pales and shrinks back in his chair.

“If I hear so much as one sound coming from in here that I don't like...” Samiel adds menacingly.

“You won't,” Jay says, and prays silently that his gamble will pay off. If it doesn't, he has just committed a social faux pas in sending Samiel away for nothing.

Mirret waits, tracking Samiel's exit until the door closes behind him, then he leans forward, urgently.

“I am telling the truth,” he says, voice low. “You must believe me: I had nothing to do with your accident.”

“Assassination attempt,” Jay says, falsely pleasant. He does not bother to lower his voice. “Let us call it what it was, Governor.”

“Yes. That.” Mirret swallows. “But yes, Commander, as soon as I heard, I knew. We have a problem in Maa-Ilia at the moment – our Queen is not popular and voices of discontent are growing harder and harder to ignore or deal with.”

“Rebels,” says Jay. “You are talking about the rebels.”

Mirret nods. “They do not believe the Queen's attempts at peace are genuine. They feel that she is simply putting on a show – attempting to demonstrate that she is still fit to rule without making a true bid for lasting change. They say it is obvious from the way she has allowed you to stay during the peace talks, despite the very act of bringing you to Lenia could have been misconstrued.” He hesitates, clearly trying to decide how to phrase his explanation without offending Jay. “You are not liked,” he says.

“Yes,” Jay says dryly, “I think we can safely say I have been well informed of that fact.”

“But you don't understand!” Mirret says. “The rebels are accusing the Queen of using you to derail talks. She can stall simply by having allowed you to attend negotiations, then refusing to deal with you, given your previous history.”

“But that hasn't happened,” Jay says. “Surely it's evident peace talks have been ongoing?”

“Have they?” Mirret asks. “And how much have you all managed to achieve so far?”

He has, Jay admits to himself, a point. But they are getting sidetracked, so he leans forward, resting his folded arms on the table. “And what has this got to do with someone trying to kill me?”

“You are killed,” Mirret says, “and the excuse to delay talks is gone. Vanished. The Butcher of Mas-Hain has been taken off of the playing board and the Queen can no longer delay.” He shrugs. “Clearly the rebels then feel they can expose her tactics if she tries again.”

Jay rubs his forehead. “And yet that is an incredibly foolish plan,” he says. “Assuming I even believe you. If I am killed, I think it is safe to say peace talks will be stalled anyway, won't they? You can't just murder a representative from the human delegation and then expect talks to continue as they were, no matter who that person may be.”

Mirret looks uneasy as he watches Jay. “I didn't say it was clever thinking,” he says, “just that I believe this is the outcome the rebels would want.”

“Besides,” Jay continues over the tip of him, “surely my murder could act as the spark for another war, which is something that you claim the rebels definitely don't want. Especially as it provides the Queen an excuse to end negotiations.”

“I think,” Mirret says, “they would use it as further evidence if the Queen did not then do everything in her power to appease the human delegation.” He sighs. “And I believe some members of the rebellion do also want revenge, Commander.”

Jay leans back, observing Mirret carefully. “And how exactly do you know all this?” he asks. “For someone who claims he has nothing to do with the events today, you are remarkably well informed.”

There is a long, painful silence. Mirret glances first at the door, then at Jay. He frowns, clearly thinking. Jay watches him silently. There are times to prompt and times to keep quiet, and now is definitely the latter. Whatever comes out of Mirret's mouth next is going to be informative, be it the truth or a lie – and only time will tell which one it is.

“My wife,” Mirret says at last, reluctantly. “It is because of my wife.” He slumps in his chair, and for a moment he looks old – his face lined in a way Jay has not really seen in a member of the Lenian elite until now.

“She is a member of the rebellion,” Mirret continues, “and I have no excuse for what she has done.”

*

Mirret had said very little following his confession, and Jay would not be surprised if he didn't go straight home to try and warn his wife of his admission. Their meeting had ended with no real further discussion and Mirret had fled the building as soon as was polite.

Now it is so late it is more like early, and Jay's head is spinning with tiredness and the slow erosion of the adrenaline that has, until the end of the meeting, kept him going.

He leaves the room just after Mirret, almost dizzy and still painfully aware of how filthy he currently is. Samiel follows along behind, his resentment almost palpable. Water still drips from the hem of his robes, leaving a small trail behind them as they both head in the direction of the lifts.

Jay looks in on Hird – who is still asleep – and deposits Samiel in the room with her, ignoring the utter disbelief in his eyes as he tells him to stay put. He then asks Littien to point him in the direction of a spare room.

He showers quickly, stripping his clothes off and tossing them haphazardly in the direction of the door. The water is hot and the pressure is good, and although the soap smells strongly of antiseptic, it does the job of washing away the mud he has accumulated.

As he rinses his hair for the second time his fingers stray once, briefly, to the gentle sting of the bruise Samiel has left on the line of his throat. He presses down on it hard, relishing the burn of it for a brief moment for reasons he is too tired to analyse closely, and then goes back to washing.

He resolutely doesn't think about anything at all as he towels off and pulls on the clean set of clothes Littien has managed to scrounge up from somewhere. The t-shirt is just slightly uncomfortable – too tight across the shoulders and too long in length – but he finds this doesn't matter.

He crawls into bed, collapsing face first, and is asleep before he can even think to turn off the light.

*

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Venndred asks, as they step into the hangar.

Morning sunlight is pouring through the open bay doors as Jay looks around. He had slept well the night before and, despite still wearing the borrowed clothes he hasn't been able to change, he is feeling more refreshed than he has in days. He has left Samiel still watching over Hird – has deliberately avoided him, if he is being brutally honest with himself – but at last there's the possibility of getting some answers.

“I do not think this is a good idea,” Littien says flatly from behind the pair of them. “You are injured, Psyke, and Commander Lane has already been the target of one assassination attempt. It is idiocy to create another opportunity.”

“That's not why we're here,” Jay says patiently as they cross the airside floor towards security operations.

“No,” Littien says, and there is the smallest trace of contempt in her voice. “We are here because you think it is a good idea to impede an official investigation.”

“Aren't you part of the official investigation?” Venndred asks. He is, Jay notes, still moving stiffly in spite of the all-clear from the surgeons regarding his ribs. As he turns his head he winces, his neck clearly sore.

“Did you sleep in a chair all night?” Jay asks, realisation dawning.

It is hard to see with the sunlight almost directly behind him, but Jay could swear Venndred flushes. “No,” he says.

Jay is half tempted to tease him, but Littien's voice cuts across the conversation before he can open his mouth. “Keer Irgen is meeting us,” she says. “He has agreed to provide you both with the security footage from the hangar before yesterday's flight.” Her face is expressionless under her visor as she looks at the pair of them. “And I have been assured by Governor Mirret that no one has been allowed access to it until now.”

“Except possibly Governor Mirret,” Venndred says under his breath, and winks at Jay's startled look.

“Not even him,” interrupts a new voice.

Keer Irgen is clearly Siren – the gold eyes and voice give it away, if nothing else – but he is also quite clearly other. If Jay had to hazard a guess, based on the slight tinge to his skin and the set of his cheekbones, he would almost certainly wager on Medusae blood being somewhere in the Irgen family line.

“Hello,” Venndred says, offering a hand to Irgen. “Sorry to be rifling through your security footage so early in the day, but we just want to check everything over. Standard procedure, you understand?”

“Of course,” Irgen says, and smiles. His teeth are just a little too sharp for comfort, Jay thinks, as he finds himself on the wrong end of a curious stare.

He clears his throat. “Wing Commander Lane,” he says, and offers his hand as well.

“I know who you are,” Irgen says, and some of the friendliness leaches out of his voice. He doesn't take Jay's hand. “I wasn't expecting you as well.”

“Wing Commander Lane insisted on coming,” Littien says. “Governor Mirret gave him leave to.”

“Right.” Irgen's expression slips slightly and he turns back to Venndred. “If you'll follow me, I'll show you to operations.”

As they follow Irgen, Venndred nudges Jay. “Want me to do the talking?” he murmurs, voice low so neither Littien nor Irgen can overhear him. “I get the impression you're not exactly popular around here.”

“Good guess,” Jay mutters dryly. “But no thanks.” He watches as Irgen ushers Littien into a small office tucked away at the back of the hangar, and sighs quietly. “Although I may need you to keep Littien company. I don't know how long this is going to take.”

“As long as necessary,” Littien breaks in. “And I will not need company, Commander; I will be undertaking an investigation into this as well.” She smiles thinly as Irgen begins to pull up the security tapes. “Most Exalted has tasked me with resolving this matter.”

“You've already spoken to the Queen?” Jay asks, surprised.

“Of course. An attempt to provoke hostilities that takes place during an official diplomatic visit must be dealt with as a priority.”

“Or there'll be more trouble than just the Tammoll Federation,” Venndred says, and raises an eyebrow as both Littien and Irgen turn to stare at him. “What? It's true.”

Irgen smiles, politely. “Yes, even here we have heard that the Queen is having to fend off an interplanetary investigation. It is most inconvenient.”

“One way of putting it,” Venndred says. He indicates the wide bank of screens taking up one end of the office. “Is this where the security footage is stored?”

“Yes.” Irgen crosses the room and brings up footage on several of the screens. He pointedly ignores Jay and turns his attention again to both Littien and Venndred. Jay watches this little display and wonders if anyone has ever taught Irgen not to piss off already annoyed military envoys.

He shakes himself, dismissing the small spark of irritation, and follows Littien and Venndred.

“This is everything from the three hours before and two hours after the flight yesterday,” Irgen is saying, his fingers flying over the keyboard. “There's multiple angles covering both entrances and exits, and two cameras were trained on the bikes at any given time.” He indicates the screens as he speaks. “We've taken statements from all six of the mechs who worked on the bikes prior to the event, and Governor Mirret has asked for background checks to be done on all local dignitaries.”

“Can you do that?” Littien asks. “I didn't think private security had the clearance.”

“Normally we don't, but we've been co-opted into the official accident investigation.” Irgen shrugs and takes a step back, allowing Littien to take his place at the monitors. “That gives us more legal rights than we would normally be allowed.”

“Interesting,” Littien murmurs, her gaze fixed on the monitors. “Your help may be invaluable. We are low on resources and an independent official investigation may prove useful.”

“Oh yes,” Venndred says. “We've got to make sure this whole thing is conducted without bias.” There is an odd note to his voice, Jay thinks. As though he is wavering on the edge of sarcasm and can't quite hide it.

“Precisely,” Littien says, and if she notices anything unusual about Venndred's tone, she doesn't show it.

Jay watches the pair of them for a moment before turning is attention back to the screen. The footage is slow-looping, and, as he watches the first three hours of recording, the smaller figures of himself, Hird, Samiel, Littien and Venndred troop onto the screen. They pause for what the monitors indicate is no longer then five minutes, before making their way towards the bikes.

Hird and Venndred strap themselves onto their flightbikes, and Jay looks on as his past self climbs reluctantly onto his own model. He watches Samiel get on behind him and remembers with a visceral flash of clarity the warmth of Samiel's arms around his waist; the feel of his lips close to his ear.

He frowns and tries to suppress the memory. Now is not the time and he can't afford to start thinking about... everything. He forces his attention back to the monitors and keeps watching.

The next two hours of footage contain no new information; no one even enters the hangar after they depart, and all that's left to do is watch the recorded sunlight crawl slowly across the concrete floor as afternoon heads into evening.

“This is pointless,” Littien says at length. “We've not got any new information out of this.” She frowns, keying in a code on her commlink. “It's been over an hour; we need to go back.” She raises an eyebrow. “And apparently Wing Commander Hird is being released from the hospital soon.”

Venndred has been frowning at the monitors but he turns at this, his expression visibly brightening. “Really?” he asks. “I thought she'd be in for at least another couple of days.”

Littien shrugs. “Apparently not.”

“I'll shut this down then,” Irgen says, reaching for the kill switch on the control panel.

Jay holds up a hand. “Wait. I want to go over the footage one more time.”

“Wing Commander we've been over it,” Littien says, and there is a faint trace of impatience in her voice. “There's nothing; we all watched. There is no evidence to suggest a mistake was made by the engineering department when setting up the flightbikes. Clearly we will need to speak to the manufacturers instead.”

“Once more,” Jay repeats. There is something at the back of his mind – a quiet nudge that he is missing something; that he saw whatever it was and could recognise it again if he could just spot it.

“I really don't think – ”

“I'll stay with him.” Venndred interrupts Littien with a small shrug. “If you want to go and get the shuttle ready, Severne, we can review this once more and be ready to go within the hour.”

“I can't leave you both alone,” Littien says. “We've had quite specific instructions you are both to have security at all times because of the accident.” She tilts her head at Irgen. “Perhaps Triiya Irgen would be so kind as to inform flight control we will be leaving soon?”

Irgen looks between the three of them, opens his mouth to protest and clearly thinks better of it. “If that is what you would prefer, Severne Littien.”

“I would,” Littien says flatly.

Irgen leaves, although not without a backwards glance over his shoulder. As soon as the door shuts behind him, Venndred rounds on Jay.

“Alright,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “What have you found?”

“Nothing yet,” Jay says. “Just a hunch.” He frowns, looking at the control panel. “How do you rewind this thing?”

“Here.” Venndred elbows him out of the way and starts keying commands into the console. “Is there anything in particular you're looking for?”

Jay rubs his forehead. He can feel the beginning of a headache settling behind his eyes from staring at the screens. “No; I'll know it when I see it.” He feels, more than hears, the tiny contemptuous breath Littien lets out from behind him at the statement.

“Alright.” Venndred cracks his knuckles and punches one last button. “Sing out if anything grabs you.”

For a while they watch the recordings again in silence. The slow crawl of the afternoon's events around the hangar play out in vivid detail across multiple monitors. Jay strains his eyes, frantically searching for anything that will give him some idea of what happened before the crash.

There is nothing.

He's missed something. He must have.

“Go back again,” he hears himself say, the frustration of the last hour slowly starting to get the better of him as he frantically wonders what the hell he is not spotting.

“No,” Littien says. “This is a futile exercise and we cannot afford to delay our departure again.”

Jay can't help it: he rounds on her as his frustration starts to get the better of him.

“You it said yourself, Severne Littien: this is an official investigation. May I remind you that it is not only local law enforcement who are investigating, but it is the duty of the human embassy to do so as well. Particularly as the incident endangered the lives of two of its representatives.

“Under article seventy one point five of the Interior Circle Act, from subsection twenty seven two, you should know you may not impede any authorised diplomat acting in the course of their duties. In this case 'duties' means the investigation. And as I am the only current representative of the embassy in the area, I will not have my investigation obstructed.”

He grits his teeth at the blank look Littien sends him, and deliberately turns his back on her. “Now, Psyke, if you would be so kind, run the recordings again.”

Venndred nods and obediently starts the footage up. There is a hint of amusement lurking in his eyes and at the corners of his mouth, but he apparently wisely decides to keep his mouth shut.

Jay hears Littien shift behind him. “I didn't see it before,” she murmurs, apparently to herself, although Jay can't help but get the feeling her words are actually directed at him. “I do now.”

What she's referring to is unclear, so Jay continues to ignore her. “I'm going to wait outside,” she adds blandly.

The door clicks shut behind her.

“Look,” Jay says, intent on apologising to Venndred, at least, for the tense atmosphere. He doesn't really regret what he said to Littien. “I'm – ”

“There!” Venndred interrupts him, jabbing a finger at the screen. “There, did you see that?”

“No, what?” Jay leans, straining his eyes as he squints at the monitors.

“Here, I'll rewind.” Venndred's fingers fly across the console as he rolls the footage back again.

This time, Jay sees it.

There is the tiniest of flickers on all angles of the recording. The time stamp on the bottom doesn't change and the images themselves continue smoothly, but the odd glitch obscures everything for no more than half a second. It's a 'blink and you'll miss it' moment.

This is what he had been trying to find, Jay realises. His subconscious had seen it, even if he hadn't recognised it.

“Someone spliced the recording,” he says.

Venndred nods, gaze fixed on the monitors. “And they did a very good job of it.” He grins, spinning to look at Jay and bowing elaborately. “Luckily, I am better. Shall we see if I can help you with your diplomatic duties?”

Jay groans. “I really shouldn't have said that,” he admits. “I was being an arse.”

Venndred shrugs. “Yes,” he says cheerfully. “But so was Littien.”

“I'll apologise.”

“Up to you, of course. But she is providing part of your security detail at the moment.” Venndred slants Jay another smile. “Probably useful to be on the good side of someone who might have to help you in a fire fight.”

Jay smiles wryly. “Point taken. Now show me the cut footage.”

There is a moment where he thinks Venndred isn't going to be able to undo the splice, but after several tense minutes – during which Venndred talks to himself under his breath and looks as close to annoyed as Jay has ever seen him – the images on the screen give a promising skip.

“There we go!” Venndred says triumphantly, tapping the console with happy emphasis. “They didn't have time to erase the data, only cover it.” He squints at the screen, which is looping the hidden thirty seconds. “Is that anyone you know?”

Jay looks. The image is grainy and a little uncertain; fragmented by whatever had previously been done to it and Venndred's attempts to retrieve it. But there is something familiar about the innocuous figure in mech overalls, newly revealed and crouching by the flightbike some fifteen minutes before they'd even arrived at the hangar. His back is to the security cameras, as though he knows exactly where they are, and how to avoid them.

“I don't know,” Jay says slowly, uncertain. “I don't think so.”

On screen the Siren turns his head, his face in profile as he looks towards a sound not picked up on the audio sensors.

Jay's breath hitches, recognition crashing through him at the Siren's newly-revealed features.

It is Isen Kallat.

*

They are half an hour into the shuttle ride back. Littien is up front piloting and Jay and Venndred are seated in the cabin.

Venndred had not asked again if Jay had recognised the Siren; in fact his silence on the subject had been almost deafening. Instead, he had politely informed Littien that they had discovered a discrepancy in the footage and advised her to speak to Irgen about getting a copy. Littien's expression, Jay has to admit, had been priceless.

They had boarded the shuttle in silence, and Jay had taken the first available seat, slumping down and ignoring Venndred's concerned look.

For the last half an hour he has been wondering what the hell he's meant to do now about Isen. He's just debating the merits of talking to Hird about the whole thing, when Venndred interrupts his thoughts.

“So,” he says, as they cross over into what Jay thinks is Maa-Ilian airspace. “Are we going to talk about it?”

He is lounging comfortably in one of the shuttle chairs opposite. One of his long legs is bent up, and he has propped his chin on his fist as he watches Jay. There is kindness in his expression and a careful lightness to his tone as he tilts his head.

“About the footage?” Jay asks, confused and startled out of his train of thought.

“No.” Venndred's lips quirk and he taps a fingers against his own neck. “About that.”

“About – ” Jay claps a hand over the bruise that is just visible from under the edge of his collar. He can feel himself flushing and everything he has been trying to suppress for the last couple of hours comes rushing back. He can feel his thoughts derailing from what they have just discovered, and he frowns, uncomfortable.

“Shit,” he says, and were he not trying to crawl out of his skin with embarrassment, he would have been amused at the expression on Venndred's face.

“Look,” Venndred says, “I'm not here to judge, or to preach. But there's only two people who could have given you that rather spectacular kythria and somehow I don't think it was Littien.” He sighs, his expression gentling. “Do you at least understand what you are doing, Lane?”

“It was...” Jay rubs his forehead, trying to find adequate words to describe the insanity of last night. “An accident,” he finally settles on, and watches Venndred raise an eyebrow in surprise, his expression turning serious.

“Lane, I don't think you understand,” he says carefully. “I very much doubt that was an accident.” he stares at Jay for a long moment, then bites his lip. “I think we probably need alcohol for this conversation,” he murmurs.

Jay sighs. “If we're really going to have this conversation Psyke - and I'm not sure we should - the best I can offer is some rather dubious looking garren juice that I saw in one of the storage compartments.”

Venndred grimaces. “In that case I think I'll go without.” He stares at Jay for an uncomfortably long moment, then shrugs. “Alright, I'll start. What do you know about meshala?”

“It's a mating instinct,” Jay says, recalling what Palek had told him a long time ago. “A sort of uncontrollable urge your species encounters on a cyclical basis that results in an attempt to find a compatible partner.” He frowns at Venndred's expression. “No?”

“Where did you get that idea from?” Venndred asks, horrified, then holds up a hand as Jay starts to reply. “Wait, don't tell me. I don't want to know. Literally everything you've just said is wrong. Just. Wrong.” He groans and rests his head on his knee for a moment, breathing deeply. “Ok. This is worse than I thought, and I didn't think it was going to be easy to start with.”

“Hey!” Jay protests.

“Sorry, but it's true.” Venndred looks at him again, and Jay is surprised to see how serious he is. “On the surface you've got at least some of it right: meshala is a mating urge, but it's not something that happens on a cycle and it's not something that sends us looking for anyone compatible.

Meshala is triggered by finding a compatible mate, not as a result of needing to look for one. That's the first thing. The second thing is that it's rare. Not 'never been seen in today's society' rare, but infrequent enough that when it happens it's not always recognised.” He rubs his chin thoughtfully, still watching Jay. “It's not just a breeding imperative, Commander, if that's what you're thinking.”

“That was the impression I'd been given,” Jay admits.

“Part of meshala is the drive to mate, for close physical contact, but that's not everything.” Venndred frowns, apparently struggling to find the right word. “Ultimately, its purpose is to create a logosykia; a complete merging of spirits on a fundamental level. I'm sorry, I'm finding it difficult to come up with an equivalent descriptor in Standard.”

“A sort of spiritual bond?” Jay asks. There is a strange and terrible feeling beginning to grow in his chest as Venndred talks; a sense of irrefutable panic and dawning awareness of what, exactly, the Psyke is trying to carefully tell him.

“Yes, that sounds about right: a soul bond.” Venndred must see Jay's expression, because he leans forward and pats his arm. “Please don't worry, this isn't something that can be forged by accident.”

“Surely it can't be forged at all!” Jay says, and under his disbelief he is aware that he very desperately does not want what Venndred is telling him to be true. “Aren't you just talking about a symbolic act? Soul bonds are fairy tales; they're not something that actually exist.”

The look Venndred shoots him has more pity in it than Jay would like. “Of course they exist,” he says gently. “Just because the human race hasn't really been exposed to them, it doesn't mean they're not real.”

“In which case, surely two different species can't complete this?”

Venndred smiles, and his sympathy stings. “If they're compatible they can,” he says. “And there are some fundamental biological similarities between humans and Sirens. Enough that it is theoretically possible for a logosykia to be formed.”

“But you just said it couldn't be done by accident,” Jay says desperately.

“No.” Venndred shrugs. “Forming a logosykia takes total immersion with one another. Part of that might be sex, but the reality is that sex is the very least of what it is.” He pulls a face. “I apologise, this is going to sound a bit conceptual, but essentially it's the merging of two halves. You're not just part of one another, you become one another. There's no hiding in a soul bond – no disseminating or pretence. You are two perfect halves of a whole. For that to happen there has to be complete and total surrender by both parties: there can be no holding back.”

“And how does this happen?”

“Traditionally there's rituals: courting and steps towards creating the bond.” Venndred spreads his hands. “That is part of meshala. That is why it exists. When your soul recognises another's, meshala is there not only as an imperative to complete logosykia, but also as a means to do so.”

“What steps do you need?” Jay asks, his unease growing the longer Venndred talks. His fingers itch to touch the bruise Samiel has left on him. Fear is slowly crawling up his spine, because no one had told him about this. Palek had lied about meshala, and Samiel apparently either doesn't know or doesn't care that Jay has walked into this blind.

“Gifts, proof of devotion, in some cases tasks if you're of a more traditional mindset. There are exchanges of goods and statements of intent.”

As Venndred talks, Jay can feel his heart pounding. “And what of this?” he asks, pointing to the bruise Samiel has given him. “I'd just call it a love bite, but you called it something else?”

Kythria,” Venndred says.

“And is that just another word for a mark left during...” Jay trails off, desperately unprepared to finish the rest of the sentence.

Venndred shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Not really.” He frowns, avoiding Jay's gaze as he scratches his head awkwardly, then fiddles with the cuff of his shirt.

Jay has the horrible feeling that whatever is next out of Venndred's mouth, he is really not going to like it.

“It's a public claim,” Venndred says at last, reluctantly. “Severne Tremark has essentially declared his intent to court you.”

Chapter Text

The landing pad on the outskirts of Governor Mirret's estate is crammed with people.

Littien, apparently under new directives, has piloted them straight here. She had not, at any point, bothered to inform them that they wouldn't be returning to the hospital.

After they land she stays behind to complete post flight checks, and so grudgingly agrees over the intercom that Venndred and Jay can disembark.

As they exit the shuttle, Jay's mind is still whirring from what Venndred has told him. He is so busy chewing over the new information, that he almost misses the way most heads turn in his direction as he descends the steps. Venndred trails behind him, radiating discomfort.

“Commander!” Mirret says, walking towards them, his hands outstretched. He has apparently been waiting for them, and the blue of his formal robes is almost painfully bright against the dull greys of the shuttle bay. “Welcome back to our residence. It is so good to see you looking so much better after your accident.”

He clasps Jay's hands in both of his and, reluctantly, Jay allows himself to be drawn closer.

“I trust you were at least somewhat successful in your endeavours?” Mirret murmurs.

Jay tenses, resisting the urge to withdraw his hands. Does the man have no sense? Discussing a confidential investigation in front of a rapt audience is not exactly circumspect.

Irritated, he can feel his spine stiffening as he glances over Mirret's shoulder and accidentally catches the gaze of the woman who must be his wife.

Where Mirret is short, with a benignly affable face, his wife is tall. The steel grey of her neatly bobbed hair and the gold of her eyes lends an almost avian quality to her features; particularly when coupled with her long, straight, nose. Her expression as she regards Jay is serene – calm in the face of the crowd and her husband's exhibitionism. But, Jay thinks, there is something almost calculating in the way she is watching, as Mirret releases his hold on Jay and steps back.

“You will need to rest,” Mirret is saying. “It has been a very busy couple of days for you, Commander. And then perhaps you will allow us to show your true Maa-Ilian hospitality? Until now we have not properly welcomed you.”

Jay smiles, blandly, and focuses his attention on Mirret. “That would be much appreciated, Governor. What did you have in mind?”

“A welcome dinner,” Mirret says, apparently forgetting himself and clapping Jay's shoulder. “You must try our local delicacies and meet my fellow regional administrators.” His gaze flickers once, briefly, towards his wife as he steers Jay and Venndred towards the edge of the landing pad. Jay is interested to note she doesn't even attempt to follow their little entourage.

As they step into the corridor that leads to the interior of the residence, two familiar figures appear at the far end, and Jay breathes a silent sigh of relief at seeing Hird back on her feet.

“Evi!” Venndred cries, barrelling past Jay and Mirret. He lopes off down the corridor towards Hird, who is propped up against a wall looking slightly uncomfortable and very annoyed. “You've been discharged!”

Jay pauses, watching the pair of them as Venndred stumbles to a halt by her, his expression delighted. He examines her from head to foot, reaching out as though he is going to clasp her arm. He stops himself at the last minute, jerking his hand backwards.

“Um,” he says. “Do you still hurt?”

Hird glares at him. “Yes,” she says, then adds, grudgingly: “But I'm on some very good painkillers.”

“Oh. That's. Oh.” Venndred scratches the back of his head. “That's good?” he ventures at last.

No.”

“Commander Hird is not happy with the discharge arrangements,” Samiel says politely from behind her.

Jay looks at him. Samiel is back in his formal robes, cleaned up and bland, as though nothing has happened in the last forty eight hours. His visor is firmly in place and his eyes are hidden, but Jay's heart thumps once, painfully, at the way he tilts his head.

“Oh dear,” Mirret says. “Is there anything I can do to assist, Commander?”

“Can you give me my guns back?” Hird asks. She bares her teeth in a slow, menacing smile that has Mirret stepping back a pace, nearly running into Jay as he does. “Because your doctors have confiscated mine. Apparently I am not allowed to fire a weapon for at least another four days.”

“Yes,” says Venndred with apparently no self-preservation whatsoever. “Your arms are rather cleverly strapped up so you can't move.”

Hird looks at him. “I will end you,” she says. “Painfully.”

“You can't speak to the Psyke like that!” Mirret protests.

Hird scowls at Mirret. “Oh yes I can,” she says flatly.

“Oh yes she can,” Venndred echoes.

Mirret openly gapes, apparently at a loss for words.

Ignoring the Governor's flabbergasted reaction, Venndred beams at Hird. “Your painkillers haven't improved your mood,” he says happily.

Watching them Jay privately wonders if there's something in the Psyke job description about learning to like all creatures equally. Or perhaps Venndred has just enough insane bravery left over from his military career to enjoy poking a proverbial tiger with a stick.

“The painkillers are making me see double,” Hird says to him, “and I can't move my fingers to strangle you. But I have teeth, and I will use them if you carry on chirping at me.” Her threats are mitigated a little by the way she is swaying, gently.

“Hird,” Jay says carefully, “maybe we could take this inside?” He glances pointedly at Mirret out of the corner of his eye.

The Governor is watching the scene unfold with an almost painfully bemused expression on his face. He looks deeply uncomfortable as Hird frowns, first at him and then at Jay.

“Fine,” she says sullenly. “But you're going to update me on everything that I've missed.”

“I promise,” Jay says, instead of telling her that she needs to rest. He may be brave but he's not suicidal, and he's not stupid enough to argue with Hird when she's in a bad mood.

“Here,” Venndred says, springing forwards and offering her his arm. “Let me help you.”

Hird looks slowly between his outstretched hand and her two strapped arms. Then she looks Venndred full in the face. “You're an idiot,” she says.

“Oh dear,” Mirret says again. He is wringing his hands. “Commander, please!”

Venndred, looking delighted by the whole thing, starts to usher Hird down the corridor. Surprisingly she lets him. Mirret trails behind the pair of them after one last, uncertain glance at Jay.

That just leaves Samiel.

Jay hesitates and looks at him, waiting.

He watches as Samiel carefully removes his visor, drawing down the hood of his robes as he meets Jay's eyes. Neither of them move, either to follow Hird or to close the distance between one another.

Jay keeps still, patiently bearing the way Samiel's eyes flit over his too-long t-shirt and the scruffy stubble on his chin. His gaze alights, finally, on the bruise low on Jay's neck. The strange, fragile expression that creeps across his face when he sees it, makes Jay reach up, unconsciously touching the mark.

Samiel makes a soft noise at the back of his throat, one hand reaching out as though he wants to pull the collar of Jay's shirt down to get a better look. He falters as Jay takes a quick step back, fingers curling in on themselves as he watches Jay, confused.

“Were you going to tell me?” Jay asks, because he can't help it.

“Tell you?”

“Kythria. Were you going to tell me?”

Samiel hesitates, still looking confused. “I don't understand,” he says.

“You don't understand,” Jay repeats, and he can't help himself, the sarcasm creeps into his tone. “You have absolutely no idea what I mean?”

“No, I – ” Samiel takes a swift step forwards, and he clasps Jay's wrist with one hand. With the other he touches briefly on the edge of the bruise on Jay's neck, until Jay jerks backwards as far as he can, out of range.

They both freeze like that: caught and chained together by the weave of Samiel's fingers holding Jay; divided by the insurmountable chasm of Jay's distrust.

“I don't understand,” Samiel repeats again. “What is kythria?”

“Don't play foolish with me,” Jay says, low and vehement into the space between them. “Venndred has told me about meshala; about kythria. He's also told me about logosykia.”

Samiel frowns. “I've heard of these in passing,” he says. “I don't understand why they mean something to you.”

“Soul bonds, Samiel,” Jay says. “I am talking about soul bonds.”

Slow dawning realisation is creeping across Samiel's face at Jay's words. Jay watches, annoyed, as Samiel blinks once, twice, and then smiles.

“Oh,” he says, breathless. “That's – ”

He drops Jay's wrist and rubs a hand across his mouth, as though he can wipe away the sudden spark of interest in his eyes. Jay can feel his own hands fisting and takes a deep breath, trying hard to rein in his annoyance and surprise.

“Yes,” he says icily. “It was a bit of a shock when I had to find out from a priest that I'm potentially your lifemate.”

Samiel's lips part and he takes one step forwards, then another. Jay allows himself to be pushed backwards until he collides gently with the wall. Despite his irritation, he cannot make a scene here; not with a crowd of Sirens feet away on the shuttle landing pad, and Hird, Mirret and Venndred potentially on their way back to find out why they have lagged so far behind. He lets Samiel guide him, lean close to him, his body a line of warmth against Jay's front.

“How can you be surprised by this?” Samiel asks, his voice slow and gentle as he dips his head towards Jay. “I may not have known what it was called, my master, but I have always known I am yours.”

Jay briefly closes his eyes, praying for patience. “That's ridiculous,” he says. “Things like that do not happen, Samiel. You don't just look at someone and somehow magically know they're perfect for you.”

“Of course not,” Samiel says. He touches the side of Jay's face with gentle, oh-so careful fingers; slides his fingertips down to press lightly on the bite mark on Jay's neck, then cards slowly, perfectly, through the hair at Jay's temple.

“Knowing I'm yours has nothing to do with looking," he says. "It's in my bones, my blood; it's in the weave of my soul and always has been. Surely humans have this as well?”

“No, we don't.”

Samiel nuzzles closer; pressing his lips to Jay's cheekbone as he lightly brushes the bruise he had left there the day before. “I think you do,” he says gently. “I think you just like to pretend you are not led by the same biological instincts as us.”

“We don't have a mating instinct,” Jay says, even as he fists a hand in the edge of Samiel's robes. His faith is wavering slightly under the steady confidence of Samiel's gaze; at the way there is no edge of doubt to his words.

“Of course you do,” Samiel says. “What else would you call this?”

Jay can feel his heart beating loudly in his chest; knows Samiel can feel it too. He would love to deny Samiel's words and he can't. He is fully, painfully aware that he knows exactly who Samiel is and what he has done; it is equally apparent that there is a wretched part of his soul that simply considers that immaterial.

He wants to close his eyes again and can't; to do so would be an admission of guilt.

“Commander?” Mirret's voice echoes back down the corridor towards them. Samiel releases his hold on Jay, taking a swift step backwards.

Jay licks his dry lips and swallows, ignoring the way Samiel's eyes follow the movement of his throat.

“Coming,” he rasps. “We're coming.”

*

“Are you sure the connection's secure?” Hird asks, from where she is lounging on Jay's bed.

“Please boss, don't insult my tech.”

Confidence Guide's voice crackles across the line. Jay watches as Hird frowns and fiddles with her commlink, trying to get a clearer signal. He sighs quietly and leans back in his chair, waiting for her to get it sorted.

“I'm not insulting your tech, I'm insulting your capabilities,” Hird says.

“Do I ask if you know how to shoot people?” Guide asks. “No, I don't. So don't fucking question whether I can get you a secure connection to the Ambassador. It's patronising.”

“You've done it now,” Subtle's voice chimes in, sounding a little further away than Guide's. “He's got that pissed off expression on his face. You know, the one where he gets frown lines.”

“Fuck you, I do not get frown lines!”

“Yes you do,” Hird says. “They make you look like a grumpy old man.” She grins at the string of expletives Guide lets out down the line. Catching Jay's eye, she gives a one-shouldered shrug. “What? It's true: they do.”

“When you get back I am going to take your fucking commlink, Boss, and I am going to fucking shove it – ”

“Hird.” Steve's impeccably calm voice breaks across the line. “Flight Lieutenant Guide said you wanted to speak to Ambassador Lault?”

Jay watches as Hird's eyes light up when she hears Steve. She relaxes, the line of her shoulders unwinding as she leans back, making herself more comfortable. She has unstrapped the casts on her arms, discarding them almost as soon as they were back in their suite and her movement are easier because of it.

“Hi Steve,” she says. “”How are you holding up.”

There is an almost imperceptible pause. “I'm fine,” Steve says. “Keeping busy.”

Hird's gaze darts to Jay and then away again. “I hear that,” she says. “Guide says this is a secure channel, can you verify that?”

Jay hears the distant, tinny, outraged yell that clearly comes from Guide when Hird asks this. She ignores him, chewing a thumbnail absently as she waits for Steve's answer.

“It's fine,” he says at last. “Maybe don't rely on total security, but it's enough to be getting by with.”

“Fuck you too, Steve! Fuck you both! My fucking tech is a fucking masterpiece!”

“Is he always like this?” Jay asks, unable to help himself.

Hird sighs. “Pretty much,” she says, slapping a hand over the mic on the commlink to deaden her words. “Where do you think Subtle got his attitude from?”

“Point taken.”

“Hird?” Steve asks, voice muffled by Hird's hand.

She hastily takes it away from the microphone again. “Yes?”

“Lault's here.”

“Right.” Hird hesitates. “Steve...”

“It's fine,” Steve repeats, and were it not for Hird's worried frown, Jay would believe him. He hasn't looked into the files on Yven Three – he's not got a right to go digging for that information when there's no need – but he's concerned at the way Hird is clearly fretting.

“I'll talk to you later,” Steve adds quietly.

“Commander Hird?” Lault asks. His voice comes through much more clearly, as though he is holding the commlink close to his mouth. “Is everything going well?”

“Commander Lane's here as well,” Hird says. “And it depends on what you mean by 'well' when you ask.” She and Jay exchange a resigned look, Hird clearly at a loss about where to start.

“There's been a few...developments,” she settles on at last.

“Oh? What?”

Jay waits patiently whilst Hird updates Lault on what has happened over the last few days. As she does, he rubs idly at the bruise on his neck. He knows Hird has seen it – knows too that when the conversation with Lault has finished, she is going to demand an explanation from him.

“Well,” Lault says when Hird pauses for breath. “This is certainly not what I expected when I sent you both there.”

“I should hope not,” Hird says, with more than a little irritation in her voice. She doesn't bother trying to conceal it. “I did warn you I thought this was probably a mistake.”

Lault hums thoughtfully. “Commander Lane?”

“I think there have been... interesting developments,” Jay says wearily, as Hird raises a sarcastic eyebrow at him. “However, if nothing else we have something new to report to the Queen.”

“Hardly a quantifiable success though,” Lault says.

“Perhaps, but did she ever make a concerted effort to outline what she actually wanted?” Jay asks.

There is a pause as Lault chews this over. “No,” he says at last. “You have a point. However I think if we're going to have any chance of persuading her to our cause, we will need to have more substantial evidence than the say-so of one government official. Remember, the fact she didn't fully outline the terms of our agreement works in her favour as well.”

“Noted,” Jay says.

“How are things your end, Sir?” Hird asks, with an indecipherable glance at Jay.

“Busy,” Lault says tiredly. “The Tammoll Federation have arrived in full force to begin their investigation. We've all had to give statements. Couple that with days of dancing around with political small-talk, as nobody is willing to get down to the business of peace making whilst the investigation runs its course, and we're left with a lot of wasted efforts.”

“It could be worse,” Hird says dubiously. “At least it's only stalling and not Mas-Hain all over again.” She ignores the look Jay shoots her.

Lault laughs gently. “Yes,” he says, “I was there at the beginning of that. I believe you used the phrase 'political shit storm' to describe something once, Commander. That about covers it.”

“That does sound like something I'd say,” Hird says.

“Ambassador,” Jay interrupts, before they can start reminiscing on his past failures in greater detail. “Have you considered approaching Athannus regarding negotiations? He seemed particularly involved with the Council when we spoke briefly.”

“I would, but I don't think that's a politically sound move at the moment,” Lault says. “Athannus does have the support of the Council, but there are also a lot of political entities that still favour the Queen. Any blatant movements on our part to open negotiations with non-sanctioned agents will probably result in the swift termination of our visit.”

“I'm not talking about anything political,” Jay says. “Just consider maybe some light conversation.”

“How does that even work?” Hird asks. “Light conversation with the intention of political double dealing?” She pulls a face. “Overcomplicated, isn't it?”

“Very,” Lault says. “But unfortunately a necessary evil.” He sighs. “Alright Commander, if nothing else it might encourage more open cooperation from the official envoys, if they see us looking at other avenues. In the meantime please could you both try to have a much quieter few days?”

“No promises,” Hird says. “I'm sure Lane is still looking forward to a little more excitement in his near future.” She looks pointedly at Jay's neck, ignoring his frown.

“Meaning?” Lault asks.

“Meaning Lane and I are going to be having a little chat about the ongoing investigation into our 'accident',” Hird says, and were it not for the slight flicker of her eyes, Jay would never have known she was lying.

“Alright,” Lault says. “In that case stay safe both of you, and report back if you find anything further.”

“We will,” Jay says.

“Talk to you later Sir,” Hird adds.

She clicks the commlink off, tossing it down onto the bedspread, and fixes Jay with a hard stare. “Alright,” she says, “I just lied to cover for your arse, so you'd better start talking.”

“You know,” Jay says, “I think I preferred you high on painkillers.”

The look she shoots him is filthy. “Don't try and pick a fight, Lane. Talk. What the hell has been happening, and where did you get that bruise? Because I'm fairly confident it wasn't from Littien.”

Jay groans. “Do you and Venndred share a hive mind?” he asks. “Because he said something very similar.”

“Which just goes to show the idiot occasionally demonstrates some common sense,” Hird says. “Astonishing as that may seem. Now, please tell me that wasn't from Tremark.”

Jay pauses, searching for a way to explain what has been happening. A fundamental problem with this is he can't even explain it to himself.

Hird must read his confusion from his silence because she groans. “Really?” she asks. “You really went there? Did you not learn enough from the last fucking time you two became buddies?” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Please tell me you actually didn't fuck him, because if you did I'm throwing you out of the nearest window.”

“You can't actually lift anything with your arms right now,” Jay points out.

“I will make an exception,” Hird promises him. “Now don't fucking dodge: tell me the truth.”

Jay blows out a breath, frustrated. “No, I didn't sleep with him,” he says. “But I thought very strongly about it.”

“That man killed six people,” Hird says, disbelieving, “and apparently your hormones don't give a fuck.”

Jay flinches; he can't help himself. Everything Hird is saying is exactly what he has been telling himself. “I know,” he says. “Hird, I know, ok?”

“How do you know he's not behind the assassination attempt?” Hird points out. “He was at the scene of the crime. He could quite easily have tampered with the bikes and relied on you not flying with him.”

“Well there at least I have good news,” Jay says. “I definitely know who was responsible for tampering with the flightbikes.”

Hird narrows her eyes. “Who?”

As Jay explains about the spliced recording – and then has to explain in greater detail about Isen Kallat and how, exactly, he knows who that is – Hird's expression darkens further. By the end, she is visibly fuming.

“And you didn't think to mention this before, at any point?” she demands. “Perhaps somewhere about the time I asked you if anything had happened during your little jaunt into Maa-Tarek? No? Didn't enter your head at all? You fucking idiot.” Irritated, she throws herself off the bed and starts to pace.

“Is this a fucking joke to you?” she demands. “It's all just a laugh, is that it? I am trying to keep you alive, and you decide the most sensible thing to do is not tell me about the man who has already tried to kill you once.”

“If I'd told you,” Jay says, “you would have gone charging off and had him arrested. If you'd done that, given the information I had at the time, it would have resulted in nothing more than the arrest of a man who wanted answers and a major diplomatic incident that we cannot afford right now.”

He crosses his legs, leaning back in his chair as Hird shoots him a filthy look. “I did weigh up the consequences of not telling you,” he continues. “And I am sorry that it's resulted in this.”

“You're sorry. You're sorry?” Hird repeats, tearing her fingers through her hair. “What the hell do I do now, Lane? I've got to report this. I can't sit on it.”

“Wait,” Jay says. “Just give me time. If Kallat is a member of the rebels, he might be able to lead us to more intelligence – we can avoid a diplomatic crisis if we come back with more evidence for the Queen. We can dress it up as information gathering.”

Hird growls, low. “And in the meantime you've got one security detail who can't shoot a fucking gun, two Sirens I wouldn't trust with a pet hirkrat and an idiot priest who probably thinks everything can be solved with a hug.”

“Hird, please.”

She sighs and stops pacing. “Alright,” she says, leaning against the wall and crossing her arms. “What do you propose we do then? Because I am not agreeing to anything that puts you in harm's way.”

“Wait,” says Jay. “Watch. Mirret is no doubt going to slip up and tell his wife that he's spoken to me. At some point she's either going to have to approach me, or get one of her rebel friends to make a move.”

“So you want to play bait,” Hird says, rolling her eyes. “Putting yourself in harm's way and doing exactly what I've just told you I'm not agreeing to.”

“Not harm's way,” Jay argues, “because we'll know it's coming. This is just... creating a window of opportunity.”

“You must think I'm an utter moron,” Hird mutters. “Cut the shit and stop arsing around. You think there's a risk, then you fucking tell me; because not telling me results in shit like the flightbikes. You know what happened with the flightbikes, Lane? I broke both fucking arms.”

“Alright,” Jay says. “Alright. And I'm sorry, Hird, please at least believe that.”

She subsides reluctantly, still eyeballing him with suspicion. “So. What's the actual risk?”

“Probably another assassination attempt,” Jay admits. “Probably directed at either you, me, or Mirret.”

“Well the good news is I don't give a sod about Mirret,” Hird says. “The bad news is I'm down two arms for the next four days and you have the self-preservation of a headless grunnit.”

“We need to talk to Littien,” Jay says. “She's been running an investigation anyway and might be able to help.”

“That woman has a stick so far up her arse about humans you can see it poking out from behind her tonsils when she opens her mouth,” Hird says. She heaves a sigh. “But you're right. Her, at least, I trust to do her job. What about Tremark?”

“Samiel is... capable,” Jay says. “He'll help.”

“Even if he is the Queen's favourite little lackey,” Hird says. “And, alright, he may help now; but what happens when he gets a different set of orders?”

“I don't know,” Jay says, feeling the painful sting of that admission.

Hird pushes away from the wall, moving to crouch down so she is eye level with Jay. “Lane,” she says roughly, and Jay is surprised to hear her tone gentling, “I'm not fucking perfect, no one is, but Tremark is bad news. You've already seen it once, and whatever this is,” she says, gesturing to Jay's neck, “I really don't think it's worth the risk.”

Jay leans forward, touching her shoulder. Under his palm her body radiates a solid, comforting heat. “Thank you,” he says.

Hird pats the hand on her shoulder. “Anytime,” she says, and Jay is surprised by her sincerity. She grins. “Just tell me you at least know what you're fucking doing.”

“Sorry,” Jay says, resigned. “I don't have a clue.”

*

The dinner is long and very tedious.

Mirret has assembled a vast number of guests, all decked out in their finery. The gleam of rich fabrics and precious metals in the low light of the room, all melting into a sea of luxury, makes Jay's eyes hurt after a while. The food is sumptuous and never ending, and after the third round of palate cleansers he can feel a low level of nausea building in his stomach.

Hird, sitting opposite him, is still shovelling food into her mouth with grim determination. She had refused to put her casts back on earlier in the afternoon, and is pointedly ignoring the concerned looks Venndred keeps shooting her.

Both Hird and Jay have cleaned up, and are wearing dress uniform. The high, smart collar catches on the sensitive skin of Jay's neck. He has neatened his beard, trimming it close to his skin, and has not failed to notice that Hird has apparently taken a hairbrush and hairspray to her own neat bob.

“This is good food,” Hird says, around a mouthful of some kind of fish in sauce. Next to her, Venndred is eating in quick, efficient bites.

“Thank you, Commander,” Mirret says.

Like the rest of his guests he has not worn a mask. In fact, Jay realises, for most of his stay in Maa-Ilia there has been a distinct lack of that particular trend, even amongst the political classes.

Mirret darts a glance at Samiel, who is standing almost directly behind their group. In deference to local formal fashion he is not wearing his visor, but the robes of his hood are pulled up, and his expression is severe.

“Are you sure you would not like something to eat, Severne?” Mirret asks.

“Thank you, no.” Samiel's voice is emotionless; his posture alert.

“He's on duty,” Venndred says. “Severne Tremark has kindly agreed to take first shift so that Commander Hird can rest.”

“Oh yes,” Mirret says, “after Commander Hird's terrible accident.” Next to him, his wife remains silent.

Jay observes her, watching as she regards the rest of the room with bland disinterest. She is eating her food slowly, with no sign of either pleasure or disgust, and has said very little to anyone. He would almost call her shy, were it not for the way that, very occasionally, the smallest trace of contempt seems to cross her face. Whether it's due to the food, the company or both, Jay can't begin to guess.

“Yes,” Hird says slowly, bringing Jay's attention back to her. “My accident.” She takes a large swig of water from her glass.

Another dish is placed down in front of Jay, easily identifiable as tervek stew. He looks at it, stomach roiling at the thought of eating yet another course. He has never been a fan of the stew's strong flavours and the thought of eating it now makes him feel queasy.

Samiel leans over his shoulder. “Try using the gallia salt with it,” he murmurs into Jay's ear. “It dampens the taste.”

Across the table, Venndred chokes on a spoonful of his own soup, eyes wide as he watches the pair of them. Hird begins to scowl.

Jay frowns, ignoring the pair of them even as Hird thumps Venndred on the back to stop him choking. She renders this duty with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm for it to really be called selfless assistance.

Jay's stomach gives another heave as he looks at the stew, and he puts his spoon down. “I'm afraid I don't think I can manage any more,” he admits quietly, and feels Samiel's amusement as he concedes defeat.

“Alright,” Samiel says. “Come on.”

He rests a hand on Jay's shoulder, tugging gently until Jay stands.

“Commander Lane is stepping outside for a moment,” he says to Mirret, who is watching the pair of them, his soup spoon hanging forgotten in mid air as he takes them both in. “We will be back shortly.” Samiel tilts his head at Hird, who has finally relented on physical violence and handed Venndred a glass of water. “Look after the Psyke, Commander.”

Hird observes the pair of them, her expression dubious. “Lane, would you like me to come with you?”

“It's fine,” Jay says, gesturing for her to stay put. “I'm only going outside for some air, I'll be back in a minute.”

He ignores Hird's obvious reluctance, letting Samiel guide him out of the room and down a corridor. They don't speak, although Jay is very aware of the heat of Samiel's hand, the length of his fingers as he takes the cuff of Jay's uniform jacket, steering him through another door and out onto a balcony.

The rush of cooler night air is unexpectedly pleasant against the heat of his skin.

Jay pauses, leaning against the stone balustrade. The balcony overlooks one of the formal gardens, left untended and now overgrown with native flowers. It is surprisingly beautiful, in spite of its neglected state, and for one foolish moment he wishes he could climb down; walk out amongst the trees and trailing vines and lose himself away from the stifling atmosphere of the dinner and the weight of expectations.

“You looked like you might vomit,” Samiel says quietly, behind him. “Are you feeling better now?”

Surprisingly, Jay realises as he breathes deeply, he is. He glances of his shoulder at Samiel, who is little more than a tall shadow, blending in with the brickwork of the formal residence.

“Thank you,” he says, instead of admitting to any weakness, and watches the corner of Samiel's mouth tilt in a half smile anyway.

“You're welcome.”

There is a small pause. Jay stares across the garden again. His conversation with Samiel this morning is still lingering at the back of his mind; the unease it had generated has not disappeared and he contemplates how best to broach a topic that has been nagging at him all afternoon. Now is his opportunity, he realises, and he may not get another. Especially if Hird has anything to say about leaving the pair of them alone together again.

“Kythria,” he says at last, and sees Samiel flinch out of the corner of his eye. “Today when we spoke about it, you didn't know what it was called. Why?”

Samiel hesitates. “I didn't have a structured early childhood,” he says at last. “When I was younger my parents felt it best I grow up away from court; from Lenia. I wasn't taught much of anything about our culture, until my aunt brought me here. Even then I don't believe my education was normal.”

“Your aunt?”

“Yes, she –” Samiel bites his lip. “She looked after me,” he says at last, reluctantly.

“What happened to your parents?” Jay asks.

Samiel shrugs. “I don't know,” he says. “I don't remember.”

“Venndred told me meshala isn't common,” Jay says, “but people do know about it. Maybe your aunt just didn't want to expose you to the concept of something that might never happen to you?”

“I don't think my aunt would have even considered the possibility it could,” Samiel admits.

“Why?”

Something flickers across Samiel's face, too fast for Jay to read. He turns his head, looking away as he shrugs again.

Jay turns fully, so he is looking at Samiel properly. He is hunched in on himself a little, as though he is trying to appear smaller. Where he is normally straight-backed and proud, there is a strange vulnerability to his posture and in the way he avoids Jay's eyes.

“I am not...an easy person; I am not good,” he says at at last. “My aunt says I have the spirit of a eudaimon, and she does not mean it as a compliment. She would not believe in the possibility of someone matching me completely. She didn't believe it when I told her.” He laughs, bitterly. “After all, in what universe would someone so perfect resonate with something so worthless?”

“No,” Jay says, before he can stop himself. “That's – no.”

In spite of himself, in spite of all the reasons not to, he reaches across the distance between them, grasping the edge of Samiel robes. He pulls until Samiel is standing, reluctantly, next to him.

“Firstly,” Jay says, “let's get this ridiculous notion that you are worthless out of your head. It's not true: everyone has worth. I have yet to meet anyone in this galaxy who is not important. Secondly, I think we need to discuss your idea of perfection, because I am not it.”

Samiel's laugh is raw. “You really don't see it, do you?” he says, and Jay does not fail to notice he does not address the first half of his statement. “You have absolutely no idea what you are like.”

“Decidedly imperfect,” Jay says firmly.

“Oh, my master,” Samiel says, and something in his expression relaxes, gentling into bemusement as he watches Jay. In the low light coming from the open door behind them, his eyes are a deep gold; soft and warm.

“Thank you,” he says at last, leaning next to Jay against the balustrade, bracing his hands on the marble.

Slowly, Jay inches his fingertips across the space between their hands until his fingers are almost brushing Samiel's. Despite their history, and in spite of the lack of answers and the tension he can feel still sitting at the back of his mind, he wants to offer this comfort. He is not surprised at all when Samiel moves in return, hooking their little fingers together, even as he stares resolutely out across the garden.

“You're welcome,” Jay says quietly.

They stay that way for a little while, pressed shoulder to shoulder in the half light.

The air is peaceful, the sounds of the formal dinner muted and distant, and Jay finds himself relaxing slowly in the comfortable quiet. Neither of them speak, either to continue their conversation, or to prompt a return to the indoors. Time, for Jay, takes on a half-hidden quality, creeping slowly as he watches the movement of the garden at night. Samiel is a gentle heat at his shoulder.

It is not until a scuff of movement has them both turning, that Jay realises how long they have been standing outside.

Governor Mirret's wife is standing in the open doorway. The light is at her back and her expression is difficult to read as she observes them both.

“You are being missed at the dinner,” she says at last. “My husband is asking for you.”

Jay privately very much doubts he is being missed. It is more likely that Mirret is missing the opportunity to show his scandalous guest off to his fellow diners.

He sighs, trying to push the uncharitable thought to one side, and smiles. “Thank you...?”

“Helenia.”

“Helenia. We will be along shortly.”

Helenia pauses, then steps out onto the balcony properly. “Commander, before we return may I speak to you?” In a move that reminds Jay strongly of her husband, she flicks a quick glance at Samiel and adds: “Alone.”

“Can you wait just inside?” Jay asks, before Samiel can draw breath to protest.

To his surprise, Samiel doesn't object. He nods, stepping past Helenia, face carefully blank. He glances back at Jay, once, then disappears into the residence.

Jay waits for his footsteps to die away. he turns to Helenia. “How can I help?”

“Your accident,” Helenia says, and ignores the way Jay startles. “I do not believe it was an accident at all.”

“And what makes you say that?” Jay asks, cautiously.

“Firstly, flightbikes in general are notoriously safe, Commander; the model you were meant to be riding even more so. My own mechanic checked both vehicles before you even entered the hangar that morning and pronounced them sound.”

“So you suspect, what? Conspiracy?” Jay says.

“No, attempted murder,” Helenia says, her expression severe.

And here, Jay realises, is yet another problem come to haunt him. Mirret had assured him that the rebels were responsible for the recent attempt on his life. He had also strongly implied that his wife had played a very active role in setting the whole thing up. Now Helenia is standing opposite him, plainly stating her belief that it was murder.

This has come about either, Jay thinks, because she has been informed– or told – that Mirret has thrown her to the proverbial wolves, and so she is trying to appear innocent by bluffing her concern; or, Mirret's information was false and Helenia is genuine and she is attempting to warn him. There is no way to tell.

“And who do you think my would-be assassin is?” Jay asks at last.

Helenia watches him, her eyes showing nothing as she blinks, slowly. “I don't think," she says, "I know. It's - "

A shot rings out in the still of the night air.

Jay moves a second too slowly.

The spray of Helenia's blood paints the marble behind her a vivid, iridescent gold, as she slams backwards, a neat bullet hole through her forehead.

Chapter Text

Samiel slams out onto the balcony so fast he skids, nearly tripping over Helenia's body.

He lunges across the distance towards Jay and, before Jay can draw breath, throws his weight against him. They both slam into the side of the building, Jay pressed back into the stone. Through the tangle of Samiel's robes, Jay can feel the rapid beat of his heart.

“Are you hurt?” Samiel asks, frantic hands sliding across Jay's uniform jacket, fingers tearing at buttons and braided medal ribbons. “Jason, are you hurt?”

“I'm fine! I'm fine!” Jay says. “I wasn't hit.” He bats Samiel's hands away as he tries to check his pulse. “It wasn't me,” he adds. “Helenia. The shooter was after Helenia.”

Samiel half turns, one hand keeping Jay pressed against the wall behind him. “Which direction did the shot come from?”

Jay shifts, trying to move out of the cover Samiel is providing, and grunts in frustration when he is pushed firmly back again. “From the opposite side of the garden,” he says, craning his head to try and peer around Samiel. “I think it was almost a straight shot.”

Samiel glances once at Helenia, the generous curve of his lips thinning in distaste, before he wrestles Jay towards the balcony door. “Wait inside,” he says, propelling them both through the doorway and into the corridor. “Stay out of the sight lines and don't move. I'm going to see if there's been a perimeter breach.”

“Don't be absurd,” Jay says firmly. “I'm coming with you.” He ignores the way Samiel rears back as though struck, and steps around him. This might be his one opportunity to gain more information. If one of the rebels took the shot that killed Helenia...

“You are not,” Samiel says, lunging for Jay again. He growls in frustration when Jay sidesteps out of reach. “I am not letting someone take a shot at you.”

“If they wanted to take a shot at me they already would have,” Jay says reasonably. Using the door frame as cover, he chances a quick glance outside.

“And are you prepared to take that risk?” Samiel argues, joining him against the wall. “Do you really think I am going to let anything happen to you?”

“I don't think 'let' has anything to do with it,” Jay says.

Before Samiel can pin him again he slides outside, one hand on the grip of the pistol Hird had given him.

Helenia's body is still on the balcony, and Jay spares a brief moment of grief at the sight of her. He didn't know the woman – never will, now – but no one deserves her fate. He will need to tell Mirret soon; will need to call the rest of his security detail here and update them on what's happened.

But it can wait; it has to. He needs information and this might be the only way.

Before he can talk himself out of pursuing Helenia's killer, Jay crosses the balcony, taking a running vault over the side and landing, crouched, in the bushes below.

Above him Samiel hisses several low words – and if Jay were a gambling man he would be willing to bet they are not flattering – before there is a scramble of movement and he lands, light-footed, beside Jay.

Don't do that,” he says, low and furious.

“Try to keep up,” Jay says, instead of answering him, and takes off as quickly and quietly as he can towards the opposite end of the garden.

The undergrowth is dense: ideal for masking both sight lines and movement in the dark. Jay treads quickly and carefully, trying to keep his breathing quiet and his steps light. He strains his ears, trying to hear any other movement besides the rhythm of his own feet and the soft sound of Samiel keeping pace with him.

A flare of movement from up ahead makes him put on a burst of speed, and he gives up subtlety in favour of haste. He is almost certain now that Helenia's assassin was not interested in shooting him – there hasn't even been a warning shot to keep him away.

Jiraya sii'krit!” Samiel curses from somewhere behind, as Jay dodges an overgrown hedge.

Somewhere not too far ahead someone is charging through the undergrowth. Jay puts on another burst of speed and is rewarded by what he thinks is a quick flash of robes disappearing into the darkness.

He stumbles, tripping over a root, and tries to regain his footing.

As he does so, there is a blur of movement and something crashes into him, tackling him to the ground.

Jay slams into the dirt, rolls and then rolls again, using the momentum to throw his attacker off. He scrambles back a couple of feet – scraping his palms in the process – and throws himself to his feet as fast as possible. He draws his pistol, aiming it at the man in front of him.

“Hands up!” he says.

“Ow,” his would-be attacker wheezes, climbing unsteadily to his own feet. He raises his hands, and for the first time Jay gets a good look at him.

“Kallat?” he says, incredulous, and watches Isen Kallat grimace. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Saving your life,” Isen says, then flinches when Samiel arrives on the scene, dishevelled and absolutely furious.

“Is this him?” he snarls, already stalking forwards, one hand on the hilt of his salzon.

“I don't know,” Jay says, gaze not wavering from Isen. He holds his pistol steady, ignoring the panicked expression on Isen's face as he looks between Jay and Samiel. “He certainly appears to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I'm not,” Isen says. “I've just told you: I've saved your life.”

“By shooting Governor Mirret's wife?” Jay asks.

“That wasn't me,” Isen says, taking a nervous step back as Samiel moves closer.

“Don't move,” Jay says. He glances at Samiel. “Either of you.”

“He attacked you,” Samiel says, and the darkness in his voice is palpable. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn't gut him, my master.”

“Because it's going to create more problems than it will solve,” Jay says. “And he may have answers I need. Killing him won't get them for me.”

Samiel wavers, the conflict on his face clear from the way he looks towards Jay then back at Isen. “When you've got your answers, then will you let me kill him?” he demands.

“No,” Jay says firmly. “This is not the time for more bloodshed, which you would know if you stopped for one moment to think.”

There is a tense pause as Samiel visibly weighs his desire to harm Isen against the risk of displeasing Jay. Finally, reluctantly, he takes a step backwards. “Alright,” he says. “If that is what you want.”

“It is,” Jay says, to Isen's obvious relief.

“I really was trying to help,” he says quietly. “I'm sorry if you thought otherwise.”

“Explain,” Jay says curtly. “Because from where I'm standing things do not look good for you.”

“The person who killed Helenia – they're the best. They weren't aiming for you, but if you'd tried to stop them you'd have been killed too. That's no good to us, we need you alive. I was tasked with keeping you safe and...” Isen trails off uncertainly at the low growl Samiel emits.

“You said 'us',” Jay says, ignoring Samiel. “Who is 'us'?”

Isen opens his mouth; closes it again. “I suspect you know,” he says at last.

“The rebels,” Jay says.

“The rebellion, yes.”

“You're a rebel?” Samiel asks. He moves, stepping in front of Jay's line of fire, blocking the shot. He draws his salzon. “You're a rebel, and you dared to come anywhere near him?”

“Samiel,” Jay says, trying to sidestep around the line of Samiel's body. “Stop. We need him alive.”

The look Samiel shoots him is incredulous. “I am going to kill him,” he spits. “And when I am done, I am going to string his body up outside the palace, so that anyone who wishes you harm will think twice before so much as looking in your direction. I have let him go once, Jason, do not expect me to let him go again.”

Isen takes one step back, then another, trying to stay out of Samiel's reach. “I was afraid you were going to say that,” he says grimly. He slaps a hand onto his commlink, activating it. “Beta,” he says curtly.

There are two loud cracks of noise in quick succession.

Jay has time to feel a sharp sting of pain in his shoulder, before darkness consumes him.

*

Consciousness is painfully slow in returning and, when it does, Jay almost wishes it hadn't.

Wherever he is, it is painfully bright. He groans quietly at the sear of light when he cracks his eyes, and flinches at the sudden scuff of movement his noise provokes. His head protests violently and he is suddenly and forcefully aware of the raging headache he can feel rattling around in his skull.

“Sorry,” a quiet voice says. “Let me turn that down a bit.”

The light dims enough that Jay can risk trying to take another look at his surroundings.

He is in a room that is painfully bare of almost anything; quite obviously deliberately blank. The walls are grey and bland, the lights are bereft of any fittings, and there is only one other chair in the room.

Sitting on the chair is a woman.

She has her legs crossed and her chin propped in one hand as she examines him. Her gold eyes reflect the light, making them seem almost flat, like two coins placed on her face.

For the ferryman, Jay thinks nonsensically, then tries to rub his temples to stem another wave of pain. He is pleasantly surprised to discover his hands are not bound.

“I'm sorry about the tranquillisers,” the woman says softly. “It couldn't be helped. We needed to talk to you, you see, and you were not co-operating.”

Jay licks his lips and swallows, trying to clear the dryness of his own throat. “And you are?” he manages to get out.

“Lachesis,” the woman says.

“Not your real name, I take it?”

Her lips quirk in an amused little smile. “No,” she says. “And you are Wing Commander Jason Lane. There, now we have done introductions and can talk as friends.”

“Is that what we are?” Jay asks. “Friends?”

“I would like to be,” Lachesis says.

“Friends don't normally shoot one another with tranquillisers,” Jay says. “Just, you know, as a tip on human interaction.”

“Oh dear,” Lachesis says, “no one told me you would be funny.”

“Then I have to assume the rebellion's intelligence is not very good,” Jay says. He swallows again and chances another look around. “Assuming this is the rebellion. I don't suppose there's any point in asking where I am?”

“Safe,” Lachesis says. “We had to remove you from Governor Mirret's residence for your own protection. If you had continued to pursue the person who killed Helenia, it would not have ended well.”

“Yes,” Jay says. “Isen Kallat said something similar.”

Lachesis blinks, slowly. “He was not wrong,” she says.

Jay closes his eyes briefly, fighting against pounding in his head. It is hard to think like this: still groggy from the tranquillisers and riddled with pain. He briefly curses his own stupid impetuousness in pursuing Helenia's assassin.

But.

Here he is, exactly where he needs to be, with the rebels. Even if it's going to be a toss-up between who kills him first: Hird or Samiel.

Samiel.

Jay opens his eyes to watch Lachesis, a swift pang of panic catching under his ribs. “Where's Severne Tremark?” he says.

Lachesis tilts her head, considering. The dark fall of her curls brushes her ears as she studies Jay. “Why does it matter what happened to Severne Tremark?” she asks.

“It matters,” Jay says, lying, “because I would like to know what kind of people I am dealing with. Are you murderers, or do you spare those who are helpless?”

Something in Lachesis' expression tightens. “Samiel Tremark is not helpless,” she says. “Which you of all people should know. He is a killer.”

Jay regards her, steadily. “Where is he?” he repeats.

Lachesis considers him for a long moment. “Locked away,” she says at last. “He came around not long before you. Originally we had not bothered to restrain him, but he took out three of my guards with his bare hands trying to get out of the room.” She leans forwards, hands clasped. “He has now been contained for his own good.”

“Bring him to me,” Jay says, fighting another swell of panic. He tries to keep calm in the face of Lachesis' scrutiny, forcing away thoughts of what 'contained' might mean.

His demand is a gamble, he knows; but Lachesis has not seemed interested in angering him so far. She is clearly holding back, but from what Isen had said earlier, and from the way Lachesis is behaving now, the rebels are apparently reluctant to damage their chances of talks with him. He may, he realises, be able to use this as leverage.

Slightly hysterically Jay wonders if this was Deneira's intention all along: to have him act as an ambassador – not between two species, but between two sides of a civil war.

“I am not going to bring Severne Tremark to you,” Lachesis says. “What would be the point? He is not your friend; he is not mine. He is locked away safely, you have my word. He will trouble no one.”

In spite of his throbbing head, Jay leans back in his chair and crosses his legs. He smiles blandly and prays it doesn't come off as too much of a grimace. “Until I see Severne Tremark is safe and unharmed, I don't believe there is any point in discussing anything further.”

Lachesis stares at him, her jaw working. “What is he to you?” she asks abruptly.

“Insurance,” Jay lies. “I need proof you are as good as your word. I will also not be able to walk back into any kind of political arena on this planet if I have managed to get one of the Queen's bodyguards killed.”

“Insurance,” Lachesis repeats slowly. “Interesting.” Something shifts behind her eyes – an odd little flicker of satisfaction. “I am surprised you would call him that, Commander Lane.”

Jay raises an eyebrow. “Be as surprised as you like; I'm telling the truth.”

“Are you?” Lachesis asks. She stands, brushing her hands off on her trousers. “I don't think you are. An insurance policy wouldn't tear people apart with his bare hands just to get to you.”

Jay inhales sharply, unable to hide his reaction from her. Something like triumph curves the corners of her lips into a small smile at the sound.

“You have no proof he was trying to get to me,” Jay says. “He was probably trying to escape.”

“In the wrong direction?” Lachesis asks. “With absolutely no attempt at subtlety?” She walks over to a small button on the wall. “I'm not that stupid, Commander.” She flicks the switch.

“Bring him,” she says.

Jay tries his best to control his expression, ignoring the way his heart is pounding. “I am grateful you have agreed to my request,” he says. “But I must clarify: dragging Severne Tremark into this situation now will not help you negotiate.”

“Oh, I'm not using him to negotiate,” Lachesis says, leaning back against the wall and folding her arms.

“Then why are you bringing him here?”

She tilts her head, considering. “To prove a point,” she says, as the door opens.

Two guards enter, dragging Samiel between them. He has been stripped of his robes, his visor and salzon. In spite of the guards' armour, and the weapons strapped at their hips, he is fighting like a cornered vitt cat.

His movements, Jay realises, are clumsy and slow; not at all what he would normally expect from a Severne, and certainly not from Samiel.

“He's been drugged,” he says sharply to Lachesis.

She shrugs as Samiel is dropped none too gently to the floor. “Yes,” she says. “I told you: he took out three guards today. One snapped neck, three broken arms, shattered ribs and a violent concussion.” Her list is delivered with bland relentlessness as she watches Samiel struggle clumsily up onto his knees, his head hanging low.

Jay flinches as Samiel looks up. He has a split lip, which is still bleeding sluggishly, and there is a painful bruise spanning the length of his jawbone. It is, Jay notes, in the shape of a boot print. There is a long, deep cut down the right side of Samiel's face, starting at his hairline and narrowly missing the corner of his eye. Dried blood is crusting his nose and upper lip, and he clearly has concussion if the way he is swaying gently is any indication.

“What have you done to him?” Jay says, and there is a terrible, raw note in his voice that he can't control. This is his fault, he knows. He is responsible. If Samiel had just stayed behind; if Jay hadn't seized the opportunity for further information.

If, if, if.

“You're alive,” Samiel says desperately. ”My master, you're alive.”

“Samiel,” Jays says, the word tearing out of him painfully. He staggers out of the chair, dropping to his knees in front of him. “I'm so sorry.”

“Yes,” Lachesis says quietly above them. “I rather think you have proved my point, Wing Commander.”

There is a shuffle of movement and she snaps her fingers.

Fast – faster than Jay would have predicted – one of Samiel's guards leaps forwards. Jay sees him coming just in time to throw himself sideways awkwardly, avoiding the blow to his side. He scrambles, trying to get upright, and doesn't move quickly enough to avoid the second, much harder, blow aimed at his head.

He goes down, head ringing.

Distantly he can hear the awful sound of someone shouting themselves hoarse. Samiel, his mind supplies slowly, and he struggles, even as strong hands turn him over.

“Do it,” he hears Lachesis say.

There is a spark of light held close to his eye and then a sudden crippling pain in his ears, as something is pressed to the hinge of his jaw. A current surges through his jawbone and he accidentally bites through his own lip.

“Enough,” Lachesis says calmly, and the pain stops.

Jay stays on the floor where he has been dropped, panting wetly as he struggles to get his brain working again. Dimly he is aware that Samiel is no longer shouting, but the pain in his head and in his ears is numbing him to all else.

He touches clumsy fingertips to the shell of his ears, half expecting to find blood, and is faintly surprised when there is none.

“Now we're going to have a little demonstration,” Lachesis says, and Jay realises all at once what she has done.

There is no filter now, between them. Her voice is the most beautiful thing he has ever heard. There are layers upon layers within her tone: an underlying promise of giving him whatever he wants if he just does as she says. He claws at his ears again, desperately.

“My translators,” he manages, his voice little more than a desperate croak. “You've disabled my – ”

“Of course,” Lachesis says, and Jay shudders at the terrible sound of her voice, frightening in its loveliness. “Don't worry Commander, I am not trying to prise your secrets out of you. I want us to be allies. But our rebellion needs to be careful, and I need to see who you have tied yourself to.”

She turns to look at Samiel, and Jay takes the opportunity to lever himself up onto his hands and knees. His head is pounding, and there is a part – a very large part – of him that wants to bury his head in his hands and weep.

If she does not tell him what to do; if she doesn't soothe him with her voice, he's going to...

He grits his teeth.

No, he tells himself, trying to breathe deeply. No.

“Severne Tremark,” Lachesis says, as Jay makes it all the way to his feet, swaying and desperate. “Call him.”

Helplessly, Jay stares between the two of them. Samiel is still on his knees. There is a blade at his throat and his teeth are bared. His gaze is fixed on Lachesis.

“Call him,” Lachesis repeats.

“Please,” Jay says as her voice washes over him again. “Do as she asks. Please.”

Samiel looks between the two of them. His eyes burn bright with hatred as he snarls wordlessly at Lachesis.

“You have ten seconds,” Lachesis says calmly. “Or I will ask him to break your fingers one by one.”

Jay takes a step forwards, then another. If she wants him to break Samiel's fingers, he will. If she wants him to slit his throat, he will. How can he say no to her, when her voice tells him everything he needs to hear? He will do it. He will do anything she asks. He will...

There is a corner of his mind that is trapped, raging against the compulsion filling him. He can feel it, but he can't use it - can't fight the sound of her voice and the serene comfort it provides.

“Alright,” Samiel rasps. “Alright.”

Jay staggers.

He was wrong – fuck he was wrong. Lachesis' voice is nothing at all. Nothing, compared to the sound of Samiel, unfiltered.

Where Lachesis is sweet, filled with gentle promises and whispered honey, Samiel is dark, vibrant. The undercurrents of his voice tremor like the sound of a thousand people, all screaming at once in harmony. Where Lachesis promises, Samiel demands; his voice burning its way, molten, into Jay's soul.

“Jason,” Samiel says gently. “Come here.”

Jay takes one step; another.

He stops, confused.

“What?” he says.

“Again,” Lachesis says.

“Jason,” Samiel repeats. “Come here.”

Jay hesitates. It is odd, this sound. Unlike Lachesis' voice, there is no compulsion to Samiel's words – no driving desire to please; to exists merely to answer his whims. Samiel is speaking directly to him, his voice winding its way deep into Jay's soul and pulling. But the need is different – merely a desire to get closer to Samiel, to run his fingers through his hair and wipe away the blood on his face.

“What is going on?” Jay asks, watching as Samiel stares at him, trembling.

“Meshala,” Lachesis says, her voice like a thunderclap between them, and Jay flinches. She swears then, fluidly, and rounds on Samiel.

“How did you do it?” she hisses. “How did you trick him into this?”

Samiel looks at her, then looks away, fixing his gaze on Jay again. “I didn't,” he says, and there is bitter triumph in the lines of his face.

“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Jay says. He flinches as his own voice sparks more pain in his ears, travelling down his neck.

He lurches forwards, uncoordinated and clumsy, to stand between Lachesis and Samiel. “What has meshala got to do with this?”

Lachesis observes him, coolly. “You cannot compel yourself,” she says, and seems to take no pleasure in the way Jay sways at the sound of her voice. “So how can you compel one half of your soul?”

“No,” Jay says numbly. “That's – no.” He runs shaking hands through his hair; presses his palms to his burning eyes. “No,” he says again.

“Do you require a further demonstration?” Lachesis asks. Awfully, Jay realises as he drops his hands, she does not mean the offer as a threat. There is something like pity in her face.

“You see?” Samiel says to her, and there is a relentless determination in his voice. “You cannot have him jivika, because I had him first.”

“He is still his own person,” Lachesis says. “Even if he is bound to someone like you.”

“Stop,” Jay says. “Just stop, both of you.” His head is hurting so badly at the sound of their voices that his vision is wavering, and he stumbles on nothing.

There is a flurry of movement and a pained grunt as he staggers. Before he can hit the ground he is caught against something soft and familiar. Somewhere above him Samiel hums, holding him upright, even as they both sway against one another.

“It's alright, my master,” he says. “I've got you. I've got you.”

Jay feels cool, careful fingertips guiding him, until his head is tucked under Samiel's chin, blocking out the light.

“Do that to him again,” Samiel says to Lachesis, “and I will tear you to pieces with my bare hands. Slowly.”

This close the cadence of his voice is both better and worse. The sound is muffled by the way Jay is pressed against him; but Jay can feel the vibrations of his words through the length of his body; can feel the steady thud of Samiel's heart and the soft inhalation of breath as he manoeuvres them both carefully to sit on the floor. He curls around Jay, and the familiar smell of him has Jay tightening his grip on his tunic.

“Wing Commander,” Lachesis says from somewhere above him. “I am so sorry.” The pity in her voice is clear now. What she is sorry for, she doesn't say. Jay suspects it is not for her actions.

“It's alright,” he says tiredly, trying to calm things, even as he grits his teeth against another wave of pain.

"I would like to talk to you properly in the morning,” Lachesis says. “If you would permit me.”

“Yes,” Jay says. Samiel's arms tighten around him, and Jay can barely hear his low growl of displeasure.

“We will escort Severne Tremark back to another cell,” Lachesis continues.

Jay feels the way Samiel coils into utter stillness against him, and knows with a terrible certainty that if Lachesis or her guards make one move towards them, there is likely to be a vast amount of bloodshed in a very short space of time.

“No,” he says, fisting his hands in Samiel's clothes, not certain himself who he is saying it to. “He stays with me.”

Lachesis swears again. The beautiful sound of her voice almost has Jay wrenching himself away in concern, until Samiel growls again, subsuming her tones until all Jay can hears is him.

“I can't be held responsible if he stays with you,” Lachesis says urgently. “He can't compel you, Commander, but he's not far from...” She trails off.

Jay forces himself to pull away from Samiel slightly to look at her, ignoring the low grumble of displeasure Samiel emits. Lachesis is staring at the pair of them, biting her lip, worried.

“Far from what?” Jay asks.

“He's going to sing for you,” Lachesis says, then flushes. It is an odd look on her. “If you stay with him, I can't stop it.”

“What?”

“I – ” She waves a hand, embarrassed. “Meshala. Singing. There's no compulsion here because of what meshala is; but once he sings to you, you're going to want him. Quite desperately.”

“What,” Jay repeats, flatly.

No,” Samiel says urgently. His grip tightens around Jay. “I would never – ”

“You won't have a choice,” Lachesis says. “You think I can't see what's happening, Tremark? You're one step away from melos.”

“I'm not leaving him,” Samiel says, and his voice is like thunder, rumbling through Jay's bones until his teeth ache from it. “You and your kind might compel people into meshala, but do you honestly think I would hurt the only thing that I've ever – ” He bites the rest of his sentence off with a hiss.

“It's not compulsion,” Lachesis repeats, frustration building in her voice. “It's inevitable. It's – ” Her voice is getting louder, and Jay can't help but flinch as it scrapes inside his skull.

Don't tell me what's inevitable,” Samiel shouts. “You think you have any idea about this?”

“Enough!” Jay bellows, clapping his hands over his ears. Their voice are crashing over him, through him, and his head feels as though it is about to burst again. “That is enough.”

Amazingly, they fall silent.

Jay breathes deeply once, twice, and fights to regain what little dignity and control he has left. His fingers are trembling and he wants to curl up in a dark room.

But he needs to salvage this – needs to protect Samiel from his stupid mistake, and come out of this mess with something he can use.

“Lachesis,” he says, as he slowly pulls his hands away from his ears. He turns with some difficulty in Samiel's arms so he can look at her. “I thank you for your concern, but Samiel will stay with me.”

I trust him, he doesn't say, but Lachesis clearly hears the words anyway, if the way her expression darkens is any indication.

“I am not going to thank you for what you've done,” Jay continues, ignoring the way Samiel's grip tightens slowly on him, almost to the point of pain. “You claimed you wanted to talk as friends and then you used the situation to instigate physical violence in order to – what was it? – 'prove a point'?”

“I needed to know if you were trustworthy,” Lachesis says, slightly subdued.

“And what has this – ” Jay gestures at himself and Samiel “– got to do with trust?” He smiles, thinly, even as he fights the compulsion of her voice, and watches as she flinches a little. “And trust goes both ways. Ask yourself this: why would I ever trust you now?”

Lachesis stares at him for a long moment. “That is a fair point,” she says at last. “But I disagree that your...ties to Severne Tremark have nothing to do with trust. That man is responsible for a great deal of bloodshed. If you are linked to him, how can the rebellion have faith you would not disclose all you learn to him? We would have no guarantee.”

“Ah,” Jay says, and closes his eyes. “I see.”

“What?” Samiel murmurs in his ear. “What is it?”

Jay prises one of Samiel's hands off his arm and laces their fingers together. He watches Lachesis carefully. “If we weren't...linked, and your test had proved this; if he had simply been in the wrong place, trying to protect me, you would have killed him.”

“Yes,” Lachesis says.

“But you can't kill him now.”

“No.”

Jay is unsettlingly aware that Samiel does not move; does not flinch at her admission. He had known, then, that coming here would likely be a death sentence and had done it anyway. There is an dull pain under Jay's breastbone at the realisation.

“If you kill him,” Jay says, in as steady voice as he can manage, “you will never get any kind of alliance out of me. If you harm him in any way, you will have to send my body back to the human delegation in pieces; because I will not stop fighting with every single breath I have left, to ensure that everything you are working for is burnt to the ground. Am I clear?”

Lachesis looks at the pair of them, her expression slowly hardening to stone. “Perfectly,” she says.

Behind Jay, Samiel's breath hitches, and his fingers locked with Jay's squeeze once, hard.

“Then I will see you in the morning,” Jay says, drawing on every scrap of energy he has left to make it sound like a casual dismissal.

Lachesis pauses, looking at him, and Jay can see her visibly weighing up the pros and cons of trying to continue arguing with him. She very much looks, Jay thinks, as though she would prefer to continue.

“Good night,” she says instead.

She turns on her heel, clicking her fingers once as she exits the room.

Samiel's guards follow behind her. The last one out pauses on the threshold, then turns on his heel to look back at them. He stares at Jay for one long moment, then his face twists in contempt.

“Humans. You still think with your cocks,” he says and spits on the floor, contempt written in every line of his body. “May he fuck you raw, for all the good it will do you.”

The door shuts behind him with a decisive thud.

*

The rest of the night is long and painfully uncomfortable.

Samiel keeps his mouth shut, surprisingly, but refuses to relinquish his hold on Jay at all. He dozes, apparently able to sleep in spite of the situation they are in. Jay envies him, a little.

As he lays there, listening to the slow cadence of Samiel's breathing, he tries hard to focus on nothing. But the pain in his head, and the terrible knowledge that he has only himself to blame for this latest catastrophe, keeps him awake.

Hird, he is sure, is going to murder him if he sees her again.

Slowly, his pain begins to fade, and sometime around what Jay thinks must be dawn, Samiel stirs. He makes a small, contented sound, nuzzling into the back of Jay's neck as he curls closer around him and inhales deeply.

“Samiel,” Jay says quietly.

Samiel hums, but otherwise doesn't move.

“Samiel,” Jay says again.

“What?” Samiel says sleepily, and Jay's toes curl at the sound of him.

“I – ” Jay hesitates, but this has to be said. “I'm sorry.”

“What?” Samiel says again. He sounds more awake now, his voice clearer. Curls tickles the nape of Jay's neck as he raises his head. “What's the matter?”

“Nothing, I just...” Jay exhales, sharply, searching for the right words. “I am truly sorry I have put you in this position,” he says. “To have let this happen to you.”

“You didn't,” Samiel says, all traces of sleep gone now. “I could have called for help when the Governor's wife was shot; I could have stopped you from running. I didn't. I chose to follow you.” He pauses.

“I would always choose to follow you,” he says, voice smaller somehow.

Jay rolls over. The bruises on Samiel's face have blossomed further overnight; the ugly cut down his face has crusted over with dried blood. In spite of this, his eyes are bright and his gaze is steady as he watches Jay.

Jay reaches up, cradling Samiel's face between his palms, marvelling at the straight and simple way Samiel sees the matter, when Jay is tied in knots. He brushes his thumb gently over the corner of Samiel's mouth, breath hitching at the feel of Samiel's lips curving into a slow, gentle smile.

“Thank you,” Jay says quietly, and feels an odd, tenuous flutter as Samiel presses their foreheads together, his expression strangely soft.

“Of course, my master.”

They stay that way, not speaking, until the sound of footsteps outside the room have them drawing apart. Jay rolls over, sitting up, and Samiel mirrors him.

Lachesis enters. This time, Jay notes with heavy suspicion, she has opted to come alone.

Silently, she holds out her hand. Nestled in her palm is a pair of T360 translators. They are an older model than Jay's, clipping around the ear rather than resting inside; but if they have not been tampered with, they should filter and translate all the same standard languages.

“A peace offering,” Lachesis says, as Jay puts them on. He breathes a sigh of relief as her filtered voice comes through the audio. “And a gesture of goodwill.”

“A gesture of goodwill would have been not deactivating my original ones,” Jay says. Behind him, Samiel lets out a small, derisive laugh at Lachesis' expression.

“Get up,” she says abruptly, instead of arguing the point. She is clearly refusing to look at Samiel as she watches Jay. “We need to discuss terms and I will not be doing that whilst Severne Tremark is in the room.”

“The last time Samiel was left alone with your forces,” Jay says, “he was not treated appropriately as directed under the terms of the Lysinian Convention. I'm not leaving him.”

Lachesis holds up a hand. “Under the oath of the holy fire,” she says, ad she has clearly though of this, “and in the name of guest rites, I swear to you no harm will come to him whilst we are talking.”

“Samiel?” Jay asks. The meeting with Lachesis is his purpose here, but he'll be damned if he leaves Samiel to face the consequences of Jay's actions alone again.

“It's alright,” Samiel says. “She means it, otherwise she wouldn't have used that oath.”

“You're far too trusting,” Jay says, looking over his shoulder at him.

Samiel smiles, sweetly. “And you're suspicious enough for both of us.”

“With very good reason.”

Samiel inclines his head, acknowledging the point. “Yes.”

“Will my oath do?” Lachesis asks impatiently.

Jay looks at her. “Alright,” he says. “A demonstration of trust.”

She smiles, quicksilver and sharp. “Good.”

Lachesis leads him out of the room and across the hallway. Jay can't help the small stab of panic as the door shuts behind them, blocking him off from Samiel. He quashes it as best he can, looking around as Lachesis ushers him into a much larger room.

She does not, he notes, make any attempt to lead him anywhere through her base. Clearly trust only goes so far.

“So,” Jay says, taking the seat she offers him. He leans back and tries to keep his expression neutral. “What did you want to discuss?”

“An alliance,” Lachesis says bluntly. “Our leader wants the human delegation to politically support us against the Queen.”

“A hell of risk, isn't it? Bringing me here on the off chance I'd agree to help.”

Lachesis shrugs. “The original plan wasn't to bring you at all,” she says. “Kallat was only meant to make contact. The plan changed.”

“Did it,” Jay says flatly. “How unfortunate for me.”

“Yes,” Lachesis says. “It was.” She sighs, leaning back in her own chair. “Listen Commander, the rebellion is prepared to offer a lot in terms of political alliance: we will agree to a well-outlined ceasefire; the building of mutual trade routes and the renunciation of all claims to the colony of Elysium, for a start.”

“This is all dependent on your rebellion succeeding,” Jay points out. “Which would put any of the current attempts to negotiate a peace deal in severe jeopardy, if it became known we had allied with you.”

“The rebellion is closer to success than you think,” Lachesis says. “And we are not asking for much in return.”

“Oh?” Jay raises an eyebrow. “And what do you want from us, then?”

Lachesis smiles, her expression full of teeth. “We want you to kill the Queen,” she says.

Chapter Text

There is a moment of silence, then Jay laughs. He can't help himself.

“You must be joking,” he says. “Why the hell do you think I'd agree to that?”

Lachesis leans forwards, intent. “You are a likely suspect if something happens to the Queen, yes,” she says. “Especially because of the massacre on Mas-Hain. But you've publicly saved the Queen's life since, and you've openly declared your intention to push through this peace deal however you can. Very few people would suspect you.”

“Oh yes,” Jay says dryly. “Of course. You've just pointed out Mas-Hain, and I've been reliably informed half the planet seems to think I'm responsible for that. You give me a better reason why I wouldn't be arrested as soon as the Queen so much as coughed.”

“Diplomatic immunity,” Lachesis says bluntly.

“Which only works if you are a diplomat.” Jay says. “I'm not.”

“You are here as an envoy, even if you are not a registered diplomat,” Lachesis says. “Under Interior Circle law, that provides you with automatic protection.”

Jay clasps his hands together and observes her. “We are arguing semantics,” he says at last. “The human Foreign Office would not expend considerable energy in retrieving someone who had been accused of murdering a head of state. Furthermore, they would be far more interested in maintaining the opportunity for further peace talks. If my head on a platter achieved that, then so be it.”

“That wasn't the case after Mas-Hain,” Lachesis says.

“Mas-Hain was entirely different,” Jay says. “For a start there was no head of state being killed and when I was retrieved from base it was quite obvious to them that I was a victim of that attack, not a perpetrator.”

“That's not what I heard,” Lachesis says.

“Colour me surprised,” Jay says dryly.

“My point still stands,” Lachesis says. She is watching him, carefully. “Out of everyone, you have the most chance of walking away unscathed if you kill the Queen.” She hesitates, as though searching for the best way to frame the rest of her argument. “You would also have an... added advantage.”

“Which is?”

“Severne Tremark would not lay a finger on you, no matter what you did.”

“Severne Tremark,” Jay says, “stabbed me through the side and left me for dead three years ago. I think you might want to reconsider that line of debate.”

Lachesis shrugs. “He did not kill you,” she says. “If what you claim is true, you are the only person he left alive.” She spreads her hands, expressively. “And if you factor in meshala as well...”

“No,” Jay says firmly. “I will not factor that in.” He watches as Lachesis stills her expression, carefully smothering any clue as to what she is thinking, and he sighs.

“Alright,” he says. “For argument's sake – and ignoring all other complications for a moment – let's say I agree to this. What happens next?”

Lachesis shrugs. “We let you go back to Maa-Ilia, and then on to Maa-Tarek,” she says. “And we wait for you to complete what we have asked.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Jay hums, thoughtfully. “And you – what – rely on goodwill to ensure I get the job done?” He pauses for a moment, considering. “Oh, no, my mistake. Goodwill doesn't come into this. You've said you'd let me go.”

“Yes.”

“But you'd be keeping Severne Tremark.”

Lachesis smiles. “Precisely,” she says. “He is – how did you put it yesterday? – insurance.”

“And you're relying on the fact that I care enough about a man that stabbed me, murdered diplomats and betrayed the very peace we were working towards?” Jay asks.

“We do not have to go through this again,” Lachesis says softly. “I feel I proved my point adequately yesterday. Bluffing about your connection to Severne Tremark now will do you little good.”

Jay grins, and he can feel the edge to it even as he does. “I don't know,” he says. “I think you're relying too much on your concepts of mating. Humans don't have that instinct.”

“Severne Tremark,” Lachesis says delicately, “you have assured me was responsible for Mas-Hain. Following that, he led part of the troops during the incursion on Dhania, during which your people suffered defeat. Badly.” She watches Jay closely, waiting for his reaction, and he fights to keep his expression still. “After the battle on Dhania, he was tasked with the scouting expedition on Talik.” She smiles, thinly. “You heard how that went, I imagine?”

“Yes,” Jay says. “I heard.”

“He was then recalled,” Lachesis continues relentlessly, “and the Queen has had him at her side almost continuously since the formation of our rebellion. The only exception was when intelligence stumbled across one of our bases in Maa-Laia. He, along with a small company of his fellow Severne, burnt the base to the ground, killing everyone inside.”

She tilts her head, considering Jay. “In spite of all of this, in spite of the blood staining this man's hands, you treat him gently. He is a monster, Commander Lane, and that does not matter to you.” Her eyes are bright, her expression almost venomous as she leans forward. “Tell me again how humans don't have a mating instinct, when you can know all that and still want to touch his soul with yours.”

“This is war,” Jay says bluntly. “I am not excusing his actions, but it is war. You talk of Severne Tremark destroying your base, but can you tell me your hands are clean? Has the rebellion done nothing but good?” He meets Lachesis' gaze with his own, and can feel his expression hardening.

“Let's look at recent events, shall we?” he continues, realisation clicking into place in his mind. “I have not been on Lenia long, and you have already tried to kill the Queen on the steps of one of the most sacred sites on the planet. When you attacked, you did not care about collateral damage – you would have willingly killed the rest of the group if it meant killing her as well. Two scribes from the Tammoll Federation died because of the Rebellion's actions.

“Then there's Isen Kallat. You sent him after me in Maa-Tarek, and again when he tampered with the flightbikes in Maa-Ilia. Shall we talk about collateral damage there as well? You nearly killed the Psyke and you nearly killed Commander Hird, who is not involved in this matter in any way.

“Finally,” he says, overriding Lachesis as she opens her mouth to protest, “you murdered Governor Mirret's wife in cold blood." He smiles, and it is all teeth. "So, don't talk to me about how wicked Severne Tremark is. Take a good look at your own actions, Lachesis, before you begin to judge Samiel's.”

There is a pause. Lachesis stares at him for a long moment, silent. “Yalla houros mia,” she says at last, softly, as Jay's translators stutter over her words. “You really are on the side of the bloody demons, aren't you?” Her expression twists, briefly. “And you don't even realise it.”

“We were not responsible for Helenia,” she adds. “Helenia was one of us, and a good woman. A better woman than our cause deserved.” A shadow of grief crosses her face, there and gone before Jay can begin to feel a little sorry for her. “And Isen Kallat wasn't tampering with your flightbike to kill you; he was trying to save you.”

“By cutting power to the main engine?” Jay asks. “That's doesn't seem particularly altruistic.”

“Your fuel lines had been cut, and your gravity propulsion unit had been damaged,” Lachesis says bluntly. “This had already happened before Isen got anywhere near the bike. He switched power to the emergency reserve unit, because it has a height limiter. He didn't have a chance to warn you, and the theory was that you would only be a couple of thousand feet off the ground when the engine gave out. That is a safe enough height to use your emergency parachute.”

“Except the parachutes had been tampered with,” Jay says.

“Precisely.” The lines of Lachesis' face are still, her expression thoughtful. “And that had nothing to do with us, either.” She breathes deeply, once, and presses her fingertips together. “Have you not considered the other common factor in both of these cases, Commander?”

“Governor Mirret,” Jay says, and finds he is not surprised by the direction Lachesis is trying to steer him.

“Precisely.”

“And what reason would he have for trying to kill me? And for killing his wife?”

Lachesis gives a tiny shrug. “Orders,” she suggests. “A convenient way to achieve exactly what has now happened: blame falling on the Rebellion for these disasters.”

“Ah, you are the victims in all this.” Jay allows a small smile to flicker across his face. “How... useful.” He notes she makes no move to deny the attempt on Deneira's life.

The look Lachesis shoots him is bland; the expression in her eyes is decidedly less so. “I can sit here all day protesting our innocence, Wing Commander, but that is pointless. What will it take to convince you to join our cause?”

Jay hesitates, thinking. If he agrees to help the Rebellion, the outcome is at least clear: he will be released, even if Samiel isn't. The rebels will have to show some measure of trust in him, and he may collect more information along the way, which could be useful in furthering the human delegation's agenda. The consequences, however, if it is ever made known to Deneira that he has potentially sided against her...

“I still have yet to hear anything compelling that would make me agree to help you,” he says at last, carefully. “You have derided the brutality of Severne Tremark and promised aid to the peace negotiations if you overthrow the Queen, but that is all your offer amounts to: a promise. There is nothing to help us now, and I have no way of knowing you will be as good as your word. Or if you will even win the civil war.” He watches as Lachesis frowns, and knows he has hit the mark.

“When offering to trade,” he says, gentling his voice so she won't think it is a total rejection, “you must have something tangible to barter with.”

“Alright,” Lachesis says, “I see your point.” She rubs the bridge of her nose, clearly thinking. “What do you want?”

“Information,” Jay says. “I want a better idea of the organisation I am negotiating with. What are your actual goals? Who are your leaders? What methods are you currently employing, beyond the obvious, to further your cause? Do you have the support of the masses?”

“You must be mad,” Lachesis says. “I can't give you that information – I don't even know all that information.”

Jay shrugs. “Then find out,” he says. “You want to broker a deal with the human delegation? You need to let us know who we're dealing with, and what your chances are. If you can't, I don't see how we can form an alliance.”

“What's to stop me simply killing you and moving on to the next human?” Lachesis asks. There is no threat in her voice, merely curiosity.

“Nothing,” Jay says. “Except by now it will be quite obvious that I am missing, and questions will be asked as to whether I left voluntarily. Especially with Helenia Mirret dead. If I'm never heard from again, fingers are going to be pointed at you, and the next diplomat might not have my trusting nature.” He smiles kindly to drive his point home, and feels a flicker of satisfaction at the way Lachesis' shoulders drop just slightly.

“And if you let me walk out of here with an agreement,” he adds, pressing his advantage, “Severne Tremark will be coming with me.”

“No,” Lachesis says, her hand cutting sharply through the air as she leans forward abruptly. “Absolutely not. He has seen our faces, heard our voices. You I might trust with time, Commander; that creature will run straight to his mistress and whisper everything about us to her.”

“Well, I can't leave without him,” Jay says pleasantly. “You want me to kill the Queen? First I'd have to get close enough, and she would never trust me again if I didn't come back with Severne Tremark.”

He watches as Lachesis digest this and tries to stay calm. He has spoken the truth: Deneira will never trust him again without Samiel. But he has not said everything, which is that he'll be damned if he's leaving Samiel behind with these people.

“I need to discuss what to do about this with my superiors,” Lachesis says finally. “I will be honest, Commander, at this point I am out of my depth.” She shrugs, a little ruefully.

It's almost more than Jay had expected. He'd anticipated nothing but flat out refusal, if he's being honest, and if nothing else this is going to buy him time to find another solution.

“Alright,” he says, and watches as Lachesis relaxes slightly. “Take as much time as you feel necessary.”

“Thank you,” Lachesis says, and Jay is not sure if she means it.

*

Rather than being returned to his holding room, Jay is pleasantly surprised to find he is taken to a bathroom. He is handed a change of clothes and his escort leaves to guard the door. For one brief, blissful moment he is alone as he gets washed and changed.

When he returns to the room he is sharing with Samiel, he is even more surprised to find Samiel has washed and been given a change of clothes himself. The wound on his face has been cleaned, and a neat little row of e-gel strips are holding it closed.

Somewhere behind all this Jay thinks he can detect Lachesis' guiding hand. If it is an attempt to soften him up slightly, he muses dryly, she has her work cut out for her after yesterday and today.

Samiel observes him quietly, from where is has been sitting on the cot that has been placed in the room some time since the morning.

“Are you alright?” he asks eventually, voice low. “You were gone so long, I – ” He twists his fingers together.

Jay takes one step, then another. His heart is in his throat, and he is suddenly very unsure about what to tell Samiel. An admission of potential treason is not going to be received well. For all Samiel is complying now, he is a Severne, and Jay cannot risk him doing something rash if he finds out what the rebels are after.

“Lachesis just wanted to talk,” he says as he draws closer, and watches as Samiel reaches out to him, fisting a hand in the front of his new, unfamiliar tunic.

Samiel hums, a low, sweet note at the back of his throat, considering this. Because they are so close together, he has to tilt his head up from where he is sitting to look at Jay. The long lines of his neck, the graceful sweep of his collarbones, have Jay's fingers twitching as he suppresses the urge to reach out, to touch.

“What about?” Samiel asks.

Jay sighs. Carefully he prises the fingers Samiel is clutching him with away from his clothes and clasps his hand, gently.

“She wanted to offer an alliance,” he says, and watches as Samiel freezes.

“An alliance,” Samiel repeats, and his expression shutters, his gaze intent on Jay's face.

And oh, Jay realises suddenly, he is going to have to be very careful here. He has let himself be lulled into complacency by the sound of Samiel's voice and the way he looks softer, almost impossibly gentle in the white of his loaned tunic.

“Yes,” Jay says, and tries to pick the right words. “So far, I am not convinced.”

Slowly, Samiel's grip on his hand tightens. “Would you ever be, my master?” he asks, and where before there was sweetness, now there is something coiled and dangerous about the way he is looking at Jay.

“Do you think I would be?” Jay asks.

Samiel makes a small, considering sound. He reaches up, sliding the palm of his hand down Jay's neck, to thumb at the bruise he had left. It is now on display, thanks to the looser clothing they are both wearing, and Jay wishes for one brief moment he had thought to cover it up.

“I think,” Samiel says at last, “you would consider any option if it meant getting your own way, sweetheart.” His smile is a slow, malevolent thing.

“You're saying I'm immoral?” Jay asks, and where he was expecting to feel betrayed, he is surprised to find he is simply curious. Here, at last, may be Samiel's real opinion of him.

“I think you like to win,” Samiel says, and presses harder against the bruise, eliciting a sharp, involuntary shiver of pleasure from Jay. “I think you believe you have morals my darling, but ultimately you think it's all about the game, and winning is what you want to do.” His voice is low, hypnotic; there is a dangerous edge to it that Jay finds himself helplessly, desperately drawn to.

“I think you're wrong,” he says, and feels Samiel's grip tighten further, drawing him closer still, until Jay has no choice but to stand between his legs. He bends his head to look at Samiel.

“Really?” Samiel murmurs, and there is a bright spark of curiosity in his eyes. “Because what you did on Mas-Hain says differently, darling.”

The words are like a punch to the gut. Jay stiffens and tries to pull away, but Samiel's grip is implacable and he can't shuffle back more than an inch or so.

How dare you,” Jay says, and can't help the way his voice grinds out, low and terrible. “You call what happened on Mas-Hain winning? You think that was victory?”

“Wasn't it?” Samiel asks. “The humans did rather well out of that, all things considered.”

“If you think the massacre of six innocent men is 'doing rather well', then – ” Jay begins, furious.

“Three,” Samiel says. “Three innocent men.” He is watching Jay closely, his eyes bright with some indefinable emotion that Jay is too angry to work out. “Palek Kallat, Yram Tilea and Gamesh Rhet.”

“Oh, and I suppose the humans in this particular case don't matter?” Jay asks.

“No,” Samiel says. “Why should they? They had orders to kill us.” He smiles, savage and terrible. “You had orders to kill me.”

Jay stares at him, heart pounding. For once, he is beyond words. Samiel's accusation is a terrible and vicious assault on his composure. Were it not for the tight grip Samiel has on him, and the way he looks quite clearly as though he is terrifyingly eager to tear into Jay, Jay would hit him.

“Why are you lying about this?” he says instead, and watches as Samiel's expression darkens further.

“Why am I lying about this?” Samiel asks. “Why are you? I saw the orders, my master; all four of you had received them.” The look he gives Jay is bitterly triumphant, as Jay flinches. “You can stop pretending. Surely you must have realised by now there's nothing I could do to you?”

“I did not receive orders to kill you,” Jay says, around numb lips, his head is buzzing and his rage is turning to ice the longer Samiel speaks. He stares at Samiel, hopelessly lost in the turn the conversation has taken. “None of us did.”

“Really?” Samiel says. “Because I walked in on Andrew Rieu shooting Yram in the back.” He tilts his head, watching Jay. “So explain to me again how Mas-Hain is not a victory for you.”

Jay stands there, stunned. He can't explain this; he can't. In the three years since Mas-Hain, this conversation has gone a thousand different ways in his head. He has thought of a thousand different reasons for Samiel's betrayal. This... this is not anything he is prepared for. It is a lie. It must be, because if it isn't, then the implications of the events on Mas-Hain are...

“You left me alive,” he says abruptly, his mind latching on to the one thing he can think of. “You said you knew I'd received orders to kill you, and you left me alive. Why?”

“My master,” Samiel says slowly, “do you honestly think I could kill you?” The hand resting on Jay's neck squeezes once, briefly, before he drops it. “I am yours,” he says tiredly, and Jay can't help but lean into him a little, incapable of refusal against the raw want in Samiel's voice.

“I don't understand,” Jay says. “I just, I don't – ”

A slow-dawning sadness crosses Samiel's face and he sighs, gently. “Jason,” he says, “let me explain something to you: I didn't know what meshala was. I didn't know what logosykia was. I did not know of all the ways that I was tied to you, and only you. But, my darling, you must understand that even when I didn't know all this, in every single way possible I have only been, and only ever will be, yours.”

“But what does that mean?” Jay says, shaken by the turn the conversation has taken. This is not what he expected. Not what he had planned for. He is flying blind, frantic to catch up to what is happening, and he can't. If he could just think, maybe he could reason this out. But he can't, he can't, he can't. His thoughts are tumbling around uselessly, and he has no words for this. None.

Slowly, broadcasting his movements, Samiel reaches up. “May I?” he asks.

Jay touches his T360 translators and hesitates. “Why?” he asks.

“Because I want no filter between us when I tell you this,” Samiel says.

Jay hesitates, thinking, but the truth is if nothing else, Lachesis' little demonstration yesterday proved that Samiel at least cannot compel him to do anything. He closes his eyes, despairing, as he makes his decision.

“Alright,” he says. “Yes.”

Samiel carefully removes Jay's translator's, first one, then the other. He holds them in the palm of his hand for a moment, then places them gently on the bed next to him.

“You must know,” he says, and Jay shudders at the awful loveliness of his voice, “that if you told me to walk across fire, I would. If you told me to go into Maa-Tarek tomorrow and kill every single person I set eyes on, then I would do as you commanded.”

“You can't say – ” Jay begins, aching and terrified at the sound of Samiel, unfiltered and raw.

Samiel shushes him, gently. “I cannot compel you,” he says, “but sweetheart you could tell me to do anything for you, and I would. I am yours, wholly and completely and without question. And that is why I could never kill you. Not even when you were ordered to kill me.”

“You can't say things like that,” Jay says hopelessly. “You can't. You've just accused me of conspiring to murder Sirens, and in the next breath you're telling me it doesn't matter because of, what, some compulsion?”

“It doesn't matter,” Samiel says, “because I am utterly and completely selfish.”

He stands, slowly, and backs Jay up one step, then another, then another, until Jay is pressed against the wall. With a strange, slow tenderness he slides fingers along Jay's jaw. “You think I'm going to live in a universe without you?” he asks with terrible tenderness. “Don't be foolish.”

“No,” Jay says. “Samiel, no. That's – ”

Samiel dips his head. “That's why I couldn't kill you, my master,” he says, and the feel of his lips brushing Jay's ear causes him to tremble. The sound of his voice vibrates gently through Jay's bones.

Jay closes his eyes, stunned. The worst part is, he doesn't think Samiel is lying. There is no dishonesty in his voice, no manipulation. He has seen deceit and this is not it. He wants to tell himself that this trust springs from compulsion; from the deep harmonics of Samiel's voice and the slow, soft timbre of his tone.

But it doesn't.

And that, Jay realises, means that here, now, there has to be some measure of honesty between them. There never has been before, but maybe this could be a start. Trust must begin somewhere, he thinks, and the dreadful truth of the matter is that there is at least the potential to believe what Samiel is saying. If nothing else, he has no reason to lie.

“I didn't know,” Jay admits at last, hoarse, and oh, he knows this is a capitulation, an acknowledgement of Samiel's version of events, but he needs to say this. “If there were orders, I never got them. I never read them.”

Samiel stills against him.

“What?” he says.

“I didn't know there was a kill order on the Siren representatives,” Jay repeats.

Samiel jerks back, his gaze frantic as he searches Jay's expression. For what, Jay isn't sure. “You didn't know?” he repeats.

“No.”

“You didn't...” Samiel stumbles back a step, enough that Jay reaches out automatically to steady him. “For the last three years,” Samiel says helplessly, “I believed you knew. I believed you would have killed me, if I hadn't stopped you first.” He presses a hand to his mouth, and the expression on his face is terrible to behold.

“I didn't,” Jay repeats again, and finds he is shaking. He watches as Samiel staggers over to the cot and sinks down on it, dazed.

Almost compulsively Jay follows him. He is about to sit next to him, when Samiel moves, faster than he can see. He hauls Jay over him, until he is perched, awkwardly, in his lap.

Jay is not delicate, he is not some waif. He is lean, compact muscle with a stocky build, and Samiel's ability to manhandle him to this extent comes as a bit of a surprise. Jay buries that thought at the back of his brain, filing it for closer examination at a later date.

Samiel rests his forehead again Jay's collarbone. “I'm so sorry,” he says.

Gently, his heart hammering still, Jay threads his fingers through the mop of bronze curls tickling the hollow of his throat. A terrible noise tears itself loose from Samiel's throat at the gesture.

“Why are you sorry?” Jay asks.

“Because I should have checked,” Samiel says. “I should have spoken to you first. I should have...”

Jay closes his eyes and breathes deeply. There is an odd, tender ache under his breastbone, and for a brief moment it is as though he can feel Samiel's heartbeat; a strange double echo next to his own.

“It's alright,” he says and finds that, strangely, and in spite of everything - in spite of all the angles he is going to need to consider - in this moment he is speaking the truth. “I should have asked too.”

*

The rest of the day passes in something of a haze.

Apart from two meals - which are brought by two different stone-faced guards - no one bothers them. Jay cannot find it in himself to care. For once there is nothing to do; he is waiting on Lachesis, and until she comes back to him with a response from the rebel leaders, there will clearly be no further talks.

For the most part Samiel is quiet. Occasionally he watches Jay move around the room. Most of the time he sits on the bed, leaning against the wall as he stares into the middle distance. Eventually he closes his eyes, and Jay thinks he might be sleeping.

They do not talk further about Lachesis' offer, or Mas-Hain, and Jay does not put his translators back in.

As Jay paces around the room, trying to pass the time, it occurs to him that Samiel did not say how he saw the orders on Mas-Hain. More worryingly than this, he realises, he also doesn't know who sent those orders, or why. He rubs his forehead, uneasy at the implications of this.

Questions, he thinks wearily. More questions and no answers.

Grimly, he resolves that when he gets back to Maa-Tarek, he is going to take Hird up on her offer to do a bit of digging into his file.

After a while he tires of pacing, worn out with nerves and the events of the day. He pauses, watching the way Samiel is dozing lightly. There is an odd sensation under his skin; a bizarre tightness that is resolving itself into a need to be closer to Samiel, to stay with him. The revelations of this afternoon have wrung him dry, and all that is left is the desire to crawl into bed and wrap himself around Samiel.

Around...

Jay blinks, and realises he is hovering over Samiel's sleeping form. He shakes himself off, grimly burying the odd impulse, and touches Samiel's shoulder.

Samiel comes awake with a start. He looks up, hand flying to his hip for the hilt of a salzon that is not there. When he sees Jay he relaxes. “Oh,” he says, rubbing his eyes.

“I think it's gone ten standard,” Jay says quietly and then, because he can't quite resist: “Budge over, I want to get into bed.”

Samiel rolls, clumsy from sleep as he kicks off his own shoes and slides over. The cot is barely big enough to fit both of them, but, Jay thinks, they have probably both slept in worse. He takes off his own shoes, dropping them in a heap by the foot of the bed, and dims the lights.

Carefully, he crawls into bed next to Samiel.

For a moment they stare at one another, Samiel's eyes gleaming in the low light as Jay watches him. Finally Samiel sighs and pushes gently on Jay's shoulder.

“Roll over,” he says softly, and Jay does.

He feels Samiel shift behind him, then the careful pressure of an arm around his waist. Jay stares straight ahead, unseeing. The pillow dips slightly as Samiel rests his head back on it.

“Goodnight, my master,” he says.

At last, Jay sleeps.

*

Morning comes slowly.

Between one breath and the next Jay stirs, blinking gradually into the darkened room. It is hard to tell what time it is without a window, and lethargy pulls at him, sinking its claws in as he struggles to stay awake.

It is difficult. The bed is at least somewhat comfortable, and he is warm. Samiel is plastered against his back, his chin hooked over Jay's shoulder. One arm is still slung heavily across Jay's hip. His fingers are splayed against Jay's abdomen, pressing firmly as he effectively keeps him pinned.

At first, Jay isn't clear what has woken him. His mind is still fuzzy and he's having trouble focusing. He inhales deeply, turning his head into a more comfortable position, and ignores the way Samiel shifts with him.

As Jay moves again, Samiel hums low in his throat and buries his face in the back of Jay's neck. The odd vibration of his voice hooks into Jay's awareness, and he feels a strange sharp pang of longing.

“Samiel,” he says, cautiously.

Samiel murmurs something, nosing at the nape of Jay's neck. His grip on Jay tightens, pulling him closer. A moment later Jay feels teeth graze his skin, nipping. The sensation sends a burst of heat rolling through him and he unthinkingly moves, pressing closer as Samiel hums again.

Jay shivers, breath coming a little faster as Samiel presses a slow, sleepy kiss to his shoulder, then another one, trailing up towards his ear. Move away, Jay tells himself. Just move, this is not what is needed right now; it's not what...

It's what he wants, though. The realisation has him biting his lip hard, stifling the impulse to relax back against Samiel, to lean into the long, warm lines of his body and give in.

There is another sharp little bite to the tendon of his neck, and Jay can't help the small hitch in his breathing.

The noise Samiel makes against him at that is dark, interested. He rocks against Jay once, then again, and Jay can feel himself hardening slowly in response to the sensation. The heat of Samiel at his back, and the painful little sparks of pleasure Samiel is pressing into his skin, are making his breath come shorter; his heart beat faster.

“Jason,” Samiel says once, dazedly, and the sound of him.

The sound of him is –

Jay groans, low. Samiel's voice flows through him, a beautiful crashing symphony of desire in two syllables. There is a deep thrum of awareness now, chasing sleep from Jay completely, as the hand Samiel has splayed across his hip slides around and lower, his fingers finding the bare skin under the hem of Jay's tunic.

“Samiel,” Jay says, the word getting half stuck in his throat, and he doesn't know if it is a protest or a plea.

“I'm here,” Samiel says, and he sounds no more than half awake, but the rich promise of his voice is almost too much to bear. “I'm here, my master.” He sucks, hard, on Jay's neck, and Jay's toes curl.

He feels drunk on the sound of Samiel; on the way his voice throbs, low, in the room. There is possessive intent there; a beautiful cacophony of desire that makes Jay pant, open and desperate into the still air of the room.

“No, I – ”

“Yes,” Samiel promises, sliding a leg between both of Jay's and pressing up with steady, perfect pressure.

“Yes,” Jay repeats, dazed, and is rewarded by the burn of Samiel's fingernails drawing soft lines of fire down the length of his torso.

“I want to keep you here,” Samiel purrs sleepily, as Jay shudders against him. “Sweetheart, darling, let me keep you, please.” The roll of his hips has Jay moving with him, a slow, sinuous slide that presses them together. He can feel Samiel's clothed cock rubbing deliciously against him, and the sensation has his him trembling with a deep, raw hunger.

Samiel's hand moves lower, palming Jay's length through his trousers. He rubs once in a slow, drawn out slide. “Say you'll let me keep you,” he says again. His voice a hushed, beautiful thing that winds its way into Jay's mind, his soul, and burns even as it soothes.

Samiel trills, softly, his lips a hairsbreadth from the shell of Jay's ear. “I'll make it so good for you, my master,” he promises. “I'll be slow, gentle; I'll open you up until there's nothing left in your head, but the feel of my fingers in you. But you won't have to beg, darling, whatever you want I'll give it to you. I'll fuck you for days, keep you satisfied, keep you full, until all you can think about is me. Anything to please you, Jason, anything at all.”

The promise has Jay dizzy, has him rutting back instinctively before he can properly think about it.

Ades mia garos tues ades,” Samiel says.

The words are like an odd flash of light, shooting down the length of Jay's spine and he stiffens. The sensation is strange and not at all unpleasant, but it is enough to jolt Jay's awareness a little, bring him back to himself somewhat.

“Wait,” he says, “Samiel, wait.”

Samiel ignores him, pressing another kiss to the vulnerable skin behind Jay's ear. Jay feels himself slip away a little, and struggles to breathe around the tightness in his chest.

“Wait,” he says again, and flails away. He rolls as he does, falling off the bed in the process, and scrambles backwards a couple of feet until he is out of range of Samiel's hands. He looks up, panting, at the sight in front of him.

Samiel is watching him, eyes bright under the unruly mess of his hair. His lips are parted, kiss swollen and beautifully red from the friction of Jay's stubble. He is breathing heavily, dazed as he stares at Jay with a strange, single-minded focus.

“Jason,” he says, his voice a song of pure need as he reaches out. “Come back here, please.”

Jay almost does; almost crawls back on his hands and knees to rest between Samiel's legs. He wants to kiss every inch of Samiel's sleep warmed skin; to breathe the scent of him in until his lungs can't remember anything else. He wants to lick a path down Samiel's chest, his stomach; wants to go lower and sink his mouth onto Samiel's cock; to know what he tastes like and be able to remember it for days after.

“No,” Jay croaks out instead. “No, this isn't right.”

“Why?” Samiel purrs. “Why, my master?”

“Because... because...” There is a reason here, Jay is sure of it. It is there, just out of reach, and he struggles to find it as reason begins to slip through his fingers.

“Lachesis,” he blurts out, dragging the unwilling thought to the fore. He watches as Samiel flinches, as though slapped. “We can't do this now. We're not ready, neither of us are ready for this, and if Lachesis finds out, if she knows...”

Samiel freezes, eyes wide. “Master,” he says, and there is a thread of confusion in his voice. He wavers and, as Jay watches, awareness begin to creep slowly across his face. “Jason,” he says, and where before the echoes of his voice were pulling on the depths of Jay's soul, they are suddenly muted, subsumed under uncertainty as he looks at Jay.

“Shit,” Jay says. For a moment he cannot bear to look at Samiel, and he draws his knees up to rest his forehead on them. “Shit.” There is a deep burn of longing still lodged in him, and for one terrible moment he is half convinced it is not all his own.

“I don't understand,” Samiel says, and he sounds lost. “What was that?”

“Melos,” Jays says into the soft cotton of his trousers, because he can't say anything else and he can't bring himself to look up. He is still achingly, embarrassingly hard, and is of half a mind to get up and go to Samiel anyway. “Bloody melos, that's what.”

He grits his teeth as he hears Samiel shift on the bed. The thought of him sitting there turns Jay's mouth dry, and he wets his lips.

Maybe he could go over there after all. Would it hurt anyone? He could just sit with Samiel, wind himself around him and keep him close. He could –

Shit,” Jay says again.

Chapter Text

The silence lengthens in the room as Jay breathes deeply. He keeps his head on his knees and tries his best to focus on absolutely nothing.

There is a rustle of bedding as Samiel shifts again, and Jay grits his teeth against another wave of inappropriate desire at the sound. The calm, rational part of his brain is fighting against the irrational wants of the rest of him. There is something frustratingly straightforward about the slow-crawling restlessness beneath his skin. He is uncomfortably aware that for the first time in a very long while, instinct is overtaking logic.

“I'm sorry,” Samiel says, and although his voice is barely above a whisper, Jay can feel his own shoulders tighten in response. “My master, I am so sorry. I didn't mean – it wasn't what I – ”

“It's alright,” Jay says, muffled against the cotton of his trousers. “Samiel, it's alright.”

There is a moment of silence and Jay thinks that, blessedly, Samiel might take the hint and leave this alone.

He doesn't.

The slap of bare feet against concrete is the only warning Jay gets before a long, lean body is pressed against his, as Samiel sits on the floor, shoulder to shoulder with him.

“It's not alright,” Samiel says. There is a fine tremor running through him; Jay can feel it everywhere they are pressed together. It is as though Samiel is struggling to contain himself; to fight against overwhelming instinct and need; to parcel it away beneath his skin.

“No,” Jay admits at last. “It's not. But what about this situation is?” He sighs and lifts his head.

Samiel is watching him, and there is naked desperation on his face. “I'll call the guard,” he says. “I'll ask them to take me to another cell.”

“No,” Jay says before he can stop himself. “Don't do that.”

“I nearly hurt you,” Samiel says. Jay watches, surprised, at the way his expression crumples in on itself. “I have done everything Lachesis accused me of.” He reaches out, then snatches his fingers back before he can make contact with Jay. “And the worst part is that, given half a chance, I would probably do it again.”

Jay stares at him, speechless. He can't argue about this. He knows, logically, that the best way forwards is to do exactly what Samiel suggests: summon a guard and separate themselves before it is too late.

But.

He chews his lip, thinking. But Lachesis would know something had happened, then. She would use this weakness; exploit it in ways Jay can't predict, because she knows far more about meshala than he does. She will know what buttons to push, what behaviours and instincts to appeal to when it comes to Samiel.

Worse, she will use Samiel as leverage, and Jay cannot allow that.

“We can't,” he says at last, and is only half convinced that he is saying this because it is a rational thing to do. “If they split us up, the rebellion can use us against one another.”

“If I stay in this cell,” Samiel says, “this is going to happen again. Do you understand this?” He rakes a hand through his curls, voice desperate. “Jason, I thought I could control this and I can't.”

“You can,” Jay says. “We both know what to look out for now. We can take steps; make sure neither of us ends up vulnerable.”

“This isn't something you can stop with logic,” Samiel says. “Do you not understand? You can't talk your way out of this one, my master.”

For one brief moment, Jay can feel the corner of his mouth twitch up into an involuntary smile. “Watch me,” he says.

“No,” Samiel says. “No, I'm sorry, but no. I would never forgive myself.” He twists, leaning forwards so he is face to face with Jay, his gaze intent. “If we stay together, there is going to come a moment where I am not going to be able to stop. Where you are not going to be able to stop.” For a moment his tone dips, darkening into rich promise as his gaze flickers briefly to Jay's mouth.

“We're going to reach a point, sweetheart, where reasoning is going to fail. I will hold you down and fill you up, and you will want more.”

An involuntary noise creeps out of Jay's throat at Samiel's tone, and he can't quite help the way he shifts, pressing a little closer.

“And what makes you think I'll be the one being held down?” he asks, because he can't help himself. He watches the way Samiel's eyes brighten with interest, as he listens to the rasp of Jay's voice in his throat.

“Promises,” Samiel murmurs and for a fleeting moment there is a deep, sweet expression of longing in his eyes, that makes Jay's breath catch. Samiel leans forward further. “Tell me what you want and you'll have it, my master; you know you will.”

“What I want...” Jay licks his lips. “I want...” He struggles for a moment, trying to articulate and helplessly unable to do so. “Everything,” he says at last, and watches the way pleasure chases its way across Samiel's face, his lashes fluttering closed for one brief moment.

“Anything,” Samiel says, like a promise.

Jay allows himself to savour the slow burn of pleasure; of victory at Samiel's agreement. He breathes once, twice, and watches Samiel watching him.

Then he breathes again, and slowly starts to pack his desire away. He's a mess, emotionally speaking; they both are. He can't allow this vulnerability now, particularly given where they are, who they are. There is a time for this, maybe, and it is not now, when he is mere moments away from saying yes - from admitting that he wants this in spite of himself.

“Not here,” Jay says, and he is not sure if he is talking to Samiel or himself. “Not now.” He reaches out as Samiel flinches away, confused and guilty once more, and can't quite work out if he is lying or not when he says: “I'm not saying no, I am only saying not now. Do you understand?”

Samiel stares at him, biting his lip. “Do you mean that?” he asks at last, unsure, his voice quiet even in the silence of the room.

Jay's fingers tighten involuntarily, and for one moment he is nearly swayed into abandoning reason again. “I mean it,” he says instead. “But we are going to have a serious conversation about what this all means when we get out of here.”

“About what?” Samiel asks blankly. He shifts his arm out of Jay's grip and takes his hand instead.

“Meshala,” Jay says. “Melos, mating instincts, soul mates.” He uses his free hand to rub his forehead. “You've got to admit, this is all pretty new and unusual. Humans just don't have this kind of thing.”

Samiel shrugs and Jay watches as his posture slowly begins to unwind, until he is slumped until they are almost at eye level. “I think you must have something pretty similar,” he says. “Don't you pledge yourself to one another?”

“That's – well that's a little different,” Jay says helplessly. “For a start there's no soul bond involved.” A thought occurs to him. “What does a soul bond even entail? Because I really don't think I'm comfortable with you reading my mind.”

“I don't know,” Samiel says. “I've never asked.”

“Wouldn't you have been taught this? Venndred implied people at least know about this kind of thing,” Jay says.

Samiel stares at him. “Why would I have needed to know about this?” he asks. “It's not in any way useful for what I do. I don't need to know about meshala to know how to kill someone; to understand the politics of court and protect my Queen.”

“Fair point,” Jay says. “But I still would have thought there would have been some discussion on it.”

“No,” Samiel says flatly. “Meshala is not something that was expected to happen for me and so it never came up.”

Despite his curiosity, Jay can sense this is something that needs to be broached carefully. Samiel is guarded: clearly reluctant to talk about this, and Jay recalls his words from the balcony of Mirret's residence with a sudden, painful clarity. Reluctantly he suppresses his curiosity, and resigns himself to pursuing the topic at a later date. Preferably, he thinks with no small amount of irony, when they are not both political prisoners and half a step away from the possibility of fucking on the floor if either of them make eye contact for too long.

“Well,” he says, “I think we're probably going to need to ask about this at some point.”

“Talk to the Psyke,” Samiel says. “Since he's apparently your source of information.”

“Don't you want to find out as well?” Jay asks.

Samiel shrugs. “No,” he says. “Being able to name something isn't going to change it. It is what it is, and I am sure you can tell me what to expect.” His lips twist in a rueful smile. “Or you can throttle me when you discover there's something about it you don't like.”

“Shout, yes; throttle, no,” Jay says, and squeezes his hand. “If this whole endeavour has taught me nothing else, it is that you are remarkably resilient when it comes to matters of the heart.”

“Probably just as well,” Samiel says. “A weaker man would have given up on you by now.” There is something tentatively playful in his tone. He is, Jay realises with a small spark of surprise, flirting.

“A weaker man wouldn't have interested me,” Jay says without thinking, then nearly bites his own tongue. He hadn't meant to say that.

Samiel looks pleased. “So there's something to be said for having a type,” he purrs, then laughs as Jay tries to mash his free palm over his mouth. “Don't deny it, my master,” he says, voice vibrating against Jay's fingers.

Jay can't help himself, he laughs too as the tension in the room breaks. “I deny everything,” he says. His breath catches in his throat as Samiel's tongue swipes across his palm, and he drops his hand. “Besides,” he adds, clearing his throat, “I'm sure you've got plenty of other undesirable traits.”

“I like to sleep with socks on in the winter,” Samiel says immediately. “Does that count?”

“Most definitely,” Jay says. He drops his head and laughs at himself, a little ruefully. “Unfortunately, it's not a deal breaker.”

“I once got hopelessly drunk on carillia?”

“Who hasn't?”

Samiel leans forwards, tilting Jay's head up until they are nose to nose. “After that night on the rooftop, I had to stop myself from strangling Littien and leaving her body in the desert somewhere,” he murmurs, his lips a hairsbreadth from Jay's.

Jay closes his eyes. “So did I,” he says, and feels the unexpected weight of his own confession. This is... not how he was anticipating this conversation would go. There is a terrified part of him that does not trust in this intimacy, new found as it is, and he has to stifle the impulse to retreat behind his own barriers.

As though sensing the change in his mood, Samiel sits back. “And I like marchega,” he says.

Jay appreciates that he is trying to lighten the tone. He swallows down his own fears and pulls a face. “You actually like that stuff?” he asks, allowing himself to be drawn into Samiel's obvious ploy.

“Yes.”

“But it's sour, and gritty. It's like eating tar!”

“Have you ever eaten tar?” Samiel asks, interested.

Jay stares at him. “No,” he says slowly. “I'm fairly confident it would kill me.”

Samiel tilts his head. “Humans,” he says, “you're like cockroaches – who knows what would actually finish you off?”

“A good whack to the head usually does it,” Jay says dryly, and lets the sound of Samiel's laughter wash over him.

Time, he thinks to himself as he watches the long line of Samiel's throat; the bright intensity of his eyes. Just give me time.

At least a little.

*

Lachesis lets them stew for most of the day.

Jay puts his translators back in, but eventually Samiel's gaze becomes a little too interested, and Jay begins to feel the creeping compulsion to touch him again as much as possible. By mutual agreement they separate: Samiel takes himself off into one corner, and Jay retreats to sit by the door. Neither of them even consider taking the bed, which seems like inevitably dangerous territory at this point.

As the afternoon wanes towards evening, Jay watches Samiel from across the room. There is a cold, fatalistic realisation starting to tug at his awareness now the situation is a little more under control, and he is not sure he likes it. Eventually, he thinks, this – whatever 'this' is – is going to have drastic consequences. A potential relationship with a hostile entity is bad enough. Couple that with the fact that it is Samiel of all people, and then add in the knowledge about meshala and, Jay thinks grimly, there is going to be a major political disaster on their hands sometime in the future.

At best he will be considered a liability and dismissed from the talks. At worst, this might even cost him his posting.

He chews on a thumbnail, thinking.

Perhaps there is some way to avoid this fallout. Perhaps he can ask Samiel to be discrete – to keep this quiet. Better yet, perhaps there is some way to derail meshala completely. It has happened before, hasn't it? Mas-Hain proved that the impulse fades after a time. Jay frowns at the odd little flutter of hurt he feels at the thought.

He's not sure he wants to do that, he realises, and tries to quell his panic at the thought. It's not rational - in fact it's decidedly illogical given the circumstances - but the thought of leaving, of separating from Samiel, sends a spike of fear and rage through him that has him hunching in on himself, trying to contain it.

Maybe it's a side effect of melos, he tries to reason, as he shakes a little at the thought of not being near to Samiel. But the unpleasant truth of the matter is that he wants this connection, this closeness, quite desperately, and the desire stretches back further than he wants to admit, even to himself.

He will have to ask Venndred about all of this, when he gets out of here.

If, he corrects himself. If he gets out of here.

As though summoned by his thoughts, there is a clank as the lock disengages. Jay can feel himself tense further as he climbs to his feet, and watches as Samiel stays crouched on the opposite side of the room. He draws his composure together as best he can, and waits for what comes next.

“Good evening,” Lachesis says as she comes in, accompanied by two guards. Her gaze rakes across the pair of them for one long moment, and her mouth twitches as though she has seen something a little unexpected.

She stares hard at Samiel, who is watching her warily from his corner, then she deliberately turns her back on him and addresses Jay. “Commander, I'd like to continue our discussion.”

Jay spreads his hands, plastering a façade of calm on. “By all means. Shall we talk here? Or would you prefer a more formal setting?” He smiles blandly at the brief flash of irritation that crosses her face at his insouciance.

“Follow me,” Lachesis says curtly.

With one quick glance over his shoulder at Samiel, Jay obeys.

She and her little entourage lead him to the same room as last time, and Jay is disappointed to note that he is not taken any further into the base. Either the camp is smaller than Lachesis wants him to think, or she is still limiting the amount of information he can gather. Either way, it still shows a marked lack of trust, and Jay resigns himself to more futile discussion.

He worries if Samiel will be alright left on his own again amongst the rebels, then he quashes the emotion ruthlessly. Samiel is strong and capable – worthy a pleased, unbidden, voice at the back of his mind hums approvingly – and Lachesis has sworn an oath he will not be harmed. He has to focus on here, now, because it is his best chance of sorting this mess out.

“I have spoken to my superiors,” Lachesis says, once they are both seated opposite one another once more. “I passed on your request. They do not agree that you require all the information you have asked for.”

“Then I don't see how I am able to make an informed decision,” Jay says. “I can't agree to help an organisation that clearly won't give me anything in return.”

Lachesis smiles, as though she has caught him out, and Jay dislikes her expression. “I did not say we would not give you some of the information you requested,” she says.

Ah, Jay thinks, so this is how it's going to be: point scoring.

“And what information are you going to give me?” he asks, not acknowledging her petty triumph.

Lachesis holds out her hand and one of the guards passes her a data chip. The guard, Jay notes with interest, is Isen Kallat, and he does not look at all comfortable to be there.

“The codenames of three of our operatives,” Lachesis says, “all placed within society to aid our cause. We're not going to give you their identities, but this at least is a show of our trust. I have also been given permission to disclose further information to you regarding Mas-Hain.

“Following our conversation, I asked our contacts to look into what happened on the planet during the official peace envoy.” She hands Jay the data chip, then leans back in her chair. “Our intelligence found some interesting details.”

“If your are going to tell me that it was the humans who started that whole debacle, then I already know,” Jay says. “I found that information out myself, quite recently.”

Lachesis tilts her head, considering. “Interesting. So you didn't personally receive those orders?” she asks. "You knew Tremark wasn't behind Mas-Hain?" Behind her, Isen flinches.

Jay watches him out of the corner of his eye. This has the potential to get very nasty, very quickly. It is now inescapably clear why Lachesis has opted to have Isen in the room for this discussion. Mentally, Jay awards her another point.

“I didn't,” he says calmly. “I never received those orders. If I had, I would have raised my concerns with my superiors. It is unethical to slaughter peace envoys, and illegal, as you well know.” He pointedly does not mention the Naos, but watches the barb sink home anyway as Lachesis shifts in her chair.

“But you would have just been following orders,” Lachesis says, “and there would have been no other witnesses left from the Siren delegation to contradict your account.”

“I am unclear on the laws of Lenia,” Jay says, “but in our Armed Forces I think you'll find that 'just following orders' is not sufficient justification for murder. In fact, it is not a valid defence by law.” He smiles, thinly.

“And yet the orders were sent to you nonetheless,” Lachesis says. “On a very insecure channel, I might add.”

“If you're implying that the orders didn't actually originate within the human command,” Jays says, “then I hope you have good evidence to back it up.”

“Actually I'm implying the exact opposite,” Lachesis says. “They most definitely did originate within the human command – although we haven't established who signed off on them. Consider then, Commander: why would someone send such provocative orders on a poorly encrypted channel, knowing full well that the Lenian ambassadors would be monitoring communications?”

“So now you're saying it's sabotage,” Jay says.

“I'm saying you need to think very carefully about who benefited the most from Mas-Hain,” Lachesis says. “And I also think you may need to examine the fact that none of the human delegation were meant to survive either, in spite of their orders.” She watches Jay, her gaze level. “You do not send a man like Severne Tremark to a peace conference if you do not expect there to be violence,” she adds.

“And your proof?” Jay asks.

“On that chip,” Lachesis says, indicating it with a nod of her head. “But I'd be careful who you share that information with. From where I'm standing it looks very much like you have a mole in your command chain.” She leans forwards, placing her hands flat on the table. “And I'd be very surprised if that mole is happy you survived.”

Behind her, Isen's face is a mask of unhappiness and his distress is clear. Jay would almost pity him, if he weren't standing on the wrong side of the negotiating table.

“A fair point,” Jay says to Lachesis instead. He keeps his breathing regular and his voice flat, even as his gut churns at the implications of this new information. “But you'll need to give me time to review this – and I'll need access to a terminal to verify the data myself.”

“Of course,” Lachesis says. “That information is a gift from my superiors – a demonstration of goodwill and nothing more. You can review everything on there at your leisure once we have concluded our negotiations.”

And there, Jay realises, is the rebellion showing its hand. By giving up this information – by handing it over to the only human left alive from Mas-Hain – they are almost guaranteeing that he is not going to be in the right frame of mind to negotiate with Lachesis properly at this point. Betrayal hurts, and they are banking on him not having known any of this information in advance. By revealing that Samiel is not responsible for Mas-Hain – by upending his world view when he is already vulnerable, because of his emotional entanglement with Samiel – they are hoping to weaken his resolve.

They've underestimated him, he thinks grimly, and it shows.

He forcibly shoves his emotions to one side, clearing his mind as best he can. He compartmentalises the damage to be examined at a later date, when he has the time to do so. He breathes deeply and orders his thoughts. This is going to take provocation, and he no longer has the luxury of time if he's going to get himself and Samiel out, and that information chip out of the rebellion's hands and back to the human delegation.

Betrayal is something he is used to, and he is going to have to deal with this later attempt at political backstabbing later.

He hardens his resolve and swallows his anger, leaning back in his chair. There are tools here at his disposal, he thinks, whether Lachesis realises it or not. And he can use them. Isen, for example, is an unknown element, for all he is on the rebellion's side. He could be pushed where Lachesis can't be – may reveal more if Jay is careful about this.

“Alright,” he says calmly, and enjoys the flicker of surprise in Lachesis' eyes. “What further discussions do we need to have right now? What demands do you wish to negotiate?”

“Your part of the bargain would still stand,” Lachesis says cautiously. “We need you to help us end the Queen's reign over the people. Severne Tremark would remain with us as insurance for your continued goodwill.”

“Severne Tremark will be leaving with me, and in the meantime you still haven't told me why I should comply with your requests,” Jay says pleasantly, ignoring the flicker of rage he feels at the thought of Samiel left here as a guarantee. “Or are you forgetting: I also asked you to explain your organisation's aims to me, and how you are going to ensure a successful takeover and not just another doomed rebellion?”

“The Queen has been in power for eighteen years now,” Lachesis says. “She killed her opponents, as was her right, and claimed the throne. She was popular because at the time the war over Elysium had just begun. Humans were still relatively new to interstellar politics, and it was thought that once the Interior Circle Government could be persuaded to declare the colony illegal, we Lenians would be invited to act as a military presence to evict the interlopers.”

“Elysium hadn't been claimed by Lenia at that point,” Jay says.

“Not formally, no, but there had been...certain promises made. Deneira capitalised on this outcome. She claimed we had been betrayed by the politicians; we had lost out to a race of urvet ei.”

“Sorry, what?”

“Ground crawlers,” Lachesis says, and there is a hint of apology in her voice. “It is what you are sometimes called in...less polite society.”

“Ah.” Jay sighs and waves a dismissive hand. “I'm sure it's no worse than some of the names from our side of things.” He raises an eyebrow as Lachesis acknowledges the point.

“Deneira's time on the throne has been long and marked by conflict,” Lachesis continues. “She draws power from war with the humans and uses fear of the unknown to stay in control. She has been a ruthless and decisive leader during war, but her unyielding behaviour begins to crumble when put to the test of peace.”

“You've just said yourself though: it's war,” Jay points out. “Surely she has been the right person for the job?” He watches Lachesis carefully. “Besides, she's your elected Queen. If the people were that dissatisfied, surely she would have been removed from office by your Council or Parliament?”

“Election is a...less than helpful term for what happens,” Lachesis says. “A monarch is normally chosen from one of the ten ruling families – there is never an automatic and direct line of inheritance down a family line. Often people will kill their rivals before an election for a new king or queen and the choice that's left is... not always ideal.” She taps her fingertips against the table top for emphasis. “I heard Deneira even killed her own sister.”

“Rumours,” Jay says, “unless you have more evidence to prove otherwise?”

“No,” Lachesis says. “But consider this: Deneira has refused to entertain the thought of proper peace talks until recently. She is only doing it at the moment because she is under duress from a growing number of voices who see that after eighteen years it may be time to consider other options.

“Until now she has been able to ignore those voice and impose her will on the council and the senate. She has raised taxes, brought back mandatory enlistment to anyone under the age of forty and has created a unit of bodyguards so devoted to her that they are quite willing to die to protect her.”

“An occupational hazard of the job, surely?” Jay says dryly, and smiles as the first proper look of frustration crosses Lachesis' face.

“She has also promoted a campaign of aggression,” Isen says unexpectedly. “She personally oversaw the invasion of Hargen and Yven Three.”

“So what this boils down to,” Jay says, and he can't help the slight edge to his voice, “is the fact that you have a military leader who is hanging on to power by throwing resources at an ongoing war. Quite honestly though, how is there any guarantee that the next person to step up to the throne isn't going to do the same?”

“Because we would make sure it was someone with the people's interests at heart,” Lachesis says earnestly.

“And you get to decide what the people's interests are, do you?” Jay asks, and mentally awards himself a point as Isen flinches again, and Lachesis' expression sours. “What happens if another faction decide they don't want the same as you? How do you know there's not still support for the war?”

“Everyone we've spoken to – ” Lachesis begins.

“Which will be a biased sample,” Jay interjects. “By default it must be, if they are willing to talk to you.” He sighs. “And who are you proposing to put on the throne instead? Lord Athannus? Does he know? What are his thoughts? How do you know he's not simply using your support to oust the Queen?”

“He wouldn't do that,” Lachesis says.

“Why? Because he promised?” There is something dark and ugly lurking in Jay's voice. He can feel it, and he can't quite stifle it enough. He lets contempt creep into his tone; lets Lachesis know what he thinks of her reasoning, and watches her struggle to control her frustration at his derision. Watches Isen, too, become more agitated, and enjoys the fact that he is gradually pushing them closer to the edge. He might get something from this; something he can use to protect Samiel and perhaps take back to Lault, or even Deneira if necessary.

“Don't be naïve,” Jay continues, and smiles condescendingly. “There is absolutely no guarantee Athannus won't betray you the moment he's in power. Why wouldn't he?”

“Because we have information on him that would keep him on side!” Isen bursts out.

Jay sits back in his chair, and watches Lachesis close her eyes in despair.

He smiles. Finally, he has some leverage of his own; something he can work with to ensure he and Samiel can walk out of here.

“There,” he says. “That's a much more interesting piece of information to exchange, don't you think?”

*

Unsurprisingly he is escorted back to the cell, although he is allowed to keep the data chip, which he wedges in his shoe.

Lachesis, he thinks, has committed a blunder in letting Isen in the room after all, and Isen has committed a blunder in providing valuable information for free. Jay quietly savours the victory, even as the door slams shuts behind him again.

Samiel looks up from where he is still sat in the corner.

“How did it go?” he asks.

“Badly,” Jay says, and crosses to sit next to him. “For them, anyway.” He grins, wide and victorious, and watches the appreciative way Samiel is looking at him.

“Triumph looks good on you,” Samiel says. “I've always thought so.”

Jay can't resist pressing a little closer, until their knees are touching. He listens to the sweet soft purr of pleasure Samiel makes as he twines their fingers together, and allows himself this moment to breathe, ignoring the implication of his actions.

“I have a feeling Lachesis, at least, is not happy with me,” Jay says.

“Oh dear,” Samiel says with absolutely no sympathy at all. “How ever will she deal with the disappointment?” He looks viciously pleased at the thought of Lachesis' failure.

“Not well, I suspect,” Jay says. He sighs at the thought; there will be inevitable consequences for what he has just done, but he can't bring himself to regret them at the moment.

“What did she actually want?” Samiel asks.

Jay hesitates. In spite of his desire not to think about this, it is quite clear that here, now, he cannot tell Samiel what Lachesis is asking for. Whether he agrees to her request or not, Samiel is going to report the fact that he at least entertained the idea of regicide to Deneira.

Slowly, his good mood starts to evaporate at the thought.

“To talk,” he says. “Again.”

“About what?”

“About an alliance, like I said before.”

“Are you still considering it?” Samiel's expression is slowly hardening at the turn the conversation has taken. He shifts, pulling away from Jay a little, even as he keeps a hold on his hand.

“At the moment, no,” Jay says. “But you've got to understand that I need to keep my options open. If it looks like it's the only way to get us out of here – ”

“No!” Samiel really does pull away now. "You can't agree to anything with these people. Why would you do that?”

“I've just said: to – ”

“You think if you agree to their demands they're going to let you walk out of here anyway? That they're going to let us both walk out of here?”

“No,” Jay snaps. “I am not that naïve. But I do think I'll be in a better position to barter for concessions, if nothing else.”

Samiel springs to his feet, spinning away to pace the room. “You think they'll really offer you concessions? You can't trust these people, you know you can't. Why would you risk the peace my Queen is offering you, to throw your lot in with them?”

“I never said I was – ”

“You just have! The very fact that you're still listening to their promises instead of telling them to jarak vash killiak tells me that you have every intention of playing both sides.”

Jay winces as his translators skip over the unfamiliar words, even as Samiel rounds on him. For one painful moment of clarity, Jay is fully aware that Samiel is taller, imposing in a way that Jay has never quite managed to be. His pulse jumps at the thought.

“Will you let me finish,” he says, biting down on his first impulse, which is to get to his feet and wrap his fingers around Samiel's throat in frustration and challenge. He is well aware how that would end up, he thinks dryly, and he is not willing to start down that road now.

Samiel bows, mockingly. “Of course, I forgot I was talking to you of all people. Please do tell me how you're only using this situation to gain leverage, and not because you're actually considering betrayal.”

“I am using it to gain leverage,” Jay admits, and watches the snarl that crosses Samiel's face. “But I don't think you quite understand what concessions I am trying to get from them.”

“Extra territory when the rebels finally kill the Queen?” Samiel spits scornfully, pacing. “Additional trade deals with half the Interior Circle? Tell me sweetheart, are you able to sleep at night if you pretend that talking to these murderers is all for the greater good?”

Jay watches him carefully, and picks the most honest and painful words he can find. “I am talking to them to try and save you,” he says, and watches as Samiel's pacing slams to a stop.

“What?”

“The rebellion is not going to let you go. They are going to keep you here and use you as leverage against the human delegation.”

“Why?” Samiel stares at him, blankly. “I'm of no use as a bargaining chip for the human delegation. I don't mean anything to them.”

“But you do to me,” Jay says quietly.

Samiel stills, slowly and utterly. He stares at Jay, bewildered, his rage slowly disappearing under a visible wave of confusion. “What?” he says helplessly.

Jay stares at him, bemused. “You're not an idiot, Samiel, you must have known this is what they would want to use you for. You're my weak link – the way they can threaten to keep me in line and make me agree to help them. That's what I'm trying to prevent.”

“But I'm not that,” Samiel says, and there is a painfully vast amount of certainty in his voice. “I'm not your weakness.”

“Meshala,” Jay reminds him.

“You don't believe that exists,” Samiel says. “You've said so. You haven't agreed to it and you don't want it.” His mouth twists as he watches Jay climb to his feet. “There's no bond,” he adds, “nothing to keep you with me. There's no reason for you to need to protect me apart from...” he waves a hand, vaguely, “...compulsion.”

“You're right,” Jay says, and watches the careful way Samiel conceals his hurt. He can feel his heart hammering in his chest as he moves across the room to Samiel; can feel resolution slowly straightening his spine, as he watches the slow defeated slump of Samiel's shoulders.

Here is the truth that has been building in him all day, and Jay is raw with the confession of it before the words have even left his mouth. Meshala is probably a compulsion, a biological need that is written into Siren genetic material, and he is unfortunate enough to have been compatible with it. With Samiel.

But.

But he also made his decision a long time ago, he realises, well before he knew about meshala.

The knowledge is a bitter pill to swallow, but there was only ever going to be one decision here – only ever had been, from the moment a self assured young man ignored all the politicking going on around them, and winked at him from across the hangar.

Well this is going to cause all sorts of problems, Jay thinks, as he reaches up a hand to thread his fingers through Samiel's curls.

“You're right,” he says again. “But I've picked my side, and it's yours.”

Chapter Text

There is a long pause.

“No,” Samiel says at last.

“I'm sorry, what?” Jay says. His fingers tighten in Samiel's hair a little, before he can help himself.

“You can't say that,” Samiel says. “That's not right; you're not on my side, you can't be.”

Jay sighs and lets go reluctantly. In spite of himself, he can't help but rub the pad of his thumb down the line of Samiel's jaw, as he withdraws his hand. Samiel leans into the touch a little.

“Why not?” he asks. “Why is it so hard to believe?”

Samiel stares at him, and there is something a little like tension, and a lot like pain, in his eyes. “We're on opposite sides of this whole mess, my master. You don't get to pick 'my side'. There is no 'my side'. There is only my Queen's side, or your Ambassador's side.”

“I think,” Jay says gently, “you'll find that's not true. There are all kinds of sides here, Samiel.” He drops his gaze a little, trailing careful fingers down the line of Samiel's neck, from the edge of his jaw to the hollow of his throat. “And I think we can be our own side, at least in this.”

“Jason,” Samiel says helplessly. He sways forwards a little, pressing into Jay's touch. “Sweetheart, that's not how this works.” His anger is banking, Jay can feel it, sinking underneath the weight of a strange kind of sadness.

“I think it could be,” Jay says, “if you'll let it.” He sighs. “At least trust me a little bit,” he adds. “If nothing else, I can promise you I'm trying desperately to fix this.”

“I think you're also enjoying this,” Samiel says carefully. “There is a part of you that really doesn't mind dealing with fates.” He makes a soft, surprised sound as Jay's fingers press a little more firmly into the dip between his collarbones, feeling the timbre of his voice, his pulse.

Jay considers this.

To a certain extent Samiel is... well, he's right. He does enjoy the feeling of negotiating – of succeeding. He feels helpless if he can't do something and this - this he can control. Lachesis is not a born diplomat, and Isen is a decidedly unhelpful and complicating factor for the rebellion's side of things. He is up against two people he knows he can outmanoeuvre, given a little time, and he can do some good. He can get them both out of here.

“You don't want them exploiting what you think is a weakness,” Samiel adds softly. “But it's not. I promise you, I'm not your weakness.”

And then there's that.

How to make him understand? Jay wonders. How to make Samiel see that, in all the ways that could possibly count, he is Jay's soft underbelly; the tender skin of his throat, that someone need only hold a knife to, to get him to comply? It's horrific; a terrifying vulnerability he doesn't want to admit even to himself, but it's there. And Samiel deserves to know.

“Listen,” he says slowly. “I need you to really listen, please.” He looks up, makes sure Samiel is watching him, and swallows against the tightness in his throat. He struggles to find words that will make Samiel believe; knows he has to make this count.

“You and I,” he says, “there's this...thing. Meshala, soul bonds, wrong place at the wrong time, whatever you want to call it. And that's...complicated. It's different. I don't know much about it, and I don't think you do either.

“But that's not what this is. Even if we didn't have that, even if we were two ordinary people who had met in all the stupid, normal ways, this would be the same.”

“That's not – ” Samiel begins, and Jay shushes him, because this is important, this is truth and it is painful in its intensity, and it is hard to think of all the things he doesn't want to, and has to.

“Did you know that when you smile,” he says, his heart hammering as Samiel stares at him, “the right side of your mouth curls up higher than the left?” He swallows hard, and knows that here, at last, these are the right words. “When you stand in sunlight, there is a deep gold in your hair, like Aurian metal. When you're tired, the line of your shoulders softens, just a little. When you look at me the way you do sometimes, I feel like the most powerful creature in the universe, and I don't know why.” He hesitates, chest hurting.

“And when you touch me, I feel like I could conquer worlds,” he says at last, “as long as I kept you with me.” He wets his lips, which have been made dry with his confession. “And I don't think that has anything to do with compulsion,” he says. “It is just you.”

“Don't say that,” Samiel says and his voice is barely there, a mere whisper against Jay's ears. He is trembling a little under Jay's fingers, a fine tremor shivering across his skin as he stares at Jay. “You can't say things like that, Jason, you can't.”

“In all the ways that matter here, you're my weakness,” Jay says quietly, and with a terrible certainty. He watches as Samiel flinches. “I'm sorry, but it's true.”

“This isn't –” Samiel says, and there is a slow-dawning wildness in his eyes now; an indefinable emotion that Jay can't quite recognise. “This doesn't – I'm not. This doesn't happen to me and I'm not. I'm not anything to anyone, and nothing at all like that.”

“You are,” Jay says, and he can't help it, he feels unrelenting in the face of Samiel's uncertainty. “You are, and you can, and that is the truth.” He laughs a little, in spite of himself. “What did you think was going to happen when you wouldn't take no for an answer?”

“Another no,” Samiel says at once, without hesitation. “Because even if there is meshala, you are never going to be mine completely.” He is watching Jay's every move, and Jay can't help feeling painfully exposed under the bright gold of his gaze. “We belong to other people first, and not to each other. I am not your first consideration.”

“Maybe we do belong to other people,” Jay says, “but that doesn't mean you're not also my concern. Do you not understand that? Do you not recognise that of all the ways I am vulnerable here, you are absolutely the one thing the rebellion can use to make sure I comply?”

Samiel sighs, and Jay watches as his shoulders slump. “You can walk away from this,” he says softly. “My master, there's nothing to stop you from leaving me here and not looking back.”

“Have you not listened to anything I've just said?” Jay asks, and he wants to be frustrated, but something about the way Samiel is staring at him holds him back.

“I have,” Samiel says, “and I am giving you a choice, here.”

“There is no choice,” Jay says, because this, too, is the truth. “Not for me.”

He hates this. The decision to be vulnerable, to lay bare what he is thinking to Samiel, is setting his teeth on edge. But there's a strange impulse filling him now, an almost suicidal determination to make Samiel see, to understand what he does to Jay simply by existing.

“Gellion Falls, on Mas-Hain,” Jay says abruptly, and watches recognition dawn on Samiel's face. “We went there, together. You looked up at the highest point, the rock, and said – ”

“I bet we could both jump off that,” Samiel says with him, softly. Then, “Yes, I remember.”

“Good,” Jay says, “because that was when I turned around and saw you. I'd been looking at the waterfalls all morning, and I turned to you, and you were looking at the sky, dreaming of flying, and I thought – I thought – ” He closes his eyes, unable to stand the way Samiel is watching him as he says this. “I thought 'there's someone who understands what it's like to fall'. And when I realised that, you stopped being a Siren. You were someone like me, and right then there were no sides.”

“Oh,” Samiel breathes out, and Jay grits his teeth at the soft, broken surprise in his voice. He keeps his eyes closed, barely startling at the brush of Samiel's fingertips over the corner of his eye, the cut of his cheekbone.

“Do you understand now?” Jay asks, instead of the thousand other things, crowding the back of his tongue. It is almost like a dam has burst, somewhere deep in his soul, and the myriad voiceless wants he has crushed ruthlessly until now are burning their way into his throat, ready to slip out at the slightest suggestion.

“The mess hall,” Samiel says by way of answer. “I was trying to make you eat gockle, pushing it into your face, and you grabbed my wrist and moved it away, and you were so gentle about it.” Jay opens his eyes to look at him, and is startled by the painful look of surprise on Samiel's face. “And that's when I knew I was yours, even if I didn't understand it yet.”

“Weakness,” Jay says quietly. “Do you see, now?” He watches, carefully, as Samiel actually stops to consider it this time.

“No,” Samiel says at last. “Not weakness, I think.” He tilts his head, examining Jay. His smile is small, but more genuine. “Strength, my master. I would burn the world down for you, so that has to count for something in this mess.”

“Shit,” Jay says. He drops his head, resting his forehead against Samiel's shoulder, and breathes deeply. “This is not how I thought this conversation would go.”

He feels Samiel's arms slide around him, hesitant and careful as he pulls him closer.

“Sides,” Samiel says. “Alright. Let's think about sides.”

*

There is a strange kind of truce in the hours that follow.

Jay is half humiliated and half elated with the unburdening of his soul, in a way he had not expected to be. Self-awareness comes with the unpleasantly raw realisation that, sometime in the future, he is very much going to have to face the truth that he now has to factor Samiel into any further negotiations with anyone, be it rebels or Queen.

Samiel's loyalty to Deneira is without question, though. The cynical part of his soul is telling Jay that, if faced with a choice between his Queen and his...something, Samiel is not likely to stand against Deneira. Which makes Jay's own position all the more difficult.

In spite of the confession, in spite of everything, Jay thinks wearily, ultimately there is still enough doubt. He has committed to this: stepped into the void and declared that he will stand with Samiel, here, at least.

Samiel has not said the same.

It feels so late now, it is probably early, and Jay still finds he cannot sleep. Over the course of the rest of the evening, Samiel has retreated to sit on the bed. He has watched Jay carefully, when he thinks he's not looking.

Jay, for his part, sits against the wall. He's so tired his bones ache, and he can't stop his mind from picking over everything that has happened today.

They have both not said a word in over an hour. Jay is just considering the merits of saying something, anything, to break the silence, when the door to their cell unlocks with a sharp click.

He scrambles to his feet and sees Samiel do the same. The lateness of the hour, the unexpected nature of the visit, has alarm crawling up Jay's spine, and he is unpleasantly and acutely aware of his own vulnerabilities, in a way he was not until this evening.

Isen Kallat steps into the room.

Jay scrutinises him. He doesn't look well. He is tired and drawn, as he had not been earlier in the day. His clothes are rumpled and his hair almost dishevelled. He is a far cry from the confident, angry Siren Jay had met in Maa-Tarek, his face pale and his expression hesitant.

“I needed to speak to you,” Isen says to Jay, when it becomes clear no one is going to ask him why he is here.

Jay smiles, thinly. “Oh?” he says. Carefully he takes two steps across the room, closer to Samiel, placing himself between the pair of them. He tries to wake himself – to shake off the cobwebs of the day and clear his mind, because this is a surprise, and not necessarily a welcome one.

“This afternoon,” Isen says. “This afternoon you said there's no excuse for 'just following orders'.” He swallows, hard. “Did you mean it?”

“Yes,” Jay says. Behind him, Samiel lets out a low growl as Isen steps into the room fully, letting the door fall almost shut.

“If you had received the orders on Mas-Hain,” Isen says. “Would you have obeyed them?”

Jay stiffens almost instinctively, and can feel the way his own expression tightens with displeasure as he stares at Isen. “No,” he says coldly. “That was the whole point of that little debate. I have never, and will never, just obey orders. Like I said: that's no excuse.”

“Well my brother died because someone didn't think like you,” Isen says. “And you promised you would find out who was responsible.”

Jay raises an eyebrow. “Astonishingly,” he says, “at present I am unable to keep that promise. I'm sure you can appreciate why.”

Isen breathes deeply, fingers fluttering nervously as his gaze darts between Jay and a point over Jay's shoulder, which is presumably Samiel. “Lachesis isn't going to let you go,” he says, and looks abruptly sick at his own confession. “She won't release you until she has your agreement to...” He hesitates, and looks at Samiel, “...until you have agreed to the terms she has offered. If you don't, she has orders to dispose of you.”

Jay closes his eyes, despairing a little at the sheer idiocy of Isen saying that here, now. Behind him, Samiel lets out a sound of pure rage.

What?” he asks, voice dangerously soft. “What did you say?”

Isen opens his mouth and hesitates. “Lachesis,” he says at last. “Lachesis wants Wing Commander Lane to...”

“You've just said she would 'dispose of him',” Samiel says, and the low warning of thunder in his voice crashes through Jay's bones, shuddering to the core of him. He has not, he realises, ever heard a Siren sound quite like this before. Even through the translators, even muted by electronics, there is a dangerous, vibrant pitch to Samiel's rage.

“I think...” Isen begins uncertainly, “that if Wing Commander Lane would just bend a little, on this – ”

“No,” Samiel says. He stalks forward, pushing in front of Jay, until he is almost nose to nose with Isen. “No, you don't get to think that you minor, irritating creature. You've had him bend on his knees once before, and you weren't worthy then. You certainly aren't now.”

“Samiel,” Jay says, “enough.”

Even as Isen flinches away, a look of surprise on his face, Samiel reaches out. There is something almost casual in the way he grips Isen's throat; a lazy kind of malice to his movements. Isen isn't fast enough to evade him.

“No, my master” Samiel says, not looking at Jay. “Not nearly enough.” His fingers tighten, slowly. “He made you beg for your own life,” he says, and his expression is dark, terrible. “And then he shot you and brought you here. I think this is exactly what he deserves.”

Isen wheezes, scrabbling with frantic hands at the grip crushing his windpipe. His legs flail, kicking out blindly as though he can stop Samiel. This was clearly not the reaction he had anticipated when he had entered the room, Jay realises, watching him. Isen had probably expected meekness, compliance. Perhaps he had been lulled by the false sense of security that Jay's polite conversation has given the impression of, up until now.

As with most people, he has therefore not anticipated Samiel.

“Stop,” Isen gasps out, choking. “Tell him to – ” His voice sputters to a halt in an unpleasant gurgle, as Samiel leans closer, pressing harder, driving Isen's body back against the wall with the full weight of his own.

For the first time in a very long while, Jay is almost inclined to show no mercy. Diplomacy, he thinks, only gets you so far, and Isen has been of no help whatsoever. He has stood by whilst the decision was made to kill Jay, to kill Samiel, and he has only come now because there is something he wants. Killing him would not be an inconvenience, and for a moment the wicked part of Jay, that simply does not care enough to stop Samiel, overrules his better half.

“Well sweetheart,” Samiel says to Jay, and his expression is savage, “I did say you should let me kill him.”

Jay sighs. “Put him down,” he relents. “Let's not get off on the wrong foot with everyone, by murdering someone who probably doesn't deserve it.”

“I think he does deserve it,” Samiel says. He flicks a glance towards Jay, ignoring Isen who is slowly turning a very interesting colour. His flailing, Jay notes with some interest, is starting to become noticeably weaker.

“Samiel.”

They stare at one another for a moment. Samiel's expression is bright: glittering and dangerously brilliant with anger. It is as though, Jay realises, for the first time in a while Samiel has something to direct his anger towards; something to fight against.

There is almost something slightly intoxicating at the sight of him like this. The blunt, vicious edges of him, that sometimes blur towards sweetness, are here honed into something coiled and predatory. He is watching Jay, intent, even as he absently uses his free hand to bat away Isen's attempt to rake his nails down his face.

“Put him down,” Jay repeats, not dropping his gaze, and watches Samiel's lips part in silent protest. “I don't think it's entirely fair to kill a man just for repeating what he's heard.”

“Isn't it?” Samiel tilts his head and oh, the currents of his voice are shifting, sliding towards something dark and sweet as he continues to watch Jay. “I think it's entirely appropriate my darling.”

“No,” Jay says firmly.

Samiel smiles and it is a sharp, wicked thing that makes Jay's breath catch in his throat. Predator, his instincts shriek, even as he takes a half step forwards, because his soul is singing something altogether different. A shiver runs the length of his spine, and he can't quite work out if it's fear, or something different; a deep, primal need to approve of what this man, this creature is doing for him.

Mine, he almost wants to say, and has to stop himself from reaching out, to touch Samiel, to show his appreciation. Samiel is studying him in return, and the look in his eyes promises blood and fire, and something infinitely more satisfying than either of those things.

“Enough,” Jay says, instead of anything else, and this time Samiel complies.

Isen drops to the floor, and the sound he makes as he tries to choke in air is wet, animalistic. Samiel observes him, and the lines of his face are still cruel, rigid with anger even as he steps back, placing himself between Isen and Jay.

“I would count your blessings,” he says softly, to the man gasping on the floor. “If my master were not here, you would certainly be dead.”

“Samiel,” Jay warns, and is almost pleasantly surprised when Samiel turns back to him.

“You should have let me kill him,” he says. “I won't let him threaten you again, do you understand?”

“And I am neither helpless nor incompetent,” Jay says, “and perfectly capable of dealing with him myself.” He watches the way Samiel moves, with the careful precision of a man fully aware of the damage is capable of doing. He steps into Jay's space.

“You should still let me,” he murmurs, and his voice is low, persuasive. “It wouldn't take much; he's soft, useless, and then he wouldn't be a danger to you any longer.”

“He's not a danger to me now,” Jay says, and can't help the way he moves forwards just a little, pressing into the sway of Samiel's movements as he stands close to him.

“Still,” Samiel says, and even with the translators working, Jay can pick out the beautiful cacophony of anger, evident in the rolling currents of his voice.

“You're insane,” Isen rasps from the floor.

Jay steps around Samiel, ignoring his hiss of displeasure. He observes Isen dispassionately, watching as he rolls carefully to his knees, his breathing still ragged and terrible as he stares at Samiel and Jay.

“He certainly isn't,” Jay says. “And I would strongly suggest that in the interests of everyone staying calm, you refrain from insulting him again.”

“I wasn't talking about him,” Isen spits. “You think you can control a creature like that, Lane? You think because he's listening to you now, he's going to listen to you later? He's all instinct; a mindless beast who only wants one thing from you.” His expression twists, disgusted. “Meshala. We've all heard about you two around here. What does it say about you, I wonder, that you're drawn to something like that?”

Jay can't help himself; he crosses the distance between then in two strides and crouches down. Grabbing a handful of Isen's hair, he pulls his head back. He can feel the smile on his face, knows it's unpleasant, and finds himself unable to care.

“It says you should be very careful about what nonsense you go spouting without thinking,” he says, and feels, more than hears, the low sound of Samiel's approval behind him. “Let's make something clear: I don't control him, I certainly don't want to control him, and I think you should consider your next words very carefully.”

Isen stares at him, wide-eyed. His breath is still rasping in his throat, even as he licks his lips nervously. “I told you in Maa-Tarek to control your pet Severne,” he says at last. “I got it wrong, didn't I? You don't control him. He controls you.”

Disgusted, Jay releases him and stands. “This is pointless,” he says. “You clearly came here with the intention of trying to find out more about your brother, and all you've managed to do instead is insult both of us.”

“I did want your help,” Isen says. “And look where that's got me.”

“Nowhere you haven't put yourself,” Jay says. He pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to calm down. “Look, I promised you I would help find whoever was responsible for Palek's death. I don't intend to renege on that, despite your appalling manners.”

Isen climbs to his feet, swaying a little. “The information Lachesis gave you,” he says. “She wouldn't let me see it. Would that have something about my brother's killer on there?”

“Ah,” Jay says. “The data chip, I see. That's what you're actually after.”

“Data chip?” Samiel says.

“Information on Mas-Hain,” Jay says, and smiles a little at the sound of interest Samiel makes. “Apparently Lachesis discovered the human delegation may have passed on orders to kill the Siren representatives.”

“Really,” Samiel says flatly. “How shocking.” Jay glances at him, watching as he bares his teeth at Isen. “And I suppose they were going to use this information to buy your agreement?”

“For surprise tactics, I believe,” Jay says.

“Oh.” Samiel considers this for a moment. “How unfortunate,” he says at last.

“You can mock all you like,” Isen says, then flinches at the look Samiel levels at him. “That information cost lives to get.”

“And I'm sorry for that, but it wasn't my decision,” Jay says bluntly. He pauses, then, thinking about information.

The truth of the matter is that his intention in coming here was to try and gain information, and to some extent this has been successful. He at least has something to show Lault; to maybe show Deneira. But if what Isen is saying is true - if Lachesis is not interested in releasing him if he doesn't comply - then she would also never release Samiel.

So, Jay realises, grimly following the thought to its logical conclusion, this may be their only chance to escape.

Another choice, then: further information, or Samiel.

Sides, he reminds himself, and tries to choose his next words carefully. “I haven't looked at the data chip,” he says. “Until I can get to a terminal, I won't be able to tell you what information is on there about your brother, if anything.”

Isen glances nervously at Samiel, who is watching him with a steady, unblinking gaze. “Could I borrow the data chip, then?” he asks, and swallows at the contemptuous noise Samiel lets out.

“He's very foolish,” Samiel says, low in Jay's ear as he moves closer behind him, and Jay can't help sinking back just a little against him. The warmth of Samiel's breath against his skin is a strange kind of pleasure, and he grits his teeth against the enjoyment of it.

Not now, he thinks, and shakes the feeling off as best he can.

“I'm not giving you the data chip,” he says instead to Isen. “I don't know that I'd ever see it again, and I don't trust you not to hand it straight back to Lachesis.” He shrugs, and makes a show of pondering his next words. “Of course, you could always ask several of your friends to come in here and help relieve me of it. But I think if you were able to do that, you already would have.”

“Oh,” Samiel says, and there is a sweet note of delighted comprehension in his voice, that has Jay smiling in spite of himself. “They don't trust him, do they?” He crowds closer still against Jay's back, hooking his chin over his shoulder until Jay can feel the rumble of his voice against his spine, where they are pressed together. “How sad,” he adds.

There is a certain kind of terrible playfulness to Samiel's voice, Jay realises, and understanding dawns in a sudden rush of delight. The knowledge that Samiel is helping him, is spelling out to Isen the precariousness of his situation, is a special kind of pleasure. Jay can't help himself; he reaches back blindly, linking his fingers together with Samiel's. He feels the low hum of Samiel's pleasure against his jaw as he does, the sound vibrating through his body.

Isen stares at the pair of them in fascinated disgust.

“I do think you're right,” Jay says to Samiel.

“You don't know that,” Isen says, even as he can't seem to take his eyes off the pair of them. He is looking more unwell by the second.

“I do,” Jay says pleasantly. “So, let's think about this, shall we? You want the data chip; I have it. You don't have the means of taking it from me, and I am quite willing to bargain. So, what do you have to offer?”

“Nothing,” Isen says. “Nothing, but you gave your word.” His expression is grim; wild now in its horror as he looks at Jay. “You said you'd help and this is how you can.”

“I did say I'd help,” Jay admits, “but the only way to find out the truth – really find out the truth - is to let me investigate. I could do that now where I couldn't before, because I have more information. Let me take that data chip and run a proper analysis of it, and I can see what there is.”

“I could take you to a terminal,” Isen says, desperately. “There are several near here.”

“He's really not getting it, is he?” Samiel says, and the contempt in his voice is obvious. “I think you're going to have to spell it out for him, my master.”

Isen blanches. “No,” he says, holding up a hand as if to ward off Jay's next words. And there is the understanding Jay has been waiting for.H smiles a little at the victory of it. “You can't ask me to do that.”

“Set us free,” Jay says with finality, and watches as what little colour Isen had left drains away as he sags, as though punched. “Help us get out of here, and any information I uncover is yours.”

“And what?” Isen says, and his voice is a sharp, desperate rasp. “You'll promise, just like last time?”

“Yes.”

Isen laughs, and the sound is bitter. “And what does a promise mean, coming from someone like you?” His gaze flicks to Samiel and back again. “From someone like him?”

“My promise means exactly what it always has,” Jay says, squeezing Samiel's hand in warning as he feels him tense. “You need to ask yourself this: is finding out who killed your brother worth betraying your cause for?”

It's a gamble. A big one. But Jay knows that, in his experience, people are ultimately selfish. Isen may have committed himself to the rebellion's cause – and why, Jay doesn't know – but his desire, his need to find out what happened to Palek is something he has been carrying with him since well before their meeting in Maa-Tarek.

“How do I know you weren't in on it after all?” Isen asks. “You're a human; the humans had orders to kill us.”

“He wasn't,” Samiel says, and the dark undercurrents of his voice are creeping back into his tone, even as Jay listens to him. “If anyone would know, I would.”

“And why should I trust you?” Isen spits.

Jay sighs, and waits for the inevitable fall out, because Isen Kallat really doesn't seem to have learnt his lesson.

“You should trust me,” Samiel says, “because when I thought he had betrayed me, I ran my salzon through his flesh.” The fingertips of his free hand drag slowly across the line of Jay's hip, his side, as though for emphasis. “We may be on opposite sides in this civil war, you useless malkia, but when I say he didn't know about the orders on Mas-Hain, he didn't know.”

Isen gapes. “He stabbed you?” he says to Jay.

“That's what you got from that speech?” Jay says dryly. “Really?”

“He stabbed you?”

“Yes.”

“So you can factor that into your decision,” Samiel says dangerously. “When you consider your options.”

“I have no guarantees from you,” Isen says to both of them, and really, Jay thinks in exasperation, it's almost like he's putting obstacles in his own way now, trying to talk himself out of it. “How do I have anything but your promise?”

“My commlink,” Jay says. “Remember? I gave you the codes.” He ignores Samiel's low sound of disapproval and keeps his eyes on Isen. “Consider this another way,” he says, and prays Samiel won't tear Isen's throat out for his next words, “I've given you a way to contact me. That's a powerful thing, isn't it? You have leverage there, because if the Court ever found out I was in contact with members of the rebellion, don't you think it would destroy any trust there might be towards me?”

He watches as Isen considers this, and carefully doesn't mention that if he ends up publicly disgraced, then the rebellion's main hope of forming an alliance with the human delegation is likely blown out of the water as well. He rather thinks that any chance of peace talks might also be considered null and void if that happens.

“How do I know he won't tell the Queen?” Isen asks at last. He glares at Samiel. “All he would have to do is open his mouth and she'd know.”

“I won't,” Samiel says, before Jay can open his mouth to avoid answering.

The truth in his voice is like a punch to Jay's chest, slamming hard in the soft, tender hollows of his ribcage. He hasn't stopped to considered this; hasn't even thought to put Samiel's unquestioning loyalty to the test by asking, and he's said... he's said...

“What?” Jay whispers.

“I won't,” Samiel repeats steadily. He turns his head a little, lips brushing the thin, vulnerable skin at Jay's temple. “You think I would risk you like that?”

This afternoon, Jay thinks dizzily, he had known Samiel had not picked a side. Had worried over it and flinched from the way he had shown his own vulnerabilities. Trust is slow to come – they are not there yet, and the proof will be in the doing – but this is something closer, something beyond where they were yesterday, or even this morning.

“Swear it,” Isen says, over the roar in Jay's head.

“On my blood and my line,” Samiel says, and doesn't move away from Jay at all.

“No,” Isen says. “Everyone knows you're of no kin, no blood. Swear it on something that matters.” He looks at Jay. “Swear it on him.”

“I won't,” Samiel says. “You think I want to tempt the Fates like that?”

“I think he's the only thing that matters to you,” Isen says, and Jay would almost mistake him for calm, were it not for the way his breathing is too shallow and fast. “I think that in whatever stunted, twisted ways you are capable of valuing him, that you do. So, swear.”

“Do it,” Jay says quietly, his pulse still thundering at the implications of all this. He feels, more than hears, the small agitated sigh Samiel gives.

“Jason...”

“It's alright.”

“I swear,” Samiel says abruptly.

Jay watches as Isen relaxes a little, some of the desperation leeching away from his posture, from his eyes.

“You are bound to that,” he says.

Samiel's grip on Jay's hand tightens. “I know,” he says, and sounds distinctly unhappy about it.

“Alright,” says Jay, and clears his throat as his voice comes out softer than he had expected. “Now that's sorted, how are you going to help us get out of here?”

*

“I don't like this,” Samiel says, some half an hour later. Jay watches as his fingers flex, his wrists tugging almost absently against the hold of the cuffs on him. “If you so much as open your mouth in front of someone, they'll know you're not one of us.”

“I know,” Jay says quietly. He tugs the hood of the robe up further to hide his eyes, and tries hard not to think of all the ways this could go wrong.

Ahead of them Isen is leading the way, his shoulders tense. He had, to Jay's surprise, proved surprisingly decisive after the agreement had been struck. He had left them briefly, and returned carrying Samiel's equipment and Jay's pistol. How he'd got both, he didn't say.

Despite the return of Samiel's robes and salzon, in the interests of getting both of them out of the base it had been determined that Samiel was less identifiable than Jay, and more likely to be escorted somewhere more secure. Unwillingly, he had agreed to be cuffed and led from the room. Jay had taken his robes and weapon.

Samiel's salzon hangs awkwardly now at Jay's hip, the hilt of it digging into his side as they walk. The blade is a little too long for him, built for Samiel's height and long, lean lines. The pistol, hidden beneath robes on the other hip, is a far more comforting weight.

“I'd love to know where he's leading us,” Samiel says, and his voice is no more than soft hiss, meant for Jay alone as they follow Isen.

“Out, I hope.”

“Mm.”

It is astonishing, Jay thinks with a touch of exasperation, how much dubiousness Samiel manages to pack into one small syllable.

“There's a guard stationed two corridors over,” Isen says, half turning to look at them. “We need to get past him, so let me do the talking.”

“What's going to happen to you when they realise you've helped us?” Jay asks, as they turn into the first new corridor he's seen.

“I don't know,” Isen says. There is a touch of fear in his voice, and Jay regrets bringing the subject up.

“You could always come with us?”

“No he couldn't,” Samiel growls.

“Thank you,” Isen says, “but no. Let me worry about that. Just...if – when – I get back in touch, make sure you answer?” He sounds helpless, a little lost, and if Jay were a better man he'd feel sorry for him. But he can't afford that, not now. Not with so much at stake.

“Alright,” Isen says as they turn into the last corridor, “quiet now.”

The corridor is the same uniform grey as every other one Jay has seen so far. If nothing else, he has to at least credit the rebels for the completely unidentifiable way they have decorated their base. There are no distinguishing features that he can see; no marks of any kind. Several doors lead off of the corridor they're in, and even those are an industrious steel, not unlike the door to his and Samiel's cell.

The guard stationed at one such door looks bored.

“Morning,” Isen says, and were Jay not listening so closely, he would never have heard the soft note of apprehension in Isen's voice. “Prisoner transfer.”

“I wasn't notified,” the guard says, and Jay watches as Isen shrugs.

“Not my fault,” he says. “I just do what I'm told.”

As the guard scans their little group Jay ducks his head, hiding his eyes. He waits for one, two, breathless heartbeats, and can feel the anxious flutter of nerves in the pit of his stomach as the silence stretches out.

“This Tremark?” the guard asks at last.

“Yes.”

“I heard Lachesis wanted him kept with the human.”

“Like I said: I just do what I'm told. Maybe she's changed her mind.”

“Maybe.” The guard sounds a little dubious.

Jay can feel his tension rising, and tries not to stiffen too visibly. If the guard suspects something, calls out, he has no idea how far it is to the nearest exit, and he cannot rely on Isen not panicking and abandoning them. Samiel is hampered by the cuffs, and Jay is hampered by the unfamiliar robes and hood.

“Alright,” the guard says, just as Jay is about to crawl out of his skin. “Take him through.”

“Thank you.”

There is the sound of Isen clapping the guard on the shoulder, and the blessed relief of a lock clicking open.

They move forwards as one slightly ungainly unit, and Jay keeps his gaze fixed on Samiel's heels and doesn't dare look up as they file through the open door.

They are nearly there – Jay can hear the door beginning to swing closed – when footsteps echo in the corridor behind them.

“Just a moment,” Lachesis says. “Where do you think you're going?”

Chapter Text

The words have barely left Lachesis' mouth when Samiel lunges, throwing himself forwards and looping his arm around Isen's neck as he does. He turns in one fluid movement, using Isen as a shield, a forearm held dangerously across his throat.

Jay sees all of this happen in the blink of an eye, and shoves himself at the door the guard has started to push open again. He slams his full weight into it, and hears the distant, satisfying, crunch of someone not quite moving their foot in time.

“Oh no,” Isen wheezes around the steady pressure of Samiel's arm. “Oh no, oh no.”

Jay wrestles with the door and shoves it again, as something hits the other side. Dimly he can hear Lachesis bellowing orders.

“There,” Samiel says, jerking his head at a box on the wall. “The door release.”

Jay hauls out Samiel's salzon, reverses the grip and – over Samiel's indignant shout – smashes the hilt into the control panel several times. There is a shower of sparks and an ominous crackle that fizzles into nothing.

For a moment they all stare at the small, smoking crater Jay has left in the wall.

“I can't believe you did that,” Samiel says at last. “I actually can't believe – ”

“Not now!” Isen protests. “Lachesis knows, she's coming. You need to move.”

“Move where?” Jay asks. “Where's the nearest exit?”

“It's not – ” Isen swallows, tugs futilely at Samiel's arm and then tries again. “It's not the nearest exit you want, it's the garage. You're going to need transport.”

“Show us,” Jay says. “Now.”

Samiel lets Isen go abruptly, who staggers for a moment then rights himself.

He presses a shaking hand briefly to his throat and swallows. “It's this way,” he says.

The pace Isen sets is fast – fast enough that Jay has to scramble to catch up, pushing the hood of Samiel's robes back impatiently so he can see where he's going. Corridors blur into one another, and they have just turned into the third one when there is a sudden screech of alarms.

“Move faster!” Isen shouts over the sudden noise, and breaks into a run.

Samiel lunges after him and Jay chases the pair of them down, as they skid into another turn and Isen thumps an access code into a nearby keypad.

“I don't like this,” Jay says as they scramble through the door. “Where are the guards? Why is no one following us yet?”

“You're complaining we aren't being chased?” Isen asks over his shoulder, incredulous. “Isn't that a good thing? They don't know where we are yet.”

“Cameras,” Samiel points out as they hurtle down another corridor. “Automated tracking systems, your fellow rebels – are none of these things suddenly interested in stopping us? Jason's right: I don't like this either.”

“We're not that sophisticated,” Isen protests, panting.

“Well you must be a little; we never saw the same guard twice!” Jay says.

Whatever Isen says in response is lost as they pass an abandoned guard post. The sound of the alarms cuts through the air, half deafening Jay as he trips on the hem of the robes. He swears as the material tangles around his legs, and realises he is still clutching Samiel's salzon.

“Here,” he bellows as they slam through another set of doors. “Samiel, take this.”

Samiel half turns, still running, and reaches to snatch the salzon out of Jay's hands. He is grinning, and Jay can feel the answering smile on his own face.

“Down here,” Isen gasps. “Down here, we can reach the outer courtyard. There's flightbikes stored at the edge of the compound.”

“Then we've got a problem,” Jay says, “because if there's more than one, what's to stop them – ”

“Following us,” Samiel finishes. “Yes, good point.”

There is still no sound of pursuit behind them, and the wail of sirens is becoming more distant. The back of Jay's neck prickles with unease, even as they thunder to a halt. Isen keys in the last access code with shaking fingers.

“I really, really don't like this,” Samiel murmurs.

“There!” Isen says, just as the door slides open.

They burst out into the courtyard. The cool of the night air is like a sharp slap against Jay's skin. The scream of the alarms cuts off abruptly, muffled as the door drops shut behind them, and for one dizzying moment the darkness is utterly still, except for the sound of all three of them gasping for air.

And then the lights come on.

Jay staggers back, half dazed, and feels Samiel grab his arm and tug, hard. He lets himself be pulled, stumbling once as Samiel scrambles to get them both to cover. Jay blinks hard, to try and dispel the bright flashes of light bursting in front of his eyes.

“Open fire,” Lachesis says coolly, from somewhere in front of them.

The unmistakable rattle of bullets sears into Jay's brain, and he and Samiel fling themselves down behind a row of flightbikes just in time.

“Keep low,” Samiel says, close to his ear. “Don't move.”

Jay blinks again, and finds he can actually see more than he could thirty seconds ago. He growls, low, as another round of bullets rattles off of the bikes in front of them.

“Why are they shooting?” Isen shouts. He has made it to cover with them, Jay realises.

“They are shooting,” Samiel says unpleasantly, “because they are trying to kill us. Or did you fail to notice that?”

“But why?”

“I imagine they don't look too fondly on a meddling human, a Severne and a traitor.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jay says. “I am in no way, shape or form a meddling human.”

“Liar,” Samiel says, and there is something fond in his voice.

Jay grins at him, and hears Isen let out a low sob from somewhere to Samiel's left.

“Stop enjoying this,” he moans. “Why are you both enjoying this when they are trying to kill us?”

“Well now,” Jay says, and then has to duck slightly as a bullet pings off the wall behind him, “I think to be fair they're apparently more interested in killing us than you.” He pauses for a moment, considering. “In fact...” He glances at Samiel, who looks over his shoulder at Isen, then back at Jay.

“Oh,” he says, “hostage?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“What?” Isen bellows, sitting bolt upright.

“Be quiet,” Jay says, “and stay down. Do you want to get shot in the head?” As if to emphasise his point, another shower of bullets ricochets off the flightbikes.

“We need to wait for a break,” Samiel says. “If Lachesis feels so inclined.” He tilts his head, considering. “Willing to let me try?”

“More believable than me?” Jay asks.

“Not particularly, but they'll more likely believe me capable of it.”

“I'm not sure whether to feel insulted or not,” Jay says.

The look Samiel gives him is definitely appreciative. “Don't be,” he says. “I rather like the idea of you as the innocent.”

“A false assumption if ever there was one,” Jay says. “Innocence is hardly my forte.”

Samiel leans forwards, a little. “Tell me more,” he says, and there is a low, rich purr to his words.

“Really?” Isen hisses. “You really want to do this now?”

“He has a point,” Jay says, and doesn't miss the wistfulness that flickers across Samiel's expression for a moment; there and gone before it even really registers. “Maybe we should shelve this for now.”

“Thank you,” Isen says, then yelps as Samiel turns and grabs a fistful of his robes.

“You will do exactly what I tell you to,” Samiel says, “and you may get to walk out of here alive. Understand? Follow my lead. Try to escape in any way, and I will feed you to them like so much trigen meat.”

“Right,” Isen says. “And, er, what exactly are you planning on?”

“This,” Samiel says, and hauls Isen upright directly in front of him.

“Hold fire!” Lachesis bellows.

The ringing silence that follows her ceasefire is painful, drumming on Jay's ears nearly a much as the bullets did. He crouches, tense, and finds himself biting his lip painfully hard.

There is a cold, calculating part of him that is working out how, if this fails, Isen will get shot first. Samiel is using him as a shield, which means he is relying on the fact the bullets won't pass straight through Isen and into him. Jay should have enough time to pull Samiel back down.

Because if he doesn't.

If he...

The reality of it is not worth thinking about, and he pushes the thought firmly to one side. Fear is something he is familiar with. The fear of losing someone is not. Right now, he reasons, he cannot allow that fear to rule him.

“Severne Tremark,” Lachesis says, and where before she has never been particularly friendly, now her voice is like ice. Her tone shivers down Jay's spine, laden with the absolute promise of violence the moment Samiel shows any kind of weakness.

“Lachesis,” Samiel says flatly.

From his position on the floor, Jay squints up at Samiel, outlined behind Isen against the bright flood of lights. His hair is a deep halo, picked out with threads of gold. He has one arm holding the blade of his salzon steady at Isen's throat.

Isen, for his part, is utterly still, although Jay can see the rapid rise and fall of his chest and the way he is staring at the sky, as though unable to look across the divide at his former friends.

“What do you want?” Lachesis is saying.

“Freedom,” Samiel says, and there is scorn in his voice. “I would have thought that clear enough.”

“And does Wing Commander Lane agree with you?”

“I think that's somewhat irrelevant,” Samiel says coolly. “Whether he wants to leave or not, he's coming.”

Jay half smiles at that, and privately awards Samiel a point against Lachesis. Clever man, he wants to say. You clever, clever thing. Cast enough doubt to confuse the issue; don't let Lachesis believe I'm coming willingly and then you've got two hostages, and one is far more valuable than the other.

“You won't harm him,” Lachesis says dismissively, “meshala will see to that.”

“Isen,” Samiel says, with pleasant menace, “why don't you tell Lachesis what I told you about Mas-Hain?”

Jay watches as Isen swallows nervously. “He stabbed him,” he croaks out, quietly.

“Louder, if you please,” Samiel says, and presses the razor edge of the salzon deeper into the soft, vulnerable skin of Isen's throat.

“Severne Tremark stabbed Wing Commander Lane,” Isen repeats, louder.

There is a moment of silence. Jay wishes he could see the look on Lachesis' face, because the lengthening pause is expressive, even in itself.

“You stabbed him,” Lachesis repeats, flatly. “You took your blade up against your own soul and ran him through?”

“It's true,” Isen says desperately, when Samiel doesn't answer. “Wing Commander Lane confirmed it.”

“Well perhaps Wing Commander Lane could tell us now?”

Jay raises an eyebrow at the expression he can see on Samiel's face. Apparently the question does not win Lachesis any goodwill.

“Wing Commander Lane is staying exactly where he is,” Samiel says. “But thank you for that suggestion.”

Cautiously, Jay begins to look around. From where he is crouched behind the flightbikes, his back is to a high compound wall. The exit is, presumably, somewhere behind Lachesis. At present it is the two of them against however many men Lachesis currently has surrounding them, and Jay is not holding out much hope that they will be allowed to leave quietly.

“I'm not letting you walk out of here,” Lachesis says, as though confirming his thoughts. “You'll run straight back to your Queen and tell her everything you know. You think we're stupid, Tremark? You think I honestly believe you'd really risk Wing Commander Lane? Give up now, and I swear he will not be harmed.”

There is a fuel tank, Jay realises, as he half listens to their conversation. It's attached to the end of the flightbike chain, and the line runs the length of their hideout. How it hasn't been hit with the amount of bullets shot at them is something of a mystery. But...

“Let us walk out of here,” Samiel says, “and I will not kill Isen Kallat where he stands.”

“Kill him,” Lachesis says dismissively, and Jay hears the little sob of a breath Isen lets out at that. “He's nothing to us – why should we care what happens to a traitor?”

“Not a traitor,” Samiel says, “just someone stupid enough to want answers. He gave us all the opening we needed. When I threatened to kill him, he had no choice but to help us.”

Carefully Jay begins to edge along the line of flightbikes, following the fuel line. He ignores the quick glance Samiel shoots at him. If he can disconnect the last bike, he thinks, without alerting Lachesis to what he is doing, there might be a chance to trigger the fuel line. It'll give them a small – very small – window in which to get onto the last flightbike. If they can do that, they might have a chance of escape without pursuit.

“Keep talking,” he mouths at Samiel, who stares at him, impassive, for a brief moment, then looks away.

“What kind of an example does it set,” Samiel says, “when you won't even help your own man? You'd rather I kill him because he may be a traitor, than try to save him and ask him what happened.” His voice is rich with contempt. “So much for the fabled fairness of the rebellion. You're nothing more than another dictatorship, waiting to rise.”

There is a murmur, audible even to Jay, as Lachesis' men consider this.

“Well you'd know all about that, Tremark,” Lachesis says over the noise, and the pure anger in her voice makes Jay smile to himself. Samiel's barb has clearly hit home. “Your Queen is nothing but a tyrant.”

“Better an honest tyrant than a hypocritical murderer,” Samiel snaps.

“Is that what you tell yourself?” Lachesis says.

Jay stills at her tone. There is something not right; something she is holding over them, and the vindictive viciousness in her voice is ringing through loud and clear.

What have I missed? he wonders, even as his fingers begin to fumble frantically with the lock release for the flightbike. What else does she know?

“Well,” Lachesis says, and there is a certain relish in her voice, “I did always wonder how you could stomach serving the woman who murdered your mother. Now I know.”

And there it is, Jay thinks, numb with shock. That is Lachesis' move – the one thing she has kept in reserve for precisely something like this. Desperately, Jay yanks the last of the chains on the bike free, and prays there are none around the front.

“What did you say?” Samiel asks, and his voice is hoarse with shock and anger.

Glancing up briefly as he crawls his way back down the line of bikes, Jay sees Samiel's fingers go slack around the hilt of his salzon. He looks furious, cornered, and Jay swears softly under his breath.

“You heard me,” Lachesis says. “She murdered your mother and turned you into her good, obedient little slave. You want to talk about tyrants, Tremark? Talk about the woman who killed your family.”

“You're lying,” Samiel says. “The Queen's already told me about the rumours surrounding my mother's death, and how people blamed her for it. It's not true.” There is a rage, terrible and deep in his voice, and under it all a fine thread of panic; the first sign of fracturing.

They can't do this now, Jay realises. If Samiel hesitates – if he shows weakness – they're dead. In his chest, Jay's heart is a dreadful, painful thing. Whether Lachesis speaks the truth or not, it hardly matters. He has an overwhelming desire, in a way he finds himself experiencing more and more, to go to Samiel; to hold him and soothe his hurt. Tender affection and a desperate need to reassure curdle against one another, and he swallows hard, relentlessly shoving the emotion to one side.

“Samiel,” he says instead, and watches Samiel look at him, gaze lost and cold. “You need to get down now.”

Samiel stares at him.

“Catta,” Lachesis says, and her voice cuts like a whip across the space between them. Jay can't help himself: he flinches along with Samiel.

If Lachesis knows about his family; if she threatens them in any way...

But she is talking to Samiel, Jay realises with slow-dawning horror. She is talking to Samiel and he is listening, looking back at her, his face a terrible, shadowed thing in the bright lights of the compound.

“Samiel,” Jay says again, “get down.”

“You were five.” Lachesis says. “I doubt you would have remembered much. She killed them, your Queen: your mother and her partner. She plucked you from a burning house and took you away.” There is something almost soothing about the way she is speaking now; a slow, insidious persuasion to her voice. Jay scrabbles up onto his knees and tries to peer over the top of the flightbikes, to see what she is doing.

“I don't...” Samiel says, and his grip is so loose that Isen actually moves away from him. “I don't remember.”

“Of course not,” Lachesis says. “You were five. Why would you?”

There is something familiar about what she is describing - something Jay can't quite put his finger on. What Lachesis is saying has a strange surrealism to it, and Jay struggles with a half-remembrance, because there's a realisation sitting just out of reach, and he needs to know.

But even as he wracks his brains, the thought is subsumed under a new, worse realisation.

It had never mattered if they tried to escape, Jay realises with dawning horror. For all his words, his negotiating, Lachesis has always kept this back. Whatever diplomacy Jay can wield, it is going to be powerless in the face of this. One way or another, Samiel was never meant to leave this compound. If she can't kill him with bullets, Lachesis is going to destroy him with words.

And Jay is sitting here, watching.

The thought is a slap to the face, and it jerks him out of his daze.

If Samiel can't focus right now; if he is deaf to anything but Lachesis trying to strip him of his identity, his self, then Jay is going to have to act.

He flings himself back down the far end of the bike rack and draws his pistol. He sends a brief, fervent prayer of thanks to Hird for her paranoia, and aims carefully.

“Isen,” he says, and sees Isen look at him out of the corner of his eye. “Get down.”

He pulls the trigger.

The fuel tank explodes, just as Isen throws himself to the floor. He does it with enough force that Samiel is knocked off balance.

“Move,” Jay roars over the surprised shouts of the rebels.

He throws himself at the last flightbike, fingers slipping desperately across the handlebars for a moment before he can grip them, tight. With all his strength he heaves, tearing the bike loose from its mooring.

The weight of it nearly overbalances him, but somehow Samiel is there, grabbing the other side of the bike and steadying it. Jay spares him one brief glance and has to look away from the dangerous, vulnerable anger on his face.

“Get on!” he shouts instead, slinging a leg over and across the body of the bike and straddling it.

There is another explosion, this one fiercer, and Jay feels the backwash of heat against his skin. He feels Samiel's arms slide around his waist, and the change in balance as he pulls Isen on as well. The flightbike wobbles precariously, then rights itself, and Jay slams the throttle.

The bike shoots forwards. Over the din of fire and shouting, Jay hears Isen's startled cry. As they accelerate forwards people scatter out of their path, too surprised to open fire and this, this, is what Jay has been relying on. The rebellion is made up of civilians – scared, frustrated people who are not used to following orders; to taking aim and killing people just to achieve their objective.

There is another, heavier explosion and Jay hears screaming now. Someone standing too close to the flames, perhaps, or sheer panic at the chaos Jay has caused with one bullet.

“Straight ahead!” Samiel shouts in his ear. “There, over by the control tower. There was an open gate.”

Jay guns the bike, feels its anti-grav system lurch, and prays Lachesis hasn't got enough control over her troops to have blocked the exit. Through the thick smoke now pouring across the courtyard, it's hard to see.

Luck is on their side. As they streak through the chaos – narrowly missing three Sirens who are running for cover – Jay sees there is no collective response being managed. He chances one quick glance around to see if he can spot Lachesis, and can't.

The flightbike bursts through the open gate and Jay's heart lurches in surprise at the vast array of darkness in front of them.

There are no lights; no people. They are not in a town or, from the very little he can see, anywhere remotely near civilisation.

“Just drive,” Samiel says as Jay's fingers falter on the accelerator. “Worry about where to later. We need to go. Now.”

He's right, Jay realises. Even now the sounds of confusion are dying down behind them. He suspects Lachesis is regaining control of the situation and they need to leave.

He takes a deep breath, and points the flightbike into the darkness.

*

The grey edges of dawn are just starting to creep across the sky, when Isen makes a small noise from where he is perched on the very end of the flightbike.

“Oh,” he says, over the howl of the wind, “we're near Glessen.”

“Glessen?” Jay asks, keeping the flightbike at a steady pace. “What's Glessen?”

Samiel makes a low, derisive noise, his arms tightening incrementally around Jay's waist. “A pit,” he says dismissively.

“A port,” Isen corrects.

“A town?” Jay says. “It's a town?”

“It likes to call itself one,” Samiel says. There is still a worryingly sharp bite of anger in his voice.

The hairs on the back of Jay's neck prickle in warning. Samiel is clearly still furious about Lachesis' allegations. Her barbs have obviously sunk in, and Jay can almost taste the deep undercurrent of rage pulling at Samiel.

They can't afford that anger right now, though, and Jay cannot afford to pick apart what exactly has happened. There is something old and familiar nagging at the back of his mind, sparked by Lachesis' words. He wants to follow this thought; wants to prise out Samiel's secrets and work out what this means.

He wants to help, and the realisation startles him nearly as much as it had the first time.

“Any pursuit?” he asks, instead.

“No,” Samiel says. “I don't think they had any vehicles left by the time you had finished with them.”

“That won't stop them putting their contacts on alert,” Isen says. “We're going to have to be careful if we don't want to be spotted. We'll probably be killed on sight.”

The noise Samiel makes is one of pure disgust, and Jay finds himself smiling in spite of everything.

“I'd like to see them try,” he says.

“Will Glessen be being watched?” Jay asks.

“Probably,” Isen says. “It's not the nearest town to the base, but it's well within Maa-Ilia. I'm almost certain there are contacts there.”

“And I suppose you have no idea who they are?” Samiel says with silky menace.

“Stop that,” Jay tells him. “Now is not the time.”

“Oh? And when is?”

“When we're not perched on a flightbike, running out of fuel and trying to reach civilisation.”

Samiel grumbles discontentedly. There is the soft brush of curls as he buries his face into the crook of Jay's neck, and Jay resists the urge to turn his head a little, to press his lips to the fall of Samiel's hair. Instead, he fixes his gaze determinedly on the horizon.

“We could just kill him now,” Samiel mutters, voice muffled but audible over the flightbike's engine, voice vibrating against the tender skin of Jay's throat. “It's going to save a lot of trouble later.”

“No,” Jay says.

“Shame.”

“Which direction is Glessen?” Jay asks Isen, who has apparently decided to keep quiet in the face of Samiel's hostility.

“North-east,” Isen says reluctantly. “But I'm really not sure it's wise to go there.”

“We've got maybe half a tank of fuel left,” Jay says, ignoring the soft, contemptuous noise Samiel makes against him. “I don't think we have much choice.”

The rest of the flight is mostly silent. Samiel leans against Jay, a warm, solid presence at his back, and as far as Jay is aware Isen manages to mostly stay upright in his awkward perch on the back and not fall off.

Glessen, when they arrive, is hot, dusty and crowded.

It is almost noon, and whilst Jay had been hoping to enter whilst it was quiet, it appears that Glessen does not bother to shuts its markets and bars just because the sun is blazing overhead.

The crowds are thick, and the flightbike has to slow to a crawl. As they weave carefully down a side street, Jay is uncomfortably aware of his decidedly human features, and the occasional curious looks all three of them are getting.

“Here,” Samiel says, apparently sensing his disquiet. “Hide your face.” He reaches around, dislodging the bike's balance a little, and carefully tugs the hood of the robes up over Jay's head. “Duck your head a bit,” he says quietly, “and no one will look twice.”

“Until I crash the bike,” Jay says, and presses back against Samiel, just a little. “Thank you.”

“The nearest fuel station is about one standard from here,” Isen says, interrupting them. He audibly hesitates for a moment. “I, uh, don't suppose either of you have anything to pay for the fuel with?”

“Sadly,” Jays says, “we didn't think that far ahead. If only we had stopped to consider grabbing some cash when we left.”

“I'm just saying,” Isen protests awkwardly. “I'm not sure how you expect to get any further with no drachmae.”

Samiel props his chin on Jay's shoulder, peering over at the fuel gauge. “Why don't we pull over?” he murmurs. “I can go and take a look at the fuel station; make sure no one's watching it.”

He's got a point, Jay realises. If what Isen says is true and Lachesis will have contacted her agents, then in all likelihood the fuel stations are going to be watched. Lachesis will know the capabilities of the flightbike. She will know how far they can make it, and is going to be well aware they will either need to refuel or seek alternative transport. She needs only to put people to watch the fuel stations and the transport links, and she will have them.

Gently, Jay pulls the flightbike over to the side of the road.

As they stagger off of it Isen takes one, two steps away, and Samiel grabs his arm, tight.

“You're not going anywhere,” he says.

Isen flinches. “I was only – ”

“I know what you were doing,” Samiel says.

Jay winces, stretching the stiff muscles in his back as he watches the pair of them. “Samiel's right,” he says. “Stay where you are.” Absently, he touches the pistol still holstered at his waist, and sees the way Isen pales slightly at the gesture.

“I think the first thing to do might be to get off the street,” Jay continues. “Maybe stow the flightbike somewhere safe until we can come back for it?”

Samiel shrugs, still holding Isen's arm. “If you want.”

Carefully, Jay pushes the flightbike off the road and towards a nearby alleyway. Samiel follows, towing Isen with him, and then slams him against the wall next to where Jay has propped the bike.

“Do you want to watch him?” Samiel asks. “Or would you prefer to take a look at the fuel station?”

Jay watches the pair of them. Privately, he'd prefer to be moving. Reconnaissance is always something he's enjoyed, and he suspects that Samiel has not had much practical experience in espionage. It's not his usual job role, after all.

But out of the two of them, Jay is the more conspicuous right now. One proper look at his face, one person overhearing his voice, and he won't be able to explain it away. Deep in hostile territory, he thinks wryly, and wonders if Hird feels like this all the time.

“It had better be you,” he says to Samiel reluctantly. “Less chance of being spotted.”

“Alright,” Samiel says, then waves a dismissive hand when Jay starts to shrug out of his robes. “No, leave them. You're more likely to need them than I do.” He releases Isen and steps closer to Jay, one hand reaching out to brush Jay's shoulder, tentatively. “Just...please be careful,” he adds.

Gently, Jay reaches up, brushing his fingers against Samiel's. “You too,” he says.

“And keep an eye on Kallat,” Samiel adds, his expression hardening. “I want answers about the rebellion.”

The change in his tone is understandable, obvious, even; but it still makes Jay uneasy in a way he can't articulate. Here, perhaps, is Severne Tremark, and he is not as kind as Samiel. It is something unquantifiable, and Jay cannot quite parse Samiel's intentions, but he can't quite justify the way the look in Samiel's eyes has hardened.

“Alright,” Jay says carefully.

Samiel presses a swift, surprising kiss to Jay's cheek – there and gone before Jay can even begin to think about reciprocation – then turns on his heel. Within moments he is out of sight, and Jay is left with an odd, empty sensation and a nagging worry in the back of his mind.

“I don't have any answers,” Isen says, as Jay turns to look at him. “And I'm not just saying that,” he adds hurriedly as Jay steps towards him.

“Then tell me what you do know,” Jay says flatly. “Because you'll probably find I'm a much nicer person to talk to than Samiel.”

Isen lets out a desperate little laugh. “I don't think you are,” he says. “I think you're worse, but in a different way. He'll break every bone in my body, and you'll persuade me it was a good idea.” The expression on his face wavers between despair and horror. “I don't know why I came with you,” he says, almost to himself.

“You came with us because at that point you had very little choice,” Jay says. “I somehow very much doubt Lachesis is going to look kindly on your betrayal for the sake of your brother.” He watches Isen crumple at that, and finds in spite of himself he is still not in a particularly forgiving mood.

“You're right,” Isen says. “You're right.” He rubs a hand across his face, the lines of his shoulder slumped and tired. “I made my choice,” he repeats, almost as though he is trying to convince himself.

“I promised you answers and I'll do my best to get them for you,” Jay says, not unkindly. “But in the meantime you might really want to consider what you'd be willing to tell me, because Samiel won't be gone long.”

A small part of him feels guilty for using Samiel as the obvious metaphorical stick. But the way Isen's expression lurches towards horror again, makes Jay feel at least somewhat vindicated in his choice of threat.

“I really didn't know much about the rebellion,” Isen says. “They promised they'd look into Palek's death, like you did. They've got resources, that's all I know, and they knew that I had contacts at court. Minor people who might be able to help them.” He swallows and spreads his hands, helplessly.

There is something lurking at the back of Jay's mind, and he pauses, considering. “And what about Samiel?” he asks. “How does Lachesis know so much about him?”

“I don't know,” Isen says. “I don't!” he repeats at Jay's noise of disbelief. “Lachesis isn't a general in the rebellion, she's a...captain, at best. But because she caught you. Because I caught you,” he amends guiltily, “she must have been given information to help.”

“Is what she said to him true?” Jay asks, and realises that this is what he has wanted to know from the beginning. "Does she know how Samiel's mother died?"

Isen opens his mouth, then hesitates. “I'm not sure,” he says at last. “Severne Tremark is not liked by the rebellion – ”

“Astonishing,” Jay says dryly.

Isen ignores him. “But I know Lachesis had information. She didn't say anything, but I overheard her talking on comms, a couple of nights ago. Severne Tremark was mentioned. And something about Catta.”

“Catta,” Jay says. He rubs his forehead, trying to dispel the tension he can feel lurking behind his eyes. “Why pick Catta, of all places? And why did Lachesis make her attack on the Queen so personal?”

Isen half shrugs. “I don't know.”

“You're saying that a lot. Is there anything you do know?”

“Lachesis wanted to break Tremark,” Isen says, “and I didn't need to be inducted higher into the ranks to know that. He's the Queen's right hand man, her protector, and disrupting his loyalty to her would cause significant political damage.”

“So you're saying it could be a lie.” Jay frowns. That odd, nagging sensation is still there; his instincts telling him there's something not right, that there's more to this. “I'm not sure that's correct,” he says slowly, testing the words as he does. “I think... I think there's something of the truth there.”

The impact of his own words hit him.

“There's something of the truth,” he repeats, then staggers back a step, shocked, as realisation dawns.

Isen stares at him, wide-eyed. “What?” he asks, reaching out a hand to steady Jay. “What is it?”

“Catta,” Jay says. “Of course. How could I be so fucking stupid? Catta. Samiel was on Catta when he was five.” He hisses in annoyance at his own idiocy. “How did his mother die? Did you hear anything about that?”

“No, I – ”

“House fire,” Jay says. He begins to pace, fingers shaking as he follows his own train of thought. “That's what Lachesis said, and I would bet you a million drachmae that I know exactly where that happened. They never found the child, did they? Of course they didn't. He wasn't there with them.” He rakes a hand through his hair, frustrated, and wheels around again to face Isen. “She was telling the truth,” he says. “Lachesis was telling the fucking truth.”

“I don't understand,” Isen says. “How do you know? How can you be absolutely sure?”

“But why did Deneira do it?” Jay says, ignoring him. “What possible benefit can she have in murdering a random family and taking Samiel away?” He pinches the bridge of his nose, thinking. “I'm missing something. What am I missing?”

“Maybe she... took a child no one would care about?” Isen suggests. “Someone no one was ever going to want back?” He sounds dubious even to Jay's ears. “Maybe she just wanted to raise a child of her own?”

“No, that's – ” Jay stops. “She wanted to raise a child,” he repeats, blankly. “Except Samiel's aunt raised him, he said so.” He meets Isen's horrified gaze with his own. He can feel the colour draining from his face as he does.

“Samiel's aunt raised him,” he repeats, and watches Isen's mouth drop open in dreadful comprehension. “And everyone knows Deneira killed her own sister.”

“Surely even the Queen wouldn't – ”

“She could,” Jay says. He feels sick; his heart thundering in his chest, because God, what does this mean for Samiel? “Does anyone know how Deneira killed her sister?”

“No,” Isen says. “There's only rumours, but a house fire...” he trails off, uncertain.

She's already told me about the rumours surrounding my mother's death, and how people blamed her for it. That's what Samiel had said; that's what he'd admitted to Lachesis, and Jay has been too bloody slow and stupid to see it.

“She killed her,” Jay says, and the weight of his own words makes him buckle slightly. There is a raw and terrible pain burning in his throat, his chest, because this is the dreadful truth. Samiel doesn't know – can't know – because he doesn't remember. But Jay does now, and what the hell is he supposed to do about it?

“What do we do?” Isen asks. “If you think that's the truth, what do we do?” There is an awful expression of trust in his face as he looks at Jay, and Jay wants to spit at him.

Why should Isen trust him? Why, when Jay has no interest in protecting him – has shown no goodwill towards him at all – should Isen ask him this? Jay can't even protect Samiel, the person he would most desperately like to, the person he –

“I don't know,” Jay says, and wants to scream at his perfect echo of Isen's earlier words. “I don't bloody know.”

Chapter Text

Jay slumps against the wall, pressing a shaking hand to his mouth.

How is he meant to tell Samiel the truth? How can he even expect to be believed? Samiel won't, not on Jay's say-so; not without –

“Proof,” Jay says. He drops his hand, pressing his fingertips to the rough concrete behind him. “We need proof of what she's done.”

“How would you find it?” Isen asks, then flinches a little when Jay looks at him. “I mean, nobody has until now, have they? So how are you going to?”

Unfortunately he has a point, Jay admits to himself. Deneira is clever: cunning and much too careful to be taken down by the stumbling research of an amateur investigator. If there had been hard proof, it would have been destroyed years ago. Worse, the very fact that it seems to be an open secret Deneira killed her sister – although no one knows how – and this hasn't caused any kind of political fallout, means that even such a revelation backed by evidence is not likely to damage her reputation.

“Does anyone else know about Samiel?” Jay asks. “About his family, I mean.”

Isen shakes his head. “Not to my knowledge,” he says. “There might be people in the Queen's inner circle, maybe, but I've never heard of her having a nephew.”

“So no one knew Deneira's sister had even had a child?” Jay asks, incredulous. “Surely that alone would have been newsworthy?”

“I really don't know much about it,” Isen says. He sighs, tugging restlessly at the edge of his sleeve. “But I'm fairly confident if that had been even semi-public knowledge, I would have heard of it. It would certainly have given more ammunition to her detractors if they knew what she had done.”

“Which begs the question: how has she covered this up?”

“Well, if no one knew her sister was pregnant...” Isen bites his lip, thinking. “You're absolutely sure you're right?” he asks, dubiously.

“I'm sure,” Jay says, and feels the truth of it sink in. “I was – Isen, I was there. I remember that fire. I didn't remember it was a Siren family, but I remember the missing boy; I remember the death of the parents.” He frowns. “Everything Lachesis said fits, even the age. Catta isn't a big place – it's a little colony. What are the odds of two house fires, with two boys that go missing mysteriously, and two mothers dying in the flames?”

Isen sighs. “Slim,” he says reluctantly. “But there's still no proof. I mean, are you going to tell Tremark?”

“I can't keep this from him,” Jay says. “I can't. He deserves to know.”

“And will he believe you?”

“I – ” Jay hesitates. “I don't know,” he says at last, honestly. “I really don't.” He closes his eyes, frustrated. “If I'm being optimistic? Maybe. If I'm being realistic? Probably not.”

“And when he tells the Queen?” Isen says, then holds up his hands defensively when Jay opens his eyes to glare at him. “Say what you like, Lane, he's her creature through and through. Lachesis was right about that.”

“Samiel wouldn't,” Jay says. He ruthlessly tries to quash the tiny, dreadful thought that he may be lying to himself. “If he didn't believe me, what would be the point in repeating it to her?”

“If he's as bound up by her as you say, why wouldn't he?” Isen points out.

“Because...” Jay says, and realises he was going to finish his sentence with something terrible and dreadfully trite, like: Because I trust him not to betray me.

The thought stings, in a painful, tender kind of way that has him flinching from the very idea of it.

“Because it would serve no purpose,” he says instead. “If he tells the Queen, she would very likely find some way to remove him from the human sphere of influence – particularly mine. He doesn't want that, I don't think.”

“If you're sure,” Isen says dubiously.

“No,” Jay says, “I'm not.” He rubs a hand across his jaw, wincing at the scrape of stubble against his palm. “But what other choice do I have?”

“You could always leave,” Isen suggests. “Surely you could just walk away from this?” He shrugs at the look Jay levels at him. “”I know,” he says, “you're not going to. Doesn't mean you shouldn't consider it.”

“I think meshala would put a stop to that anyway, wouldn't it?” Jay says.

“Maybe; maybe not.” Isen tilts his head. “I've never heard of anyone walking away from something like that, but...”

“No,” Jay says, surprising them both. “That's not happening.” He resists the urge to scowl at the way Isen tries to hide his lack of surprise. “I can't,” he adds, as though this will justify his words.

“Alright, then what do you propose?”

Jay hesitates, thinking.

The bitter truth of the matter is that Jay is not entirely certain how to proceed. Proof is unlikely and Samiel going on trust and believing him is equally difficult to imagine. Jay wants to tell Samiel; worse, he needs to tell Samiel. The ugly, unvarnished story of what happens is not something that can be hidden in away, and certainly not by Jay. If this information can be used against Samiel by the rebellion, then he deserves to know; deserves to prepare for it. But the implications of telling him...

There is a real chance Samiel is going to be damaged by this. Either because of what Deneira has done to him, or because he will believe Jay is against him.

Damn Lachesis for ever mentioning it, Jay thinks, bitterly.

The idea hits him.

“Lachesis,” he says, slowly. “She knew about this.”

“Yes,” Isen says dubiously.

“How? We're assuming there's no evidence because everyone knows Deneira killed her sister, and no one can make the allegation stick. But what if no one has connected Samiel to that? Has Lachesis? She knows Deneira murdered Samiel's mother, so what else does she know?”

“I don't – ”

“Know, yes. I know.” Jay pushes himself away from the wall, thinking. “But could you find out?”

“Me?” Isen says blankly. “Why me?”

“You're part of the rebellion.”

“I was,” Isen says bitterly. “I think you and Tremark saw to that, though.”

“No,” Jay says. He takes a step closer to Isen, then another. The edges of a plan are starting to come together in his mind. “No, we didn't. You were taken prisoner by a hostile force, remember?”

“Lachesis tried to shoot me,” Isen says. “I don't think she believed you.”

“But she might,” Jays says. “Think about it: Samiel's already provided you with a good excuse and Lachesis is already going to have to defend her willingness to shoot you to her men, isn't she? That would buy you some time.”

“And why should I do this?” Isen asks. “You've already promised me you'll find out what happened to my brother. I don't want to go back and face almost certain death.”

Jay smiles, wide, and watches Isen flinch away from him. “Because there's going to come a point where the truth will out,” he says. “And at that point, it might be worth considering that Deneira will lose one of her main assets.”

“You can't know that,” Isen says, “and that's still not a good enough reason.”

“I do know,” Jay says. There is a hard certainty running through him now, the sense that this at last is the right track. “Because it's going to come down to a choice between me and her.” He watches Isen, who is watching him with wary eyes, and feels himself grin wider. He can feel his own expression, hard and unpleasant. “And I will fight for him if I have to.”

“But I don't want to go back,” Isen says, desperately. “There is absolutely no reason for me to do so.”

“Oh, there is,” Jay says. “You're going to be quite the hero of the rebellion when you return. You've faced Samiel; you've talked down Lachesis, and you're going to deliver some good news at the same time.”

“News? What news?”

Jay tilts his head, considering the consequences of his next words carefully. “You're going to tell Lachesis I accept her offer,” he says, and watches the impact of his statement hit Isen.

“You mean, you're – ”

“Yes.”

There is an element of truth to Jay's agreement: if it came to it, he'd kill Deneira now. The savage, bloody part of him that wants to tear into her with his bare hands for what she has done to Samiel, is very much in favour of this idea. But the more pragmatic truth is that he now needs the rebels. Worse, he suspects Lachesis knew it might be the key to bringing him on side when she told Samiel the truth.

He doesn't like being manipulated, but he'll deal with it as he can.

His agreement is a sort-of truth; a half promise. He can take Isen, use him to get information from Lachesis with the idea that the rebellion will, at last, have some kind of political connections with humanity. In a way, Jay thinks grimly, there is the prospect of the human delegation doing very well out of this no matter what side is eventually in charge. Either Deneira stays in power and a proper treaty is agreed; or she's overthrown and the rebels look favourably on accepting new terms.

The only problem really, the only potential for disaster, is that either way Samiel will lose.

The thought hurts, but not in the way Jay thought it would. The greedy, possessive part of him is more interested in making sure no further harm can come to Samiel. To do that he needs to take both parties out of the equation.

“The rebellion hasn't got anything further I need,” Isen says. “Even with your agreement, what benefit is there to me putting my life on the line?”

Jay considers this. “Another line of enquiry,” he says at last. “What if I don't manage to find out who is responsible for Mas-Hain? This gives you more options.”

“I don't – ”

“And what's the alternative? You stay here, with us?” Jay raises an eyebrow. “Samiel knows you're a member of the rebellion – he'll turn you over to the authorities the moment we get to Maa-Tarek.”

“He swore he wouldn't tell the Queen,” Isen says. “He swore it on you.”

“Yes,” Jay says. “But he didn't swear he wouldn't tell anyone else, did he?”

Isen pales. “He wouldn't,” he says.

“He might.” Jay shrugs. “The risk's up to you, of course.

“And what about you?” Isen asks. “How do I know you wouldn't do the same?”

“No, handing you over to Deneira doesn't interest me,” Jay says. “I'm more concerned with what information you can get for me from the rebellion.”

“You want me to be your spy,” Isen says hopelessly. “You actually want me to turn my back on my own people for, what, a man who would happily kill me and lose no sleep over it?”

“I want you to turn your back on your own people,” Jay says, “because you want to find out who killed your brother. Look at this another way: you don't help me, and nothing changes. Deneira still has Samiel; the human envoy may be willing to consider the rebellion's offer of an alliance, but without a good, proper demonstration of what benefits there are...”

“But the data chip – ”

“Is a gesture only. This would be something different; something real. Information that could potentially damage the Queen? That would be a powerful bargaining chip indeed, wouldn't it?” Jay reaches over and pats Isen's arm. “Think about it. And if you're the one who delivers that information, then surely that's also worth the human envoy throwing some resources at finding out what happened to your brother?”

He carefully doesn't say that he too wants to know, and silently hopes Isen can't surmise that.

“Do I have a choice?” Isen asks wearily.

Jay shrugs. “Yes,” he says. “You can either stay here and we'll all go back to Maa-Ilia together; or you can agree to what I'm proposing, and return to the rebellion. Of course,” he adds, “the third alternative is that you make a run for it. I'm not sure how long you'd last, but you're welcome to try.”

“And Tremark?” Isen asks. “How are you going to explain to him that you just let me go?”

“Truthfully,” Jay says, and means it.

“You're going to tell the Queen's right hand man that you let a rebel go, because you don't trust the Queen and you want to prove she murdered his family?” Isen says dubiously. “And that's your plan, is it?”

“Yes,” says Jay, “it is.” He regards Isen steadily. “I think there's been more than enough dishonesty between us, and even if he doesn't believe Deneira capable of that – ”

“Which he won't.”

“ - Which he probably won't, he also won't betray me to her.”

“And that's your idea of a good strategy?” Isen says. “Send me off to get evidence, tell Tremark the truth, and hope he doesn't stab you in the back?”

“He's already stabbed me once before,” Jay says, just to see Isen twitch. “I survived.”

“Would you this time?” Isen asks; he sounds genuinely curious and Jay suppresses a grimace.

“Probably,” he says. “So, are you going to help?”

Isen hesitates, and Jay can clearly see the wheels spinning behind his eyes as he thinks. It's a gamble, Jay knows, but he's banking on Isen's overriding interest in searching for the truth about what happened to Palek, to outweigh his uncertainty in dealing with Samiel and Jay, and the possibility that the rebellion may kill him on sight.

Jay's promises are flimsy, insubstantial things when weighed against potential harms like these. But Isen had been prepared to kill to avenge his brother, and that has to count in Jay's favour when it comes to what he's willing to do.

As he watches Isen, Jay realises that if it comes to it, he won't regret sending him back to Lachesis. He'd probably regret the loss of information, though. The thought sits a little uncomfortably, and he steels himself. The bitter truth is, there are casualties in any war and Isen may end up being one of them. Hell, Jay may end up being one of them, before the end.

“Alright,” Isen says, and Jay feels a surge of relief.

“You'll do it?” he says, keeping his voice carefully neutral.

“I'll do it,” Isen says. “But I want a guarantee from you that if this goes badly, if...if something happens, you'll get me out.”

“I'll try,” Jay says “but I can't promise.”

Isen's expression twists. “I thought you'd say that,” he says bitterly. “Just... try, then.”

“I can promise that,” Jay says, and finds to his surprise he means it.

“And you'll get me that further information,” Isen says, and it is not a request. “If I'm doing this, I want you to swear you'll have others in your envoy look into what happened on Mas-Hain. Into what happened to Palek.”

“Alright,” Jay says, knowing this is his only leverage. “I swear.”

*

They are running out of time before Samiel returns, and the first thing to do is sell the flightbike.

They need money, because Jay reasons it's probably going to be easier to escape notice in a crowd on public transport when they finally leave Glessen. He's also going to need to fund Isen's trip back to the rebellion.

Because Isen is the only one who can get away with talking – and because despite their uneasy alliance Jay doesn't trust him – they both end up pushing the flightbike back out into the main streets.

It turns out Isen knows someone who knows someone else, and within half an hour the flightbike is sold for significantly less drachmae than it's worth, to a grim-faced woman with a speculative gleam in her eye.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Isen says as they both stand on the corner. He is looking up the street at the transport terminal, squinting against the sun.

“No,” Jay says quietly, “but what is?”

Isen sighs. “Just... try not to let Tremark kill you, when he finds out you let me go.”

“He won't,” Jay says, and discovers he's only relatively confident about that.

“He might,” Isen says. “And then there's no one to get me away from Lachesis if needed.” He sighs. “I'd warn you against going near him, but honestly it's clearly far too late for that.”

“I don't think I'm even going to ask what you mean by that,” Jay says. He steps back to avoid being bumped into by someone in a hurry, ducking his head so as not to make eye contact as he does.

“You. Him. You're both far too dangerous,” Isen says. He hasn't, Jay realises, looked at him once yet. “One of you is going to end up burning the world down, and it's going to be for the other one.” He sighs again. “It's horrific.”

“It's not something I'm actually planning to do,” Jay says, trying to keep a heavy dose of irritation out of his voice.

“I don't mean burning the world down is horrific,” Isen says. “Well, I mean, it is, but you two are...” He falters a little, still avoiding Jay's eye. “I mean – that is – what you'd do for each other. It's a dreadful, selfish kind of love, isn't it?”

“I think love is always selfish,” Jay says. “Pretty, delicate ideas of romance are for fairy tales, not for reality. Love isn't a nice thing; it's a dangerous, bloody mess.” He can feel himself tense, on the verge of something he was not expecting. “Terrible things have been done in the name of love.”

Isen laughs a little. “You speak as though you don't want to be in love.”

“I'm not – ”

“You are,” Isen says simply, and Jay feels the impact of the words hit home. “You can pretend all you like, but look at what you're willing to do for him. Look what you've already done for him. You can hide it from yourself all you want, Wing Commander Lane, but meshala doesn't lie.”

“Meshala is what this is,” Jay says, a little panicked and not quite sure why. “Impulse.”

The look Isen gives him is pitying. “Meshala is just the outcome,” he says. “It can't build on something that's not already there.” He leans forwards, as though he is going to pat Jay on the shoulder, then hesitates at the last moment.

“Just...think about it,” he says instead.

Jay watches him go, weaving his way through the crowd towards the terminal, and finds he is unable to come up with a single thing to say in response. By the time he has swallowed down every denial he wants to make, Isen has turned a corner, and vanished from sight.

*

“Let me get this straight,” Samiel says. “You decided the best way to proceed was to let Kallat walk free, send him back to the rebellion and give him money?” His voice, already dangerous, drops to a furious hiss.

They have rented a room above a bar, because it is the middle of the day, and hot, and Jay had absolutely dug his heels in about going to the transport terminal when Samiel came back to the alley and found out Jay was the only one there waiting. Some conversations, Jay had figured, were far better done in private.

“I sent him back to the rebellion to get information,” he says.

He is sitting on the bed, watching as Samiel paces, his expression furious. The room is a little small, and each time Samiel is just hitting his stride he has to turn on his heel to head back in the opposite direction. He has nearly, Jay notes, tripped over the only other piece of furniture in the room twice now.

“What information could you possibly need?” Samiel asks, and kicks the armchair, shoving it back with a screech out of his path.

“Lachesis,” Jay says.

“Lachesis? Lachesis?” Samiel throws his hands up. “That...” words seems to fail him as he rounds on Jay again.

“She has something I want,” Jay says, and wonders how the hell he confesses the next bit.

“What can she possibly have?” Samiel says. “Did you not get enough when we were stuck in a cell together?” He looms, tall and impossibly dangerous over Jay. “How many times,” he grates out, “are you going to betray me?”

The words cause a flash of hurt and then Jay feels himself beginning to get angry. He breathes deeply, trying to control his temper, and reminds himself that Samiel is hurting; that he doesn't understand why Jay has done what he has.

“Sit down,” he says, instead of answering the question.

“Why? So you can explain to me oh-so very nicely why you've done what you have this time?” Samiel runs a hand through his curls, frustration etched into every line of his body. “People call Sirens manipulative,” he says bitterly, “but here we are: the one person who could probably talk a Siren into jumping off a mountain if he wanted, and me, the jarik vargios who will listen to anything he says.”

Sit,” Jay says. He grasps Samiel's wrist and pulls.

To his surprise, Samiel sits.

“Alright,” Samiel says, “let's hear what excuses you've got this time, sweetheart.”

“Catta,” Jay says, and feels Samiel go utterly still next to him. He stares straight ahead, unable to look at Samiel; unable to do any more than keep his fingers wrapped tight around Samiel's wrist.

“What about it?” Samiel says.

“Lachesis said you were on Catta when you were five.”

“She was lying.”

“How do you know?” Jay asks. “Can you remember what you were doing when you were five?” He tries to gentle his voice, tries to soothe, and watches from the corner of his eye as Samiel glares at him.

“No,” Samiel say, “but I was on Liada.”

“Who told you that?”

“My aunt.”

“Your aunt.” Jay licks his lips. He's terrified of this – doesn't want to say the words out loud, because once said they can't be undone. But. The truth, he reminds himself, he deserves the truth.

“I was on Catta,” he says, “when I was twelve. We moved there, my family and I. Dad wanted to retire somewhere green; mum wanted to build energy blocks to help the colony. I remember...” he breathes once, twice, and tries to quell irrational panic.

Samiel is watching him openly now, and if the hostility in his gaze hasn't faded, it's at least be subsumed by curiosity.

“I remember a boy,” Jay says.

“Congratulations,” Samiel says, “you remembered a neighbour.”

Jay turns to look at him. “Stop it,” he says softly. “I'm trying to tell you – ”

“I know exactly what you're trying to tell me,” Samiel says. “It won't work. You think Lachesis was telling the truth? She wasn't. I wasn't there.”

“You're going on what your aunt told you,” Jay says, “nothing more. I'm going on what I remember, and I remember a boy. I remember a house fire and I remember the way they never found the child. I think...I think Lachesis was telling the truth.”

“No,” Samiel says. “She wasn't.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” Jay's grip tightens convulsively on Samiel as he tries to draw his arm away. “Really, actually listen? You're just parroting what Deneira has told you – ”

He realises his mistake.

“Deneira,” Samiel says slowly. “Well then, clearly you know.” He stares at Jay, eyes bright with some indefinable emotion. Slowly, his expression hardens. “Is that what this is actually about, my master? You know who my aunt is, so now you have something to use? A weapon to help you work against her?”

“No,” Jay says. “Will you just listen to what I'm trying to say?”

“Why?” Samiel stands, and is brought up short by Jay's hand still on his arm. They stay like that for a moment, tethered by the unsubstantial hold of fingers, and Jay's desperation.

“Because I'm trying to tell you I think Lachesis might be right,” Jay says.

“How dare you,” Samiel says coldly. “How dare you say that the Queen – ”

“Your aunt,” Jay says.

“The Queen,” Samiel repeats stubbornly, “is responsible.”

“Look, I'm not saying there wasn't a reason for it,” Jay says. He tries to gentle his voice; to sound reasonable. “Your mother was in line for the throne as well, wasn't she? Maybe it was a pre-emptive strike. But the truth of the matter is, I remember exactly what Lachesis is describing. She was telling the truth.”

“And how do you know she hasn't looked into your background?” Samiel asks coldly. “How do you know she didn't hear about this neighbour of yours and make something up to convince you?”

“Do you really think that's true?” Jay says quietly. “She wasn't talking to me.” He sighs. “Just please think about it, if only a little. Whatever way you want to consider it, if your aunt is the Queen, and the Queen killed her sister, she would benefit from it in some form.”

“Let's pretend for a moment your story is true,” Samiel says. “Let's pretend Deneira killed my mother and murdered my family. What possible benefit would there be in taking me, then? Why not kill me with everyone else?” His expression is grim, a little unkind as he watches Jay.

“I don't know,” Jay says honestly. “But have you thought about the fact she raised you? Can you honestly tell me you wouldn't step in front of a gun for her?”

“Of course I would,” Samiel says. “She's my Queen, who wouldn't do that?” He tilts his head. “Loyalty is commendable, not a flaw.” His expression twists, bitterly. “A little like my loyalty to you.”

Jay swallows the hurt he feels at that and meets Samiel's eyes unflinchingly. “Then tell me what it was like, growing up. Tell me how she looked after you.”

“I – ” Samiel hesitates. “She didn't, so much,” he says. “I remember...” he blinks, something in his expression softening, imperceptibly. “I was looked after mostly by officials. My aunt gave me a house in Maa-Rilios. I lived there for along time. I was given lessons, food, clothes, anything I could ask for.”

“Did she ever come to see you?” Jay asks carefully.

“Sometimes,” Samiel says, then corrects himself: “Occasionally.” He sighs, and Jay feels a little of the tension leave his own body, as he watches the line of Samiel's shoulders relax a little.

“It was always a big thing,” Samiel says, “when my aunt came to visit. The whole schedule of our lives was disrupted. I remember it being like a holiday – a day away from lessons, from training. She would sometimes bring presents, stories. She was very good at telling stories.” There is something distant in his eyes, a strange kind of affection that Jay has to keep himself from challenging.

“Did she ever talk to you about your mother?”

“Once or twice.” Samiel takes a hesitant step closer, and when Jay doesn't move, he sits down carefully next to him. “If she did mention her, it was mostly talking about when they were children.”

“Did they have a good relationship?”

Samiel shoots him an incredulous look. “No,” he says. “Of course not. How can you have a good relationship with someone you may have to kill one day?”

“That's – ” Jay wants to say barbaric, and bites his tongue at the last second. “Different,” he settles on instead.

“It's practical,” Samiel says. “It's how the throne is inherited. You need to prove you are a good leader, a strong one, with enough cunning to rule cleverly and well.” He raises an eyebrow at Jay's expression. “Why is this a surprise?”

“It's not, I just hadn't thought about it that way.”

Samiel shrugs. “Well, it's how we are.”

“Would it be different?” Jay asks. “If the Queen had killed your mother and she hadn't been competing for the throne?”

“Yes,” Samiel says shortly. “But that's pointless speculation – she didn't kill her anyway.” He frowns as Jay opens his mouth to protest. “No,” he says firmly.

“What else was your childhood like?” Jay says instead. He offers a small smile when Samiel looks at him, incredulous. “I am actually curious,” he adds.

Samiel sighs. “Busy,” he says. “There was intensive training, most days. I was always going to be a Severne, it was what my aunt wanted and I was good at it.” He hunches in on himself, a little. “I'm good at killing things,” he says, and there is an odd little note of defiance in his voice.

“And your aunt encouraged that?”

“She recognised that my talents lay in that direction,” Samiel says. “So yes, I suppose she did if you want to put it like that.”

Jay can't help himself: he squeezes Samiel's arm a little tighter and bumps their shoulders together. “That's not all you are,” he says quietly, and feels the truth of it.

“Maybe not, but it's most of me.”

“What happened when your training was finished?” Jay says.

“I was eighteen, so I was sent to the academy.”

“Academy?”

Samiel half turns, so he can look at Jay fully. “Military academy,” he says. “I spent a year there, then took my posting.” He tilts his head, considering. “There was a year fighting in different corners of the galaxy and then I was recalled, and sent to Mas-Hain. You know what happened after that.”

“Yes,” Jay says heavily. “I'm well aware of what happened then.”

He pauses, thinking.

“Why are you really asking all this?” Samiel says into the silence. “I know you want to prove the Queen is some kind of monster, but why? Really, why? What does it matter to you anyway?” Were it not for the genuine curiosity in his voice, Jay would take the question as hostile.

“Because I want to know what happened, don't you?”

“I know what happened.”

“What, then?”

Samiel closes his eyes. “My mother was married to a high ranking official,” he says wearily, as if by rote. “It was an arranged marriage and they were happy enough. One day, when she was pregnant with me, she met a member of the human delegation. You were all taking your first steps on the intergalactic stage, and he'd come to discuss a trade deal with some of the council, I think.

“They ran away together and my father pursued them to Liada when he found out she was pregnant with his child. He wasn't in love with my mother, but he wanted his heir. She wouldn't give me up, so he killed them.” His voice cracks slightly. “So you see, it isn't my aunt's fault my mother's dead; it's mine.”

“You were a child at the time,” Jay says, “it is absolutely not your fault.”

Samiel opens his eyes and looks at him. “If I hadn't been born,” he says, “if my father hadn't wanted his heir, my mother would still be alive and happy. So.”

“Samiel, no,” Jay says. “That's really not – ”

“You can protest all you like, my master, those are the facts.” As Jay watches, the anger and bitterness slowly seeps from Samiel's face; the grim line of his mouth softening into something closer to normal. “But thank you for saying that.”

“What happened to your father?” Jay says, around the terrible tenderness he can feel building in his chest, his throat.

“He died as well,” Samiel says, “not long after my aunt brought me home.”

That's convenient, Jay wants to say, and absolutely can't. He lets go of Samiel's arm and laces their fingers together instead. “I'm sorry,” he says.

“Don't be, I didn't know him. I wouldn't want to.”

“Still.”

Slowly, Samiel's grip tightens on Jay's fingers. “Has that answered your questions?” he says.

“Some of them,” Jay says carefully. “Not all of them. I still want to know about Catta, and I want to know how many people know Deneira is your aunt.”

“Not many,” Samiel says. “Maybe five people at best? The two who looked after me in Maa-Rilios; my aunt; Palek Kallat knew and now you.”

“Palek knew?” Jay asks, startled.

“Yes, he was my commanding officer – he was briefed.”

“Well now Isen knows as well,” Jay says, and feels Samiel tense next to him. “At least let me pursue this,” he says quietly. “If it's nothing, it's nothing, and I'll owe you an apology. But if it's something...” He takes a deep breath.

“Why does this matter?” Samiel asks, his tone flat. “It's none of your business anyway. If you're not going to use it against my Queen, then what's the use in disturbing the dead? Leave them be.”

“It matters because it's you,” Jay says, and watches Samiel startle at that. “It matters because if there's any truth in it – any at all – then someone else could find out. I don't care if someone uses it against Deneira – ”

“That's – ”

“No, I don't bloody care. But I care about someone using it against you. I care about it causing you vulnerability. Look at Lachesis; look at what she said to you and what she was doing to cause you pain. You think I want that for you?”

“I don't want you meddling where you have no need to,” Samiel says, dangerously. “I'm not your responsibility – ”

“Like hell you aren't!” Jay says, and he can no longer keep the annoyance out of his tone. He watches as Samiel's expression darkens.

“Don't say things you don't mean,” he says, a warning note in his voice.

“You think I don't mean it?” Jay asks, incredulous. “Really? After I just sent a man, who probably doesn't deserve it, back to his possible death. Just so I could find out what the truth is?”

“I have already told you the truth,” Samiel interjects. “Why will you not listen?”

“Why won't you? Why are you so prepared to believe Deneira has nothing more than your best wishes at heart, when there is evidence to the contrary?”

“What evidence? Some lies from Lachesis and your vague memories of a family that matches her description?” Samiel wrenches his hand away from Jay and rakes a hand through his hair, frustrated. “Why are you so desperate to believe what I've told you might not be true?”

“Because I don't trust a word that comes out of the Queen's mouth!” Jay says. “I think she has survived for far too long, politically speaking, to be something so foolish as sentimental. You say she told you the truth? Tell me this then: if she saved you for selfless reasons, why has she told no one else you're her nephew?”

“It could put me in danger,” Samiel says. “If her enemies – ”

“You are already in danger. Or was Mas-Hain a one-off? Was being sent to protect me? Being trained to kill and sent to fight? You are a dangerous person, Samiel, and dangerous people are not safe.”

“And you?” Samiel says. He leans forwards, until he and Jay are close, breathing the same air. His voice drops, low and vibrant with anger. “Don't you put me in danger as well, sweetheart? Who is it that's had three assassination attempts on his life in the space of a fortnight? Who is it that plunged headlong into danger when I told him to wait and got us both captured? That wasn't my Queen. That was all you, my darling.”

He is speaking to wound, to anger, and Jay finds much to his dismay it is working. He wants to deny it; to reach out, bury his fingers in Samiel's hair and pull. To bite that clever mouth until Samiel has other, more interesting things to say and nothing nearly so venomous as the words he is shaping now.

“You don't trust my Queen?” Samiel says, vicious in his rage. “Well, explain this to me, my master: why should I trust you? Why should I believe you over her?”

“Because I had you first,” Jay says, without thought, without care, and angry beyond reason. “And you are mine.”

Chapter Text

Samiel rears back as though struck.

“What?”

“You heard me,” Jay says. “She can't have you.” He should, he thinks, be faltering in the face of Samiel's confusion. He isn't though. The words sink to his core like a stone; like a confession weighted with a thousand sins.

“That's not – ”

“In your bones, you said,” Jay says relentlessly, reckless in the face of losing this, for whatever value 'this' means. “In your blood. In the weave of your soul. If that's true for you, isn't the same true for me?”

“No,” Samiel says curtly, “because you don't believe in meshala. You think this is all some elaborate ritual. Soul bonds aren't real, according to you. You can't just use that as a reason when you don't even think it's true.” The look on his face is an old, shadowed hurt, his anger fading under the weight of this strange sorrow.

“I don't have to believe in soul bonds to know about being linked to someone,” Jay says. “You think some magical chain tying us together is the only thing that matters?” He reaches out and grips Samiel's chin between thumb and forefinger. “Think again.”

“Then what do you mean?” Samiel says. “You say you had me first; you say you have a claim on me. Why?”

Jay stares at him, struggling to force his mind onto sane, logical paths.

Reason is trying to tell him that now is the time to be careful – to tread lightly and only give Samiel enough of what he wants to hear. Samiel doesn't believe him about Deneira – not a surprise – and the hard fact of the matter is that, in spite of everything, Jay has no proof. He also has no words to convince him otherwise, or to lay claim to him in the way he wants to.

But contradiction comes in the form of instinct: a deep, vicious hunger, telling him to speak the truth anyway.

He takes a deep breath, and makes his decision. “Stardust,” he says abruptly.

Samiel stares at him. “What?”

“You have stardust in your veins,” Jay says, and watches Samiel's expression darken a little. “But it's the same kind that's in mine. When we were dust and atoms, moving on rivers of light, at some point in the universe you and I mingled together. So. Stardust.” He pushes forward a little; drops his hand to press his palm to the centre of Samiel's chest and presses. “Here.”

Samiel stares at him, and there is something strange and indefinable in the way he is looking at him. Jay can feel his heart hammering, and has to force himself not to tense his fingers. He tries not to clench his hand into the front of Samiel's tunic and pull.

“If you don't mean this...” Samiel says at last.

And here – here is where Jay should have clever words to say. Here is where he should be able to sidestep, to evade. Samiel doesn't believe him. He doesn't trust him on Deneira, on the rebellion, on so many things. It's compromise in the worst possible way between the two of them – a deliberate ignoring of so many hard facts. But there is also a cold, unfortunate truth, and it is this:

“I mean it,” Jay says.

Samiel keens, low and soft.

The sound fizzes in Jay's veins, stealing his breath for one crushing, beautiful moment. For a small infinity there is no other sound in the universe, only this dazzling symphony of want.

Samiel leans forward. “Come here,” he says softly. There is no artifice, no pretence in his voice, only a wellspring of surprise and uncertainty.

Jay can't help himself; he grips tighter and pulls. “Come here,” he repeats in reply, and watches Samiel's expression light up in wonder.

“Are you sure?” Samiel asks. “Really, really sure? There's no going back from this, my master.”

Jay sighs. “At this current point in time, I have a rebellion out for my head; a Queen I suspect is going to try and have me put in front of a firing squad if she can get away with it – no, don't interrupt – and a delegation of human ambassadors who, quite frankly, are probably going to wish they had dropped me off on an asteroid somewhere. Right here, now, this is the only thing I am sure of.”

Slowly, he leans forwards, pressing his forehead gently to Samiel's. “I trust you,” he says, on the tiniest of breaths, in the increments between them. He closes his eyes, unable to look at Samiel as he says this.

Nearly every instinct in him is screaming to bury these words – to choke them down until they never see the light of day. The compulsion, the drive in his soul, is speaking louder though, and he can't stop it. Rage is being subsumed under a new and terrifying tenderness that has him both wanting to run in the opposite direction and claw himself as close as possible. Sometimes in the same breath. He is speaking the truth, and almost doesn't know why.

“I can't even bloody tell why I trust you,” he adds. “Of all the people in this mess, it should be anyone but you, and it isn't. God, it isn't.”

“Oh,” Samiel says on an inhalation. “Oh, sweetheart.”

The slow, rolling vibrations of his voice cut through Jay; make him let loose a small, indescribable sound of his own.

“Alright,” Samiel says. “Alright darling, I believe you.”

“I'm not going to do this right,” Jay says, and can't help the way he is still not able to look at Samiel. He keeps his eyes shut and tries to breathe. “I'm very, very bad at things like this.”

“That's alright, I am too. We'll just have to sort this out together.”

“I'm not going to change my allegiance. I can't promise this is going to work, or that there's going to be a happy ending from this,” Jay adds. He can't help himself – can't quite work out if he is trying to quantify his confession, or to warn Samiel away, or both.

“I don't want a happy ending,” Samiel says gently. “I'd settle for a happy now. Will that do?”

“I – ” Jay inhales, pulls back slightly and opens his eyes.

Samiel is watching him, his gaze steady. Where before there was anger and a deep, unsettled mistrust, he seems calmer, certain as he watches Jay. His eyes are bright and there is a small, tentative, smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. He is perhaps the loveliest thing Jay has ever seen.

“I'm terrified,” Jay says in a rush, and then nearly bites his tongue in half trying to take the words back.

Samiel tilts his head. “Me too,” he says. He holds out a hand, wriggling his fingers a little for emphasis, and Jay takes it. “Want to try anyway?”

“Yes,” Jay says.

He can feel himself beginning to grin helplessly, as adrenaline crashes through him. This is like flying, like fighting. The sheer unadulterated terror of a thousand foot freefall, with no parachute.

“Alright,” Samiel says. He leans forwards slowly, gently. Jay can't help it, he closes his eyes again; feels the lightest whisper of Samiel's lips across his and smiles into the kiss.

“Ah,” Samiel says against his mouth. “I think that's better.” He is smiling too; Jay can feel it. “Hello, my pretty human.”

“Hello, you ridiculous idiot,” Jay says, then laughs as Samiel nudges their noses together. “Well this isn't going to work.”

“Isn't it?” Samiel says, his voice dropping to a slow, steady rumble that sinks its claws into Jay. “I think it'll work rather well.”

“Look at you, being the – ” Jay says, and Samiel kisses him again.

This time it is not a gentle brush of lips. This time it is a leisurely, deep thing that, stealing the breath from Jay's lungs. He can feel the low sound of pleasure Samiel makes, and parts his lips, helpless against Samiel's ferocious focus. There is the slow, gentle slide of Samiel's tongue against his, the sharp little sting of Samiel's teeth, and Samiel pulls back, looking pleased with himself.

“Better,” he says.

Oh, his voice. Fuck, his voice. Jay has stupidly, idiotically, forgotten what Samiel's voice can do when he wants it to. The deep sweet sound of it when Samiel wants something – really wants something – is dizzying.

“I think,” Jay says a little unsteadily, “we may need to think about practicalities here.” He licks his lips, and watches Samiel's eyes follow the movement.

“Which are?”

Jay scrambles a little, knowing he has a point and trying hard to order his thoughts enough to articulate what they need.

“Now is probably not the best – ”

“Oh no,” Samiel says. He leans forward, touches one long finger to the hollow of Jay's throat, above where his pulse is beating, frantic. He pushes, slightly. “Oh no, sweetheart. Now is exactly the time.”

“Partners,” Jay blurts out, then groans in exasperation at the look on Samiel's face. “I'm not asking for a full rundown,” he tries to clarify. “Just enough to know we're both clean. I've had all my vaccinations, that's standard, I assume you have too?”

Samiel shrugs. “Yes,” he says, and the tone of his voice suggests he knows exactly what Jay is doing.

“I've not really had many partners – no time, really – only a few. The last was a couple of years ago.” Horrifically, Jay can feel a small, keen edge of embarrassment starting to crawl its way out of his soul, at the blank look on Samiel's face.

“No partners,” Samiel says. “What would be the point?”

“The...” Jay drops Samiel's hand to rub his own forehead. “I don't really know how to address that.”

Samiel shrugs again. “They weren't you,” he says bluntly. “Now can I please kiss you again?”

He doesn't wait for Jay to agree, just leans forward and does so.

Jay has half opened his mouth to clarify further – and, oh, that was a strategic mistake. The warmth of Samiel's mouth is a dizzying thing; the taste of him as intoxicating the second, third, fourth time around. He presses closer, kisses back, and buries his fingers in Samiel's curls.

They part again, breathless, and Jay can't help feeling a heavy pang of arousal at the sight of Samiel's mouth – lips red and wet-raw from kissing. It makes him want to sink closer again, to soothe the hurt with his tongue and press slow, tender kisses into the soft vulnerable dip of Samiel's lower lip.

He takes a breath instead; tries to control himself and fails utterly when Samiel hums gently, pleased at the pressure of Jay's fingers still caught in his hair.

“Oh,” Jay says. He swallows. “Oh, that's –”

Samiel smiles, turning his head to press a soft kiss to the tender skin of Jay's inner wrist. “Any more questions, my master?” he asks. He paints the words into the thin, vulnerable skin above Jay's pulse with lips and teeth and tongue.

There is only one way this is going, Jay realises dizzily, and this time he can't say no.

Correction.

He doesn't want to say no.

He is not normally a creature of instinct like Samiel. He does not value action and service above words. Deeds on this kind of scale do not come easily to him. Even so, he wants this very badly, and very desperately, almost in spite of himself. He needs. He is a creature of flesh and desire and he wants to consume utterly and be consumed.

Possession and lust are dangerous, terrible things. Worse still is the desperate, savage tenderness Jay can feel hooked into his breastbone, his soul. He wants Samiel. He has Samiel. He still wants Samiel.

Suddenly 'close' has become 'not close enough'.

“We need,” Jay says, sorting carefully through his words, “something to ease the way.” He glances around. “Somehow I don't think this place has anything.”

The look of surprise on Samiel's face is almost comical. “You're telling me,” he says, “that between the pair of us, we haven't thought to bring any lube?”

It's a comedy of errors, and were he not itching out of his own skin, Jay would be laughing. “It isn't like we planned this,” he says. “I know I didn't exactly anticipate this now, Samiel.”

Samiel flings himself off the bed. “Stay,” he growls, scrambling for the door and tripping over his own discarded robes on the floor. He staggers, rights himself, and glares at Jay. “Don't move.”

He slams out of the room.

Jay stares after him, listening to him thundering down the stairs. This is...not quite what he had anticipated. But then, he thinks wryly, when has anything been straightforward with Samiel?

He smiles, leaning back on his hands. Arousal is thrumming pleasantly under his skin. Somewhere, there is a part of his mind still screaming out in panic at the very thought of this. But his soul is quiet. He feels steadier, sure, as though he is finally making the right choices, even if it's for the wrong reasons.

Possession is ugly. It is a twisted, dangerous thing that leads to bad judgement and mistakes. For a very long time, Jay has not allowed himself to be compromised like this. Now, he is. It is not the terrifying thought it should be. The stunted, tangled scope of his emotions is viciously glad for it.

He hadn't been lying to Isen, he thinks, as he listens to a crash downstairs, followed by a bit of shouting. Love is an unpleasant business. Terrible things have been done in its name. Jay isn't sure this is love. He isn't sure it's meshala, or whatever Samiel believes it to be. But it's something, and it's enough to satisfy the parts of his soul that revel in such a dangerous, greedy thought.

He is mine and I am his, he thinks to himself, and finds to his surprise that there is no fear at the idea.

Footsteps stampede back up the stairs, and Jay just has time to look towards the door when Samiel bursts through it.

“Got it,” he says triumphantly, and chucks something at Jay's head.

The object bounces onto the sheets and Jay stares at it.

“E-gel,” he says, a little incredulous. “That's your plan?”

“It's hygienic – what more do you want?”

“You've got it on your face,” Jay says slowly, gesturing to the injury Samiel received at the rebellion's hands. “It's something you'd use from a first aid kit, not a – oh no. You didn't.”

“Didn't?” Samiel says, flinging himself down on the bed next to Jay. He is looking particularly pleased with himself. Carefully, he reaches up and plucks off one of Jay's translators off. He raises an eyebrow in question.

“It's fine,” Jay says automatically. “And I mean you didn't actually go downstairs and raid the first aid cupboard in the bar, did you?”

“How annoyed are you going to be if I say yes?” Samiel says, and even with one translator off, his voice spears through Jay with a thousand harmonies.

“I – not that annoyed,” he says, a little dazed. “Although I'm not sure I want to know what you told the staff.”

Samiel reaches up and slowly, reverently, removes the other translator. “I told them it was an emergency,” he says, using Standard.

Jay inhales, sharply.

The sanitised, filtered sound of Samiel's voice has fallen away sharply, and how had Jay forgotten this?

Samiel's voice sings. It is a beautiful screaming chorus, wrapping its way around Jay's mind and twisting, ever so slightly. There are harmonics there, transcendent and lovely. Listen to me, they are singing, love me. For every word Samiel is speaking, they are promising a hundred more of the darkest, sweetest things.

“Oh,” Jay says, and slumps back onto the bed. He stays on his back, staring at the ceiling. He is drowning as Samiel hums a little, reaching up to trail a careful finger across the bridge of Jay's nose, the line of his lips.

“Still alright?” he asks, and Jay moans at the sound.

“Yes,” he says unsteadily. “Although I'm thinking taking the translators out might have been a mistake.”

Samiel hums again, a strange, delicate little note that shivers down the length of Jay's spine. Then he does it a third time, a different note, another harmonic, and Jay can't help the way his eyes flutter shut.

He feels Samiel's lips against his throat, a soft, tender press into vulnerable skin. Then, even more keenly, he feels the way Samiel trills gently, sending a beautiful vibration between them.

The sound, the soft tremor, sends a ricochet of want through him that ends up pooling sharp and aching in the pit of his stomach. He can feel himself hardening, his cock beginning to throb with pleasant, burning need.

Jay opens his eyes as a thought occurs to him. “Is this melos?” he asks. He turns his head to look at Samiel, who pulls back, leaving a bare inch between them. “Is this what they were talking about?” He can't articulate better than that.

“Don't know,” Samiel says. He leans closer again, until they are breathing the same air, the same sounds. “Why? Do you care?”

“No,” Jay says, and watches Samiel's expression darken a little. There is an odd, predatory hunger lurking in his eyes, and Jay can feel the same sharp satisfaction in his core. “Does it matter to you?” he says, instead of anything more clever.

“Darling,” Samiel says, and the endearment in that voice, that tone, is a gunshot; a white hot bullet lodging under Jay's skin. “Darling, sweetheart, mine. Do I look like I fucking care?” He doesn't wait for Jay to answer, just hauls him closer and kisses him again, then again, and again.

Jay can't help himself, he shudders under the weight of it. He kisses back just as fiercely; pushes into Samiel's mouth and takes as much as he can. He fists a hand in Samiel's hair, just to hear the low, lovely sound that Samiel makes when he does, and pulls sharply.

Samiel says something incomprehensible and wonderful; a garbled stream of words and notes that Jay swallows down. He bites sharply on Samiel's lower lip, slides a tongue between his teeth, and feels him press closer. The line of his body is warm, solid, something to rock into. Against his hip, he can feel Samiel hardening; a delicious promise.

“Can I?” Samiel says into his mouth, as though he can somehow read what Jay is thinking. “Can I? Will you let me?” He pulls back, pupils blown and – I did that, Jay thinks, viciously triumphant and deeply unsatisfied, because it's not enough.

“What?” he says, and feels his own grin, sharp and careless, as he watches Samiel consider him fully.

“Let me fuck you,” Samiel says.

Jay can't help the noise that escapes him. The thought of it – Samiel over him, in him, makes him want to tug Samiel closer. To pull him in until there isn't an atom of space between them. Being asked this, by that voice is – is –

“Let me fuck you,” Samiel says again. “Let me hold you down and fill you up and make you come. Let me bury myself in you, until you can't think of anything else, sweetheart. Let me open you up and slide in, until we both can't hold back any more. I want to make you beg. Please let me make you beg.”

“You can't – ” Jay says. He means: You can't say things like that.

Except of course Samiel can, he is. That lovely, terrible, wicked voice is promising all kinds of wonderful things, and if Jay wasn't completely aroused before, he is now.

“Yes,” he says instead. It's not the feeling of capitulation he was expecting. Rather, there is an odd, fierce triumph in his soul when he says it. “Yes, come here.”

Samiel kisses him again. The melody he makes this time as he does so, is pure, helpless arousal. It has Jay hauling him closer, gripping the line of Samiel's jaw and pressing, so they are moving together, devouring one another, slow and wet and messy.

Jay rocks a little. He can't help the sound one, or both of them, make at the firm delicious pressure of it. He is careless now, eager in his bid to get as close as possible. If something tries to come between them this time, he feels like he would burn the world down.

“Clothes,” Samiel says, between sloppy, desperate kisses. “Jason, clothes.”

“Right,” Jay says, and tries to untangle himself enough to consider how the hell he's going to get those off. He can't, because he can't leave Samiel – can't stop the slow slide of his tongue between Samiel's teeth, or let go long enough for his hands to do anything useful.

The sound Samiel makes is raw in its frustration, a low rumble of thunder as he pulls away. His lips are red. Stubble burn, and Jay's bruising kisses, have contrived to give him a delicious, debauched look.

“Off,” he says. “Now.”

The second attempt goes a little better than the first, but only just. Jay rolls far enough away to tug at the unfamiliar tunic and belt. His arms tangle in the sleeves and he grunts in frustration.

Another moment though, and he's free. He tosses the tunic away – doesn't see where it lands – and kicks his boots and trousers off as fast as possible. His heart is hammering in his chest, adrenaline and need leaving him frantic.

Samiel looms over him. There is something feral and desperate in his expression. His curls are falling across his forehead, a riotous mop of haloed gold. He is a glorious sight, naked and aroused. Jay licks his lips, mouth dry as he stares at him.

The long, lean lines of Samiel's body are beautiful.

Beauty, until now, is something Jay has assigned to art: to books and paintings and wonderful landscapes. Not true, now. The warm tan of Samiel's skin, the sharp cut of his hip bones, the swoop of his collarbones – all these are poetry.

But where art is too pretty to touch, too neat, here Jay can smear desperate fingers down the line of Samiel's breastbone. He watches as Samiel shudders and sighs.

Samiel dips his head, swooping down for another kiss. His weight settles, heavy and deeply satisfying, against Jay. Miles of skin make glorious, dizzying contact, and it has Jay sinking further into the mattress. He curls a hand around the nape of Samiel's neck, pulls him in closer and sighs in delight as the last increments of distance between them disappear.

Samiel groans into Jay's mouth, and rocks down. The first slide of his cock against Jay's has them both shivering in pleasure.

Jay pushes up, gives as good as he gets. The noises Samiel is making against him, into him, are inhuman. They tear at Jay's mind, leaving him scattered and desperate.

He rocks up again and slides a greedy, possessive palm down the muscles of Samiel's back, as far as he can reach. In spite of it all, it is still not enough.

“Fuck me,” he says between kisses.

Samiel whimpers, sliding his lips over Jay's chin, down his throat. He presses sharp, stinging little kisses over Jay's collarbone, and sucks hard at the place he has previously left a bruise. “If you tell me that now,” he breathes, “I won't be able to stop.”

Jay reaches, grabs a fistful of curls and pulls, tilting Samiel's head back until he is looking at him. “Do I look like I want you to stop?” he asks, savagely.

Samiel parts his lips, the expression in his eyes flaring darker at the challenge. “You might, sweetheart.”

“Try me,” Jay says, and tightens his grip.

The grin Samiel gives him in return is feral. He pulls against Jay's hold, leans down in spite of it, and presses a sharp, open-mouthed kiss to Jay's breastbone. “Alright,” he says.

Jay lets go of him long enough that he can scrabble around and find the e-gel. Even those brief seconds feel too long. The tips of his fingers are burning with the need to be digging his nails into Samiel's skin. He feels hollowed out, empty.

He locates the tube, tossed carelessly down in the sheets, and shoves it at Samiel. “Here. Think you know what to do with this?”

Samiel smiles, wide and not at all nice as he sits back. “My master, if you believe I haven't been thinking about all the things I'd like to do to you since I first met you, this included, I don't know what to tell you.”

Jay watches him as he clicks the cap off the gel. “Thoughts are all well and good,” he says, around the savage want in his throat, “but it's not practical experience.”

“I don't know.” Samiel leans down over him again, until their lips are a hairsbreadth apart. “I have a very vivid imagination.” He wraps a hand around Jay's cock, fingers deliciously slick. His grip is just the right side of too tight.

“I – ” Jay says, and can't help rolling up into that grasp. He pants, as Samiel smears a thumb across the tip of his cock, spreading precome and slickness as he does.

“The first time I saw you on Mas-Hain,” Samiel says into his ear, his voice a wicked symphony as he slides his fist loosely up and down Jay's shaft, “I looked at you in that hangar in your uniform and I thought 'mine'. And then I looked again and I wanted to wreck you.”

His voice is liquid; a beautiful refrain that fills Jay's thoughts and leaves him gasping, toes curling as Samiel strokes him once, twice.

“You were stood there, all buttoned up, so stiff and formal, and every single line of your body was screaming disgust,” Samiel continues, and Jay can barely understand him, can barely recognise what he's being told over the thundering of his own heart and the pressure of Samiel's fingers, gliding with agonising slowness, up and down.

“And I wanted to tear your uniform off. I wanted to get down on my knees and swallow you whole, darling,” Samiel says relentlessly. “I wanted to suck you until you came, and then lick you clean. I wanted to spin you around and work you open with my fingers, my tongue. I wanted to bury myself inside you until there was nothing left in your head but me. I wanted to use you, and let you use me.” He grins again, sharp and vicious, fisting Jay's cock harder. Jay's hips stutter upwards, helplessly, at the images he is painting.

“And when we were finished, I wanted to think about you standing there again, wrapped back up like a pristine package, and only you and I would know you were still loose and slick. Only we'd know you'd have come leaking down your legs, and that you were completely mine under those clothes.”

“If you don't get to work on all these good ideas of yours right now,” Jay says, around the crashing in his own head, and the overwhelming desire to do every single one of those things immediately, “I am going to kick you in the balls.”

“Alright,” Samiel says. He lets Jay go – and Jay can't help the desperate little noise he make at that – and scrambles up onto his knees.

Jay watches as he slicks his fingers up again. The hollow emptiness burning through him is getting worse. There is an almost overwhelming desire now to simply shove Samiel over onto his back, and sink down on him.

Satisfied, his instincts demand. Full.

Samiel shoves Jay's legs apart, and Jay goes willingly, letting him push his way between them and pull, until he has arranged Jay to his satisfaction, open and vulnerable, hips canted up.

“Last chance,” Samiel says, guttural, voice rumbling through Jay's chest, his spine.

“Get on with it,” he snaps in reply.

Samiel leans down a little. “You've got no patience,” he purrs. “One day sweetheart, I'm going to hold you down and worship you for hours.”

He doesn't wait for Jay to respond. It's just as well, because fucking hell that fantasy is not going to leave Jay in a hurry.

Instead, Samiel reaches down, trailing one, two fingers over Jay's cock. He cups his balls briefly, tugs hard enough that Jay can feel himself shaking with it, and then slides a finger slowly down the crack of Jay's arse, to rub carefully over his hole.

The touch is enough to have Jay hissing in frustration. It's not a deliberate tease. He doesn't think Samiel's got enough patience left for that now, but it's nowhere near enough.

“Relax,” Samiel croons. “Relax, let me in.”

Jay does – tries to, anyway. He's strung up, wound tight and wanting. He fists a hand in the sheets, and inhales as Samiel slides the first slow, careful finger into him.

In the years since he's last done this, he'd forgotten how it feels. He hadn't remembered the delicate, intrusive intimacy of letting someone else work you open, one step at a time. The sensation is strange: a little odd but not uncomfortable. It will get better, he knows.

He can feel himself tighten around Samiel's finger as he draws it out a little, then pushes back in. He pants out a laugh at the soft moan Samiel lets slip.

“In your own time,” he manages, and is rewarded by Samiel thrusting his finger sharply, crooking it a bit, tugging at his rim.

“If we did it in my own time, we'd never be done,” Samiel says. He slides another of those long, clever fingers in next to the first, scissoring gently, and Jay feels the beginnings of that half-familiar burn at the stretch.

“Please,” he says, as Samiel twists his digits, his gaze locked with Jay's. “Samiel, please.”

Samiel swears, something chiming and formless, and spreads his fingers again.

Jay can feel himself loosening in increments, and in his feverish desperation it's not enough. He groans, dissatisfied, as Samiel slides his fingers out completely and reaches for the e-gel.

This time when he returns, it's with three fingers and it's better. The stretch stings, but the discomfort fades almost immediately. The sharp, full ache has Jay panting out a string of curses to the ceiling. He is half-blind, oblivious to anything but the feel of Samiel working him open; to the music of his voice.

“Look at you,” Samiel is saying, “Karios elea mios, just look at you.” He sounds stunned, disbelieving, and Jay moans at the way he speaks. “I can't – ” he continues. “I – ” The noise he makes is inarticulate, frustrated, and he pulls his fingers out abruptly.

The sudden emptiness is enough to have Jay rearing up off the bed, already clawing at Samiel to bring him back.

Samiel bats his hands away and shoves his knees apart further, leaving Jay completely exposed and vulnerable. He snarls, uncaring, and sinks back as Samiel arranges him again to his satisfaction.

He hears the soft, wet sound of Samiel slicking his own cock, and has to close his eyes against the sight of it. The overwhelming urge to get to his knees, to crawl across to Samiel and just take, is close to undoing him.

“Look at me,” Samiel says, and it is not a request. “My master, you look at me.” He waits until Jay does; until they are staring at each other. Then he hitches one of Jay's legs up, high, around his waist. His expression is viciously triumphant, savage and dangerous. Jay knows it matches his own.

“You're mine,” Samiel says, and the ugly possession in his voice has Jay baring his teeth in terrible agreement.

Not waiting for a reply, clearly not expecting one, Samiel tilts his hips. He rocks forwards once, testing, and Jay feels the head of his cock catch against his hole. Before he can move closer, push down, Samiel slides in.

The abrupt, unrelenting fullness, the overwhelming intensity of it, has Jay throwing his head back on a silent shout. He is tense; already trembling on the precipice at the feeling of Samiel, so close that there is now nothing between them.

His cock twitches at the sensation, the thought. He's leaking precome, already halfway towards coming and desperate to stave it off. He tries to breathe, and feels himself clench down.

The noise Samiel lets out at that, is purely animal. He doesn't wait for Jay to catch his breath. Doesn't even hesitate. He simply pulls Jay's leg higher, opens him up for easier access, and slides deeper.

He rolls his hips, testing, and palms Jay's thigh. “Are you alright?” he manages. “Jason, tell me you're alright.”

Jay can feel the cost it takes to ask that. If the instincts Samiel is feeling are anything like his own, he is fighting back the urge to simply bear down, to fuck him into the mattress irrespective of whether he agrees or not.

“I'm fine,” he manages.

It's a lie. He's better than that. He's stuffed full; indefinably satisfied in a way he never has been before. He clenches down again and laughs, triumphant, as Samiel thrusts a little, unable to help himself.

“You're good,” Samiel decides, eyes gleaming in the late afternoon light of the room. He shifts, pulls back, withdrawing in a way that has Jay chasing after him, and then slams back inside.

Fuck,” Jays says, involuntarily.

Samiel doesn't wait for him to adjust this time, and the pace he sets is punishing. It is no sweet, gentle thing, this. Jay is glad: he doesn't want it to be. He wants Samiel to make good on every single filthy thing he's said. Wants him buried so deeply that there's no untangling them.

He chokes at the thought; digs his heel into the small of Samiel's back and rocks down to meet him. “Harder,” he says, barely recognising his own voice, coarse and desperate.

Samiel growls, and does as he's told.

The feel of him burying himself inside Jay is nearly enough to tip Jay over the edge, even though they've barely started.

Samiel is moving over him, in him, and Jay's arousal spirals higher. He can feel it, a perfect ache; prised open and indefinably claimed. It is in his bones, in his blood now, he thinks, feverishly. It is a ferocious need that has him moving with Samiel, fast and hungry.

He pants, sliding a hand across the width of Samiel's shoulders, lower. He digs fingers into his hip and urges him closer, harder. “Please,” he says, pushing back, rocking with each movement, because it is too much and still not enough.

Logios aria chios akrodilia deme,” Samiels says. The words are incomprehensible. Alien. They sound like a wondrous song in Jay's mind, particularly when Samiel keens.

There's no coming back, Jay thinks without quite knowing why. Not from this.

But there are no consequences here, now. There is only Samiel: the taste of him, the feel of him.

“Again,” Jay says instead. He can't help himself; it's the only word he can think of now.

Tios mio ades gardia,” Samiel pants.

He slams into Jay again, deliciously brutal. If there was any tenderness before, it is gone now. He works his free hand between them and grips Jay's cock, fisting it ruthlessly and watching with obsessive interest as Jay tips his head back towards the ceiling, panting.

“Come for me, sweetheart,” he says, the liquid sound of his voice so different from what Jay is used to. The melodies are screaming in his head, a glorious crescendo of uncontrollable promise and purpose. “Come on darling, you're desperate for it, aren't you? Let go. I want to see you fall apart.”

The urge to agree, to obey, to do anything just to hear that sound again, almost has Jay doing as he's told. But he can't, because that's not who they are, and deep in his veins he knows exactly how this goes.

He locks both legs around Samiel's waist, tight in anticipation, and gasps out a command of his own.

“You first,” he says, and feels the way the relentless rhythm of Samiel's hips stutters just slightly.

Samiel says something, but what Jay isn't sure. Not until he lets go of Jay's cock and pulls out completely, leaving Jay gaping, empty.

Jay opens his mouth to shout, to flay Samiel alive, but before he can draw breath, Samiel is unhooking Jay's legs from around his waist and flipping him over with brutal, ruthless efficiency.

He pushes Jay face down, snarling a warning when Jay tries to scramble to his knees. Jay tenses, goes to roll over, to challenge, but there's no hesitation to Samiel's movements. He spreads Jay open and drives back into him, and there is nothing else.

Jay fists the sheets beneath him, all the air forced from his lungs, all thought gone from his head. This angle is better, even deeper. Every thrust Samiel makes is driving relentlessly into his prostate, sending lightening down his spine. His cock is being ground against the mattress with each sharp thrust.

If there is a competition here, Jay realises dizzily, Samiel has just won this round comprehensively.

He pushes back as best he can, uncoordinated and almost out of rhythm. Arousal is spiralling higher and higher in him. The urge to come is starting to become unbearable, a terrible, sweet ache of not-quite-enough.

“Pretty little human,” Samiel says in his ear, wild and dangerous. Here, in his voice, is the heritage of his ancestors: murderously beautiful, as they tore Jay's people apart with glorious songs and wickedly sharp teeth.

The nape of Jay's neck prickles with the promise of violence, of arousal. He twists his head to one side, watching out of the corner of his eye as Samiel stares at him, greedily. Perhaps he should be concerned, but he can't be, not with the way Samiel is moving in him, so deep Jay could swear he can feel his heartbeat.

“Samiel,” is all he manages, and Samiel hisses.

“Mine,” he says, working his hand underneath Jay, pulling his hips up slightly so he can grip Jay's cock again. He is relentless in his rhythm, his gluttony. “Mine, mia garos.”

It only takes one, two, pumps of Samiel's hand and Jay is gone, tipping over the edge. Orgasm is thing of unbearable white heat, driven further by the feeling of Samiel burying himself in Jay as far as he can go. The sensation causes him to spiral higher, to draw his climax out, his mind wiped of everything but Samiel, over him, in him, exactly as he'd wanted.

As he comes, he feels Samiel sink sharp, vicious teeth into the join of his neck. The pain burns, gloriously bright, and Jay shudders with it, insensate and willing.

Samiel slams into him once, twice more and stills, his teeth still buried in Jay's shoulder. Jay can feel him, the hot, slick sensation of Samiel coming, and he clenches down, drawing another pulse of wet heat that has him twitching in the aftershocks of his own orgasm.

He lays there, gasping for air, mind gloriously numb for one blissful moment, until, gradually, he starts trying to regain control of his own senses. He feels Samiel's mouth leave his neck; can feel him panting into the skin of Jay's shoulder blade. He drapes across Jay's back, a solid weight that pins him to the mattress.

Jay feels slick, as the effects of his orgasm wane. He is uncomfortably full, with Samiel still inside him. His own come is sticking to his skin, and he's still lying in the damp patch on the mattress. Part of him wants to draw away, to scramble out from beneath Samiel and begin to build his defences. The rest of him...

The rest of him wants to stay right here. Wants to croon in satisfaction and bask in the sensation of having been well and truly fucked. He wants to stay exactly where he is, and relish in the feeling of Samiel.

Mine, he wants to say, because it goes in both directions, and hadn't that been the point of this? He has got exactly what he wanted from it.

“Are you already thinking?” Samiel asks into the space between his shoulder blades. He is still trying to catch his breath, and Jay revels in the sensation of each dash of air across his skin.

He licks his lips and swallows; tries to compose himself and knows his voice is going to come out cracked anyway. “Maybe.”

He can't help it: he smiles at the little moan Samiel lets loose. Whether it's in exasperation, or at the sound of Jay, hoarse, he isn't sure.

“So this is the sound of you after being fucked,” Samiel says, removing any doubt. His voice burns along Jay's spine, lodging under his breastbone. “Gods, I always thought it would be good, but...”

Jay closes his eyes, laughs a little. “Don't be ridiculous.”

Samiel hums, shifting slightly. He licks over the bite mark he has left, deliberately rough, and Jay shivers at the feel of it. He's probably drawn blood, and Jay can't find it in himself to care.

“You should hear yourself, sweetheart,” Samiel says, close to Jay's ear. “The sound of you. It's indescribable.” He sounds pleased with himself. With Jay. “You're wrecked, aren't you?”

Jay stretches a little, loose limbed and satisfied. He's sore, but pleasantly so. “If you think this is bad,” he says, riding an errant spark of mischief, “then you should hear me after you've fucked my throat.”

Samiel swears. The sound is rough, shocked, and has Jay laughing into the mattress.

“Don't say things like that,” Samiel says. “Not unless you want to put it to the test right now, my master.”

Jay feels him pull back a little. He can't help shivering as Samiel slides a hand down, proprietary and interested, to trace the pads of his fingers around the edges of Jay's hole. His cock is still buried inside Jay, and he makes a delighted little noise as he pushes the tip of one finger in slightly, alongside, tugging at Jay's rim and making him moan.

It is enough to have Jay squirming, as realisation dawns. “Wait,” he says. “You're still hard.”

“You're not?” Samiel asks, surprised.

This is, perhaps, something they should have discussed beforehand, Jay realises ruefully. After all, Sirens and humans might be genetically compatible, but that doesn't mean they don't have different ideas about what constitutes normal when it comes to fucking.

“Not so much, no,” he says, and shivers as Samiel shifts again. “How many times do you – ”

“Oh, at least twice,” Samiel says. He rolls his hips a little, in a way that has Jay biting his lip, oversensitive to the pleasurable little shocks it causes. “Could you?” Samiel asks. “Come again, I mean?”

“I – ” Jay wants to say no. He is a little sore, relaxed and more interested in sprawling out on the bed and holding Samiel to him.

But the deeper, more animal, side of him is still interested. He's intrigued in spite of himself – wants to compete and see if this time he could push Samiel onto his back, pin him down and sink onto his cock. To take it a little slower and watch Samiel fall apart beneath his hands.

The thought sends a reluctant pang of arousal arrowing through him, and he unconsciously tightens. Samiel's breathing stutters a little in response.

“I don't know,” Jay says at last. “Let's find out.”

*

It turns out he can, much to Samiel's clear and obvious delight.

The second time is slower, and Jay's orgasm is a deep, rolling thing that lets him chase his pleasure, as he rides Samiel to completion. Samiel comes with his teeth buried in Jay's neck again, and a grip on Jay's hips hard enough to leave bruises.

They lie together, in the aftermath. Jay can feel his limbs trembling with exertion, and the last traces of arousal. His mind is floating, a vague, distant stream of thoughts that he can't keep track of. Samiel is tracing little patterns into his skin, his head propped on Jay's shoulder.

Late afternoon has waned into evening, and the sound of the bar downstairs filters up to them, muffled and distant. It occurs to Jay, briefly, that it is quite possible that everyone heard what was going on up here.

He finds he doesn't care much.

“Exactly,” Samiel murmurs drowsily against him. “At least they'll know you're mine.”

There is something catching at the back of Jay's mind. Something he should be alarmed about, at this. But Samiel is warm and perfectly lovely next to him, and he can't quite figure out what the worry may be.

Gradually, he feels himself slipping towards sleep, as his body starts to calm.

His last thought before he drifts off is that, in the morning, they are going to have to sort out what the hell they do next.

Tomorrow's problem, he decides.

He pulls Samiel closer, tangles their legs together, and lets sleep claim him.

Chapter Text

Morning comes slowly.

It is still mostly dark when Jay wakes, and for a moment his scrambled brain informs him he is still in a cell, held by the rebellion. He tries to sit up and finds a weight on his chest. He glances down, surprised, and discovers a mop of curls.

In the night Samiel has somehow managed to shift until he is between Jay's legs. He is sprawled out, face down, one hand curled loosely around Jay's upper arm. He is warm, sleep-heavy and relaxed in a way Jay's bleary mind finds somewhat surprising. He is breathing slowly, lips parted, cheek pressed against Jay's skin in a way that should be irritating and instead is endearing.

Some strange, soft emotion flutters under Jay's ribs. Oh, he thinks, falling back gently against the pillows and staring blankly at the ceiling. That's...

He struggles to articulate the feeling, even to himself.

It is an odd humming. A contentedness, spreading through him. He can feel it. A singing sensation that thrums along his nerves. It is painfully indescribable, and he shifts, half uncertain. The feeling is there and...not. A part of him is very much alive with it; the rest of him feels oddly remote.

Something in him is already winding up because of it – cautious and tense, preparing for the inevitable storm that his impulsive actions will cause. It's strange, he realises, to feel so deeply contented and so painfully aware of how badly the situation might devolve at the same time.

The reason for that, he thinks, is probably that trust is still not total between the pair of them. Samiel doesn't believe him about Deneira, and he hasn't told Samiel about Lachesis' terms – or, worse still, that he's agreed to them – but in spite of that...

In spite of that, there is a deep glow of satisfaction working its way deeper into his soul.

Absently, he brings a hand up, carding careful fingers through Samiel's hair and watching the way he twitches slightly in his sleep. You clever boy, he wants to say to him. You brilliantly devious man. Because here, at last, Samiel has made him vulnerable, and in the most terrible and bitter of ways.

Now, Jay has something to lose and it frightens him.

“What are we going to do?” he says softly to himself.

Samiel inhales sleepily and buries his face against Jay's breastbone. “Mio ades,” he slurs under his breath. “Stop thinking. 'S too early.”

“Sorry.” Jay runs apologetic fingers through Samiel's curls, and can't help smiling a little at the soft sound this elicits. The warmth in his chest burns a little brighter; a small burst of satisfied happiness.

Ridiculous, he tells himself, sternly. That's what you are: ridiculous. You're falling into all the worst clichés you possibly can, and in spite of all the ways this is going to go wrong, your heart is still beating faster at the sound of him.

“You're still thinking,” Samiel mumbles. “I can practically hear it.” He presses an absent kiss to Jay's sternum and grumbles a little.

“Are you always this lazy first thing in the morning?” Jay asks quietly, amused in spite of himself.

There is something delicate here – a fragile peace holding the outside world at bay. He can't bring himself to shatter it with loud voices just yet. Instead, he glances down, watching the way Samiel slits one eye open to look at him.

“Only when there's a good reason to stay in bed,” Samiel says.

“Ever had a good reason before?”

“Mm, no. I think you're the first.”

There are several ways that sentence could be taken; Jay chooses not to analyse it too closely. Instead, he tugs on Samiel's curls a little, smiling helplessly at the baleful expression on Samiel's face when he does.

“We're going to have to get up soon,” he says, and feels a sharp pang at the thought of it. “We've got to get back. We can't stay here forever.”

“One day,” Samiel says, sounding a little more alert and distinctly unhappy about it, “I am going to tie you to a bed and make you sleep in.”

“One day,” Jay says, “I'll probably let you.”

“Promises,” Samiel mutters. He sighs, and opens both eyes. “Does your brain ever actually quiet down?”

There is an odd feeling of irritated affection running through Jay and he frowns, shifting absently against the mattress as he considers this. “Very rarely,” he says at last, and the feeling blossoms into outright amusement.

There is... something very strange about the sensation. It is a double echo, reverberating through him in time with his heartbeat. It coils its way into his heart almost like a part-heard song, when the melody is just out of reach but the feel of it is there. For a dizzying moment it's almost as though he can taste the expression on Samiel's face.

It's off. Wrong.

“I...” he says, and drops his hand from Samiel, gripping the bedsheets in a white knuckled fist. “I think there's...”

Worryconcern

Jay lurches up, dislodging Samiel, who scrambles backwards hastily. He doubles over, one hand pressed to his chest as he gasps, trying to calm his heart, which is slamming against his ribs in a sudden surge of adrenaline.

The feelings are getting worse, more intense and horrifically alien.

There is a cold corner of Jay's mind that is studiously analysing everything, even as the rest of him is panicking. The logical part of his brain is rapidly coming to the conclusion that this is somehow something to do with Samiel.

Feardesperationhorror

“What the fuck is this?” Jay manages, bent over and panting. His fingers dig into his skin, as though he can carve the feelings out with his fingernails. “Samiel, what – ”

“I don't know!” Samiel says, scrabbling upright. He reaches out, taking hold of Jay's shoulders. The look in his eyes is surprised, terrified. “I don't know, I – ”

“Calm down,” Jay grits out. “I need you to calm down. Fucking hell, is this you?”

“I don't – ”

There is terror there, dimly, at the realisation this may very well be exactly what Jay thinks it is. As the thought occurs to him, Samiel lets him go, reeling back. The expression on his face mirrors everything Jay is currently feeling.

“You can feel me,” Samiel says, horrified. “You can – ”

“If you don't breathe,” Jay says, struggling to get the words out around the horrorpanicterror that is clogging his throat, “I will come over there and knock you out.”

Bizarrely, this seems to help.

As Jay tries to slow his own rapid breathing, he feels Samiel struggling to fall into the same rhythm.

Carefully, Jay drops his hand, pressing still-shaking fingers to the mattress. He tries to focus on the feel of rough fabric beneath his fingertips; on the slow filter of early morning light spilling across the bed and nothing else.

“How is this possible,” Samiel asks, and Jay grits his teeth against another wave of surprisefearwonder. “How – ”

“Meshala,” Jay says. He looks up, sees the expression on Samiel's face and has to look away. “Fucking soul bonds.” He inhales deeply. “Venndred failed to mention this.” He wonders, slightly hysterically, if this is what it is going to be like all the time.

If it is, he may go mad.

“No one said this is what would happen,” Samiel says, and there is a tinge of horrified fascination in his voice, that Jay can feel echoing in his bones. “I've never heard of this.”

“You haven't heard of much though,” Jay says, and can't quite hide the way Samiel's small instinctive flinch of hurt sparks along his own spine. “Sorry,” he adds.

“It's...” Samiel runs a shaking hand through his hair, which is hopelessly tangled. “Well.” He shrugs, a helpless gesture. “What do we do?”

“Do?”

“I mean, is there anything to – to – fix this?”

“Fix it?” Jay echoes, and finds, strangely, that the idea hurts.

Samiel sways a little, where he is kneeling. “I mean, we can't stay like this. We can't...” He hesitates, staring at Jay. “You want to,” he says, and the shock in his voice is audible. Tangible, too, against Jay's nerves.

“I – ”

“No,” Samiel says, dazed. “No, you actually really want to.” He relaxes suddenly, all at once. The long lines of his body fold in on themselves a little.

Jay breathes slightly easier, the tightness in his chest being replaced with a slow-dawning wonder, that has him flinching in an altogether different way.

“We'd be compromised if we kept this,” he says from between gritted teeth. “What good are a diplomat and a Severne from opposing sides who know exactly what the other is thinking?”

Samiel blinks. “I can't read your mind,” he says. “I wouldn't want to. I can just...” His hands flutter once, helplessly, as though he wants to reach out to Jay. “You're gorgeous,” he says, a little helplessly. “You're like the sun, warm and beautiful.” He sounds helpless. Lost. “I didn't know it would be like this,” he adds, quietly.

“You're a song,” Jay says before he can stop himself. “You're – I can hear – you're the first few bars of a familiar song.” It's the closest he can get to articulating what it feels like. The sentiment makes him want to tear his hair out. It is trite. Insipid. It in no way really describes how Samiel feels against his soul.

“I don't know if we can stop this,” Samiel says. He squares his shoulders, looks straight at Jay and sets his jaw. “I don't want to stop this.”

Choices, Jay thinks reluctantly, watching Samiel. Here, again, he is faced with a choices and the inevitable outcome. If he says he wants to end this, here, now, he's faced with the possibility of doing himself some permanent damage. And that's if something like this can even be undone.

If he says he wants to keep this – whatever 'this' means – then he is left with Samiel. Always.

Then there are the further implications to consider. The truth will out eventually, and even if by some miracle the talks go perfectly and a new era of human and Siren relations dawns, it is very, very unlikely that he will ever be allowed near a diplomatic mission again.

Compromised, he thinks grimly. I'd be completely bloody compromised.

The logical realisation is that he needs time to process this. To understand what meshala actually means. To talk to someone who can actually tell him what it involves and the consequences of his decisions. To let the reality of the fact he might be about to throw everything he's ever worked for away.

But logic wasn't with him on Mas-Hain, he realises. It wasn't there when he started to befriend a man who stood on the opposite side of this conflict. Logic wasn't around when he kissed Samiel in the rain; when he stood in front of the rebellion and picked a side.

Choices.

He finds he's shaking. The realisation that even before he's thought this through he has already made his decision, is a terrible thing to discover.

Samiel is watching him, pale and defiant. If nothing else, Jay thinks, if he rejected this now, he doesn't think Samiel would ever let go. It shouldn't comfort him.

It does.

“You're mine,” he says slowly. “I meant that. I didn't mean to, but I did.” He thinks hard, searching for the right words. “This bond, I don't know how it works or what exactly it is. We need more information because it's really bloody weird, and if you'd asked me yesterday if such a thing truly existed, I'd have told you to go and sober up.” He can feel his lips twitching and tries to suppress a rueful smile at the burst of hope he can feel from Samiel.

“I'm terrified,” he admits. “I'm scared to death of completely destroying everything we've both worked for. This is going to reflect badly on us no matter what.”

He draws a deep breath and leans forward, resting his palm against the warm skin of Samiel's chest. Under his fingertips he can feel Samiel's heartbeat, strong and steady.

“And it's still not enough to convince me to walk away.”

“You'd do this?” Samiel asks, his gaze is bright, watchful.

“Yes,” says Jay, and the truth is a bitter pill to swallow. “I would.”

Somehow, he thinks grimly, he's going to have to deal with this.

*

After.

After Samiel has kissed Jay again, then again, and pushed him down, until they had to stop because the sounds of Glessen waking up around them began to filter through. After that, they separate.

Samiel showers first, then Jay.

As he stands under the hot spray, Jay absently touches the marks Samiel has left on him, considering. Kythria, Venndred had called them: claiming marks, a declaration.

Half-curious, Jay pushes harder against the bite mark on his neck – feels the deep, tender ache of a bruise already well developed, and suppresses a shiver.

As he climbs out of the shower and dries off, he can hear Samiel outside, moving around the room. The warm glow of his contentment sits under Jay's skin, uncomfortably familiar, and he resists the urge to examine it too closely. He needs to stay calm now, logical. The day looms long ahead of them and Jay doesn't have a clue how he is going to get through it.

“I was thinking we should wait until the transport station is at its busiest,” he says, when he emerges from the bathroom, fully clothed and with the data chip from the rebellion wedged safely in his boot again. “It's our best chance to slip past any spies Lachesis may have.”

Samiel raises an eyebrow at him, from where he is lounging in the only chair. He is dressed in his usual tunics, covered up and sensible. Jay can't help the small sense of satisfaction her gets in knowing exactly what is under those clothes now.

“Providing your good friend Isen hasn't already told her what you're planning to do,” Samiel says, as Jay slips his translators back into his ears.

Immediately, Samiel's voice is filtered.

Flattened and dulled, it sounds achingly normal in a way that is both a relief and a terrible disappointment. Sometime in the last twelve hours, Jay has become familiar with the deep harmonies and resonance of it. To not have it now is... strange.

“I didn't tell Isen what I was planning anyway,” he says, instead of anything foolish like If I take these translators back off will you keep talking? I don't care what you say.

“That doesn't mean – ” Samiel begins.

An almighty crash echoes from downstairs. There is no warning to it; no sound that Jay has picked up on before that would be of concern. It is the very distinctive boom of the front door of the bar being kicked in.

Without conscious thought, Jay dives across the bed for his pistol as Samiel lunges for his salzon. They both swing around to face the bedroom door, just as the first set of footsteps comes thundering up the stairs.

The bedroom door flies inwards, smashing against the wall and splintering off of its hinges. For one terrible moment Jay is half certain the rebels have returned; that this time there will be no way to get Samiel to safety if they are caught.

He raises his pistol, aiming to shoot the first Siren through the door.

The red hair stops him from firing.

“Wait!” he says, throwing an arm out to halt Samiel, who is already stepping towards the intruder, blade drawn.

“Drop your weapon and get your hands on your fucking head, Lane!” Hird roars, her gun aimed straight between Jay's eyes.

Jay fists a hand in the front of Samiel's tunic, tugging sharply as Samiel tries to lunge forward again. “Don't,” he says.

“Hands on your head,” Hird repeats. “Now.” Her gaze doesn't waver and her finger is steady on the trigger.

“Hird,” Jay says. He lowers his pistol carefully. Behind Hird he can see Littien stepping carefully into the room.

“Severne Tremark,” Littien says, and Jay feels Samiel twitch a little under his grasp. He watches as Littien's gaze rakes the pair of them. For one brief moment the disgust is clear on her face. “Wing Commander Lane.”

“What the hell is going on?” Jay asks, looking between Littien and Hird.

“You're under arrest,” Littien says. She steps around Hird – ignoring her warning growl – and moves to stand in front of them. “You have both been implicated in the murder of Helenia Mirret Maa-Ilia and I am taking you into custody.” Her voice is flat; her face expressionless.

“No,” Hird says, as Jay opens his mouth to object. Her expression is grim as she glances at Littien. “That's not fucking happening. Wing Commander Lane is a member of the human peace envoy. He is afforded all the diplomatic rights that come with that status. I'm taking him into custody, not you.”

Jay stares at her, surprised. “Hird,” he says, “you can't – ”

“Shut the fuck up, Lane,” Hird says without looking in his direction. Her gaze is locked with Littien's, and she hasn't moved a muscle.

“The murder happened on Lenian soil,” Littien says. “That gives us the right to investigate. Wing Commander Lane is a suspect, which means under the terms of the Territorial Rights Agreement of – ”

“Don't fucking try that with me,” Hird says. She is still, Jay realises, aiming her gun directly at him, even as she glares at Littien. “Under the Diplomatic Rights Act of the Interior Circle, subsection twenty seven point one five, Lane is entitled to diplomatic immunity.”

“Not unless he is being held in custody by his own diplomatic party,” Littien says coldly.

“Does it look like I've just invited him to come for tea and fucking cakes?”

“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Samiel growls. He has not loosened his grip on his salzon. Jay can feel his anger, a low ominous warning hum as he stares at Littien.

“Keep up,” Hird says scathingly. “Helenia Mirret was shot dead. You two disappeared and now Governor Mirret is sobbing into his sleeve and telling the Queen you may be responsible.”

“Telling the – ” Samiel stares, dumbfounded. “Why?”

“Oh, I don't know. Maybe because you fucking legged it and didn't make contact? That ring any bells, sunshine?”

“Hird,” Jay says a little desperately. “You must know this is nonsense.” Somewhere in his chest, he can feel Samiel's rage, which has transmuted into something close to fear. Jay finds himself struggling to think around it.

“You can answer the charges back in Maa-Tarek and enter a plea then,” Littien says. “You will be provided with the opportunity to discuss your current legal situation with your fellow diplomatic staff when we have reached a designated holding place.”

Hird shifts slightly. Her expression, already furious, darkens further. “The only designated holding place Lane is going to is the embassy suites.”

“The cells,” Littien corrects.

She takes a step forwards and quicker than Jay can follow, Hird has placed herself in her path. She turns sideways, tracking Jay with her pistol at all times, even as she puts out a hand to stop Littien.

“Not another step,” she says. “You can take Tremark in a minute if you have to, but Lane is coming with me.”

Littien's hand slides slowly towards the hilt of her own salzon, and Jay watches Hird spot the movement. “You are impeding my investigation, Wing Commander. Both of these men are under arrest.”

“Try it,” Hird says softly. “Take one more fucking step and try it. I will put you down.”

Jay clears his throat. “Perhaps we should talk sensibly about this?” he suggests.

“By all means,” Hird says. “Let's fucking talk about your potential murder charges when you've received no legal counsel, and in front of the most hostile fucking witness on the planet.” Her tone is scathing.

“There was no murder,” Samiel hisses. “At least not by us.”

“Then I am sure you have an excellent explanation for what happened,” Littien says. “And the evidence to back this.” She does not relax her hand from around the hilt of her salzon.

There is a gentle cough from the doorway.

Venndred stands there, awkwardly. The expression on his face is slightly comical in its disbelief, as he surveys the scene. “When you said you were going to investigate a potential lead,” he says, “this isn't what I thought you meant.”

“It's exactly what I meant,” Hird says, without taking her eyes off Littien. “The Severne here, however, was not part of the fucking plan.”

“Yes,” Venndred says dryly. “I can see that.” He takes a cautious step into the room, then another. He glances at Samiel, and Jay sees him start a little in surprise. “Ah,” he says.

“'Ah'?” Hird growls. “What is 'ah'?”

“I think perhaps I'd better...” Venndred flaps a hand vaguely. He looks at Jay and winces slightly. “...Talk to them alone,” he finishes.

The curiosity Jay can feel burning is all Samiel; the embarrassment is completely his own. “Venndred,” he says, “perhaps this should wait – ”

“For fuck's sake, Lane!” Hird roars. The penny, Jay realises grimly, has just dropped for her. “Really? Fucking really? You are the stupidest bastard I have ever met, you half-brained sodding mulch leech!”

“Don't you dare talk to him that way,” Samiel says coldly.

“And as for you,” Hird says, rounding on him, “you're a walking fucking time bomb. Was that your plan all along, Tremark? Compromise him and get him to – ”

“Enough!” Jay says sharply. He is beginning to get angry, he can feel it. Worryingly, he is not sure if it's his own anger, Samiel's, or both. “You can say what you like to me. You don't get to do that to him.”

“The situation is worse than initially suspected,” Littien says. She is ignoring Hird's towering rage as she looks closely at the pair of them. “There were... concerns something like this would happen.” Her gaze lands on Samiel and stays there, fixed. “You are also compromised, Tremark. This will have to be reported.”

A sudden sharp pang of fear has Jay wavering on his feet. It is formless, with no specific direction that he can see, but it is clear; sharp and bright against his sternum.

“Samiel,” he says, turning on some half-formed instinct.

“Right.” Venndred claps his hands together. The crack sounds loud in the room. “Severne Littien, Wing Commander Hird, please could you step outside for a moment?”

“I don't think that's – ”

“If you think for one fucking moment I'm – ”

“Now,” Venndred says sharply.

Littien hesitates for a moment, clearly torn between keeping the pair of them in sight at all times, and obeying someone further up the chain of command than she is.

“If they escape this room...” she says.

Venndred smiles, briefly. “They won't,” he says. “We're on the second floor, the window is tiny, and there's only one exit. I assure you, they're not going anywhere.”

“Alright, Psyke. But if any attempt to escape is made, there will be consequences.”

“My responsibility.” Venndred nods. “I understand.”

“I don't,” Hird says, as Littien turns to leave. “I am not leaving either of them here with you alone.” She lowers her pistol, slowly.

Venndred turns to look at her. As he does, Jay notes his expression softens almost imperceptibly. “Evi,” he says, “they're not going anywhere.”

“Then why do you need to talk to them alone?” Hird demands. Suspicion is written into the lines of her body as she looks at the three of them. She is not, Jay realises, going to back down on this.

“It's complicated,” Venndred says.

“Don't pull that nonsense on me, Priest. What's complicated?”

“Soul bonds,” Jay bites out, because there will be no keeping this from Hird and it's better to try and get her on side now.

He braces himself for the inevitable consequences of his words, and realises only after his said them that this is it: this, here, is the moment he's been dreading. Now at last, someone is going to declare him compromised.

“Soul bonds,” Hird repeats, and the flat anger in her voice does nothing to ease Jay's apprehension. “Really, Lane?” She stares at him for one long moment, clearly mentally cataloguing his appearance. “Do you have any idea,” she says slowly, “how much I want to fucking punch you right now?”

“Don't you dare,” Samiel says, and where Hird's anger is steel honed to a sharp edge, his is vast – an inferno that has Jay gritting his teeth against the waves of it. “Lay one finger on him and see what happens to you.”

Hird looks at him. “I'm quite happy shooting you in the fucking head, Tremark,” she says contemptuously. “Don't fucking push me.”

“Evi,” Venndred says, “go outside.”

“Why? So Lane and Tremark can fucking bond some more?” She is not, Jay notes, protesting the idea of soul bonds. “No.”

“So that I can get them both to calm down,” Venndred says patiently. He gestures at Samiel. “Look at them, Evi. They're both a mess. Everything that's happening is feeding their emotions and neither of them has a clue how to control it.”

He is watching Hird intently, Jay realises. There is an odd, pleading note to Venndred's voice, as though he is genuinely trying to convince her that he wants to do the right thing. Looking between the pair of them, he sees the moments Hird visibly reigns her anger in.

“Fine,” she says shortly. “But if they knock you out and escape, I won't just hold you responsible like that idiot Littien, I will fucking rip your balls off and shove them down your throat.” She stands for a moment, every single muscle in her body rigid, then looks at Jay.

“And if you so much as lay a fucking finger on him, I will peel your skin off so fucking slowly you'll be begging for death before I've finished with one finger.”

Samiel steps forwards, despite Jay's hand still fisted in his tunic. “Try it and see what happens,” he says dangerously.

Hird's lips curl off her teeth in a silent snarl. “There'd be no fucking 'try' about it, Tremark.”

She turns sharply on her heel, pistol still drawn, and leaves the room.

For one long moment, Venndred watches her go.

As the sound of her footsteps fades down the stairs, he exhales slowly and turns to look at Jay.

“She's really very upset,” he says quietly. “For quite a while we thought you might be dead, or worse. She's barely slept since you were taken.” It shouldn't sound like he is apologising for Hird and yet somehow, Jay thinks, it does.

“I didn't leave voluntarily,” he says wearily. “And neither of us had anything to do with Helenia Mirret's death.”

Venndred shrugs a little. “I'll leave that for you to discuss with your ambassador,” he says. “I'm more concerned with what's happening with you two.”

“I suppose there's no point in telling Hird I was joking about the soul bond?” Jay says, a little despairingly. He feels the sharp spark of Samiel's hurt and moves his hand to hold his arm instead. “I only meant that a bit,” he says, by way of an apology.

“You two are a mess,” Venndred says bluntly, but not unkindly. He taps the side of his neck and Jay shifts, uncomfortably aware of the bite mark throbbing dully on his own shoulder. “I mean, I know we spoke about kythria, Wing Commander, but really.”

“That was me,” Samiel says abruptly. “You can't blame him for that.”

“Yes,” Venndred says, “I can quite clearly see it was you.” He sighs. “Putting aside the political ramifications for a moment, are you two alright?”

“No,” Jay says. He winces as Samiel draws back a little. “This is...a lot. And a soul bond. I mean, that's not – ”

“What did you think was going to happen?” Venndred asks gently. “I'm not talking about the sex,” he adds, smiling a little as Jay feels the beginnings of a flush start to crawl up his neck “But I am talking about the way you've quite clearly started to build...something.”

“You told me this couldn't happen accidentally,” Jay says. “You told me it was a deliberate act.”

“It is.” Venndred looks around, then perches carefully on the edge of the chair. He props his arms on his knees, resting his chin on his hands. “You have to really choose someone. It's about trust, I told you that.” He watches Jay carefully. “Can you honestly tell me you haven't made some important choices in the last couple of days?”

“No,” Jay admits. “But I wasn't expecting this.”

“Neither was I,” Samiel says quietly. “But I'm not sorry.” His expression, when Jay glances at him, is surprisingly defiant as he watches Venndred.

“I know,” Venndred says simply. “Look, we probably haven't got long so tell me briefly what you're experiencing. I'll see if I can help.”

“Emotions,” Jay says, before Samiel can open his mouth. “Quite vividly sometimes. It's like my own are there, but so are Samiel's. It's...” Terrible, he doesn't say, but knows Samiel feels it anyway.

“That's the strong beginnings of a soul bond,” Venndred says. “You've taken to it more quickly than most I've seen.” He frowns a little, considering. “But then, I've not really seen a pair like you before.”

“Wait,” Samiel says. “Beginnings? What more is there?”

The look Venndred shoots him is surprised. “Has no one ever explained this to you?” he asks, then shuts his eyes for a brief moment, despairing. “Of course they haven't,” he mutters.

“It's not his fault,” Jay says. “He doesn't know anymore than I do.”

“Right.” Venndred pinches the bridge of his nose. “Alright. Soul bonds. You understand that when we talk about compatibility, we are are talking about two halves of the same soul, housed in two separate bodies? Metaphorically speaking,” he adds, at Jay's look of horror.

“So our souls are split?” Samiel asks, and Jay can feel his interest.

“Sort of. You are your own people, but your souls are linked. They form part of a whole unit, together.” Venndred laces his fingers together then tugs them apart a little, still holding on. “See? Separate, but not. I told you that takes total immersion, and that's true.”

“So logosykia isn't just being able to sense feelings?” Jay asks, and part of him is dreading the answer.

“No. It's feelings, thoughts. You can reach out along it, look out through your partner's eyes, or so I am led to believe. It's complete synchronicity,” Venndred says. “It's a romantic notion, I think.”

“It's terrifying,” Jay says hoarsely. “Who would let someone have that kind of power over them?”

“I would if it was you,” Samiel says without hesitation.

“That,” Venndred says, pointing a finger at him, “is not healthy. This is something you should consider properly before you jump into it.”

Samiel stares at him. “Why?” he asks. “I've always known he was it for me. You think there's anything that's going to make me not want this? I thought he'd betrayed me and tried to kill me; I thought he was deliberately attempting to stop peace between our two races. He and I...don't agree about some things. None of it makes him mean any less to me.”

He tilts his head a little, watching Venndred. “There's no choice. Not for me.”

The absolute truth of his words is ringing through Jay like a bell. It makes him tighten his grip convulsively on Samiel's arm as he stares, sightless, at the floor.

“Is there any way to block it?” he asks hoarsely, because he can't address what Samiel has said. Not now. Not like this.

“Well, yes,” Venndred says. “You can learn to shut your side off. You're still linked, but it's not like every little thing will filter through. I've heard distance can also weaken it, a little. You can consciously manipulate it, of course, so you both have privacy. It's a link, a channel. Not a consumption of your entire being.”

“Right.” Jay swallows, and tries very hard not to think about all the things he absolutely doesn't want Samiel knowing.

Samiel holds himself very still. Under Jay's fingers, he can feel a fine tremor running through him as he looks at Jay. “Are you regretting this?” he asks at last, and there is something so tired, so broken in his voice, that Jay can't help himself.

“No,” he says.

It is the truth, despite all the problems, and admitting it very much hurts.

“Well,” Venndred says gently, “I think that at the very least that's something you can both work with, don't you?” He grins as Jay looks at him. “But you may want to start thinking about what you're going to tell everyone else about this.”

“Along with the murder charge,” Jay says grimly, and tries to ignore the worry he can feel building at the thought of that.

“Yes,” Venndred says. “That too.”

*

Venndred only has another couple of minutes to explain the basic concept of being able to dull the emotions on either side of the bond, before Hird returns with Littien in tow.

They are escorted with outright hostility (Hird's) and cool calculation (Littien's) onto the shuttle, which was stowed on a nearby rooftop.

Hird – with one last promise of physical retribution if Jay so much as thinks of moving an inch from where he is strapped in – leaves to help Littien pilot. Much to Jay's concern, they are heading straight back to Maa-Tarek.

“That's probably better,” Samiel murmurs, some three hours later when Jay voices his worry. He is sitting next to Jay, pressed shoulder to shoulder. Until now he has been calm, relatively peaceful. “If nothing else, we can speak to Most Exalted and – ”

“She's not going to believe I didn't have something to do with it,” Jay says.

He wants to say 'we didn't have something to do with it', but finds himself unable to stamp out the small spark of hope he can feel Samiel holding. “This gets her exactly what she wants, doesn't it?”

“What do you mean?”

And there goes the peace, Jay thinks grimly to himself.

For one painful moment, he wants to be back in this morning, when Samiel was lovely and pliant in his arms, and nothing else mattered. The strength of the desire surprises him, and he bites his lip against it.

He glances across the cabin at Venndred, but he has turned away, apparently engrossed in a data pad he has found stowed in one of the lockers.

“Deneira does not... particularly like me,” he says carefully. “On top of that, I believe she would very much like an excuse to continue the current conflict between our two sides.”

“She doesn't like humans,” Samiel admits, “but she's committed to bringing about peace. She has said so, both publicly and privately.”

There's no such thing as private to a Queen, Jay wants to say. But how can he? Samiel will disagree, even though Jay knows Deneira's alleged willingness to negotiate only extends far enough to keep her in power. When handed an excuse on a platter – the murder of a Governor's wife by a human representative – she will have ample diplomatic grounds to tear up any progress that has been made in discussing peace.

Particularly as they don't have any proof they are not responsible.

The one saving grace, he realises, may be Samiel. As Mirret has been foolish enough to implicate Samiel as well, there may be some room to manoeuvre.

Whilst Jay very much doubts Deneira is motivated by anything other than self-interest, there may be enough of a connection there that means she is unwilling to lose Samiel. If not for familial reasons, then maybe for some kind of advantage.

Which begs the question, Jay thinks, mind suddenly racing, what advantage is that?

He hasn't really considered this until now; hasn't thought about it. He could slap himself for being so stupid.

If Deneira killed Samiel's mother, as he believes. If she burnt the house to the ground and walked away with no evidence to link her to the crime, then why keep Samiel?

Why take the risk?

Instead of killing him, she kept him isolated, separate, and totally loyal. There's a reason for that, there must be.

Jay shifts a little, considering. He feels the press of the data chip against his foot.

That's another thing.

If Hird ever speaks to him again beyond curt instructions, he's going to need her to mine the chip for any information she can find. The rebellion have handed him an advantage. Lachesis, whether she realised it at the time or not, has done him a favour. By trying to use Samiel's history as a weapon against him, she has given him a new line of enquiry; a new weapon against Deneira, if she comes after Jay or any of his people.

He can use this, he thinks. Work with it. He just needs the time to investigate.

If he can convince Hird and Lault to help, he may be able to break this situation down properly – remove Deneira as a threat and ensure there is a proper, lasting peace. He may have the rebels onside as well, depending on whether Isen has done as he said he would.

Compromise comes from somewhere. There has to be a way to achieve it, Jay thinks, and it might start with asking a few simple questions.

“What's the matter?” Samiel asks, leaning closer. His lips brush the curve of Jay's ear, and for a moment Jay let's himself sink into the soft sensation of it; the feel of Samiel, close against him. “You're feeling determined, sweetheart. Why?”

“Because,” Jay says, and can feel himself start to smile, “I've had an idea.”

He can feel the tether now, between him and Samiel. It is muted and distant, because he is trying to keep it that way. But it's still there. For one brief moment, it's a thread of steel between them, woven by Jay's determination. He struggles not to claw at it; to pull Samiel closer.

“An idea?” Samiel says.

“Yes.”

Jay leans back, pushing a curl away from Samiel's forehead. He grins at the cautious little burst of happiness he can feel at the gesture.

“I think we're in for a fight,” he says.

For a moment he and Samiel stare at one another. Slowly, the beginnings of a smile curve the edges of Samiel's lips. Jay suppresses the urge to lean over and kiss him.

“Alright,” Samiel says. “What's the plan?”

“Whatever it is,” Venndred interrupts, from where he apparently has been listening after all, “you'd better explain it quickly.” He gets to his feet, dusting off his robes as he looks at the pair of them.

“We're here.”

Chapter Text

As the words leave Venndred's mouth, Hird comes out of the cockpit.

“Get up,” she says shortly to Jay.

The expression on her face hasn't changed, Jay notes: she still looks half a breath away from murder. Behind her, Littien is a blank. Her face is half covered by her visor once more, and her hood is drawn up.

“Perhaps if we waited to inform the appropriate parties of our arrival?” Venndred suggests, looks between the two of them.

“It's already been done,” Hird says. “Severne Littien contacted ground control when we reached Maa-Tarek airspace. There's a delegation waiting for us.” She glances at Samiel as she says this.

Jay feels the brief, white hot flash of Samiel's fear, quickly stifled. He brushes their fingers together once, not missing the way Littien tilts her head. “And what does the delegation propose to do?” he asks.

Hird shrugs. “I don't know. Let's fucking ask, shall we?” She unholsters her pistol and nods at him. “Put your hands on your fucking head,” she adds.

Samiel stiffens. “You don't get to order him around like a prisoner,” he says, low and furious.

“At the moment he might be a fucking criminal,” Hird says. “So I'll be taking precautions, alright?” Her gaze flickers briefly to Jay and back again. “This needn't be any more of a fucking mess than it already is.”

Littien looks between the two of them. “I suggest that Severne Tremark does the same,” she says coldly. “It is appropriate that both parties submit to proper transfer protocol.”

“Maybe we should all take a breath?” Venndred suggests. “No one has actually been proven guilty.”

“Yet,” Littien says.

Hird slams a hand onto the access panel by the shuttle door. “Then there's no time like the present to sort this mess out, is there?” she says.

The group waiting for them at the bottom of the docking ramp is an eclectic mix. Jay, his hands on his head, notes with some interest that Athannus is standing at the front of the little entourage. He is next to Lault, whose face is impassive as he watches them descend.

“Lord Athannus,” Littien says, inclining her head as they stop. “We have returned with Severne Tremark and Wing Commander Lane.”

“Yes,” Athannus says. “I can see.” His tone is smooth, carrying no inflection as he looks at their party. His mask is the same usual ivory it always is.

Uneasily, Jay realises he has become used to seeing faces – to being able to take some kind of social cue from a Siren's expression, no matter how small. Now, faced with a wall of masks, he realises his brief time amongst the rebels and with Samiel means that this now are another problem he's going to have to work around.

“Why are you here?” Samiel asks. He lifts his chin as they all look at him. His expression is defiant as he stares at Athannus. “Why has Most Exalted not sent a more appropriate – ”

“The Queen did not send me,” Athannus says. “The Council did. Her Majesty is too close to this situation.”

“Meaning?” Jay asks.

“Meaning that when one of her most loyal bodyguards is accused of murder, there would surely be an element of bias when rendering judgement.”

“Most Exalted did no indicate this in her orders,” Littien says. As Jay watches she tenses, one hand gripping the hilt of her salzon. “I was told to report directly to her.”

“And so you will,” Athannus says. “But without Severne Tremark and Wing Commander Lane.”

“For the record: Wing Commander Lane won't be going anywhere,” Hird says. She is standing next to Jay, her expression bored, her pistol still drawn. “As I have already explained to Severne Littien, he has been remanded into my custody.”

“You cannot – ” Littien begins.

Hird grins and it is not nice. “Can't I?” she says. “Lord Athannus, what does the current galactic law state when arresting a member of a diplomatic party? In particular when said member is already being held by his own people?”

“That until such time as evidence proves overwhelming, or a political agreement is reached, the person, or persons, accused must remain in the custody of their own diplomatic representatives,” Athannus says. “Provided, of course, that in this case Wing Commander Lane has been formally arrested?”

“Oh,” Hird says, with every evidence of malicious enjoyment, “he definitely fucking has.”

“I must object,” Littien says. “The evidence is quite clear that at the very least both of these men know more about Helenia Mirret's death than they have so far indicated.”

“And when did potential knowledge about a crime become an indicator of absolute guilt?” Venndred asks mildly.

As Jay watches, he gently elbows Hird out of the way, stepping in front of Littien so he can face Athannus. They both size one another up for a moment, before Venndred smiles. The expression, normally cheerful on him, is not quite as open as it usually is.

“So far,” he says to Athannus, “the only things I have heard are that Severne Tremark and Wing Commander Lane may have been present when Helenia Mirret was murdered. That they then both disappeared for a length of time following this event and were discovered in Glessen, staying in one room above a bar.”

“Where they had both been – ” Littien begins.

Thank you,” Venndred says sharply. “But I am talking now, Severne Littien.” He doesn't look away from Athannus.

“Governor Mirret is accusing these two men,” he continues, looking between Lault and Athannus, “based on little more than circumstantial evidence. Couple that, of course, with the attempted murder of Wing Commanders Lane and Hird in Maa-Ilia, and I think you may need to ask the Governor some questions as well.”

“I quite agree,” Athannus says blandly. “Which is why I have also taken Governor Mirret into custody.”

“With all due respect,” Littien says, “you cannot do that. It is beyond your jurisdiction.”

“Is it?” Athannus tilts his head a little, examining her. “I am the Commander of the One Hundredth and Fifth. I am one of the Eleven and sit on the Council. I am acting on behalf of Parliament with a warrant and have been charged with executing the offices of this duty, until such time as the warrant is revoked or the investigation has closed.” He stands, perfectly still, hands clasped in front of him as he stares at Littien. “And you tell me it is beyond my jurisdiction.”

There is a long pause.

“Forgive me,” Littien says at last, her voice stiff. “I was misinformed.”

“Well I do hope there is no further misinformation in this case,” Athannus says blandly.

There is something familiar in the way he is holding himself, Jay realises. A small, nagging sense that the cadence of his voice is somehow recognisable. It tugs at him, even as he watches Athannus gesture to the rest of the group.

“Wing Commander Hird,” Athannus says, “if you would be so good as to escort Wing Commander Lane back to your rooms. I will, of course, keep you abreast of any developments.”

“Thank you,” Hird says curtly. She unfolds her arms and looks at Jay. “Come on.”

“Wait,” Jay says, earning himself a curious look from Lault. He takes a deep breath and turns to Samiel. “Are you going to be alright?” he asks quietly.

The smiles Samiel gives him is a shadow of its usual self. “Of course,” he says, low enough that only Jay can hear. “Although if you wanted to share that plan of yours, my master, now would be a good time.”

He is lying about being fine. Jay can feel the deep, thrumming panic singing from his end of the bond, and he bites his tongue against telling Samiel this. Instead, he reaches out and squeezes his arm briefly.

“I'll tell you,” he says, “just not now – too many ears. Trust me?”

“Yes.”

A truth this time, and the depth of it has Jay swaying forwards a little. For one instinctive moment he wants to bury his head in the crook of Samiel's neck and let the rest of the world disappear. But the very thought of it is enough to startle him. He is not used to these strange, tender longings, and he steps back instead.

“Please be careful,” he says to Samiel.

Samiel smiles crookedly. “Always,” he says.

*

“I must confess,” Lault says, examining Jay from head to foot, “that when I sent you to Maa-Ilia, I was not expecting quite such an outcome.”

“Well I fucking was,” Hird says.

All three of them are ensconced in Jay's room. Lault is sitting in a chair by the window; Hird is by the door, arms folded and expression furious. They are both staring at Jay, who is watching the pair of them.

“Yes,” says Lault to Hird, “and you've managed to create your own little diplomatic crisis as well, haven't you?” For once, he does not sound patient.

“I told you what I – ”

“I gave you a direct order to hand Wing Commander Lane into Lenian custody,” Lault says sternly. “And I arrive in the hangar to discover you facing down a Severne and about to spit in the face of Lord Athannus. What part of my instructions were not clear?”

Hird stares at him. “The part,” she says angrily, “where you were going to leave one of our own in the hands of those fucking – ”

“And did it not occur to you,” Lault says over the top of her, “that there might be a reason for it?”

“Athannus,” Jay says, realisation dawning. “You were going to hand me over to Athannus to get him on side.”

“Precisely,” Lault says.

“No.” Hird folds her arms and props herself against the wall.

“No?”

“No, that is still not a good enough fucking reason. You don't just fucking throw people under the bus when it suits you.” Her expression is coldly furious, and she is looking at Lault as though she doesn't even recognise him. “You can't trust these fuckers and you wanted to – what? – give Lane up as some sort of gift, to make sure we've got another party interested in sucking our fucking dicks?”

“Speak to me like that again and I'll be putting you on report,” Lault says. He sighs and rubs a hand wearily across his face. “And as hard as this may be to understand, Wing Commander Hird, there is more at stake here than one man.”

“Bullshit,” Hird says. “Absolute bullshit.” She is, Jay realises, getting angrier by the second. “You want to play the numbers game? The numbers game doesn't fucking matter, Sir. You give up one of our own and what does that show, except that you don't fucking care about anything but the end game? That there's no fucking sense of loyalty, or unity, in our cause?”

“Do you know,” Lault says watching her, “I come from a family of diplomats.” He crosses his legs and leans back in his chair, examining both Hird and Jay. “Both my parents served during the Carrion Wars. My brother, too, was a diplomat at the start of this conflict. And none of them have ever had to face down anything half as problematic as the pair of you, running rampant over any attempt at a peace treaty.”

“Then write us up and send us back,” Hird says coldly. “Get someone else.”

“And if I send Wing Commander Lane off world?” Lault asks. “Don't you think the Sirens are going to accuse us of a cover up?”

“I'm not going anyway,” Jay says. “Even if you dismiss me I'm staying. I'm seeing this through.”

“You're not staying because of your case,” Hird says. “We all know why you're staying, Lane.”

“Do we?” Lault says mildly. “I would have thought Wing Commander Lane was staying out of an appropriate sense of duty.” His posture is relaxed, but his eyes are sharp as he watches Jay. “Is there something else I'm missing?”

“Only that this is clearly a fucking set up,” Hird says.

“Yes, thank you. I think we can all agree on that, at least.” Lault frowns and leans forwards. “But I would very much like to know what actually happened.”

“There was a sniper,” Jay says. “I'd gone outside to get some fresh air. Helenia Mirret came out after me. She started to talk about the flightbikes; she said it was no accident and that she thought she knew who was behind it.”

“And?” Lault asks.

Jay shrugs. “And she was shot before she could tell me.”

“At which point you did what?”

“I tried to pursue her murderer,” Jay says.

“And is there any evidence of this shooter?” Lault says. “Do we have any security footage of them? Any way to prove what you are saying?”

“Nothing,” Hird says bluntly. “I went over that footage myself a dozen times when I was looking for Lane. There is no sign of anyone entering or leaving the Governor's residence during the period in question.” There is a hard set to her features as she stares at Lault. “But I believe him,” she adds.

“Alright,” Lault says. “What happened then?”

“Severne Tremark followed and tried to provide protection,” Jay says. “But we were both ambushed by rebellion members.”

“So you made contact?” Lault asks, and there is a spark of interest in his expression. “Did you learn anything?”

“No,” Jay says. The data chip in his shoe feels like it is burning a hole through his foot, but he doesn't blink as he watches Lault. “They held us in a room – I didn't even get a good look at the compound.”

“Could you at least identify some of the rebels?”

“Unlikely, we didn't see the same faces twice.”

“That's a shame,” Lault says. “I was rather hoping we could use this information to barter with the Queen. If you were able to prove you were being held against your will, all charges would be dropped. Even better, you'd have been able to give her the information she required and we might have been able to salvage these talks.”

“We still can,” Jay says. “We just may have to consider other ways of doing so.”

“Perhaps.” Lault says. He slumps a little, expression weary as he considers Jay. “Twenty years as a diplomat,” he says, almost to himself, “and this is how my career might end.”

“You're getting heat?” Hird asks, unexpectedly.

“Of course I am.” Lault stands, brushing an invisible speck of dust off of his trousers. “Did you think I wouldn't be?” He smiles wryly. “I think we can safely say nothing has gone according to plan since we arrived.”

“Sir – ” Jay begins.

“No.” Lault waves a hand. “It's alright. We're just going to have to come up with some fresh alternatives. And fast.”

“Let me talk to the priest,” Hird says. “He's... not unreasonable. He might be able to provide some insight into what's happening.” Her expression darkens a little, as Jay raises an eyebrow. “What?” she asks.

“That might be prudent,” Lault says. “If nothing else it will offer us more of an idea on public opinion.” He looks between the two of them. “But for now may I propose you stay out of sight, Wing Commander Lane?”

“And if someone wants to question me in an official capacity?” Jay asks.

“Not without either myself or one of my staff with you,” Lault says. “We want absolutely no further reasons to be on the back foot. And please don't go anywhere unescorted.”

“Don't worry,” Hird says. “He's not leaving this fucking room.”

“Probably for the best,” Lault says. He bestows them both with a small smile. “I'll need a full briefing in the morning from the pair of you. May I suggest in the meantime that you rest?”

“Sir,” Hird says. She opens the door to let him out, then closes and locks it for good measure.

“Thank you,” Jay says quietly.

“Don't fucking thank me,” Hird tells him shortly. “If this were any other situation I would be absolutely turning you over to them right now.” She takes a deep breath and visibly tries to reign in her temper. “But I had to get to you before that tit Littien.”

“Well,” Jay says, “you certainly managed that.”

Hird pulls a face. “Mostly. I did have to 'accidentally' knock her over on the stairs when we were trying to arrest you.” The glint in her eyes, Jay thinks despairingly, suggests she may have enjoyed this slightly more than necessary.

“Well thank you anyway.”

“Just promise me you're not going to do anything so fucking stupid again,” Hird says. She bares her teeth at him. “Or I really am going to rip both your arms off and use them to beat you to death.”

Jay takes a deep breath, then another. “I'm going to do something worse,” he admits.

The truth, he knows, is that he is currently under house arrest and he's going to need help. He's not willing to drag Lault into something that has no guarantee of success. This is partially because they're going to need someone to step in if everything goes badly, and partly because out of everyone Hird, he knows, has only ever tried to act with integrity. She is also one step removed from the whole debacle on Mas-Hain, which doesn't hurt.

It is a decision he'd come to when he watched her with Lault. She isn't afraid to stand up and speak out if she feels something is wrong. More than that, she's loyal. He needs to trust someone, he thinks, and quite honestly Hird is his best option right now. No matter how hostile her attitude towards him currently is.

“Is this room secure?” he adds.

The look Hird gives him is suspicious. “Why?”

“Hird, is it secure?”

She shrugs, raising her commlink and stabbing a few keys into it. “Con,” she says, “will that programme you gave me cover an entire room?”

From where he is sitting, Jay can just about hear the small burst of noise as Confidence Guide says something in reply. Even though he tries, Jay can't make out actual words. Instead, he watches Hird's expression: the minute flicker of interest as she listens to her Lieutenant, and the way she tilts her head as she considers something.

“Alright,” she says at last, apparently stopping Guide mid-rant. “Thanks for that.” She slaps a hand on the commlink and raises an eyebrow at Jay. “I can secure us about a six foot radius,” she says. “Con upgraded my commlink. There's a scrambler programme embedded in it. No monitoring in or out. Will that do?”

“It's going to have to,” Jay says. “Turn it on.”

Hird shuffles a little closer to him, and sinks down into a chair. “This better be fucking worth my time,” she mutters, as she keys in another code on her commlink. She looks up. “There. Now start talking.”

Jay does.

He explains about the rebellion, the data chip and the offer. He talks about Lachesis and Isen. Then, he grits his teeth and explains about Samiel and Deneira.

As he talks, he watches Hird. Her expression – not particularly friendly to begin with – is darkening rapidly the longer he continues. Whether her anger is at Deneira, the rebellion, Samiel or himself, Jay isn't clear. Eventually, as he finishes, she leans back in her chair, expression grim.

There is a long silence.

“So,” Jay says, “you see the – ”

Hird holds up a hand. “Give me a fucking second, Lane.” She is staring hard at the carpet. The afternoon sun spreads fire through her hair, as she rests her head in her hands for a brief moment. “Fuck's sake,” she mutters.

Jay waits, heart pounding.

The decision to trust Hird has not come lightly. It is difficult, this reliance on someone else; to put his safety in her hands. Worse, to entrust Samiel's safety to her as well. As they had reached Maa-Tarek, he'd wondered a dozen times if she was the right person for this.

She's reliable, he knows. She's fierce and angry and she no doubt considers him an idiot. But out of everyone here, she's probably the only one who hasn't got a personal stake in this.

“Alright,” Hird says at last, looking up. “Suppose I swallow all of this, Lane. Let's say I believe you: why the hell are you asking me?”

“Because I've got to trust someone,” Jay says bluntly, “and you're it.”

“Very fucking flattering,” Hird says. “Why not go to Lault with this? He'd be better able to use this information.”

Jay shrugs. “He's not you.”

“Hmm,” Hird says. “Did they teach you arse licking in officer classes, or did you learn that on your own?” She narrows her eyes.

“Well you must have been off sick that day,” Jay points out, before he can stop himself.

“Accurate.”

“Look Hird, the truth is if I go to Lault with this, he's not going to agree to investigate. He's far more likely to use the information to buy the Queen's favour and get this peace treaty ratified.”

“Which, when you put it like that, sounds like a sensible fucking plan,” Hird points out. “Whereas you want to delay giving information to anyone, compromise our diplomatic integrity, and potentially commit bloody regicide. Because, what, your boyfriend didn't have a perfect childhood?”

Jay looks her dead in the eye. “Partly,” he says. “But also because I want to find out what the hell is going on. Mas-Hain was a complete fuck up, and we've got a potential security breach because of it. We need to find out if one of our own is working with the Sirens. When you then couple that with the ongoing political situation here, I think we've got a mess on our hands no matter which side we talk to.”

Hird sighs. “So you want to find out who's responsible for Mas-Hain; how that fits in with the Sirens being their usual fucking selves; what's going on with that moron Tremark and whether any of this has anything to do with the rebellion and the Queen. Does that sound about right?”

“I – yes,” Jay says, a little taken aback.

Hird hears his tone and glares. “Just because I want to pull your intestines out through your throat right now, doesn't mean I only resort to violence, Lane. I'm not so fucking stupid I've ignored everything you've said.”

“I know,” Jay says.

“And don't think I've forgotten that fucking soul bond either,” she adds.

Jay winces. “That's... really something I don't want to think about, right now.”

“Boo-fucking-hoo. Start thinking about it. You're the one who fucked up and ended up in a no-holds-barred romantic nightmare,” she says, without a shred of sympathy. “You're going to have to fucking suck it up and sort it out.”

“I don't know why you're not surprised about this,” Jay says. “To be honest, I figured that would be one of your main problems with the whole thing.”

“Don't be so stupid,” Hird says. “You think that's the weirdest shit I've ever had to deal with? Fuck off.” She leans back in her chair, arms folded. “I've seen stranger things before eating my bloody breakfast, on a bad day.”

“Do I want to to know?”

“No, you really fucking don't. Look, the point is: shit is weird. Sirens are even fucking weirder. All that aside, you need to realise you are absolutely fucking compromised, and we have a huge fucking problem because of it.”

“I know, alright?” Jay holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I'd already worked that out for myself.”

“Had you?” Hird tilts her head, considering. “This isn't something you undo. It's not something you get to move on from. Do you understand that? It's permanent, and the moment someone finds out about it, you can kiss any chance at people believing you're a neutral party goodbye.”

“I understand, but that's – ”

“Shut up and let me finish. It's not just that you'd be seen as in a committed relationship with a Siren, and therefore unable to speak on anything related to them. It's that every single fucking thing you have ever done since Mas-Hain is going to be under scrutiny. Tell me you understand that, Lane? You met Tremark three years ago. Three years in which every single one of your missions could have been fucking compromised. Do you have any idea the damage that could do, if it got out?”

“Yes, I know,” Jay repeats. “But you also know that it's absolutely not true that there was any kind of a... a relationship there.”

“I know that,” Hird says impatiently. “But that's not my point. My point is: will anyone else fucking believe that? A soul bond is a big thing and it doesn't happen overnight, does it?” She shrugs. “So you're going to need to start thinking about people asking you again about what happened on Mas-Hain. Because if I didn't know you, I'd be pretty fucking suspicious you were our traitor.”

“Which is why I want to keep this quiet,” Jay says. “So that we can find out who that is before they make a move.” He grits his teeth at the look Hird shoots him. “And for the bloody record,” he adds, “I am definitely not the mole.”

“No,” Hird says, “because if you were, I wouldn't be fucking arresting you and threatening you. I'd have shot you.” She smiles at him. “So factor that into your decisions.”

Jay rubs the back of his neck. “Point taken.”

“Good.” She reaches out and wiggles her fingers. “Now give me that data chip.”

“So you'll do it?” Jay asks. His heart is beating faster again as he stares at her. He had been counting on Hird's loyalty; on her morals, but he'd honestly thought she might take this to Lault. It had been a risk he'd had to take, but to have the confirmation that she trusts him is...

“Yes I'll bloody do it,” she says, exasperated. “Pay attention. Jesus, do you think I'm just going to let a potential traitor and murderer walk free? And before you ask,” she continues, as Jay opens his mouth to protest, “I will also help that absolute piece of scum you call the other half of your soul, as well.”

“Oh,” Jay says. He sits back, stunned. “Hird, I – ”

“Yeah, I know. I'm a fucking romantic at heart,” she says snidely.

It's not that which has taken Jay's breath away. To hear Hird say Samiel is the other half of his soul – to acknowledge what Samiel actually is – it's a truly terrifying thing, Jay realises. Venndred had known; Venndred had told him. But to have a human, to have a colleague, recognise that makes it worse, somehow.

It makes it real, Jay thinks grimly.

If he concentrates hard, he can just about feel Samiel still. He is a faint alien presence, like a phantom limb in Jay's mind and soul; lodged under his ribcage like an odd, echoed heartbeat. It is a terrible reminder of everything he's got to lose, coupled with the constant paranoia that somehow this is going to be the end of him.

Before this is over, he thinks to himself, I'll either be mad from it, or we'll be both be dead.

“Data chip,” Hird says again, breaking his train of thought. “Give it to me.”

Jay blinks. Pulling his mind back to the present, he digs the chip out and passes it across to her. “The rebellion said they had the codenames of three operatives on there,” he says. “Along with evidence about Mas-Hain.”

“Huh.” Hird turns the chip over and over as she considers this. “Remarkably polite of them, and so very helpful.” She grins, savagely. “Not that I'll be trusting this information, and neither should you.”

“That's where your crew come in,” Jay says. “You mentioned before that you could look into who requested me for this mission. I take it that means you've got the capabilities on the Banshee to access records that are normally sealed?” He raises an eyebrow as Hird stares at him, her expression bland.

“Maybe,” she says.

“I know it's Guide,” Jay says. “Let's not pretend otherwise. The thing is, we can use that. Surely he could get into the files on Mas-Hain? There's got to be lists on there – the names of people involved with setting it up. Maybe who would have had access to strategic logs or communications. There might even be a copy of the kill order.”

“I'm not altogether sure that would just be sitting around in the system somewhere,” Hird says dubiously. “If we do some digging and it sets something off, there could be a hell of a lot of trouble over this.”

“Not if we prove there's a traitor,” Jay says. “Then I very much doubt you'd be in any kind of trouble for accessing those files.”

“Oh that," Hird says. “I'm not worried about that.” She waves a hand dismissively. “No, I mean if we trip any access alarms, it could tip our hand to whoever is responsible and then we could be in trouble.”

“Well, can Guide get in undetected?”

“Maybe. I'll have to ask.”

“Please,” Jay says.

“And then we have to consider what else we're going to do, and how the hell we're going to go about it,” Hird says.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, if you want to pick a fight with one of the most powerful fucking people this side of the Interior Circle, you might want to make damn sure you've brought along bigger guns than she has,” Hird says. “I'm not saying the Queen doesn't have it coming; but Lane I want you to think really, really carefully about your reasons for saying it might be a good idea to get rid of her.”

“We've got a potentially much friendlier faction waiting to work on talks with us,” Jay points out. “And a near certain guarantee of a peace treaty if we succeed.”

“If,” Hird says, pointing a finger at him. “And if we fail, you and I are going to be marched out in front of a firing squad with the rest of those rebels.” She frowns at him. “Do you trust them?”

“Not even slightly.”

“Then why the fuck are we working with them?”

“Peace treaty,” Jay reminds her. “Removing the head of state who has openly declared her intention to continue this war.”

Samiel Tremark,” Hird counters. “You can lie to yourself, but don't lie to me. You've told me she killed his parents. That's not a crime on this planet – it's almost pretty much expected. But you're gunning for her now anyway. Why?”

“How can you trust someone like that?” Jay asks quietly. “How can you work with someone who shows absolutely no integrity? She's lied to him, Hird. She's taken him and used him and I don't know why, but I'm going to find out.”

“And does Tremark get a say in this?” Hird says. “What are your sweet little psychopath's thoughts on the subject?”

“He won't believe it,” Jay says. “I tried to tell him – he wouldn't listen.”

“And you don't think that might be a reason to back off?” Hird shrugs, still tossing the data chip idly from hand to hand. “And come to think of it, have you not stopped to consider the outcome of this? You prove it: you get hold of concrete evidence she murdered his mother. You boot her off the throne, you achieve a peace treaty with the rebellion and whoever they manage to shove a crown onto. What happens then?”

“We leave,” Jay says. “All of us.”

“Really,” Hird says flatly. “You think Tremark is going to thank you for destroying the one family member he's got left? You think the rebellion are just going to let him walk away from Lenia, with absolutely no consequences? That man has killed people.”

“We all have,” Jay says.

“Yeah, but not people actively working for the rebellion on Lenia,” Hird says. “Tremark is going to be public enemy number one, with Deneira off the throne. And you're expecting to just waltz out of here with him?”

“I never said I expected to leave with him,” Jay says, and feels an odd flutter of panic at the thought. “Don't put words in my mouth.”

“Bullshit,” Hird says. “Are you usually this much of an idiot? You can't be, it would be impossible. You'd be dead. Lane, it is really fucking clear that you want to take that man, and run off with him to the nearest safe planet you can find. I told you: you can lie to yourself, but you don't get to lie to me.”

“All of this is pure speculation,” Jay says around the tightness in his throat, “unless we can actually get this mess sorted out.”

“So?”

“So our first moves should be checking that information and talking to Athannus.”

“Athannus? Why the fuck do we need to speak to him?” Hird demands.

“Oh,” Jay says, and savours the look of pure irritation that crosses Hird's face. “Didn't I mention? He's the one the rebels want to put on the throne.”

She swears at him.

He does, he admits, deserve it.

*

“So let me get this straight,” Guide says, looking between the pair of them. “You want me to access the information stored on here?” He waves the data chip.

“Yes,” Jay says patiently, for the third time.

“Then,” he continues, “you want me to access the sealed files on Mas-Hain.”

“Con,” Hird says, with far less patience. “I've already told you what we want.”

The look Guide shoots her is pointed. “And then,” he says loudly over the top of her, “you want to find a human traitor; start a civil war; assassinate a monarch; put a new one on the throne and broker a peace treaty. In that order.”

“Yes,” Hird says. “Which, now you repeat it, sounds even fucking worse than when Lane outlined it.”

“That is the stupidest idea I've ever heard,” Guide says. “I mean, I thought Subtle came up with some moronic plans, but this takes the cake.” He throws up his hands. “I mean what the fuck, boss? You think this is a good idea? Really?”

“I think it has a chance of working,” Hird says, and the sincerity in her voice surprises Jay. “More than that, I think it's a better chance that trying to get that bitch of a Queen to agree to a treaty. Have you read the reports since we've been back, Con? Because she's not budging on any of it.”

“So you want us to interfere on foreign soil, in a planet's sovereignty fight, for our own political gain,” Guide says. “Under the noses of the entire fucking Interior Circle and the investigative team from the Tammoll Federation?”

“Yes,” Hird says. “Because we came here to broker a peace treaty, and that's what we're going to fucking do.”

“And you can't just do that with the current head of state?”

“No,” Jay says, and Guide turns to look at him, incredulous. “If there was a traitor on Mas-Hain,” he explains slowly, “then that means they were working with the Sirens. If they were working with the Sirens, Deneira would have known about it. That means she interfered with our sovereign rights first.”

“And if she didn't know about the traitor?”

Hird shrugs. “If she didn't know about the traitor, I think we still need to consider the strong possibility that she's out to fucking get us. Mirret, Con? That ringing a bell? One of us has just been framed for murder. If it wasn't the rebellion, would you like to take a guess about who might be behind it?”

And that is Hird's reason for getting involved, Jay realises suddenly. The politics hadn't interested her, beyond her general dislike of the Queen. The knowledge that Deneira may be actively attempting to stall the peace treaty through other, less obvious, means has obviously pointed Hird's anger in a new direction. Particularly given what happened to the pair of them in Maa-Ilia.

“The flightbikes,” he says, as Hird nods. “You think she was behind those too?”

“Yes, I fucking do.”

“But we've got Isen Kallat on screen,” Jay says. “Nobody else went near them.”

“And how many people went near them before they got to the hangar?” Hird asks.

“Mirret,” Jay says, “you think Mirret's working for her.”

“Don't you?”

He considers this. She's not wrong – the Governor has been all too quick to point the finger, both at Jay and his conveniently dead wife. He sighs. “Which means we need to prove that, as well.”

“Of course we fucking do,” Hird says. “We'll add it to the list.”

“Right,” Guide says, cracking his knuckles. “So what you're saying is: stop the bad guys, help the rebellion, save the world.”

“Something like that,” Jay says.

“Exactly that,” Hird corrects. “And Tremark,” she adds grudgingly. “I suppose you'll definitely be wanting to rescue him as well?”

The smile Jay gives her is genuine.

“Try and stop me,” he says.

Chapter Text

“Well,” Steve Ede says, when Hird fills him in on the details, “I suppose it's not the worst thing we've done.”

Hird points at him. “See?” she says triumphantly to Subtle. “I told you Steve would agree.”

Jay, watching them all, keeps quiet. They are gathered in the conference room on the Banshee, following Hird's discussion with Guide. One of the conditions for Hird's help, Jay has found out, is that her team are brought up to speed on what is going on.

Hence, the meeting.

He can't really object to it. Their help is going to be needed because, as much as he would like to believe otherwise, the truth is he is not going to be able to take on an entire planet by himself. He also silently resigns himself to the fact that motivating the lot of them might be a bigger task than Hird had anticipated.

As Jay watches, Subtle rolls his eyes. “Steve agreed because you and he are cut from the same cloth,” he says to Hird. “I like to call it the 'fucking crazy fabric'. The only difference is he's more polite than you are, boss.”

“I think we're in serious trouble when Subtle and Con start questioning the plan, Commander,” Martell says, from where she is perched on the edge of the galaxy map console.

“Does the Ambassador know about this?” Steve asks, ignoring Subtle.

“No, and he's not going to. Not yet.” Hird glances at Jay and shrugs. “Lane thinks it's better to keep this in-house for now, to stop the Ambassador raising any objections. I agree.”

“Oh fucking marvellous!” Guide leans back in his chair, arms folded. “So we're going against Lault now? You didn't mention this before.”

“We're not going against Lault,” Hird says. “We're going behind his back.” She raises an eyebrow. “Something you'd know all about, wouldn't you?”

“You can't win every fucking argument by bringing up the Alettia mission,” Guide protests. “That's not fair!”

“Cry me a river,” Hird says without a shred of sympathy. “Look, the truth of the matter is: Lault might want to play this a different way. Neither Lane nor I are particularly invested in handing over the rebellion to the Queen, on the off chance that she might be in a forgiving fucking mood. So. We're doing this our way.”

“Fucking spies,” Guide mutters. He shoots Jay a dark look. “I knew it: you're fucking trouble.”

“Yes,” Jay says. He allows a small flicker of a smile to cross his face. “But so are you. So is Hird. So is Ede. Mine is just a different brand of trouble.”

“Yeah, we tend to go for localised trouble. You're thinking on a galactic scale,” Guide says. “I mean, are you really sure this is what you want to do?” He looks between Jay and Hird. “I mean, really sure?”

“I'm sure,” Jay says quietly. “I think this is a better chance at peace.” He deliberately doesn't mention Samiel, and neither does Hird.

“In which case,” Steve says, “what information did you get from the rebellion?”

Hird tilts her head at Guide. “Con?”

Guide sighs. “Ok,” he says, resigned, and taps the edge of his commlink with one finger. “So, the rebellion gave Commander Lane a data chip, with the codenames of three of their operatives on there, as a show of good will. Frankly, it's a good job they gave it to him, and it didn't end up in the wrong hands, because the security encryption on it was shit. I mean, when you only use a fucking basic strike sixty two algorithm to – ”

Con,” Hird snaps.

“Alright, fine. Nobody appreciates my genius.” Guide pulls a face. “Basically, we've got three codenames and a copy of the kill order from Mas-Hain.”

“And what are the codenames?” Steve asks.

“Belleros, Adrasteia and Teros,” Guide says. “All very unhelpful, with absolutely no identifying features whatsoever. The only other thing they've put on there, is that those three people are agents working towards the rebellion's cause. Which we already knew.”

“Do they mean anything?” Jay says. “Could there be a reason for these codenames?”

“If there is, I've got no fucking clue,” Guide says. The corners of his mouth twitch slightly. “Maybe the pretty boy could help though.”

“I'm not sure that's a good idea,” Hird says. “We've already got enough people in the fucking know about this plan. And he's not on our side.”

“Funny how you knew exactly who I was talking about,” Guide says, and receives Hird's middle finger in response.

“That aside, it might be worth considering a general enquiry,” Steve says reasonably, ignoring the look Hird shoots him. “Perhaps we could get a better idea of why these names in particular?”

“Venndred,” Jay says, realisation dawning. “You want to ask Venndred?”

“I certainly fucking don't,” Hird says. “It's not a good idea.”

“Is that because you think he's a security risk,” Martell asks, “or because you're worried about him being caught up in this?” Her gaze as she watches Hird is shrewd; assessing. Privately, Jay adds her to the list of Hird's crew who are far too astute for their own good.

“Fuck you,” Hird says crossly. Then: “Both.”

“He would know,” Jay says. “It might be worth it.” He pauses a moment, considering. “Do you want me to ask him?” he says at last.

“No,” Hird says shortly. “Because if you start having random conversations with him about strange names, he's going to know something's up. At least I can pretend fucking ignorance.”

“There's no 'pretend' about it,” Subtle says. He winks when Jay looks at him.

“Shut the fuck up,” Hird says, “or I will wait until we're halfway back to base, and I will toss you out of the nearest fucking airlock and make it look like an accident.”

“You do know that wouldn't kill me, don't you?”

“And yet I will still try,” Hird says darkly.

“What about Mas-Hain?” Steve asks, as Subtle grins at Hird. “You said the kill order is on there. Any leads on our traitor?”

Guide shrugs. “Only that the order came through official channels, poorly concealed.”

“Which makes it more likely it was sabotage, not less,” Jay points out. “If you're going to issue a command like that, you want all the plausible deniability you can get. That includes nobody actually being able to access the bloody thing.”

“True.” Guide leans back in his chair, observing Jay. “I also find it interesting that for something that has such poor security, the order has remarkably few details.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning where's the audit trail? Where did it originate from? There's an officer signing off on it, but he's not the one who would have made the decision. More than that, I looked into when the command was issued. The officer allegedly responsible for the sign-off was on Gehm at the time.”

At the blank expressions in the room, Guide throws up his hands in frustration. “If he was on Gehm during one of the worst fucking campaigns of the war, why would he then have been involved in a political decision for Mas-Hain?”

“He wouldn't have been,” Jay says, mind racing. “More than that, there would have been a very good chance he wouldn't have lived to have the order questioned.”

“Exactly,” Guide says.

“What happened to the officer?” Hird asks.

“According to official records he was shot,” Guide says.

“Well, that's a pain in the arse.”

“Yeah, particularly as he was shot a year after Mas-Hain, and the day after a peace treaty had been agreed on Gehm.”

“And in that whole year nobody bothered to question why he issued a kill order?” Martell asks.

“They would have been lucky to get any kind of communication with the planet at all,” Hird says. “Gehm was a fucking nightmare. It was a bloody strategic foothold and it ended up being ground warfare only. There was an embargo and scrambling on all communications in and out of the planet. The only time anyone knew what was happening there, was when someone made it past the aerial blockade and reported back.”

The expression in her eyes is distant; grim. Watching her, Jay wonders if she had been there, or knew people who had.

“So we have a conveniently dead officer,” he says, “and no tangible proof that he didn't sign off on Mas-Hain.”

“Apart from timing, no,” Guide says. “But I'll keep digging.”

“All communications in and out of Mas-Hain would have been monitored,” Jay says. “Which means there's probably logs of the Lenian reports as well.” He drums his fingers, thinking. “It's worth looking into those. It might give us an idea of who was reporting on what. If there was a traitor on our side, then it's likely they were receiving intelligence from one of the Sirens on Mas-Hain.”

“Which wouldn't have been overt,” Hird points out.

“No, but we know whoever our mole is, they have links to the efforts on Mas-Hain, otherwise they wouldn't have had access to any information. That narrows our list of suspects down. If we then look for patterns on who accessed what, particularly with regards to Lenian reports, then we might get a better idea.”

“Alright,” Guide says, “I'll check that out too.”

Hird sighs. “And I'll ask the priest about the codenames,” she says reluctantly. “Which means Lane, you are going to do nothing else but lay low for the next couple of days, until I can try and get us more of an advantage.”

Jay keeps his expression ambivalent. “And what about Mirret?” he asks.

“You let Lault worry about Mirret,” Hird says. “And you let me worry about Lault.” Her expression is stern and unusually serious. “I'm not letting him hand you over to anyone,” she says.

A small, tentative warmth blossoms in Jay's chest and he smiles at her. “Thank you,” he says honestly. “Hird, I owe you one.”

“Whatever.” She flaps a hand at him, the look on her face brightening a little. “You can buy us all a bottle of Marveltian whiskey when this is over.”

“You know that stuff can send you blind?” Jay says.

She grins at him. “Only if you drink it wrong.”

“Twenty cases of it then,” he promises.

“Damn straight.”

*

Night, when it comes, brings a whole new set of problems.

After they had left the Banshee, Hird had marched them straight back to Jay's room. They had spent some time considering their options – unsurprisingly Hird was strongly in favour of contacting the rebellion and mounting a full assault – until Jay had hinted that he'd quite like to sleep.

Hird, with her usual lack of tact, had agreed and promptly settled herself on the sofa. The look on her face when Jay had asked if she would be returning to her own room could, at best, be described as 'incredulous'.

Knowing when to concede defeat, Jay had retreated to the bedroom where he lies now, staring at the ceiling.

Guide has agreed to keep digging on the Mas-Hain files, and Martell has said she will talk to an old friend who might know more about the people involved with it. Hird is going to talk to Venndred and Steve is going to continue to protect Lault, until Jay's name has been cleared.

As much as he appreciates what they are doing for him, there is a large part of Jay that is itching at the thought of sitting back and letting someone else do the work.

Hird's crew are a talented group – it is likely they will uncover far more than Jay could on his own. But, the nagging thought at the back of his mind prompts, what if they miss something?

He frowns, trying to dismiss the doubt, and rolls onto his side.

And then there is Samiel. Always, Samiel.

Hird hadn't been wrong when she said Samiel wasn't going to thank him for what he's doing. Jay is uncomfortably aware that by investigating this – by pushing the rebellion's agenda – he is going against everything Samiel stands for. There is going to come a point, he knows, where he is going to have to look Samiel in the eye and explain that he is responsible for destroying everything he is loyal to.

He is not sure Samiel will forgive him for it.

The only justification he has is that Samiel deserves the truth, and Deneira is not going to give him that.

The thought still weighs heavily on his mind.

He's also worried that the rebellion is not going to let Samiel go free if they are successful. Lachesis had made it quite clear what the general opinion on Samiel was, and Jay has no idea if there is even a remote possibility that he can get them both out of this intact. Perhaps, he thinks, he needs to talk to Athannus about it somehow.

And then there's the matter of the traitor from Mas-Hain.

The only thing he can say with complete confidence, he thinks bitterly, is that neither himself nor Samiel are the traitors. It's possible one of their dead comrades could have been to blame, but it's not likely.

For a start there's the matter of the officer placed on Gehm. It is far too convenient that they died the day after a ceasefire, when it was more than likely they would then have been seconded to a secure facility and no doubt questioned on their orders. Even more than this, the chances of them actually having anything to do with the kill order on Mas-Hain are thin.

If the officer didn't sign off on the kill order then that means someone, somewhere, knew he was on Gehm and used that to their advantage. Taking that thought further, it had to be someone with the political oversight to know what was happening both on Mas-Hain and Gehm at the same time.

Which means, Jay realises grimly, the mole is someone with enough clout to do more damage than just the incident on Mas-Hain.

But what would cause someone to turn against their own? Who would want to be responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands more people, when the peace talks failed? And how the hell, he thinks, would they have been persuaded to do it?

Money's always a factor, of course. But anyone close enough to the political manoeuvrings on Mas-Hain would have been thoroughly vetted. Bankruptcy, or any kind of debts, would have seen them struck off the diplomatic team before they'd even begun.

Loyalty, then? Is it someone with close links to the Lenians? Someone who would be willing to work alongside Deneira to –

The realisation hits Jay. He sits bolt upright, heart racing.

Deneira.

Deneira had agreed to Mas-Hain. She had also quite clearly sent her best soldiers, and Jay doubts very much that she did this in order to help promote peace.

But.

But one of the soldiers she sent was Samiel.

And if she didn't know about the traitor? Guide had asked, when Jay had told him about Mas-Hain, and the Queen.

How, Jay wonders, has he bloody well missed this?

He stares, unseeing, at the wall opposite. His mind is racing as he turns the thought, examining it from all angles.

Deneira sent Samiel because he was, and is, vicious and clever and cunning and totally loyal. She sent him because he would not hesitate to do what she asked. But if Jay's assessment is right, and she's protecting Samiel for her own ends, then she wouldn't have sent him to Mas-Hain if she thought there was a threat to his safety.

Which means either the mole was definitely working with someone else, or they were working on their own.

“You utter idiot, Lane,” he says softly to himself. “You're so wrapped up in being clever, you've become so bloody stupid.”

What was it Samiel had said? I saw the orders...all four of you had received them. Which means that the mole had been relying on the Lenians intercepting the kill order, and the humans following through on it.

Deneira, for all Jay dislikes the woman, would not have sacrificed Samiel for no reason. Logically, that also means that when the Sirens on Mas-Hain fought back, they were doing so because they thought the human envoy had betrayed them.

If breaking the attempts at a peace treaty now haven't forced Deneira's hand to the point where Samiel's life is in danger, then those early steps on Mas-Hain certainly wouldn't have.

So, either there's an independent agent working out there, or someone else from the Lenian side of things is involved.

This makes, Jay realises grimly, everything just that little bit more uncertain.

He has no doubt Deneira is involved in the charges laid by Mirret. The timing is too convenient, and the ability to potentially derail the talks in a way that lays no blame at her feet doesn't hurt either.

He has to admire her planning, he admits with resignation. If nothing else she has covered all her bases: either he ends up as the cause of a diplomatic crisis, or he gives her information about the rebellion.

That conversation, he thinks, is going to be an interesting one when it comes.

But in spite of Deneira's current machinations, Mas-Hain would have been an opportunity for her to position Samiel as a loyal agent. It isn't as likely that she would have sent him to a place she knew he would be subject to a kill order.

Absently, Jay drums his fingers against the mattress, thinking. The first priority, then, is to find out definitively why Deneira has kept Samiel alive. Why she has taken that risk, when she could have disposed of him. If he can prove there is a reason for it, then it increases the likelihood of his theory on the mole being correct.

How the hell he manages to get that information, he thinks, is another thing altogether.

Venndred might know something, even if he doesn't realise it. Isen, too, might have more information. Certainly Lachesis does, and Jay is relying on Isen to at least come up with something from her, if he's survived.

Jay chews a thumbnail as he thinks. It's too many unknown variables and he hates it. He should be out there, trying to piece this together. Instead, he's relying on other people to do the work for him.

There are also so many ways everything can go wrong – so many opportunities for this all to fail. If Deneira gets wind of what is happening; if Lault finds out Jay has convinced Hird to go behind his back; if the mole is somehow still involved in diplomatic relations.

If, if, if.

Without warning the small, warm spot in Jay's mind that he has been subconsciously ignoring for most of the day flares up. There is a soft, gentle rush of longingworryaffection, that has him slumping a little, one hand pressed to his chest, as though he could reach in and touch the odd mix of emotions.

“Oh,” he says softly.

The longingworryaffection eases a little, merging into a gentle hum of concern, and Jay shuts his eyes, concentrating.

“You foolish man,” he says quietly. “You should be worrying about yourself, and instead you're doing this.”

Almost in spite of himself, he can feel his own affection seeping around the edges of his control. He knows it must reach Samiel, because the concern changes again into something deeper, more surprising, and infinitely sweeter.

There is a sharp sliver lodged in Jay's heart, in his soul. A deep ache that resolves itself into a want to just be close to Samiel.

For one brief, all-consuming moment, all thoughts of plans and politics fall from Jay's mind. He is left instead with a deep, visceral need to go to Samiel; to crawl into his arms and breathe in the scent of sunshine and salzon oil, and let the rest of the universe implode if it wants to.

The same need seems to reverberate back down the bond: an echo of his own desires.

He breathes slowly, and grits his teeth against it.

Now is not the time, and this way lies madness if he doesn't get a handle on his emotions. The bond, this vulnerability, could be costly in the game he is playing. He can't allow himself to be distracted.

Still he wants.

And that, he thinks bleakly as he touches the bond again, is going to get them all killed if he is not careful.

*

“I don't know why you think I'm going to be of help,” Venndred says the next morning.

He is perched in an armchair, long legs crossed as he looks between Hird and Jay, his expression bemused.

Hird is sitting across from him, and the set of her jaw can only be described as 'mulish', much to Jay's amusement. She is wearing what he has privately classified as her least intimidating expression, and her gaze is fixed on Venndred, almost to the exclusion of all else.

“Because some fucking arsehole was lording it over me and I want to know,” she says.

As reasons go, it is...uniquely Hird, Jay thinks.

Venndred seems to think so too, if the way the corners of his lips twitch is any indication. “Well,” he says, “far be it from me to hinder your education, Evi. What do you want to know?”

“Belleros, Adrasteia and Teros,” Hird rattles off. “What the fuck are they?”

Venndred blinks. “That is... probably not what I was expecting you to ask,” he says. “I mean how did you end up in a conversation about those?”

Hird shrugs. “Someone called me Adrasteia?” she hedges.

It is a complete stab in the dark. They're not even sure if the words are names, or if they refer to something altogether different. Watching Venndred, Jay prays silently that Hird hasn't just made it blindingly obvious they are digging for something else entirely.

Venndred's expression flickers – a brief, odd moment of darkness that smooths away before it even really registers. “Did they?” he says.

“Is it uncomplimentary?” Jay asks blandly.

“Adrasteia is the handmaiden of the goddess Nemesis,” Venndred says. “She's often believed to be a minor deity in her own right – an exacerbating goddess of revolution.” He frowns. “She is not kind, or gentle.”

“Well,” Hird says, “I think we can all agree I'm neither kind nor fucking gentle, so I suppose that's accurate.”

“Nobody should call you that,” Venndred says, his expression dimming a little. “They do not have the right to judge you in that way.”

“What about the other two?” Hird asks. Jay notes with interest she doesn't appear to agree with Venndred. “Nobody called me those, but they were talking about them.” She shrugs and leans back in her chair.

“Belleros was one of our heroes in the golden ages,” Venndred says. “He was the child of Melphene and the Lenian queen, Lethe.” He looks between Jay and Hird, slightly bemused. “Did you want to know any more about him?”

“Please?” Jay says, before Hird can open her mouth. He can see the no already forming in her eyes. “It's always interesting to hear other legends.”

Venndred's smile grows a little as he watches the way Hird rolls her eyes. “I'll keep it short,” he promises.

“Oh no.” Hird waves a hand in ungracious defeat. “Lane wants to hear it. Please, go on.” The insincerity in her voice, Jay thinks, would insult nearly any other Siren, but Venndred takes it in his stride.

“Belleros was raised by his mortal mother and her husband until he reached manhood. He was the eldest of three brothers, and when all three had reached adulthood, the king set them each an impossible task. Whoever succeeded would be the next ruler of their kingdom.”

“Oh, a sound fucking policy for deciding your next leader,” Hird mutters.

“I didn't say it was a good idea,” Venndred tells her. “Anyway, the task Belleros was given was to find a way to talk to the dead – to listen to their wisdom and pass it on to his people.”

“Threnodia,” Jay says, realisation dawning. “You're talking about how the tradition of threnodia came into being.”

“Exactly,” Venndred says. “Belleros came up with the idea of passing on what you had learnt – recording it for future generations. Of course, the original records were in stone and, later, ink; but that was the start. It honoured the spirit of the task he had been set, if not the exact letter of it.”

“Did he get the throne?” Hird asks. She looks almost interested, apparently in spite of herself.

“He did,” Venndred says, “and he ruled for ten years.”

“I'm sensing a 'but',” Jay says.

“But one of his younger brothers grew jealous. He killed Belleros's wife and kidnapped their child.

“Belleros went mad with grief, abandoning his people and his kingdom. He wandered the world, looking for his lost heir, until eventually the gods took pity on him. When he died, they transformed him into the constellation Heraion, which contains the brightest star in our night sky. It is the star our ancestors used to navigate by.” Venndred smiles. “The story goes that Belleros shines so brightly, because he is still trying to find his son, and show him the way home.”

“That's a beautiful myth,” Jay says.

“Interesting,” Hird allows. “But what about Teros?”

“The god of earth and iron. He's responsible for growth and new life. Teros was born when a hero, Amphitios, beheaded the chimaera. The blood of the chimaera fell to the earth, and Teros sprang fully formed from the ground. He was created from lifeblood, and so he gives blood to new life.”

“Well,” Jay says, “I think we've learnt something cultural from this, don't you?”

Hird scratches her chin. “I think I've learnt Sirens have really fucking complicated ways of insulting people,” she says blithely, and with enough flippant disregard that Jay half wants to applaud her acting.

“Evi,” Venndred says patiently, “nobody should be insulting you at all.”

“Oh please,” Hird says, “as if anything like that is going to upset me.” She rolls her eyes at Venndred's expression. “I mean it, priest.”

“Still, if you tell me who spoke to you like that, I could talk with them.” Venndred leans forward, intent. “We are all working together towards a better galaxy now, and this shouldn't be happening.”

The look Hird shoots him is positively guilty, and for one dreadful moment, Jay is convinced she is going to open her mouth and ruin everything.

“Venndred,” he says carefully, “could I ask you a question?”

Venndred blinks at him, his train of thought visibly derailing. “Of course,” he says.

“It's about logosykia,” Jay adds, with a pointed look at Hird.

“Alright,” Hird says, rolling her eyes. “I get the message.” The look of relief on her face takes some of the sting out of her tone.

She stands and points an ominous finger at Jay. “I will be just outside this door,” she adds. “If you even think about setting foot outside these rooms without me, I will hang you by your entrails from the highest fucking building I can find.”

Venndred watches, as she stomps out of the room. For one startling moment, the amusement and affection on his face is plain.

Jay, looking at him, privately wonders if there is something in Venndred's psyche that puts him on the path of most resistance. Particularly when it comes to Hird.

“She's terrifying,” Venndred says happily, half to himself.

“She's something alright,” Jay says, before he can bite the words back. He can't help smiling when Venndred looks at him. “You know it's the truth.”

“Well. Yes.” Venndred clears his throat. As Jay watches in surprise, he goes a little pink around the ears. “Anyway, you wanted to ask something?”

Although the pretence of a question had largely been to stop Hird from looking so bloody guilty, there is, Jay realises, something he does actually want to know. He hesitates for a moment, thinking.

Venndred has proven himself at least somewhat trustworthy. If nothing else, as far as Jay can see he hasn't yet lied to him about anything to do with the soul bond. He also helped Hird to track both Jay and Samiel down, and he stood up for them against Littien.

“Meshala,” he says at last. “You've said it's rare but not unheard of.”

“Yes.”

“What about between a human and a Siren?” Jay watches Venndred carefully. “Has there ever been another case like that?”

“I...” Venndred opens his mouth. Closes it again. He runs a helpless hand through his hair as he looks at Jay, wide-eyed. “Why would you ask that?”

“One of the rebels,” Jay says slowly, and watches with some surprise as Venndred's shoulders slump a little, in what looks like relief. “They seemed to know something. They knew Samiel wouldn't be able to make me do anything, even without my translators, because of meshala.”

“If there have been others, then it's not well known,” Venndred says. “The history of our two peoples is very much one of hostility.” He sighs, and the look in his eyes for one brief moment is an ancient, unspeakable weariness. “But I suspect there have been other cases, yes.”

“And how would people react if they knew about Samiel and I?” Jay asks. “Because the reaction from the rebellion was not favourable.” He winces a little, remembering. “Mostly,” he admits, “because of Samiel, I think.”

“I don't know,” Venndred says. “The truth is, you can put ten people in a room and have fifteen different opinions. Some might be in favour of it; some might not. On both sides of this.”

“What about the court?” Jay says. “And the Queen?”

“It depends which side of the court you ask,” Venndred says. “If you speak to those championing for a change to our current regime, then I suspect the answer will be favourable.”

“And the others?”

“Less so.” A smile flickers across Venndred's face. “But you're not really asking because you're interested in public opinion, are you?”

“Mostly not,” Jay admits. “But I am worried about it hurting Samiel, if the Queen finds out about... this.” Absently he touches a hand to his breastbone.

The bond is quiet at the moment; Samiel has closed himself off and Jay can't feel anything. The absence of it is like a stone lodged in his shoe: not unbearable, but bizarrely uncomfortable for something so new.

“It is unlikely Most Exalted would be in favour of this logosykia,” Venndred says gently. “Which I think you already knew.”

Jay smiles wryly. “I was hoping I'd be wrong,” he says.

Venndred leans forward, and the look in his eyes is sympathetic as he watches Jay. “Severne Tremark is going to have a difficult choice to make,” he says. “But you need to be patient. Give him time. I think you'll find meshala and logosykia are not so easily dismissed.”

“I don't want to cause him grief,” Jay admits reluctantly. “I mean, how can this compete with his loyalties? I...” He breaks off, frustrated and surprised at himself. “I want to be his choice,” he confesses, “and I don't want to force him to it. But God help me, I'm going to.”

“Don't underestimate him,” Venndred says, “and don't underestimate yourself. You are both doing something very brave. Whether Severne Tremark tells our Queen or not, you are both facing something that is largely unprecedented, and I am confident you will do it together.”

Jay nearly opens his mouth then – nearly admits that he is set on a path very different to the one Venndred is painting for him. What if I told you I was planning to overthrow your Queen? he nearly asks. What if I told you I am quite willing to stand back and watch Lenians rip each other to pieces, as long as I can save one man?

He knows with absolute clarity the depths of his own selfishness, and knows equally well that he has no one to blame but himself. What he is prepared to do goes beyond all rational thinking. That he has managed to persuade others to follow him is pure madness. The risk is high and he is not sure how bad the fallout will be.

The worst part is, he would make the same choices again.

The realisation is bitter and he tucks it away, to be examined later in the depths of his own head.

Instead, he smiles at Venndred. “Thank you,” he says, rather than the myriad truths sitting on his tongue.

Venndred shrugs. “I just want to help,” he says, and there is an honesty in his voice that takes Jay by surprise.

“It's more than most.”

“Maybe,” Venndred allows. He hesitates a moment, then takes a breath. “Look, not everyone on Lenia will be out to stop you,” he says. “You need to give people a chance to decide for themselves if they are willing to stand behind the both of you.”

“I don't think most would,” Jay says. “Honestly, I think your kindness might be an exception.”

“Not an exception,” Venndred says patiently, “just a choice.” He smiles, small but genuine. “That's all kindness is, Jason: a choice.”

“I've seen enough of the galaxy to know most people don't opt for it then,” Jay says dryly.

“Don't they?” Venndred spreads his hands to emphasise his point. “Kindness isn't something inherent. The universe is a vast, uncaring place, and people have to make their way in it as best they can. Sometimes they're able to care, sometimes they aren't. But it's always an effort to be kind, never second nature.”

He sighs at Jay's blank look. “The point I'm making, is that you need to give people a chance, so they can choose for themselves if they want to be kind. They need to be told, in order to make that leap of faith. Then they can choose for themselves if they are willing to stand with you and Severne Tremark.”

“And you?” Jay asks. “Would you?”

Venndred blinks. “Of course,” he says, surprised. “Why would you think otherwise?”

“Well, you said it yourself: it's a choice.”

“Ah.” Venndred's expression stills. He hesitates for a long moment. “It is. But my choice was made a long time ago.”

“Forgive me, but why?”

The laughter lines at the corners of Venndred's eyes deepen. “And I thought only Evi asked inappropriate questions.”

“Oh”, Jay says. “I apologise, I didn't mean – ”

“It's alright, don't worry.” Venndred waves a hand dismissively. “I'm not that easy to offend.”

“Even so,” Jay says.

As he watches, Venndred gets to his feet.

“Look, that story isn't for you,” he says. “But the truth is that five years ago, someone very much made me rethink my life and what I was doing with it. I realised I could help far more by choosing the path I'm on now, compared to the road I travelled then.” He shrugs at Jay's look of disbelief. “I wasn't always this person, Jason; I chose to be something different. You need to let others make that choice too.”

The thought of it goes against every instinct Jay has.

He doesn't trust people – doesn't believe that when faced with an opportunity to do good, most people would take it – but he also doesn't want to dismiss Venndred's words. If nothing else, the man has earned the right to have his advice considered. There is, perhaps, the possibility of public sympathy then, if everything comes out.

“Alright,” Jay allows, “I'll think about it.”

Venndred claps him on the shoulder, accidentally jarring the bruise Samiel left.

“That's all I ask,” he says.

*

The rest of the day crawls by, with no further information.

Hird doesn't leave Jay alone, and Lault – in spite of his promise to the contrary – does not appear to discuss the events in Maa-Ilia. Instead, as evening falls, he sends a brief missive to Jay's commlink, advising that he has been in talks with Lenian representatives all day, and will likely remain so until late into the night. With nothing else to do, both Jay and Hird retire to sleep.

The following morning brings an unexpected visitor.

“Wing Commander Lane,” Athannus says.

He is standing in the main room of Jay's suite. His robes are formal, his tunic impeccably pressed and his mask as smooth and inscrutable as ever. Behind him, Hird looks ready to pitch a fit. One hand is on her pistol, the other hovers dangerously near her commlink, as though she is considering requesting help.

“Lord Athannus,” Jay says. He puts down the cup of saff he was drinking. “Please, sit down.”

Athannus inclines his head. “My thanks,” he says, “but this will not take long. The Queen has requested your presence later today. She wishes to discuss the charges laid against you. Your ambassador will, of course, be present to help safeguard your interests.” His tone is low, measured.

If not for the rise and fall of his chest, Jay thinks, he could be a statue.

“And Severne Tremark?” Jay asks blandly. “Will he also be there? I understand the charges are laid against him too.”

“No.” Athannus folds his hands neatly. “He has been remanded into my custody. It is...not advisable that he speaks to the Queen before a proper statement has been taken.”

“Are you implying that you feel Severne Tremark would be influenced by the Queen?” Jay says. “How unfortunate.” Behind Athannus he sees Hird roll her eyes.

“I am saying that Severne Tremark's first loyalty might not be to the truth,” Athannus says. “In spite of our best efforts, for example, he has said very little about you.”

Jay's blood turns to ice. “And what exactly do you mean by 'best efforts',” he says. In spite of himself there is a dangerous note in his voice.

“Not what you are imagining, I'm sure,” Athannus says. “Merely that he has not given information to either Parliament, the Council or myself. He has also not commented on...certain allegations that Severne Littien has disclosed.”

“Which are?”

Athannus tilts his head slightly, considering. “Inappropriate relations with a member of a hostile race. I am sure you understand, Wing Commander, that if these allegations were proven to be true, it would compromise not only your case, but everything the Queen has been working towards.”

“And you?” Jay asks. “Would it compromise what you are working towards?” He watches as Athannus remains impassive and smiles. “My understanding is that your relationship with the Queen is not always amicable.”

“And where did you hear such allegations?” Athannus asks. “Surely the human ambassadors do not spend their days gossiping like chattering garkills?”

“It's common knowledge,” Jay says pleasantly. “Besides, even if it weren't, surely you would be considered next in line to the throne. That must be temptation enough.”

“Clearly you misunderstand how our inheritance laws work,” Athannus says. “Just because I am related to the Queen, does not mean I would inherit.”

“Commander of the One Hundredth and Fifth,” Jay says softly. “A member of the Council and answerable to Parliament? A seasoned veteran and skilled diplomat? Oh yes, Lord Athannus, I think you are very much next in line to inherit the throne.”

“I'm flattered,” Athannus says, sounding anything but. “However I would ask you to reconsider such speculations. I will not move against our Most Exalted.”

“I understand,” Jay says, and a small, malicious part of him adds: “It must be difficult to even consider moving against such a ruthless and clever leader.”

“If you are trying to goad me Wing Commander, it will not work,” Athannus says. “I am not interested in how difficult a prospective coup would be. More power does not interest me. My first loyalty is to my family. It always has been.”

“Of course,” Jay says graciously. “Forgive me, I was merely speculating.”

“I'm sure,” Athannus says shortly. “Now, if you'll excuse me.”

It is not a request.

As the door shuts behind him, Hird looks at Jay, sees his expression, and slaps the scrambler on, on her commlink.

“What the fuck was that about?” she asks, exasperated. “Do you really think it's a good idea to fuck around with the man in charge of your investigation?”

Jay grins at her. “I think it got me exactly what I wanted,” he says. “I learnt Samiel hasn't said anything to anyone; that Littien has already made a report – ”

“I never did like that cow,” Hird mutters.

“Quite. And we've learnt that Athannus is apparently not willing to move against the Queen. Interesting, isn't it?”

Hird flings herself down into the chair opposite Jay. She steals his cup of saff, takes a gulp and pulls a face. “Oh, urgh, it's cold,” she complains. “Alright, enlighten me: why is it interesting that he doesn't want to move against her?”

“Because he's apparently got the rebellion on one side, who claim to have a way of making him work with them. And on the other side there's Deneira, who he says he won't challenge. Which makes me wonder: why not? If you've got an organisation blackmailing you into working with them, then why aren't you?”

“Just because he's told you he's not going to move against her, doesn't mean he won't,” Hird points out.

“True, except wouldn't he have wanted to at least test the waters a little bit here? See if I would work with him, or if he could trick me into confessing something?” Jay throws his hands up at Hird's blank expression. “Hird, he didn't. He shut the conversation down immediately. That's not a man loyal to his Queen. That's a man afraid of something.”

Hird groans. “Which means he might not be as fucking reliable as the rebellion has promised.”

“Exactly,” Jay says.

“Which means we might need another fucking plan.” Hird slumps back in her chair, her expression grim. “Are you sure we can't just hit your precious little psychopath over the head and kidnap him?”

“Only if you don't mind a major diplomatic incident on your hands when Deneira finds out what we've done,” Jay says dryly. “I think we could safely assume, at that point, that any peace talks would be null and void.”

“Shame,” Hird says. “I've always wanted an excuse to fucking hit Tremark.” She sighs. “And before we do anything else, you need to talk to Lault. Because I am not letting you walk into a meeting with the Most fucking Exalted without someone there to back you up. And no,” she adds when Jay opens his mouth, “I don't fucking count.”

“I don't know,” Jay says, “I suspect it would be really quite entertaining to watch you punch your way through most of the Lenian court.”

She points a finger at him. “You're on thin fucking ice, Lane.”

“Aren't I always?”

“So much so, that I have occasionally dreamed of standing on the proverbial fucking riverbank and watching you drown. Lucky for you, I'm nicer than that.”

“You're a saint, Hird,” Jay says, then laughs as she glares at him.

“Don't fucking push it,” she says.

Chapter Text

The light of the late afternoon suns pours rich and golden through the windows of Deneira's rooms.

Jay is standing in the centre of her office, back straight, dress uniform crisp, as he watches her. Next to him, Lault is neat to the point of razor sharpness. His face is expressionless and his posture relaxed as they both wait for Deneira to acknowledge them.

She is sitting behind her desk, which makes Jay wonder if she is deliberately echoing the beginning of their last meeting.

Her hair is coiled neatly at the nape of her neck. Her gown is a deep, midnight blue, and the lines of her cosmetics are bold and severe. Behind her, Pyrrhine is a wraith in white, her mask as smooth and expressionless as Deneira's bare face.

“Ambassador Lault,” Deneira says at last, looking up from her papers. “Wing Commander Lane.”

“Most Exalted,” Lault says, bowing low.

Jay bows as well, but where Lault looks to the floor, he keeps his eyes fixed on Deneira.

If she notices his gaze, she doesn't show it. Instead she folds her hands, resting them on the desk as she leans forward slightly. “I would like to thank both of you for attending this afternoon.”

There was not much choice in the matter, Jay thinks cynically, as he straightens. Lault had made it very clear that Jay's presence was mandatory. The only slight comfort had been that Hird had very much looked as though she was considering murder, when she had been told to wait outside.

“Thank you for this audience,” Lault says. “Lord Athannus advised us you wished to discuss certain matters?”

Deneira inclines her head. “I did.”

One long finger flicks briefly, and Jay watches uneasily as the two Severne flanking her are dismissed. Only Pyrrhine remains.

“I am sorry that this discussion comes at such a difficult time,” Lault says. “As I am sure you can appreciate, we will be fighting the baseless accusations that have been levelled at Wing Commander Lane. I can only apologise that such matters will hinder any further discussions on the subject of peace.”

“I understand,” Deneira says smoothly. “I would expect nothing less than your full efforts in his defence, Ambassador.” She pauses. Her gaze, bright and gold, considers Jay for a long moment before she looks at Lault. “Of course, I am sure that there is an explanation for the events in Maa-Ilia. We look forward to hearing it.”

“As will Lord Athannus, I'm sure,” Jay says.

“He is conducting the investigation,” Deneira says, which is neither confirmation nor denial.

“Severne Tremark has also been accused,” Lault says. “As he is one of your Severne, are we to understand you will be defending his reputation, Most Exalted?”

“That depends,” Deneira says, “on the findings of the investigation.” This time she does not break eye contact with Jay.

Jay struggles to stifle the brief, vicious flash of anger he feels as he meets her gaze. He wants to bare his teeth at this woman, this creature, who has robbed Samiel of his home, his family, and turned him into her willing servant.

He keeps his expression blank, but can't help the way his shoulders stiffen as he watches her.

In that moment, he hates.

“I have also been led to believe that there have been... certain allegations made by Severne Littien,” Lault says.

Deneira blinks. “I too have heard this,” she says. “Severne Littien made her report to me. If those allegations were discovered to be true, it would be most unfortunate, would it not?”

“It would raise some serious questions, I agree,” Lault says. “Happily, I am confident this is another charge we will be able to clear. I think both you and I know, Most Exalted, that it is highly unlikely that Severne Tremark and Wing Commander Lane have been fraternising.”

“Quite,” Deneira says. “As I'm sure you understand, it would bring the whole question of Mas-Hain to bear again, after all. However, I am sure Wing Commander Lane would not have exerted undue influence on one of my subjects during that time.” Her expression when she looks at Jay is still; serene.

She is confident, Jay realises. No matter the outcome of this investigation, she thinks she has got the human delegation cornered. If Jay is found guilty, then it is an excuse to execute him and continue with the war. If he is cleared, then she has a reason to point the finger of blame at the rebellion. There is no proof of her hand in any of this.

The thought burns and he smiles at her, savagely glad for one moment that he is not dancing to her tune.

“One could argue the reverse may be true,” Lault says. “After all, Severne Tremark is known for his... ruthless nature. One could as easily be led to believe the undue pressure came from him. If we were to pursue that line of thinking, regarding the events of three years ago. Which, of course, we are not.”

“Of course,” Deneira says. “But perhaps we could clarify something?”

“Which is?”

“As I am sure you are aware, I asked Wing Commander Lane to travel to Maa-Ilia to aid me in a matter of some importance. I understand that he claims he was forcibly removed from Governor Mirret's residence by members of the rebellion. That being the case, I am wondering if the Commander had the opportunity to gather intelligence, as I requested?”

Lault smiles politely. “Wing Commander Lane has not indicated he was able to learn much of the rebellion's movements, Most Exalted.”

“A shame,” Deneira says.

Jay watches as she stands. She is graceful as she circles the desk; her movements those of someone who has been carefully trained from birth to pinpoint precision. The skirts of her gown rustle delicately as she steps towards him.

“Perhaps you are able to elaborate, Wing Commander?” she asks. “I sent you to investigate links to my cousin, Lord Athannus. I believed your presence would stir the rebellion to something rash, and indeed it allegedly did. Are we to understand you learnt nothing during your captivity?”

For one long moment, Jay stares at her. His rational mind knows she is still offering an opportunity here. It is something he could make work, if he took the out she is giving him. The bargain could not be more obvious: tell me what you know, and this will disappear.

But so would Athannus. So would the rebellion.

And for what? So Deneira could continue to cling to power by any means necessary? Continue to promote war?

Then there is Samiel, and the damage she has wrought there. And the possibility of Mas-Hain.

He looks her in the eye, ignoring the breach of protocol.

“Nothing at all,” he says.

“The rebellion did not even attempt to offer terms?” Deneira presses. “I find that unlikely.”

“Sadly not,” Jay lies, and makes sure his face is as expressionless as hers. “My stay was short and unpleasant.”

“And they simply let you go, Commander?”

“Unfortunately they didn't, Your Highness. I took the liberty of blowing up half their compound as I exited. I'm sure your intelligence agencies can verify the truth of that.”

For one moment, he thinks he sees the tiniest twitch of a muscle in Deneira's jaw. But it is there and gone so quickly, he wonders if he imagined it.

“A pity,” she says instead. “And how unfortunate that this does not help prove your innocence. Or Severne Tremark's.”

The threat is clear.

“No more than Governor Mirret's circumstantial allegations prove my guilt,” Jay says blandly. “I would also think you would be invested in proving Severne Tremark's innocence, Most Exalted. After all, if guilt were proven, it would reflect very poorly on any leader who allowed one of their highest ranking officers to kill a government official.” He smiles again, and knows this time it is all teeth. “I doubt that your Parliament or the Council would look kindly on that.”

Next to him, he hears Lault's sharp intake of breath, quickly stifled, and knows he has made his point.

“If Severne Tremark were found guilty, he would be dealt with according to our laws and customs,” Deneira says. “If the same verdict were to be found in your case, I would hope your government would allow the same.”

That, then, is her message: cooperate or face Lenian punishment.

Deneira is fishing, Jay knows. She has no proof he is withholding anything from her. Equally, she has no investment in keeping him alive if he hasn't got information. The one saving grace is that she does not know Jay is aware she is protecting Samiel.

“We cannot comment, at this time, on whether Wing Commander Lane would be subject to Lenian justice,” Lault interjects smoothly. “He is not, after all, a Lenian citizen.”

“You would need to seek guidance,” Deneira says. “I understand.” She inclines her head. “Let us hope, of course, that it does not come to that.”

“My thoughts entirely, Most Exalted,” Lault says. “I am sure Lord Athannus is conducting a most thorough and fair investigation.”

“I am certain he is doing his best to ensure the truth is discovered,” Deneira says.

Jay has the bizarre impression she is being entirely honest, for once. He watches, but her expression does not so much as flicker. Instead, she claps her hands together once.

“Pyrrhine,” she says, “please escort Wing Commander Lane and Ambassador Lault back to their rooms. I am certain they have much they wish to discuss.”

Lault bows. Grudgingly, Jay does the same.

“We will, of course, continue to work with all parties to ensure this investigation is concluded in a satisfactory manner,” Lault says. “We thank you for taking the time to meet with us today, Most Exalted.”

As they back up the requisite steps, Deneira turns her head to look out of the window. It is a clear dismissal.

For one moment, as Jay follows Pyrrhine, he glances back over his shoulder at her.

Deneira stands, hands clasped loosely. Her expression is blank as she stares out at Maa-Tarek.

She looks, Jay thinks, very alone.

*

“Listen,” Lault says bluntly, later, when they are safely back in the human residencies. “If you have anything you want to tell me, now is the time.”

Jay studies him. Lault has always been sharp; neatly dressed with bright, clever eyes. For once, however, he looks tired – as though the interview with the Queen has drained him of his energy. He sees Jay watching and smiles, a little.

“You would not be the first human to think they had found an ally in a Lenian,” he says. “If you have made contact with the rebellion and they have offered you something, or if you have tried to change Severne Tremark's allegiance, then you need to tell me.”

“I think swaying Severne Tremark's loyalty would be an impossible thing,” Jay says dryly.

Lault shrugs. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. You were both together on Mas-Hain, the last time an attempt at peace blew up in our faces. It is not looking good for you now. The same thing has happened again.”

“You said it yourself: the evidence is circumstantial at best.”

“Yes,” Lault allows. “But we have to consider all the outcomes here, Commander. I would not be doing my job if I didn't ask you if your relationship with Severne Tremark has gone beyond that of an acquaintance.” He hesitates for a moment. “Severne Littien seems to think so, and she has made no secret of this, as the Queen said.”

He's mine, Jay wants to say, and I am his. There is no description good enough to say what he is to me. 'Beyond acquaintances' doesn't even begin to cover it.

“No,” he says instead. “I haven't got anything further to add.”

Lault sighs. “Are you sure?” he asks. “I know it is a sensitive subject, but Commander – Jason – you must know there were questions asked the first time. After Mas-Hain.”

Jay stiffens. “What?”

“The circumstances of it, the differing version of events – you must understand people were debating your loyalty.” Clearly seeing Jay's shock, Lault places a comforting hand on his arm. “I didn't believe it, of course. Very few did. But mud sticks sometimes, and there were reports intercepted from the Lenians. Some of Severne Tremark's comrades were concerned about his behaviour, during the lead-up to the murders on Mas-Hain.”

“Severne Tremark,” Jay says, “has never betrayed his Queen. And if everyone was so concerned that I might be a potential security risk, why was I allowed on this mission?”

“Because I asked for you,” Lault says. “You know more than most about Lenians. You know how they think, their customs, their culture. You are probably one of the few humans who has spent longer than a couple of days in their presence.”

“Which, according to you, makes me guilty of fraternisation,” Jay points out bitterly.

“I haven't said that,” Lault corrects gently. “And I also asked for you because you are good at what you do, Jason. You can twist impossible situations to your advantage; we've all seen it. That is why I believe there is more at play here than a jumped-up murder charge. So. Is there?”

For one moment, Jay wants to tell him everything.

He swallows the impulse; buries it. Lault needs to be clear of this whole mess, because if something goes wrong – if he and Hird end up getting arrested on far more serious charges than one man's pitiful attempt to pin the blame on Jay – then they are going to need Lault. He cannot be implicated, Jay thinks, resigned, and he shrugs instead.

“Not to my knowledge,” he says.

“Then I think we need to – ” Lault says.

And Jay stops listening, as ragefearpanic slams into him so suddenly he staggers.

The warm, bright spot in his mind that is Samiel is on fire, and it is consuming him. He doubles over, clutching his head. Somewhere nearby, he hears Lault's concerned voice, but he can't focus on anything, he can't –

Panicterror.

Jay drops to his knees, panting. The noise in his head is brutal, overwhelming. He can hear Samiel's fear and anger screaming through the bond; can taste it like blood at the back of his throat.

“Something's wrong,” he manages, retching. “Something's – ”

“What is it?” Lault asks, and Jay can't look up at him; can't focus on anything as he stares, unseeing, at the floor.

He breathes through gritted teeth, thoughts scattered. The sheer volume of Samiel's emotions are howling through him, battering at his mind. He slams a fist into the carpet, gathers himself together as much as he can, and shoves incoherently at the bond.

For a blessed moment, the screaming falters.

Then, as though Jay has reminded Samiel he is there, everything comes flying back at him, faster and just as strong.

“Stop it,” Jay manages, and doesn't know who he is talking to. “You need to stop it. I can't – ”

“What do I need to stop?” Lault asks, and the surprise in his voice grates against Jay's nerves, even as Samiel's emotions swamp him.

He bites his lower lip hard enough to draw blood. The pain gives him a blessed moment of clarity. “Get Athannus,” he barks at Lault. “Get him now.”

Distantly, he hears Lault's footsteps flying out of the room, and the door slamming shut behind him.

Jay chokes in air and hangs his head. He curls his fingers into the silks of the carpet and watches, dazed, as blood from his split lip drips onto the floor.

Samiel's emotions are not coherent. They are all-consuming and the depth of them hurts. There is a whirlwind of panic beating in Jay's head and he wants to scream himself hoarse with it.

How do you cope with this? he thinks desperately. How do you fucking cope with something that could drive you mad?

He shudders as another wave of panic washes over him, and scrambles to find a way to block it. Venndred hadn't explained this – hadn't told them what to do when one of them was so bad it was like an explosion. He gags on the sour taste of fear, and struggles to find Samiel in the maelstrom between them.

He doesn't know what he's doing – has no idea – but that strange connection is still humming between them. He thinks about reaching out, of holding onto Samiel through it.

I'm here, he wants to say. I'm here, calm down.

The door to the room ricochets of its hinges.

“Lane!” Hird snaps.

In two quick strides she is crouching next to him, one hand on his shoulder. Her touch is strong, grounding, and Jay is infinitely grateful for it.

“Athannus,” he manages. “Lault went to get Athannus. Where – ”

“I'm here,” Athannus says.

Jay turns his head and sees him stop just inside the doorway. Lault hovers behind him, his concern palpable even from across the room.

“Hird,” Jay says through gritted teeth. “Escort Ambassador Lault back to his rooms.”

“Are you – ”

“Now, please.”

She swears softly at him, and for one moment her fingers tighten on his shoulder to the point of bruising, as she gives a quick, reassuring squeeze. “You need anything, you call me,” she says sternly, and stands.

“We can't leave Wing Commander Lane on his own,” Lault protests, as Hird strides past Athannus without sparing him so much as a glance. “He is clearly in distress.”

“He's not on his own,” Hird says shortly. “He's got someone watching him.”

“With all due respect, Lord Athannus is not – ”

“You have my word,” Athannus says calmly, “that no harm will come to him whilst I am here. I swear it.”

“But you may question him,” Lault protests, “and he is in no fit state to respond appropriately.”

“I will not do so.”

“There,” Hird says. “You heard him. Now the quicker I escort you back to your rooms, Ambassador, the quicker I can return.” The tone of her voice, Jay notices, even as he fights to look at her, brooks no opposition.

The door closes behind them, and blessed silence reigns.

Jay shudders for a moment, teetering on the brink of hysterical laughter. Here he is, left alone with the very man investigating his alleged crimes, and he's the only person who can answer his questions.

“Severne Tremark,” he manages around the panic beating through his soul. “What have you done to him?”

“Nothing.” If Athannus were anyone else, Jay would almost swear he sounded puzzled. “He is being held in rooms within the palace and has been made comfortable.”

“Then what – ” Jay swallows against nauseating terror, and tries again. “Then what is happening to him right now?”

There is a long silence.

“Give me an update report on Severne Tremark,” Athannus says abruptly, and Jay realises he is speaking into his commlink. Then: “I see. Bring him. Now.”

Slowly, carefully, Jay tilts himself sideways until he is not so much crouched on the floor, as sitting on it. He closes his eyes briefly and tries to steady himself, so he doesn't drown in Samiel's panic.

The soft rustle of fabric does not lessen his surprise when one warm, long-fingered hand rests gently against his forehead for a brief moment. He startles, badly, and opens his eyes to look at the smooth features of Athannus' mask.

“If you wanted to check on Severne Tremark,” Athannus says mildly, “you need only have asked.”

Jay swallows heavily and tries to work his lips and tongue to form words. “This is... not that,” he manages.

“No.” Athannus sighs and kneels, carefully, next to him. “I am beginning to see that.” He touches the back of Jay's hand to focus him, and then holds his own hand out, palm up. “How long?”

“I don't – ”

“I think you do.”

Jay stares at him, trying to calculate what the hell to say around the noise in his head.

If he admits to Athannus now that meshala, that logosykia, has already happened, this could completely ruin things. There's no telling how he will react, or what he will do with the information. It could be as good as a death sentence, before they even reach any kind of hearing.

Footsteps sound in the corridor outside the room, before he can reply. People are running. Someone is either being chased, or others are struggling to keep up with them.

Samiel slams into the room like a hurricane, and Jay doubles over again as the bond explodes, louder still, with aweterrorfearwonderpanic.

How the hell, he thinks dizzily, can one person feel so much?

“Get away from him!” Samiel roars. In two strides he is across the room.

“Don't – ” Jay begins, realising what is about to happen, but it is too late.

Samiel grabs Athannus by the throat, dragging him back from Jay. There is an almost casual brutality to his violence; a terrifying efficiency in the graceful movements of his body. His grip tightens, slowly.

“You don't touch him,” Samiel says, and there is murder in his eyes. He relinquishes his grip, tossing Athannus to the floor, and stands over him, teeth bared.

Jay straightens slowly, against the weight of Samiel's anger, until he is kneeling upright. “Enough!” he snaps.

From the corner of his eye he can see the two Severne that accompanied Samiel. They have appeared, panting, in the doorway behind Athannus. Their hands are on their salzon hilts. For one terrible moment Jay wonders how long they would last against Samiel, before he ripped them to pieces.

Athannus stands, slowly. “Out,” he says sharply to them. His voice is slightly hoarse. “And shut the door behind you. I have this in hand.”

“But – ”

“Now,” Athannus says.

Jay has one brief instant to appreciate the ruthlessly efficient way Athannus commands both Severne, as the door slams shuts again, and then Samiel is on him.

“You're alright,” he says, frantic. “Jason you're alright, you're not hurt?” Long fingers tilt Jay's face up, and Samiel stares at him.

His touch is like a blessed relief, and Jay sways, drinking it in. His skin burns with the pressure of Samiel's fingertips and for a moment, his mind quiets.

“Perhaps you could explain what is going on?” Athannus says mildly.

His voice seems to trigger something in Samiel. The rage that sparks through Jay has him fisting the material of Samiel's robe, white-knuckled as he tries to work around the screaming chorus of ragehatefear.

“Calm down,” he snaps.

Samiel ignores him, wrenching himself from Jay's grasp to plant himself between Jay and Athannus. “You stay away from him,” he growls at Athannus. “You touch him and I'll kill you.”

“I have no intention of harming Wing Commander Lane,” Athannus says. He is calm in the face of Samiel's anger. “As you can see for yourself, he is quite well.”

“Only because I got here in time,” Samiel snarls. “Only because you didn't have the opportunity to do anything.”

“Please,” Athannus says, “be reasonable.” He spreads his hands in an apparent attempt to appeal to Samiel's rational mind. He takes a step forward and stops again as Samiel growls, low and dangerous.

The sound thrums through Jay, up his spine and into his hindbrain. Danger, the noise promises. Blood and tearing teeth and death. He flails out a hand, manages to catch the edge of Samiel's robes again, and tugs sharply.

“Enough!” he shouts.

Samiel turns, crashing to his knees in front of Jay. “He was going to hurt you,” he says. “Jason, he was going to take you away and pull answers from you, by any means necessary.” He cradles Jay's face in his hands, one thumb pressed painfully into the pulse point under the hinge of Jay's jaw.

“I can assure you – ” Athannus begins.

“Be quiet,” Samiel says, low and grating. His gaze doesn't leave Jay. “You take one step closer; you so much as look at him in the wrong direction, and I will rip your throat out. Do you understand me?”

“Stop,” Jay says. “Samiel, enough.”

“It's alright,” Samiel says. “It's alright, I've got you.” He presses closer; nuzzles against Jay's temple and holds on. “The next person to touch you is going to die,” he promises, and Jay can feel the needle sharp truth of it in his blood.

In spite of it – because of it – he pulls Samiel in. Brings him closer, and hangs on.

The feel of him is glorious, in a way Jay hadn't realised he'd missed. For a moment he moves closer still.

Samiel is not calmer – the violence of his emotions have just been ordered in a more rational way – but it is enough that sanity starts to creep in around the edges of Jay's consciousness, and for a heartbeat he revels in the sensation of touch, of closeness.

He finds, to his surprise, that he is clutching at Samiel. His fingers hurt from the pressure of his grip. Under his hands he can feel Samiel's heartbeat. It seems to echo in time to his own.

“What is this about?” he asks quietly. “You can see I'm fine. Why are you – do you have any idea – ”

“Pyrrhine told me,” Samiel says, in the barest of whispers. He presses a small, hidden kiss to Jay's temple. His lips brush against Jay's skin with every word. “She came to see me. My aunt was trying to warn me. Athannus is in league with the rebels. He wants to use you as an excuse to start this war again.”

The words sink into Jay's mind like stones.

“Your aunt told you,” he says. His hands drop to his sides, empty.

Samiel pulls back to look at him. “Yes,” he says. “She said you were in danger, that you were going to be taken – ”

“I'm not in danger,” Jay says. “Or, I wasn't.” He swallows, staring at Samiel. “She sent you to me? No,” he says, cutting Samiel off before he can begin to explain. “No, she didn't. She didn't need to.”

“I don't understand – ”

“I saw your aunt today,” Jay says. “She asked me a great deal. One of the things she asked me was if I had been 'fraternising' with you.” He smiles, mirthlessly. “I told her I had done no such thing.”

“Oh.” Samiel stares at him. “Then why – ”

They have been played, Jay realises with a sickening swoop of fear. Both of them have. Deneira had not got what she wanted from Jay, and so she had taken a different path. He has underestimated her, again. Even counting on her not physically harming Samiel, he has not considered her using Samiel's own fears, and Jay's own weaknesses, against them.

“Now she knows,” he says bleakly.

“Meshala,” Athannus says. He sounds stunned.

Jay flinches – he had forgotten for one moment that Athannus is still in the room.

This is worse, he realises.

Not only will Deneira know, but now Athannus does too. This will go against the both of them in the investigation. Where, before, the likelihood of two acquaintances covering up for one another would have been minimal; the idea of two people bound together, lying to save each other, is far more probable.

“It's not what it looks like,” he says, struggling to keep calm. “I think we should explain.”

“It is exactly what it looks like,” Athannus says. “I am not, in fact, as foolish as you seem to believe, Wing Commander Lane.” He tilts his head, observing them. Damningly, Samiel has yet to let go of Jay. “So, this is why Severne Tremark refused to speak?”

“I refused to speak,” Samiel says dangerously, “because carrion eaters like you, do not deserve to know about my master.” He doesn't even look at Athannus as he says this.

“You are not helping,” Jay mutters.

He still feels sick, shaken. Samiel's emotions are quieter now, dulled by a lessening of distance and the reassurance of close contact; but they are still relentless at the back of his mind.

“So he knows,” Samiel says. “Why should I care? You think I'm worried about him?”

“You should be worried about your aunt,” Jay says, and feels Samiel flinch. Carefully he draws back a little, pressing a hand to Samiel's shoulder. “She lied to you to prove a point, and now she will know.”

“She'll understand,” Samiel says, and the desperation in his voice echoes through Jay.

“She will not,” Athannus says. He steps forward again, and this time Samiel lets him. “Severne Tremark, the thought of logosykia with a human would be anathema to her. You must understand this.”

“And how would you know?” Samiel growls, finally looking at him.

“Because I have known her for far longer than you,” Athannus says slowly. “And this bond goes against everything she stands for.” He crouches, so he is at eye level with the pair of them. “Do you think she will celebrate you being bound to one of our greatest enemies? That she will welcome you back into her inner circle with open arms, when she discovers Wing Commander Lane can hear every word spoken?”

“This isn't that,” Jay protests. Through the bond, he can feel Samiel's distress climbing.

“Ah.” Athannus pauses, clearly considering. “Then your bond is not fully formed yet.”

“What difference does it make?” Jay asks.

“It doesn't. Not really. Either way you are both twice damned for this, if it gets out.”

Samiel stills against Jay, coiled and tense. “And I suppose you will make sure it does,” he says, and the currents of his voice are shifting, dangerous.

“No one will hear it from me,” Athannus says.

Jay is not sure if the surprise and relief he feels is his own, or Samiel's. He savours it for a brief moment, his mind clearing further as Samiel seems to consider Athannus.

“Why?” Samiel asks.

“Because this secret is not mine to tell,” Athannus says simply.

“Except it's relevant to your ongoing investigation,” Jay points out. “By not declaring it, you are already biasing your findings.”

“Are you actually arguing in favour of making your own situation worse, Wing Commander?”

“I'm arguing in favour of not getting caught out at a later date,” Jay says. And because I don't trust you, he doesn't add.

“My aunt will know by now anyway,” Samiel says hoarsely. “Even if you don't say anything, she will know.”

“Yes,” Athannus says. “Unfortunately I was not as circumspect about requesting your presence as I could have been.” He lets loose a small sigh and stands. “And neither yourself nor Wing Commander Lane are... particularly subtle.”

He would, Jay thinks dryly, like to protest this observation. Unfortunately, he is still gripping Samiel's shoulders, and Samiel's arms are still wrapped like a vice around his waist.

“Then what would you suggest?” he asks.

“I don't know,” Athannus says. “You are bonded. Logosykia is no small thing, and not something easily contained. I assume the rebellion also knows of this connection, if they captured Severne Tremark at the same time as you?”

“One of the rebels,” Samiel says reluctantly. “She destroyed Jason's translators to prove her point.”

Jay sighs. “More people than I would prefer know about it,” he admits. “If you are willing to keep this quiet, then you are a good man.”

Samiel mutters something inaudible under his breath, and Jay is surprised by the small sparks of jealousy he can feel from him. He squeezes Samiel's shoulder a little, and watches his gaze fly back to him.

“We will manage anyway,” he adds.

“You will have to,” Athannus says. “You will also have to find an answer to give to the Queen.”

Athannus is giving nothing away, Jay thinks as he studies him. His words are carefully measured; his tone neutral and his posture relaxed. The only sign of emotion – of anything – is in the way he is watching the pair of them, his head tilted a little.

“Why are you helping us?” he asks.

“Because it is in my power to do so,” Athannus says, which is no answer at all.

“Why are you helping me?” Samiel demands. “This won't change my loyalty.”

“I am not expecting it to, Severne Tremark,” Athannus says. “But I think you are a young man, caught up in a situation that has been going on for longer than you have been alive. Look at you – both of you. You are something new; something different. Are you not what we should be working towards, rather than trying to step backwards toward death?”

“My Queen would not – ”

“Your Queen will quite happily kill Wing Commander Lane,” Athannus says sternly. “If you think otherwise, you have not truly understood what she has to do in order to maintain her rule.”

“You are skirting dangerously close to treason,” Samiel warns.

“No closer than you, with your heartsong,” Athannus says, and Jay feels Samiel flinch. “I am not asking you to abandon your loyalties; I am not asking you to be anything you are not. I am only asking you to consider where you will be standing, when your Queen tries to take Wing Commander Lane's head. Because that is coming.”

“I will explain – ”

“Of course you will. But ask yourself: will she listen?”

There is grief and confusion emanating from Samiel, and Jay can't help himself.

“That's enough,” he says to Athannus, and if there is more steel in his voice than he meant to let slip, he is not altogether sorry. “You've made your point.”

“Maybe,” Athannus says. He shrugs a little, as though absolving himself of the situation.

“Could you give us a moment alone, please?” Jay adds. His tone makes it quite clear he is not asking.

To his surprise, Athannus hesitates. “Strictly speaking, no,” he says. “It would give you time to corroborate your stories for the investigation.” He raises a placating hand at Samiel's expression. “However, I have to step out and speak to the Severne that accompanied Tremark.”

“Thank you,” Jay says. “I appreciate it.”

There is something else at work here – he can feel it. Athannus has been far too accommodating; far too understanding. The edges of the problem nag at him. He is missing something and he doesn't know what. The only possibility he can see, is that Athannus is working with the rebels. Like Deneira, they have a vested interest in keeping Samiel alive right now, to ensure Jay's compliance.

But they don't have an interest in reassuring him, which is what Athannus has done. And Lachesis had also made it quite clear they were not invested in trying to recruit Samiel to their cause.

It is a puzzle and, as he watches Athannus leave, Jay quietly files it away to consider when things are not quite so fraught.

“Alright, listen,” he says the moment the door closes. “You need to calm down and you need to stay calm.”

“How can I?” Samiel demands. “You think I can be calm when I know your life is in danger? When you could be killed?”

“I could have been killed at any point in the last three years,” Jay says, then grits his teeth against the wash of anger and fear Samiel unintentionally sends at the thought. “Stop it.”

“I can't,” Samiel says. “The thought of your hurt, it's...” he trails off, but Jay catches the sentiment anyway.

“I know,” Jay says. “Samiel, I know. But we are both being put at risk because neither of us can control this thing properly. People are going to try and use this against us. Clearly they already have.” He rubs a hand across his face, feeling suddenly tired.

“You can control it,” Samiel says. “I don't get much from you.” He rakes a hand through his curls, exasperated. “I want to, and I can't.”

“I can't control it,” Jay says, brutally honest. “Do you know that last night, for one moment, all I could think about was you? All I wanted to do was tear the universe apart until I reached you. I wanted to crawl into your arms and never leave, and the rest of this miserable planet could explode and I wouldn't have cared.” He smiles, bitterly. “That's what you do to me. That's why we need to sort this out.”

Samiel is staring at him. “That's how it is,” he says softly. “All the time, that's how it is for me, my master.”

“It's terrifying,” Jay says bluntly. “Right now, we need to stop it and we can't. It's not just my life at risk, it's yours too.”

“I won't let you get hurt,” Samiel says. There is a wildness in his eyes; a defiance. “I'm not going to stand idly by and watch that. Don't ask it of me.”

“Even if it costs you your home?” Jay asks. “Your family? Your life?” He grips Samiel's chin between thumb and forefinger and stares at him, hard. “Think,” he says. “Consider what it means.”

“I did,” Samiel says, “a long time ago, when I didn't even know this was possible. You think this isn't worth my life?” He tilts his head, imperious in his disdain at Jay's plea. “Of course it is.”

“Samiel,” Jay says helplessly. He wonders what the hell he is meant to do with this beautiful, stubborn, impossible man.

“I'm willing to take the risk,” Samiel says. “Are you?”

“I am absolutely terrified of the things I'd do for you,” Jay says hopelessly; honestly. He watches the way Samiel sways forward, eyes bright, blatantly fascinated by Jay's words. “But you need to let me do them. I need you calm, so I can think.”

“I can't promise to always be calm, but I'll try,” Samiel says. He is watching Jay intently.

“My aunt will not be pleased about this,” he adds softly. It is an admittance; a giving way where Jay did not expect one. “If she – ” he swallows, hard. “If she did tell me you were in danger, to see what I would do. To find out if you and I were bound. Then, she will have a purpose for it. She is clever and she does not forgive betrayal.”

“I know,” Jay says softly. He drops his hand; cups the nape of Samiel's neck instead and pulls gently until they are forehead to forehead, sharing breath. “Trust me?”

“Yes,” Samiel says hoarsely. “Always, yes.”

Jay kisses him, because he can. Because he might not get another chance.

It is like being able to breathe, after two days of suffocation.

Samiel's lips are warm, soft. The broken, bitten-off sound he makes is like a symphony. The taste of him is sweetly familiar; the texture of his tongue both wonderfully new, and comfortingly known at the same time.

Jay pulls back, a microcosm of space between them, and watches Samiel's lashes flutter closed. He hesitates, watching Samiel lick his lips, as though savouring the taste of them, and can't help himself.

He kisses him again.

And again.

There is an undercurrent of need as Samiel kisses him back; a restraint that speaks of possession, stifled. Jay smiles into the kiss, and hears Samiel sigh in return.

He wasn't lying, he realises dizzily, when he said to Samiel he was terrified of the things he'd do for him.

No, he thinks, burying greedy fingers in Samiel's hair; letting himself be bent backwards slightly, as Samiel's kisses turn hungrier. It's worse than that. It wouldn't matter what I needed to do for you. I'd do it without hesitation and be glad of it.

The thought sends fear through him, deep and unreserved. But for a moment it splinters to nothing against the wall of light that is Samiel, buried in his psyche. His mind scrabbles, reaching briefly for logic, and is subsumed under the possessive pleasure Samiel is pouring into the bond and through the both of them.

Jay can't help the noise he makes at the sensation. Then Samiel licks the blood from his lower lip, tongue raw and soothing all at once over the injury, and Jay shatters. He closes his fingers tightly at the feel of everything, everywhere, and tastes the pleased purr Samiel makes at the tug on his curls.

“I'm going to save you,” Jay says, between one kiss and the next.

“That's – ”

And what Samiel was going to say Jay doesn't know, because he kisses him again.

This time he pours everything he has into it: every last drop of fear, and determination, and awful wonder that he has felt over the last week, since this bond began.

Against him, Samiel trembles. The sound he makes is wonderfully awful, as he briefly tears himself away. He pulls the high collar of Jay's formal uniform down; sucks a mark into Jay's throat, then bites.

“I'm going to save you,” Jay repeats, and knows it with certainty.

He pulls Samiel closer; lets him mark him again with mouth and teeth and tongue, high on his neck where anyone can see. Grinning, defiant, he tilts his head back further to allow more. Yes, he thinks, angry and careless for one bright instant of eternity.

It doesn't matter if Deneira knows.

It doesn't matter if Athannus has realised.

Right then, with Samiel's lips on his skin, his heartbeat in Jay's ears, his soul, Jay feels like he could tear down the heavens if he had to.

If Deneira had counted on Samiel's fear and desperation crippling them; if she believes she has won from this then, Jay thinks, she has underestimated them both.

Try and stop me, he thinks as Samiel pushes closer, nipping sharply at the underside of Jay's jaw.

Just you try.

Chapter Text

“Let me get this straight,” Hird says, the next morning. “The Queen told Tremark that Athannus was about to torture you, just to see if he'd flip the fuck out?”

“Yes,” Jay says wearily. They have been over this twice already, and his patience is beginning to wear thin.

“And then he did.”

“Yes.”

“And now Athannus knows about your heartwarming little bond, and so does the Queen?”

Jay grimaces. “Unfortunately.”

Hird sighs. “I can't believe the words are coming out of my mouth,” she says, “and I know this makes me the biggest fucking hypocrite on the planet, but: Lane, did you even attempt to be subtle about this?”

“Subtle didn't really come into it,” Jay says, then winces at her look of disbelief. “Hird, I've never felt anything like it. The sheer panic was – ”

“No, not that. Well, actually, that too. But I'm talking about your nice new piece of jewellery,” Hird says. “Tell me, what shade is that? Freshly fucked blue? Intercourse indigo? Prick purple?” She gestures to her neck.

“Ah.” Jay reaches up, touching the collar of bruises Samiel has left around his throat. “That was... unplanned.”

She narrows her eyes at him. “But clearly thoroughly enjoyed,” she says, somewhat snidely.

Jay meets her gaze and raises an eyebrow. “Yes,” he says bluntly, surprised by the defiance in his own voice. “It was.”

“Jesus.” Hird drags a hand across her eyes and sits down, heavily, in the nearest chair. “You know, there are days when I question your sanity, Lane.”

“You're not the first,” Jay says dryly.

“I mean, you couldn't have found yourself a nice, sensible bloke? One with far less of...” Hird gestures, helplessly. “Everything,” she finishes.

“Apparently not, if this soul bond thing is anything to go by.”

She points a finger at him. “That is not a get out of jail free card,” she warns. “Your shitty impulse control can't all be blamed on that. What was he trying to do – tear your collar off with his teeth?”

“Actually – ”

“No, that was rhetorical. I don't want to know.” She shudders.

“Hird,” Jay says patiently, “are you trying to make a point?”

“I'm trying to make you cringe as much as I am right now.” The face she pulls startles a laugh out of him. “But yes. I'm also trying to point out how fucked we all are, because you can't keep it in your brain.”

“Pants.”

“No, brain. Tremark starts shouting in your head, and you lose the plot. Now all of the worst people possible know about you two, which means it's only a matter of time before Lault does as well. Then you're going to have to think fast, because you're going to be shipped back home quicker than you can say 'not guilty'.”

In her own blunt way, Jay knows, Hird is being supportive. The slight softening of her expression, in spite of her words, tells him as much. Unfortunately, she has also neatly summed up every damned thing Jay's been thinking since Athannus retrieved Samiel and sent him back to his cell.

“I don't know what you expect me to do, Hird,” he says.

She shrugs. “Nothing you can do,” she says. “We're just going to have to move quicker than anyone else now.”

“In which case, have you got anything new?”

Hird checks the scrambler on her commlink, then leans forwards. “A bit,” she says. “Con is still looking, but Martell has dug up some things on our mystery officer from Gehm.”

Surprised, Jay raises an eyebrow. “Well?”

“He really was on Gehm, so there's no way he could have signed the kill order for Mas-Hain. But,” Hird continues, as Jay starts to protest, “ here's where the information does get interesting: he had dealt with Sirens before.”

“When?”

“About twenty three years ago,” Hird says. “We're not the first human delegation to hold talks with this lot; we're just the first to actually end up on their planet. And,” she adds innocently, and Jay knows what she is about to say, even as she grins at him, “you're the first human official to actually formally fuck a member of the opposition. So, you know, congratulations.”

“Really?” he asks, exasperated, as Hird's grin widens. “You really went there?”

“I have to get mileage off of it,” she tells him. “It might be one of the few pleasures left to me before we're all executed for treason. Give me this, Lane.”

“Twenty three years ago,” Jay says, because anything else is going to give Hird another opening. “What happened?”

The look she shoots him says she knows what he is doing. However, she must be feeling merciful, because she lets it slide. “Nothing,” she says. “Everyone came to the talks just after Elysium was declared a human colony. Both sides were spoiling for a fight, and off they all went.”

“Everyone,” Jay says. “Who was everyone?”

“Well, Air Commodore Lyon – that's our man on Gehm – was there. Obviously he was lowly Squadron Leader at the time. Then there were several diplomats, ours and theirs – I can get you a list – and, of course, Deneira.” Hird pauses, thinking. “Possibly Athannus, too,” she adds.

“Wait, Deneira was there?” Jay asks.

“Yes,” Hird says patiently. “Of course she was. I think she had just been crowned, or was about to be. The timeline is a bit fuzzy. I'll have to check.”

“Do,” Jay says. “And find out if Athannus really was there. Maybe one of them spoke to Lyon. If nothing else, it's a link back to the Lenians over Mas-Hain.”

Hird blows out a sharp breath and leans back in her chair. “Maybe,” she says dubiously. “Except, like I said, no one could have got a communication in or out of Gehm three years ago. There's no chance Lyon actually signed that kill order.”

“Probably not, but that doesn't mean someone didn't know who he was. They might even have known where he was, during Mas-Hain. It's not a question of finding out what Lyon was up to; it's a question of finding out who else knew of him.”

“Possibly,” Hird allows. “But it's not a lot to go on.”

“Get me those lists,” Jay says, “and then we'll see.”

“Alright.” She hesitates for a moment, eyes sharp as she assesses him. “There's something else,” she says reluctantly.

“What?”

“The Queen's sister was there.”

Jay stares at her. “Deneira's sister,” he repeats, stunned. “Samiel's mother.”

“Yup.” Hird watches him carefully. “She's under the list of attendees. Well, I'm assuming it's her. She's named as being in Deneira's party, and she's described as a relative. Aoide, her name was.”

“I – ” Jay rubs a hand across his mouth, unsure what to say. “I didn't think we'd actually stumble across her,” he admits. “I mean, no one really talks about her, not even Samiel. To know her name, it's – ”

It makes her real, he wants to say.

Aoide. A name. The name of someone who took her child and ran.

“Which means she was pregnant,” he realises. “You said this was about twenty three years ago. She was already pregnant with Samiel when this happened, then.”

“If she was, no one mentioned it,” Hird says. “Although to be fair it's not the kind of thing you put in a diplomatic report, is it? 'Today we met the Queen's sister. She was knocked up, so we spent some time talking about baby names'.”

“Yes, alright,” Jay says irritably. “But what I mean is that if she was already pregnant, and this was twenty three years ago, it means she must have disappeared not long after that.”

“Or...” Hird says.

They stare at one another.

“No,” Jay says. “Surely not.”

“Right time,” Hird points out. She starts flicking frantically through the documents on her commlink, fingers flying across the keys as she searches.

“And it would make sense,” Jay says. “I mean, she must have known by then Deneira was coming for her. If it was just before or after she was crowned, that would be the time to get rid of the competition. If you were Aoide, and had an opportunity like that – away from Lenia – wouldn't you take the chance to run?”

“Which begs the question,” Hird says, “if she ran, how did she do it? Who helped her? People need to rely on someone if they want to disappear. It's practically impossible to do on your own.” She swipes emphatically at her screen, then grins. “Got it.”

“I can't see any of the Lenians helping her,” Jay murmurs. "What would be the point? They'd have been interested in siding with Deneira, surely?” He frowns. “Samiel said his mother ran away with a member of the human delegation. Maybe, in that at least, Deneira was telling the truth?”

“The outbound manifests,” Hird says, instead of answering his question. “Return shuttle lists for both groups. Oh, and would you believe it?”

“No Aoide,” Jay says.

“No Aoide,” Hird confirms. “Which means somewhere between the start of the talks, and their emphatic fucking end two weeks later, Aoide Callios managed to make herself disappear.”

“Wait,” Jay says, “Callios?”

Hird shrugs. “Her last name.”

“Not Tremark?” Jay asks.

“No, that's – ” Hird frowns, flicking through screens again. “No, definitely not,” she says. “She's listed as Callios, same as the Queen.”

“So she may not have been married?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Hird says. “I mean, you don't have to take anyone's last name.”

“No, but where's her husband? Where's Tremark? Surely you wouldn't leave your wife in the clutches of her sister, particularly when you know there's a high chance she'd end up dead?” Jay growls at Hird's blank expression. “Think, Hird,” he says. “Your wife gets killed by her sister – who do you think is next for the chop? You. Either you're a liability as well, because you're going to point the finger at Deneira, or – ”

“Or you're in on it, and you've got far too much of a hold over her to live,” Hird finishes grimly. “Alright, you've made your point.”

Jay pinches the bridge of his nose, thinking. “Which means we've got to find Tremark,” he says. “Who is he? What happened to him? Samiel says he died, but according to him this was after Aoide was killed and Deneira had rescued him.”

“That's also assuming Tremark was stupid enough to stick around that long,” Hird says. She huffs out an exasperated breath. “Fucking Sirens. They're a bunch of fucking snakes.”

“Says the woman helping me plot regicide,” Jay says dryly.

She glares at him. “At least I'm not quietly bumping off my own fucking family.”

“True.” Jay slumps back in his chair and scrubs a hand through his hair, exasperated. “What am I missing, Hird? There's still something not sitting right with this. You have a husband who doesn't appear to care his wife is about to be killed; a Lenian woman who runs away with a human, and a Queen who, when she finally catches up with her sister, chooses not to kill the child who is living proof her sister had been alive and well and a threat to her throne.”

“I don't know,” Hird says, “but we need to find out fast. You want to avoid the shitstorm that's about to hit, because you and Tremark started necking? You need to find out what it is that bitch doesn't want anyone knowing.”

“Alright,” Jay says, “then we need to find out who Tremark is.” He stares hard at the floor, thinking. “Can you send me a list of the delegates who went to that meeting? Both sides? I need to work out who was doing what.”

“Done,” Hird says with a few decisive taps. “What else?”

“I need to find out if anyone on the human side of things also disappeared, and if Lyon is linked to anyone who might have had ties to Mas-Hain.” Jay drums his fingers, cataloguing pathways, motives, wracking his brains for anything he's missed. There's a pattern here, he can feel it.

“I also think nobody's bothered looking at what happened on Mas-Hain before,” he says slowly, “because the answer's always been apparently obvious.”

“You mean, officially the Sirens betrayed the humans, and unofficially the humans were never going to admit they struck first?” Hird asks. “Surely there'd have been at least some kind of unofficial enquiry at that point?”

“Maybe not,” Jay says. “Not if there was some kind of proof – some evidence that meant our side were persuaded it was a good idea to end the talks by whatever means necessary.”

“Have you – ” Uncharacteristically, Hird hesitates. “Have you ever considered, Lane, that you were not meant to survive Mas-Hain? That maybe plausible deniability on our end was actually meant to include all the humans getting killed?”

You don't send someone like Samiel to a peace conference, Jay remembers thinking. He's considered this before, and wonders now if it hadn't just been Deneira who had relied on Samiel emerging victorious from Mas-Hain.

“I don't think I was,” he says grimly. “I don't think any of us were.”

“Which begs the question,” Hird says slowly, “what if you're not meant to survive now?”

*

Sometime later, much to Hird's apparent annoyance, Venndred drops by.

Jay has been sitting, thinking about what Hird had said. The unease she has managed to instil in him with one devastating suggestion, is vast. She might not be wrong, and the horror of it – the thought of all of them being used in that way – leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

Venndred's presence is, at least, a reprieve from this particular train of thought.

“I thought you might like an update,” Venndred says cheerfully, settling himself on the sofa next to Hird and pouring himself to some tea.

“Please,” Hird says acidly, “help your fucking self.”

He grins at her, and Jay is certain that, were he not here in at least a somewhat official capacity, Venndred would be slurping loudly out of his teacup, just to annoy her further.

“Thank you,” Venndred says instead, and adds three heaped teaspoons of kikik syrup to his cup.

Hird pull a face. “That's disgusting,” she says, horrified.

“Just because you're bitter,” Jay says, just to watch the glare he can see breaking across her face. “Clearly others might like a bit of sweetness in their lives.”

“Oh I don't know,” Venndred says setting his teacup down with a soft clink of porcelain. “I sometimes prefer something with a little more bite.” He grins.

Hird looks between the two of them, and it is painfully obvious she can't quite work out which one of them she wants to murder first.

Jay, watching her, is utterly amused at the look of sheer frustration that marches briefly across her face. He comforts himself with the knowledge that Venndred's suicidal impulses at least match his own.

“An update?” Hird asks, through gritted teeth. She shifts a little down the sofa, away from Venndred. Jay, watching, sees her fingers twitch, as though she is halfway towards reaching for her gun.

“Mm.” Venndred takes another sip of his tea. “Athannus has apparently been speaking to Mirret this morning. I understand the Governor was distinctly unhappy with how the interview went.”

“What a shame,” Jay says. “Perhaps it will convince him to drop these ridiculous accusations.”

“Maybe.” Venndred tilts his head, considering. “Athannus also spoke to the First Handmaiden. I believe the Queen was not invited to that particular interview.”

Privately, Jay hopes Pyrrhine was as uncomfortable as possible during the meeting. He experiences a sharp flash of satisfaction at the thought, and hides his grin behind his own cup of tea.

“What has she done?” Hird asks.

Venndred shrugs. “Not sure,” he says, although the way his gaze darts briefly to Jay suggests he has at least some idea. “But there you have it. Things are moving forward, at least.”

“And when can I expect some kind of access to the evidence against me?” Jay asks. “After all, if Athannus is continuing to build his case, surely I should be able to review what he's found?”

“Well, I'm not sure exactly what he's found,” Venndred says. “So I have no idea when you'll be given the information.” He shrugs again as Hird makes a scornful noise of disgust. “I'm sorry Evi, but it's true.”

“I'm so fucking happy this process is not at all biased,” Hird says with heavy sarcasm.

“Be patient,” Venndred counsels. “They will have to give you the evidence at some point, before any kind of formality like a hearing.”

“And you can be damn sure Lault will be looking over every inch of it,” Hird says.

Jay sighs. “And Samiel?” he asks, and pretends not to see the way Hird's expression sours further. “Is there any new evidence about him?”

Guiltily, he remembers yesterday. He tries not to think of the way Samiel's lips had lingered briefly against his own; the way they had separated only in increments, when Athannus had returned to take him away again.

Now isn't convenient – when is? he thinks, frustrated – but he can't help but touch against that warm, bright spot in his mind. It is alarmingly familiar, in such a short space of time. A reassurance that he shouldn't be leaning on.

The feel of Samiel washes over him. For a heartbeat the world is sweeter, lighter. He can taste Samiel in his mouth; at the back of his throat. Surprisewarmthconcern lingers briefly on his tongue and in his ears; a half-heard song that speaks incomprehensibly to him.

“Only that apparently Athannus has ruled he is to have no visitors, that he himself has not approved,” Venndred says.

His voice startles Jay a little.

He pulls away from odd comfort of the...Of the bond, he admits to himself. In one breath, he goes from connected to something else. To the resounding emptiness of his own mind, perhaps. He feels strangely bereft.

“Sorry,” he says. “What?”

“Athannus,” Venndred repeats. “He's banned all visitors, who haven't been authorised by him, from seeing Severne Tremark.”

“Why?” Hird asks bluntly.

“Well, I'm assuming to ensure there's no additional bias in his investigation,” Venndred says. He turns to look at Hird, but not before Jay catches the way his eyes flicker briefly to the ring of bruises on Jay's neck. “Apparently there were concerns the Queen may have been...asking questions.”

“Why is he so set on doing this properly?” Hird asks, exasperated. “Surely he should be more interested in fucking us all over?”

“Not everyone is out to get you,” Venndred reminds her.

“Not everyone is soft like you,” she retorts. “Besides, why should I fucking trust him? Has he done anything to show he's helping us?”

“He hasn't discussed Samiel,” Jay says reluctantly. “I'm fairly confident we would have heard about that.”

“Yet,” Hird says. She looks pointedly at Venndred. “You can't tell me the Queen's own cousin isn't hiding something up his ridiculous fucking sleeves. Being an absolute arsehole clearly runs in that family.”

“Not in all of them,” Jay says quietly.

“Yes. All of them.”

“Athannus may be related to Most Exalted,” Venndred says, “but they are not the same people. You should at least give him the chance to prove he may be different.” He sighs. “I know our history is written in blood, but we do not all think alike.”

“Your Court certainly fucking does,” Hird says. “And going on experience, your soldiers are pretty fucking bloodthirsty as well.”

“People change,” Venndred says quietly. “Perhaps consider that Athannus may have as well?”

“What do you mean?” Jay asks. “You're saying he might be honourable, but he wasn't previously?”

“I've only heard rumours,” Venndred says, “nothing more. You need to understand this information may be biased and is certainly not verified, but...” He sets his teacup down with a decisive clink. “It's not necessarily all untrue.”

“What's not?” Hird asks.

“You know our Council is made up of members of the ruling families, yes? Well, obviously, Athannus comes from one of them. There was a time he was considered favourite for the throne, but – ”

“But Deneira got there first,” Jay says grimly.

“Exactly.” Venndred looks between the pair of them, clearly weighing his words. “Most of the time, the throne is inherited by killing the competition. It wipes out many of the firstborns – and any other competitors who may be a threat – in each family. Athannus and Deneira are related down the maternal side – their grandmothers were sisters. Nearly every other threat to the throne was eliminated, except for those two.”

“So why wasn't Athannus killed?” Jay asks.

“I don't know,” Venndred says. “All I've heard is that not long after the rumours that Most Exalted's sister had been killed, he stopped opposing her. Within weeks they were mostly working together. When they put their minds to it, the pair of them were quite formidable, apparently.”

Hird grunts. “Well they don't seem that friendly now,” she says.

“No.” A shadow flickers briefly across Venndred's face. He frowns. “The last few years have not been the same. He's questioning her policies more openly; challenging her in the Council.”

“He's starting to fight against her?” Jay asks.

He thinks of the Rebellion, of Lachesis and Isen. Because we have information on him that would keep him on side, Isen had said, confident. How long did it take, Jay wonders, to convince Athannus to work against Deneira?

“Politics,” Hird says dismissively. “That's not enough to stop someone like her.”

“Politics and the support of a large part of the planetary standing army,” Jay reminds her. “Not to mention some of the Council, I assume.”

“You assume correctly,” Venndred says. He leans forwards, picking up his tea again. “But don't underestimate Most Exalted. She is resourceful; cunning. She has had to be, to get where she is.”

“She's had to kill people,” Hird grumbles.

“And you haven't?” Venndred raises an eyebrow.

“It's not the same.”

“Maybe not.” He smiles, gently. “But you have different standards to us. You do not get to judge us by yours, then be surprised when we disagree with you.”

“Venndred,” Jay says hurriedly, before Hird can open her mouth to insult him further, “how long has Athannus been publicly disagreeing with the Queen?”

Venndred hesitates, thinking. “I'm not entirely certain,” he says at last. “I mean, keep in mind that I'm often not versed in the happenings of the court. But at least since before...” he hesitates, glancing at Jay. “Since before Mas-Hain,” he finishes.

“So they've been publicly disagreeing for at least three years, and she hasn't eliminated him?” Jay asks. “Why?”

“More to the point, why hasn't he just fucking killed her?” Hird says. “I mean, what's he waiting for, an invitation?”

“I'm going to pretend I didn't hear any of that speculation,” Venndred says mildly. He sips his tea and looks pointedly at the pair of them. “I suggest I continue not hearing it outside of these rooms, as well.”

“Noted,” Jay says.

“Ridiculous,” Hird mutters.

Venndred watches the pair of them, expression bland as he continues to drink his tea. Jay has the brief, uncomfortable sensation that he is being politely judged, and he is not entirely certain he's up to Venndred's standards.

“Could you visit Samiel?” he asks, before Hird can open her mouth and launch into a further rant, in spite of Venndred's warning. He is only partially asking to shut her up.

“I can find out if that's possible,” Venndred says. “Why?”

Jay frowns, thinking. “I'd just quite like to know how he is.”

“You know how he is,” Venndred says gently. “You only have to think about him.”

“I will never not find that disturbing,” Hird grumbles. “It gives me the chills on so many levels, Lane.”

“Soul bonds?” Venndred asks.

“Tremark,” Hird clarifies. “Sorry, but I still don't trust him.”

Jay watches as she frowns, leaning forwards to pour herself a cup of tea. Her expression is severe, but thoughtful. He understands her point: why has she got any reason to place her faith in Samiel? She has no connection to him, no friendship. She has only seen what he has done against humanity.

He sighs. “You don't have to trust him,” he says. “Just trust me, if you can.”

“Oh, trust you,” Hird says. She raises a sardonic eyebrow. “How much more proof do you want that I already do, Lane? A signed declaration? A tattoo? Want to trade friendship bracelets?”

“Do you know how hurt I'm going to be if we don't have sleepovers and paint our toenails now?” Jay asks dryly.

Venndred is looking between the two of them, as though they are a particularly interesting spectacle. “You paint your toenails?” he asks, bemused. “Why?”

“I don't,” Hird says, “but some people do. It's just a thing.” She shrugs. “People get bored of having the same colour feet, maybe?”

As cultural explanations go, it's terrible. Jay works hard to suppress the grin he can feel building, and knows he's not quite successful when she wrinkles her nose at him. “Please Hird,” he says, just to wind her up further, “explain to Venndred about the reasons we dye our hair next.”

“Oh fuck you,” Hird shoots back, and takes a large gulp of tea.

Venndred stares at the synthetic brightness of her hair, blatantly fascinated now he apparently knows Hird did that to herself voluntarily. “Please don't fuck him,” he says absently, making Jay choke and Hird spit tea on herself.

“That is a figure of fucking speech!” she yelps. “You know that is a figure of speech.”

As she turns to find something to mop the tea up with, Venndred winks at Jay. “I'm fairly confident Tremark would try and kill her if she did something like that anyway,” he says quietly.

“I love the way you said 'try',” Jay says dryly.

Venndred shrugs. “I'm not betting on who'd win in a fight between those two,” he says. “Tremark has the advantage with a salzon. But if it came to throttling someone with their bare hands?” He smiles, impishly.

“I'm slightly disturbed at how much thought you've apparently put into this.”

“What can I say?” Venndred heaves a theatrical sigh as Hird starts swiping angrily at her uniform with a handkerchief. “I get bored easily.”

*

By evening Jay is ready to crawl up the walls. Hird, from the way she is pacing near-constantly, is clearly no better.

Worries keep tumbling over and over in his head, and he keeps reaching for the warm spot in his mind, unable to keep from the reassurance of Samiel, safe, at least for now.

He fears for Samiel; for Hird; for the way Deneira has not yet made any kind of move. Her silence is making Jay uneasy. There has been no overture following Samiel's outburst yesterday – no hint that Deneira knows what has happened.

But something is on the horizon, he can feel it. She won't let this go: will use it when it will hurt the most, and Jay is starting to worry that she may not be concerned if Samiel is caught in the fallout.

“Am I restricted to these room?” he asks Hird at last, when he thinks he might start bouncing off the walls if he doesn't stop going around in circles in his own head.

Hird stops pacing to look at him. “Why?” she asks, suspicion written into every line of her body.

Jay stands, stretching, as a thought occurs to him. “Because I want to hit something,” he says, “and I know a training room nearby I can do that in.”

Hird considers him for a moment, gaze calculating as she clearly weighs up the possibility of a further crisis, versus the opportunity to let off some steam. “Alright,” she says at last. “But if there's so much as a hint of trouble from you, so help me Lane I will break both your legs and leave you here.”

“And if I'm not the trouble?”

“I'll shoot the trouble in the fucking head and then I'll break your legs anyway.” She smiles, teeth bared. “Now let's find your training room.”

“Thank you,” Jay says, relieved.

Hird secures their room and then practically marches him out. She follows his directions down the corridors, one hand on her pistol, the other gripping Jay firmly by the elbow, so he is not so much leading as being towed in her wake.

They don't see anyone, the corridors almost eerily deserted.

“Where is everybody?” Jay asks, as they round the corner into the final corridor.

“Negotiations,” Hird says dismissively, opening the door to the training room. “Lault said they were sitting in session again today for the first time.” She herds Jay inside and shuts the door. “He wanted to see you today after the talks, but Athannus asked him to meet with him instead. I think they're discussing some things.”

“Like what?” Jay asks, surprised and more than a little alarmed at the thought of Athannus with unlimited access to Lault.

“No fucking clue,” Hird says absently. “But Steve is with him – I'll ask later.” She whistles, looking impressed as she examines the room. “Damn Lane, how did you find this place?”

“Luck,” Jay says.

He is already casually dressed, but he watches as Hird strips out of her uniform jacket, down to her tank top. She makes a beeline straight for the training dummies.

“Think this will stand up to a thrashing?” she asks, rapping it with her knuckles.

Jay grins at her. “Only one way to find out.”

She grins back and starts to haul the dummy further onto the training mats.

Jay heads over to the opposite corner of the room, collecting a practice blade as he goes. He warms up gently, listening to Hird muttering to herself as she stretches, and then settles into the opening stance of first attack.

For a while he moves, revelling in the stretching of muscles and the way his breath comes shorter. He has been stuck inside for so long, with no real chance to do anything like this, and to be able to practice now, for fun, is a joy. He steps forward, lunges and then parries, moving back into third defence, happy to be burning some of his worried energy on something simple.

Somewhere to his right Hird has apparently got everything set up to her satisfaction, if the heavy rhythm of fists against leather is anything to go by.

Jay hops backwards, turning into the opening moves of the Maa-Ilian form, and pivots, extending his blade over and up in a riposte. Sidestepping he drives the practice salzon forward again, relishing the burn of air in his lungs, the beginnings of sweat on his brow.

Physical activity has always calmed him somewhat. He is not built for a life of sitting still, of never holding a weapon. He is at his best when he is out somewhere, dropped in the mud and blood and pain of war. When he is cornered and living on his last inch of luck.

It's unhealthy to want that kind of challenge, he knows. It's addictive. He can't help it though, he craves it anyway, even when parcelled away under diplomacy and politeness. He burns when forced into inertia.

You're as savage as the Sirens accuse you of being, he thinks to himself, chiding, as he crosses into seventh guard and back again.

He's panting properly now, lulled by the pace of his own movements and the solid thud of Hird still beating away at her practice dummy. Sweat slicks his spine and he finds he's smiling as he stretches forward, attacking again.

His movements are more fluid then they were when he began; stronger. His feet slide along the training mats and he darts in, then away. He ducks an imaginary opponent's blade and comes up into fifth guard.

Down onto one knee, then, and away again, his body bent backwards as he rolls to his feet. His blood is drumming through him, breath roaring in his lungs as he dodges.

It doesn't normally feel like this, he thinks to himself. Normally, practice makes him calmer, more centred. It allows him to focus his thoughts, until he can sort through things rationally.

Now, though.

Now.

He breathes, and the world is gold.

A rush of enjoyment surges through him as he focuses, sharp and feral. He stretches back, using his wrist to flick his blade in an attempt to disarm, and then turns again. The Maa-Tarekian forms sing in him; in the length of his arms, the twist of his body.

Another imaginary opponent and he grins, open-mouthed and savage. This is like the time in Jubaya, when his unit ran across a legion of Drakkia. It had been hard-won, that battle. Enjoyable, though. Heart-pounding, bloodily enjoyable.

He remembers the woods, the smell of crushed leaves underfoot. Smoke sharp at the back of his throat, as he cut through their infantry.

He –

He has never been to Jubaya.

Jay falters and nearly twists an ankle, not quite completing the final guard of the unfamiliar form.

He has never been to Jubaya.

The memory is Samiel's, not his, and for a moment it doesn't matter anyway.

The gold of the bond is there. The song of it surges in him.

Samiel's breath is filling his lungs; Samiel's heart is beating in his chest. They both move together, fluidly, with far more care and precision than Jay is capable of on his own.

It is wondrous, this knowledge, this skill, he thinks, as they turn again to redo the final guard. The benefits of a lifetime of training, honed to pinpoint perfection. Samiel is a master of this; of elegant violence packaged into beautiful movements.

He slips into the feeling without thinking. The warmth of it is drowning him, his consciousness, until there is nothing else left.

They turn, then turn again. The muscles in their arms burn, old familiar patterns made new by a body not used to them. They remember this, from when they were twelve, eleven, ten. The first time they held a blade, fingers bleeding by the end of the day's training.

They had learnt, though, to be stronger.

They finish the form. Their arms are trembling, their knees locked as they balance on the balls of their feet, sharing in the enjoyment of the moment.

Yes, they think, this. Exactly this.

It is a giddying rush, to know. To understand. They are whole in blood and bone, exactly as it should be. Their mouth opens on a sharp pant of air. There is the boundless satisfaction of this intimacy; a sweet, accidental, invasion.

I want – they think, and don't need to find the completion of that thought to understand it.

“Oh,” they say quietly, startled by this new-found comprehension. Greedy for more of it in the best possible way. “Oh, sweetheart, yes.”

“What?” Hird says.

Awareness slams into Jay.

He drops the salzon.

“What?” he croaks.

“You said something?” She is watching him, puzzled. Her hair is a riot of scarlet, plastered to her face and neck; sticking up in tufts. She is deeply human in that moment.

Strange, they think.

“Hird,” Jay says. He stumbles.

“What the fuck?” Hird asks, alarmed. She starts towards him. “Lane, are you alright?”

“I – ” Jay says and feels Samiel wrench away, surprised.

Jay looks down at his hands and finds he is shaking. How has this happened? How has something so fundamental in him shifted without him realising? How can he not have known this had taken place – taken hold of him? He raises a hand to his head, trying to think.

It must have been yesterday, he realises, when Samiel had reached out, panicked, and Jay had reached back. When they had clung to one another as the only surety, and Jay had let defiance overrule common sense.

Is this another stage of meshala? Some unknown trigger that Jay has blundered into without realising? Venndred had said there were steps, that trust was fundamental. What, then, was that defiance yesterday, if not a surrender of himself to the reality of Samiel? The reality of both of them? A sign of trust, if nothing else.

He swallows, wondering what the hell he is meant to do.

He can feel Samiel now as a distinct entity again, not the gentle, overwhelming presence he had been heartbeats ago.

Jay breathes, and he is only himself. He's bitterly grateful and disturbingly lonely, all at once. The song of them is still there in his mind, but it is a muted, careful thing now.

Instinctively, in spite of himself, he searches for the evidence of their bond. He finds it in the corner of his mind, his soul, that is still irrevocably Samiel. He inhales sharply at the feeling of surpriseconcernawe and finds that at least some of that is him, as well.

And underneath it all, that same deep note of minemineminemine, repeated over and over; voracious, selfish and deeply unsatisfied.

He's not sure which of them it's coming from: himself, or Samiel.

He's not sure which scenario would be worse.

“Lane!” Hird says again, and from the exasperated concern in her voice, it doesn't sound like the first time she's said it.

Her tone cuts through Jay's thoughts. It severs his concentration, leaving his mind ringing with emptiness, as Samiel's side of the bond shuts down completely.

“I'm alright,” he says on instinct.

“And I'm the fucking Queen,” Hird says, reaching out to steady him by the shoulder. “You've gone so pale I thought you were seeing ghosts.”

“No,” Jay says. “The bond just – it – ” He rubs his forehead, frustrated, unable to explain in adequate words what the hell just happened.

“Don't tell me Tremark is panicking again,” Hird says. “I thought he'd learnt his sodding lesson yesterday.”

“No, nothing like that,” Jay says. “I think the bond is stronger?”

She swears and then, when she realises he's not having her on, swears again. Her language the second time is much more colourful and creative. Jay is almost pushed into amusement, in spite of the situation, at the look of annoyance on her face.

“Why does this keep getting fucking weirder?” she asks plaintively. “Can't you just, I don't know, maintain the status fucking quo?”

“Apparently not,” Jay says, trying to gather some equilibrium together and mostly failing. “Clearly that's not how this works.” He swallows against the dryness in his throat, and tries not to wonder hysterically if he's eventually going to lose himself completely to this.

“Well it should be,” Hird says crossly. She runs a hand through her hair, making pieces of it stick out even more alarmingly. “I'm a patient woman, but I can only deal with so much.”

You can only deal with so much?” Jay parrots, incredulous. “How do you think I feel?”

“You should feel like you're an idiot,” she tells him, not unkindly. “You just went ahead and jumped into this feet fucking first, didn't you? Before you thought about it properly.”

“I thought about it properly,” Jay says, and knows that's at least partly a lie. He did think, but instinct has definitely overwhelmed logic at some point, and he's not entirely certain he could argue a rational case for...this.

“Right,” Hird says sceptically.

Jay opens his mouth to protest – he'll be damned if Hird is going to have the last word – and as he does, his commlink flares to life.

He glances down at it, surprised, and his heart lurches in his chest when he sees it's a withheld transmission code.

“Hird,” he says, holding up his wrist to show her the screen.

She peers at it, then scrambles to get the jamming programme working on her own commlink. “Fuck,” she says. “Do you think that's Kallat?”

“I don't know.” Jay looks at her, and for one moment the bond, the trial, all other thoughts are driven from his head. “It could be.”

“Well fucking answer it then!”

He does.

“Hello Wing Commander Lane,” Lachesis says coolly. “It's been a while." Her voice crackles over the commlink, disconcertingly unexpected. "I understand you're looking for information.”

Chapter Text

“Lachesis,” Jay says. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“Is it?” Lachesis asks. “I rather believed that blowing up our base was your gentle way of saying you didn't want to be friends any more.”

“Well, you know that was nothing against the rebellion,” Jay says pleasantly. “That was purely personal.” Opposite him, Hird rolls her eyes.

“And here I thought my little revelation might make you more open to talking,” Lachesis says. “Clearly not.”

“Oh, was that for my benefit?” Jay pauses, realisation dawning. “It was, wasn't it?”

“How was that piece of information received?” Lachesis asks, instead of answering. “Badly, I take it? I'm assuming he denied the Queen would do any such thing.” She sounds blandly uninterested, as though she has already weighed these ideas and come to her own conclusions.

Jay sighs. “And I'm assuming Isen has already told you what I was planning to do.”

“You were going to talk to Severne Tremark. What I find fascinating in all of this is how, all those years ago, you two had already met on Catta. I'd watch out if I were you, Wing Commander. Were someone else to look at this situation, it would reek of conspiracy.”

“What do you actually want, Lachesis?” Jay asks. “As much as I'm enjoying your vague threats, I'm assuming there's a purpose here?” He watches as, across from him, Hird pulls a face. Her expression is surprisingly strident, given she is not saying anything at all.

“Alright,” Lachesis says, “I see your point. Pleasantries are clearly getting us nowhere.” There is a pause over the line, as though she is thinking. “You're about to have your actions discussed and assessed by the Council.”

“I am aware, thank you.”

“You misunderstand me: you cannot stop that. I assume you are hoping that you can use the information that Deneira killed her sister to force a political coup.”

“Oh, is that an option?” Jay asks, just to be irritating.

The sigh Lachesis gives is audible. “It is an option, and not a very good one. You are thinking like a human. She killed her sister. That is to be expected when competing for the throne.”

“But her sister wasn't – ”

“Do you have any proof of that?” Lachesis asks. “Where's your evidence?” She does not sound smug; merely patient. “I have an alternative suggestion. You are trying for a bloodless coup and that is not going to happen. What you need to do instead is to create enough of a political crisis that, when faced with open hostilities on both sides, the court is going to be torn and will turn on her.”

“You already have military backing,” Jay points out. “Is the support of the rest of the court really necessary?” He carefully doesn't mention that he is not entirely certain Lachesis should be relying on Athannus and his military either.

“It is,” Lachesis says. “Without the support of at least some of the Council, it is highly unlikely that our chosen candidate will be able to take the throne, even with the Queen dead. Political infighting would derail the start of stabilisation.”

Jay shrugs. “True, but what exactly have you got that's going to create so much of a political disaster?”

“Evidence,” Lachesis says. “You want proof the Queen killed her sister? I've got it.”

“And you didn't think to mention this earlier?”

“Astonishingly, Wing Commander, I did not trust you earlier. I still don't.”

“Then why take the chance?”

She hesitates. “Because I trust in your motivations,” she says at last. “You are not going to risk Tremark – that's clear enough now. Which means you're also not going to leave him controlled by the Queen. You are not working towards the same purpose as us, but that doesn't mean we cannot be allies in this.”

“Which begs the question: why now?”

“I heard what happened. I heard how Tremark reacted when you were threatened.”

“How the bloody hell – ” Hird begins.

“You have someone with you?” Lachesis asks, sharply.

Jay glares at Hird, who shrugs. “I do,” he says reluctantly. “Wing Commander Hird.”

There is a soft rush of static down the commlink, as though Lachesis has hissed something under her breath. “You trust her?”

Jay meets Hird's eyes. “Yes.”

“Even after the discussion on Mas-Hain?”

“That is...something we are both looking into.” Jay pinches the bridge of his nose. “Which is also taking up a lot of our time.”

“I'm afraid I can't help you there,” Lachesis says. “But I suggest at some point you speak to Isen Kallat about it.”

“He's still alive then?”

“Yes. He has his uses, after all.”

“Someone really cares about her troops,” Hird mutters. The disgust in her voice is evident. Jay shakes his head in warning.

“Caring or not,” Lachesis says, evidently having overheard the comment, “it is results that matter here. I am offering you the opportunity to prove to Tremark that the Queen was responsible for his mother's death.”

“And to place the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons at the same time,” Jay says blandly. “Even though you have just informed me this wouldn't be enough to topple her from the throne.”

“We're not looking for that. We're looking for chaos,” she reminds him.

Jay leans back against the wall. He pinches the bridge of his nose, thinking. “And then your plan is what, exactly?”

“A coup,” Lachesis says. “Obviously.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning we move on Maa-Tarek and the palace, and we move fast. Destabilise Deneira's support, even slightly, and you will have far less trouble in a hostile takeover situation.”

“You're talking about executing her without trial,” Jay says. “I'm still not sure that's a sensible policy if you want to get people on your side.”

“And you're still thinking like a human,” Lachesis says. There is a hint of scorn in her voice. “Why would we put her on trial? This isn't about proving her guilt in the way you think it is. It's about protecting Lenia from her continuing obsession with promoting war. You want peace? You need to get rid of her. You want to protect Severne Tremark? Then I suggest you start cooperating.”

“So now we're talking about murder again,” Jay says bluntly. He accidentally meets Hird's eyes as he says it.

“Well,” Hird says slowly, “we knew what we were agreeing to, I suppose.”

“Which begs the question: how far are you prepared to go?” Lachesis asks. “You know it's murder – that's been clear from the start. Are you prepared to help us in exchange for an alliance and the chance to remove Severne Tremark from her influence?”

Jay takes a deep breath, then another. Inasmuch as Lachesis is pushing, she is not wrong. He has agreed to this – wants it, if he's honest with himself – and he needs the information she has. But the brutal truth is that he doesn't much care what happens to the rebellion. All he is interested in is a way to begin to untangle Samiel from Deneira's grasp.

“Alright,” he says. “You already know I've agreed to work with you.”

“You have,” Lachesis says. “And now I'm asking you to consider using your own hearing to destabilise the Queen.”

Hird raises an eyebrow. “Not a bad idea.”

“Thank you,” Jay says. “The opportunity to turn it into even more of a spectacle than it's already going to be. Wonderful.”

“It's one of the only times you are going to have the Queen and the full Council sitting in session,” Lachesis says. “Whether you like it or not, then is your opportunity to strike.”

“With the evidence you're going to give me.” He tries to keep the scepticism from his voice, and isn't entirely sure he's succeeded.

“Yes.”

“And I'm meant to trust that, am I?”

Jay can practically hear Lachesis' shrug as she says, “You're meant to trust that there is literally no point in us double-crossing you, Commander.”

“Yet,” Hird says.

“At all,” Lachesis corrects. “The rebellion has no interest in one, or even two, humans. Beyond the alliance you can offer, you are of no consequence.”

“Which would make us both expendable,” Jay says sweetly.

“Which would make you more trouble than you're worth to get rid of,” Lachesis corrects. “What would be the point in killing you, when you can offer a pathway to a legitimate alliance with humanity? The whole purpose of this is to stop war, Wing Commander Lane, not to continue it.”

“And you propose to do that by killing the Queen,” Jay says. “After I've destabilised her rule in a public hearing.”

There is darkness here, he knows. He is talking candidly about killing a woman who is not his ruler, but who nevertheless wields a very real power over a great number of people. The potential for this to go wrong is phenomenally high. He is going to have to take Lachesis' information on trust, and he is going to have to believe that Athannus will, at least, be no worse than Deneira. The thought of it burns; an unholy mix of desperation and fear, coupled with the frantic, driving need to have this done.

“Give me the information,” he says, “and I'll tell you whether it's going to be enough.”

“It will be,” Lachesis assures him. “I'll set up contact for you. One of our agents will pass you the evidence.”

“I want more than just evidence,” Jay says. “I want your plan. You're asking me to stand publicly with you, when the very act of me doing so is going to mark me a traitor. You think my reputation is terrible now, Lachesis? Once I've spoke out against Deneira, it is going to become much worse.”

Hird stares at him. “How, exactly?”

“Conspiracy,” Jay says. “Just as she said. This whole business, from Mas-Hain onwards, is going to reek of me manipulating events every step of the way.” He can feel himself slipping towards anger, and does his best to contain it. “That was how you planned to keep me onside after, wasn't it? I wasn't going to be left with any other options, if humanity disavowed my actions, and half of Lenia thought I'd been behind this from the start.”

“Perhaps,” Lachesis says neutrally. “But ask yourself this: what is more valuable to you – your reputation and career, or Severne Tremark?”

Jay snarls. “Is that a threat?”

“An observation. One path will help you keep him safe. The other will not.” There is the sound of footsteps, on Lachesis' end of the commlink and she inhales, sharply. “Your choice, Lane. Think about it. Someone will be in contact to give you your proof.”

The line goes dead.

For a moment the silence rings in Jay's ears as he stares, furious, at his commlink.

“Well,” Hird says at last, “that was... something.”

“That was a threat,” Jay says. He finds he is gritting his teeth so hard his jaw is aching. “She's threatening Samiel, if I don't cooperate.”

“Well, obviously.” She shrugs. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Jay takes a deep breath and deliberately tries to relax his shoulders. “We need her information first,” he says. “She wasn't exactly clear about what it was, or how we were going to get it.”

“And then? You said it yourself: you can't exactly kidnap Tremark to keep him away from them.”

He smiles, knife-sharp and dangerous. “And then I create a third option.”

*

“I was surprised to receive your message,” Archon Ssafyr says, when she arrives at Jay's door late the next morning. “We have not really spoken since the first week.”

Jay offers her some tea, which she accepts gracefully, then leans back in his chair. “Well, it has been a little eventful since then.”

“You do have a way of understating the obvious,” she says dryly. “I had forgotten that about you, Silvertongue.”

Hird, perched on the edge of the table as she watches the pair of them, lets out an ugly snort of amusement. “And that's when he's not devolved into so much fucking flowery politeness nobody can work out what he's saying.”

Ssafyr grins at her, teeth sharp. “She understands you very well, Wing Commander. She is an excellent etairos.”

“No!” Jay yelps. “Good grief, no!” He holds his hands up at the glare Hird shoots him. “I don't think you quite understand – ”

“A bit fucking hasty, wasn't it?” she says with heavy sarcasm. “Warn a woman, will you? I'm not sure my ego could take another hit like that.”

“Have I misunderstood?” Ssafyr asks, puzzled. “She is always with you. She is your shield maiden, is she not?”

“I'm his very annoyed bodyguard,” Hird says. “Is there any difference?”

Jay sighs. “Quite a bit,” he says. “Shield maidens are warriors in arms. They fight in pairs – the deadliest unit the galaxy has seen, probably – ”

“Thank you,” Ssafyr says, pleased.

Jay smiles, and suspects it comes out as more of a grimace. “They're mostly lovers, too.”

“Huh.” Hird considers this for a moment, staring hard at the floor. “Well, yeah, we're not that.” She wrinkles her nose. “Ok, yup. That's a nope. No offence, Lane.”

Ssafyr sips her tea. “Humans,” she says, bemused. “You always overcomplicate things. Why would you not be both?”

“Well, objective for one,” Hird says to Ssafyr. “I mean, what happens if one of you is injured? Someone would need to keep a clear head.”

“And you couldn't?”

“Me personally?” She shrugs. “Maybe. Most humans? Probably not.”

“A shame,” Ssafyr says. “You would all be much more effective.” There is speculative gleam in her eye that Jay is starting to worry about, as she eyes Hird. “But if you are not his etairos, are you then his jailer?”

Bodyguard,” Hird stresses. “Because he can't be fucking trusted to keep himself out of trouble whilst the Sirens decide if he murdered someone or not.”

Ssafyr's li'it writhe on her head, snakelike, as she smiles at Hird. “An almost impossible task, to keep this one out of trouble.”

“It has its moments,” Hird says. She grins at Ssafyr. “Not that I won't be looking forward to a holiday when this is done.”

“And here I thought you loved your job,” Jay says.

“Doesn't mean you're not a pain in the fucking neck sometimes.”

“Well, if you ever get bored of looking after him,” Ssafyr says, “you would be most welcome on Calmia or Raxia. I would be honoured to have your company.” She watches Hird. Jay is starting to become concerned, particularly when he sees the appreciation in her gaze. “I would certainly offer for you. You are extremely fierce, I think.”

Hird winks. “I'll take it into consideration,” she says, “if I ever fancy a change of job.”

“Please do.”

Jay groans. “When you have quite finished poaching military personnel,” he says to Ssafyr.

“I do not know why you are offended,” she says, “I would offer for you too. You would both be most valuable.”

“Well, that's what I want to talk about with you.”

“Oh, you have changed your mind after all?” Ssafyr's grin widens. “You are not my first choice, of course – ” her quick glance at Hird makes it quite clear who that would be, “– but I do rather like the way your brain works, Wing Commander.”

“As gratifying as that is,” Jay says, swallowing his sarcasm as much as he is able to, “that's not what I mean.”

Ssafyr crosses her legs, relaxing as she takes another small sip of tea. “Then?”

“Severne Tremark,” Jay says.

From her perch on the table, Hird chokes. “Sorry, what?”

Ssafyr sets her cup down gently, her expression settling into neutrality as she looks at Jay. “What do you mean, exactly?” she asks. “You know that is not how we pick compatible – ”

“No, that's not what I mean,” Jay says hastily, horrified. He leans forwards, hands spread in apology. “I'm sorry, I am not explaining this well.”

“No,” Ssafyr says, “you are not.”

“Severne Tremark is currently under investigation,” Jay says. “He is also currently quite a valuable target as a hostage to... several faction.” He winces as Ssafyr continues to stare at him, her expression neutral. “Several factions I can't go into details on at present,” he clarifies.

“Why would this interest me?” Ssafyr asks. “The Medusae have nothing to do with Lenia's internal politics.” She raises an eyebrow. “Neither should humanity.”

Jay frowns, thinking. He has to tread carefully. Ssafyr is uninterested in starting a war with Lenia. The Medusae have been stubbornly resistant from the start to appeals from both side of the conflict. Even when Jay had helped quash a fledgling rebellion on Raxia, both Archon Ssinia and Ssafyr had been grateful, but resolutely unmoving in their stance on not siding with the humans.

“No,” he says at last. “But this isn't about Lenian politics. Well, not exactly.”

“Then what is it?”

He leans forward, trying to keep his expression calm. Hird has remained surprisingly quiet so far, and he spares a moment to hope desperately that she stays that way. “Severne Tremark is Queen Deneira's nephew,” he says.

It is only because he is watching Ssafyr so closely, that he sees surprise flicker across her face. “I see.”

“Recently I have been advised that the Queen is... not as popular as she once was.”

“You are referring to the incident at the Naos?” Ssafyr asks.

“In part, yes. But it is more than that. My sources indicate Deneira is becoming more unpopular with her people. All political and traditional considerations aside, there are clearly rogue elements at work intent on removing her from power.”

“Rogue elements that humanity would not hesitate to encourage, no doubt,” Ssafyr says.

Jay shrugs. “Perhaps,” he says neutrally. “But either way, because Deneira has not addressed the situation adequately, two members of the Tammoll Federation were killed.”

“Which has added another headache to an already difficult situation.” Ssafyr frowns, her li'it moving slowly. Her agitation at the thought is not as well concealed as perhaps, Jay thinks, she would like.

“How's that investigation going?” Hird asks, and Jay wants to hug her.

“Badly,” Ssafyr says.

“Which proves my point,” Jay says. “I suspect that the Lenians are not being as cooperative as they could be?” He smiles as Ssafyr sighs, grudging agreement written into the lines of her body. “Deneira knows which faction was responsible for that, and she does not want it publicised. She does not want to appear weak.”

“But what does this have to do with Severne Tremark?” Ssafyr asks. “Even if the situation on Lenia is more precarious than the Queen would have us believe, you have not told me how this affects him directly.”

“Severne Tremark is a high profile target. More than that, I believe he is currently being used as leverage by various different factions in order to try and seize control.” Jay tries to stay calm; to keep his heartbeat as steady as he can make it as he watches Ssafyr. “I need you to take him on as a keryx.”

“Hang on,” Hird says, “what's a keryx?”

Ssafyr tilts her head, considering. “An agent, or messenger. We adopt them from different peoples, for a time, so that they may learn from us and we from them. It is only ever for an agreed upon period, although they may stay permanently once their allotted time is up, if they wish.”

“Medusae,” Jay says to Hird, “the greatest fostering race in the galaxy.”

The noise Ssafyr makes is vaguely scornful. “And why wouldn't we be?” she asks. “You are all so limited by refusing to learn from one another. Why would you pass up the chance to discover new ideas and opportunities? To understand different perspectives, even if they are your enemy's?”

“She has a point,” Hird says.

“I know,” Jay says. “That is why I am asking for you to take Severne Tremark.”

“Even if I agreed to this, he is not yours to pass on,” Ssafyr says sternly. “He is currently under investigation for murder, and even if he were he not, he is sworn in defence of his Queen. You are not his commanding officer, his monarch, or his family. You cannot make such deals on his behalf.”

Jay takes a deep breath. Ssafyr has cut to the heart of the matter, in a way he was rather hoping she would not. He finds he can't look at her. Another gamble, here; this one much worse than the first. “We have a bond. We're...soulmates.”

“What?”

“We're – ”

“Yes,” Ssafyr waves a hand, “I heard you.” She leans forwards, snatching Jay's hands up with her own, forcing him to look at her. “You are sure?”

Jay laughs tiredly. “Very. No matter how much I might have protested.”

“When did this happen?” she asks sharply.

“Yesterday, two weeks ago, three years ago, maybe. I'm not sure.” He doesn't pull his hands back, even when Ssafyr's nails dig into his skin. “And that is why I need you to take him.”

“When you said he was a high profile target to more than one faction...” Ssafyr says.

“Yes,” Jay says, “exactly. It's not just Lenians.” His shoulders slump; for a moment he is unspeakably weary. “Think what humanity would do with someone like Samiel as a hostage.”

“Do they know?” Ssafyr asks. “Who he is?”

“No.”

“Which makes the whole situation even more fucking precarious,” Hird says. “Because at some point it's bound to come out.” She pointedly doesn't mention Lachesis, but Jay can practically hear her thinking of their earlier conversation.

“And when it does...” Ssafyr trails off, thinking. “I can see why this would cause problems,” she says at last. “However, it still remains that he is unable to leave. I also do not think it wise to remove Severne Tremark without permission from the Queen.”

“Under no circumstances can Deneira know about this,” Jay says. He ignores Ssafyr's frown and grips her hands tightly in turn. “I mean it, Archon. Whether you agree to this or not, the Queen cannot be told of my request.”

“Why?” Ssafyr asks, curious. “If she is, as you say, his aunt – then surely she would wish to be told if he comes with us as a keryx?” Something flickers in her gaze and her expression tightens. “Ah.”

“Ah?” Jay repeats.

“Does Severne Tremark even know of your request?”

And here is the last sticking point.

“No,” Jay says quietly.

Ssafyr hisses, drawing her hands back from his as she stands, abruptly. “You would have us dishonour guest rights?” she demands, and her dark eyes, always warm before, have become cold. “You would have us take someone who – ”

“That is not what I am asking at all,” Jay says as he stands as well. He is struggling to stay calm. He can sense the opportunity to add another option to the political landscape slipping through his fingers, if he is not careful. The warm spot in his mind that is Samiel stirs, perhaps sensing his agitation, and he ruthlessly blocks it off. “I am asking you to consider – ”

“I will not be party to treason,” Ssafyr says icily. “I will not abuse guest rights and kidnap a member of the royal family. What you are asking is beyond unreasonable.”

“I am asking for you to listen,” Jay says. “I would not send Samiel to you unknowing. I have no intention of kidnapping him, and I am helping you to achieve a closer alliance with the Lenians. His presence with you will also help appease the Tammoll Federation. If – when – it becomes known that he has links to the Lenian royal family, the Tammoll Federation will be able to petition to take him on as well, in compensation.”

“And what is in this for you?” Ssafyr asks, suspicious. “Why are you helping the Lenians over your own people?”

“Because,” Jay says, and has to swallow against the hoarseness in his own voice, “because I want him safe.” He sits down hard; his legs can't quite hold him. “I want him safe,” he repeats, and it is the truth.

There is silence. For a moment the only sound in the room is Ssafyr's breathing, lighter and faster than a human's. She stares down at Jay, and the look in her eyes is remote, considering. “Why did you come to me?” she asks at last. “Why did you not appeal through official channels?"

"Because there is more going on here than you know,” Jay says. “There's more going on here than I know. I'm playing it blind here, Ssafyr, and I need your help to protect him.” He grits his teeth, knowing it's not diplomatic and adds anyway, “And you owe me after Raxia.”

“But why me?”

“I don't know who else to trust,” Jay says simply, honestly. “I can't trust the humans; I can't trust the Lenians. Nobody else would be willing to take on a Severne with ties to the Lenian throne and a target on his back. You, at least, do not have a political agenda in this.”

She contemplates this. “That is true, but that does not mean he wouldn't become a problem for us. The risks still outweigh the benefits.”

She is, Jay realises with a sudden burst of hope, at least considering the proposal now. “What else do you want?” he asks, carefully.

“What else can you offer?”

“He can offer himself,” Hird says. Her voice is clear, ringing in the room. When Jay looks at her she meets his gaze, her expression open. “He wants you to take Tremark. Why not take both of them?”

“That's not – ”

“Lane, after all this, you are not going to have a career to go back to,” Hird points out. She is not trying to be cruel, but the truth of it hurts anyway. “You are either going to be facing a court martial, or you're going to have to resign.” Her voice is unbearably kind, and Jay flinches from it. “Why don't you go with him?”

“Interesting,” Ssafyr says. She smiles at Hird, teeth sharp. “Would you also consider joining them?”

Hird shrugs. “I'm fucking flattered, but probably not,” she says. “I've got quite enough on my hands trying to wrangle my idiotic crew. I couldn't just leave them.”

“Loyal and forthright,” Ssafyr says appreciatively. “It is a real pity. You would be a most valuable addition.”

“Well, you'd still have Lane,” Hird says. She grins, wide and slightly wickedly. “He's at least fairly useful.”

Jay looks between the two of them. His heart is hammering in his chest. This is not something he has stopped to consider, in all of his planning. He has not worried about how he will walk away from this; what the outcome will be for his career.

Hird is right. He is not going to survive this, politically speaking. That, he's always known. Either he is going to be under even greater suspicion of collaboration, or he's going to be shuffled quietly to one side. And that's if they all survive the next couple of days. He stares at his hands, dazed.

But the possibility of another life – of walking away from this is...

Terrifying.

And yet underneath the terror, lodged against the part of his soul that is wound around Samiel's, there is something very much like hope.

That, more than anything, makes him afraid.

He wants it, he realises. He wants the opportunity to actually walk away. To take Samiel with him and to run. Even when he'd told Hird he couldn't, it didn't mean somewhere at the back of his mind he hadn't been considering it.

He wants terrible, lazy mornings and ridiculous arguments over inconsequential, stupid irritations. He wants Samiel, looking at him in the last light of day, and in the early dawn. He wants dull and uninteresting and exciting all at once. He wants to be able to find out what their lives could be like, when there is nothing left to focus on but each other, and the peace they could build between them.

There is a large part of him that will always want to shape worlds. He is greedy, he knows, and selfish. He loves what he does and he is not sure he could live without it forever. But.

But he wants Samiel more.

“She's right,” he says, and can't make his voice louder than a whisper.

Hird's mouth drops open, incredulous at his agreement. “What?”

“You're right,” Jay says. He straightens then, and meets Ssafyr's gaze. “Wing Commander Hird's suggestion has merit. You've said it yourself: I'm valuable as well. So. If you agree to take Severne Tremark, you can have my services as well.”

“For five years,” Ssafyr says immediately, pulling absolutely no punches. Jay hears Hird's intake of breath, quickly stifled. “And Severne Tremark agrees to come of his own free will.”

“Two years,” Jay retaliates, “and I will talk to him.”

“I am not taking him without active agreement,” Ssafyr says sternly. “I refuse to involve the Medusae in a situation that could result in war. Four years.”

“I understand and I have said I will speak to him.” Jay raises an eyebrow. Some distant part of him cannot believe he is doing this: negotiating away his own freedoms, his own future, for the sake of a... something. A maybe. “Two and a half.”

Ssafyr tilts her head, considering. “We will also require assurance that this will not impact politically on the Medusae,” she says. “How you ascertain that confirmation is up to you, of course, but we will not risk upsetting the Queen.”

“Agreed,” Jay says. “I'm not asking you to leave with him immediately anyway.”

“Well that is just as well: he is facing murder charges.” She shrugs. “Which may render this entire conversation void. Three years.”

“Not if I get my way,” Jay says. “The murder charges are a complete fabrication, as you well know.”

“Perhaps,” Ssafyr says. “But I am not the one responsible for making that decision.”

“Three years is acceptable,” Jay says, “and you can rest assured that Severne Tremark will not be found guilty. The evidence is circumstantial at best, and at worse an outright lie.”

“You had better hope the same can be said for you,” Ssafyr says, holding out a hand. “Because you are part of this agreement, Silvertongue. I want my three years of service from you, when you leave your military. You are most useful.”

“Done,” Jay says. He shakes her hand.

There is a moment of terrible, wicked relief. He has managed it. Irrespective of the outcome of the investigation; of the coup and the subsequent victor, he can keep Samiel safe. It will keep him out of Deneira's hands, if she emerges victorious. It will also keep him away from Lachesis, if not. He tries to contain his elation, to smother it down so Samiel doesn't notice.

It is worth it, he thinks, as Ssafyr claps him on the back. Three years is nothing to him; barely a breath in the length of a life. If it is what is needed; if it will help Samiel...

It is worth it.

*

The training room is silent and dark, when Jay arrives.

The message had come through late in the evening, long after Ssafyr had gone. It had been encrypted so securely it had even made Hird whistle, when she'd taken a look at it.

The last place we spoke, it had said. 01:00 standard.

There had been nothing else.

When he'd floated the idea of attending alone, the row that he had ended up in with Hird had been spectacular. After several rounds, she had reluctantly conceded to him meeting the rebellion's contact apparently privately, on the understanding that she would be within earshot at all times.

“Are you hidden?” Jay murmurs to her now, scanning the room.

“Can you fucking see me?” she asks sourly. Even through the link hooked up via his translator, her temper is coming across loud and clear. “I still think this might be a fucking set up.”

“Yes, your views on this meeting have not escaped me.”

“Well maybe you should fucking listen.”

Before he can respond – to admit that, in spite of their argument, he does not necessarily disagree with her assessment – there is a soft scuffle of movement to his left.

He hadn't know who to expect, when Lachesis had told him he would be meeting a contact. He had assumed it would be one of the operatives named on the chip. After all, their codenames had already been passed onto him, and they wouldn't be risking much more in talking to him.

A woman steps through the door of the training room.

Her clothing is dark; plain and soft. She is wearing a mask of midnight blue, her eyes shadowed by the fall of her hood, pulled up even inside. She walks through the pool of moonlight streaming in from one of the windows, and Jay notes her movements are careful. She treads lightly, looking around.

She is graceful, Jay thinks, watching her. Every step is composed of an elegance that speaks of years of training. Even though she has taken care with her clothing, which is not rich or even particularly well made, the way she walks gives her away.

“Let me guess,” he says quietly. “Adrasteia.”

The sound of his voice makes her startle a little, as though she is not expecting him.

And she wouldn't have been, Jay thinks dryly. He is, after all, early, and so is she. But he had anticipated her caution, and he doesn't like to be caught on the back foot. Better to steal a march on an unknown, rather than wait to see if they are hostile by walking into a trap already set.

“Yes. You are Wing Commander Lane?” Adrasteia says. Jay notes with little surprise she is wearing a voice modifier in her mask.

“You don't know?” he says, instead of answering her. “I'm slightly concerned about the validity of the information you hold if you can't even identify me.”

There is a pause. “I was trying to be polite,” Adrasteia says at last, her voice stiff with reproach. “It would be the height of rudeness to imply your reputation precedes you.”

“Does it?” Jay asks, interested. “And is that my reputation in general, or a description from Lachesis?”

Another pause. “Both.”

“Fascinating.” Jay smiles at her, and does not miss the way she takes a half step back. “Do you have the information?”

“I am curious,” Adrasteia says, “how you are going to use it. And why.”

“Surely Lachesis told you that?”

“I would like to form my own opinion on your honesty,” Adrasteia says. “You cannot always rely on your allies to paint you the full picture. Everyone has a bias, and what one sees, another may miss.”

“Ah. You don't trust your colleagues.”

“I did not say that.”

“No,” Jay says, “but your body language does; the way you clearly don't quite trust me does. You are waiting for the inevitable moment I turn around and betray you.” He smiles, and knows it is not quite kind. “And you are expecting it, because betrayal is something you are used to. How am I doing so far?”

Adrasteia swallows, and Jay watches the way her hands flutter for a moment, nervous. “You are quite perceptive,” she says at last. “I had heard that, but hadn't really seen it until now.”

Which means, Jay realises, she has seen him before. He doesn't highlight her mistake, merely tilts his head, observing. “I am going to use your information to create political upheaval,” he says. “Which you must already know if you've talked to Lachesis. Then, when I've done that, I have been advised the best thing for Lenia is that your Queen is...removed.” He smiles, thinly. “Does that satisfy you?”

“No,” Adrasteia says, “but it's a start.” She reaches into her robes, retrieving a small case. “Here.”

“And this is?”

“A Galtium crystal.”

“Threnodia?” Jay asks, surprised. “You are giving me a threnodia? How the hell did you get that?”

“I asked,” she says. “I am entitled to it, because it was my mother's.”

Jay takes the crystal from her, cradling it carefully in one hand. “Why the hell haven't you used it before, then?” he demands. “If you knew this was proof of what Deneira had done, why has it taken so long?”

“Because we were waiting,” Adrasteia says.

“For what?”

“For you.”

Jay stares at her, disbelief welling up. “What have I got to do with anything?”

“You are our political tie to humanity,” Adrasteia says. “More than that, you are the reason we can now advance our cause. Without you, key pieces were refusing to cooperate, even with this evidence.”

“Key pieces?” Jay asks, mind racing. “What key pieces?”

“Severne Tremark, for example,” Adrasteia says. “The Queen's hold on him is very strong. But you are proof that it is weakening. Two days ago he very publicly claimed you. There was no hiding it.”

“You're talking about when Deneira told him I was in danger,” Jay realises. “When instead of behaving rationally, he – ”

She nods. “Exactly. He disregarded orders, threatened a Council member, and was on the point of breaking the necks of his fellow Severne to reach you, until Athannus told them to bring him to you.”

She knows, Jay realises. What went on between himself and Samiel, she knows. Whether she found out through contacts, sources or –

He blinks, pieces beginning to slot into place.

“You came across that information how, exactly?” he asks. “I never mentioned anything about him threatening a Council member, and I certainly don't recall anyone telling me he was willing to fight other Severne to reach me.”

“It's public knowledge,” Adrasteia says. “Everyone knows.”

“Do they? That level of detail?” Jay takes a step forwards, then another. Adrasteia takes another half-step back, one hand up as if to ward him off. “I think you know because you were there, weren't you?”

“How? I would need – ”

“You would need access?” Jay finishes. “High security clearance? There's only one person I know about who went to see Samiel that day, and she went on the orders of her Queen.” He can feel the anger he has been trying to swallow building, burning in his throat as he looks at her. “Which you would know all about, wouldn't you?”

“I – ”

“Adrasteia. How could I have been so stupid? It could have been anyone, of course, but it was there, wasn't it? Lachesis was trying to tell me – to show I had allies in the court. The handmaiden of the goddess Nemesis. It was literally right in front of me and I just didn't pay attention.” He runs a hand through his hair, frustrated.

“'We are the ones who go out and get things done',” he quotes. “That's what you said to me, all those weeks ago, wasn't it? You told me there was a chance for an alliance; you told me that Athannus would profit from Deneira's death, and I didn't listen, did I?”

Adrasteia watches him. Whatever protests she may have had lined up are silenced, beneath the weight of Jay's anger, his frustration.

“Tell me,” he says bitterly, “exactly how long have you been planning this, First Handmaiden?”

She sighs, quietly. “They warned me you might work it out,” she says. Carefully she reaches up, pushing the hood of her robes back with one hand, then removing her mask.

Pyrrhine Medala's face is a lovely as ever. Her expression is sad as she looks at him. “I am sorry for the deception,” she says. “But I had to know if you were trustworthy.”

“Am I, then?” Jay says. He can feel his fingers trying to curl into fists and he straightens, keeping his hands level at his sides as he hangs onto the Galtium crystal, careful not to crush it. “Have I passed your test because, what? Suddenly Severne Tremark would do anything for me, and that makes me someone you can work with?”

“Severne Tremark would do anything for you,” Pyrrhine says, “and you would do anything for him.” Her eyes, golden and beautiful, flick briefly to the ring of bruises on his neck that mark him. Claim him. “And that gives the rebellion the advantage.” She smiles. “You want to save him.”

“Why does that matter to you?” Jay asks. “Why the hell would saving Samiel from Deneira be valuable to – ”

He pauses.

“It's not valuable to you personally, is it? Of course it's not.” He closes his eyes against Pyrrhine's neutral expression and laughs, bitterly. “'Key pieces were refusing to cooperate'. Of course they were. Of course. Samiel was leverage. Samiel is always leverage. And I'm the way you use him to make someone move on your board.”

“You are not wrong,” Pyrrhine says gently. “I am sorry if this sounds callous, but you have weakened the Queen's hold on Tremark to the point she may no longer be able to control him. That is extremely valuable to a member of our rebellion.”

“Because Samiel's a hostage,” Jay says. “For both Deneira, and for you all. That's what you're implying, isn't it? That's why you need me, because you've proved he will do anything for me. If it comes to a choice between me and her, it's no longer guaranteed he will pick her. That's why you needed to know about the soul bond. That's why you needed to prove he would react the way he did. If he can walk away from her, she loses this leverage she apparently has over your fellow rebel.”

It is becoming clearer now, this picture. Pyrrhine has been the key to unlocking some of this, and Jay finds he is liking the realisations less and less, the more he thinks things through.

“You knew about Catta,” he says. “You knew what happened and you knew she had Samiel. You've known from the start.”

“We didn't know who Severne Tremark was,” Pyrrhine said. “Not at first.” She bows her head. “Believe what you will, but understand that if I had known, I would have tried to save him much earlier.”

“For your key piece – ” Jay says, and then stops dead.

The realisation is swift and terrible. It leaves him breathless as he stares, unseeing at Pyrrhine. In the back of his mind he can feel Samiel; feel his alarm at the utter horror that is seeping through Jay, to the point where he can't contain it.

No matter what I do, he thinks, despairing, as he struggles to comprehend what he has just realised, they are never going to let him walk away from this. I was never going to be able to save him the way I wanted to.

“Belleros,” he says out loud. “That's your key piece. If the codename Lachesis gave you reflects your role, then why not the same for him?” He rubs a shaking hand across his mouth. “The hero who lost his son. And that's why Deneira needed Samiel alive, isn't it? A dead son is no good for keeping someone in line; only a live one will do.”

“And there's only one person she really needs to keep in line, isn't there? Only one person who is a real threat to her throne, right now. Isen told me and I didn't listen: 'We have information on him that would keep him on side'. You're using Samiel as well, to make sure he cooperates.”

“Wing Commander – ” Pyrrhine begins.

“Athannus,” Jay says, numb and horrified, and utterly despairing. “It's Athannus. He's Belleros.”

Chapter Text

Pyrrhine doesn't deny it.

That, more than anything, confirms it.

“Fucking hell, what the fuck?” Hird explodes in Jay's ear.

For a moment, he had forgotten she was linked up via his translator. He flinches a little, and the movement is enough for Pyrrhine to regain her composure.

“I'm not sure what – ” she begins.

“It's the truth, isn't it,” Jays says. It is not a question. “That's why you need me. It's not to make sure Deneira loses a faithful lieutenant; it's because your future King won't make a move against her whilst she's holding his son.”

She studies him for a long moment. “What would you like me to say?” she asks at last. “Would you like me to admit to the truth of it? To agree that this is why Lord Athannus will not move against the Queen?” Her expression is impassive; her tone utterly neutral. “You've already surmised this. Now, I am asking what you are going to do about it?”

Jay grits his teeth. “You are planning to use Samiel as a hostage. You speak of using me to remove Deneira's influence from him, but look at what you're doing. You're going to take him from one cage and place him in another.” He can't quite keep the sheer disgust, the rage, from his voice.

“We don't intend to do that,” Pyrrhine says. “He is simply going to be monitored. Lord Athannus has already agreed to these terms.”

“Voluntarily? Because I very much doubt that.”

She spreads her hands, as though exonerating herself of the blame. “He came to us,” she says. “He asked for our help to rescue his son and we agreed. Until then, we had not held out much hope of convincing him to lead. He had always seemed...loyal.”

“He came to you directly,” Jay repeats, incredulous, “and asked for your help, and offered his own son up as a hostage in return?”

“Why not?” Pyrrhine asks. “We are a better alternative than the Queen. Our interests do not run in ruling through fear; in warmongering and using an enemy we have long fought as an excuse to cling to power.”

Jay smiles. He is not sure quite how he looks, because she takes another half-step back, before she manages to control her reflexive response. “Oh no,” he says. “No. You are just going to use an innocent man in exactly the same way she has.” His voice is harsh, his fury even grating in his own ears as he stares at her.

“That's not – ”

“Oh, but it is.”

She sighs a little, as though he is being unreasonable. “I had expected better from you,” she says. “Surely you must recognise that if we did not take Severne Tremark, even for the purposes you describe, things would remain at an impasse?” She watches him carefully. “At least this way he will finally have the opportunity to understand who his father is. To train properly and adequately to his full potential.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?” Jay asks her. “Is that how you sleep at night, knowing you are exactly the same as her? By using that justification?”

“I'm not sure which side is worse,” Hird chimes in unhelpfully. “Can't we just fucking be done with the lot of them and sort this out ourselves?” Her voice is low now; furious.

“Yes,” Pyrrhine says steadily. “Because I am also doing this to help a great many more people than just Severne Tremark.”

“So one man's freedom is worth that, is it?” Jay asks. “The rest of the planet is fine, as long as someone pays the price?” He snarls and, even as he does, recognises that the anger is not perhaps all his own.

“Would you not take those odds, Wing Commander? If it were you?”

“Not at the cost of him,” Jay says. “Never.”

She studies him. “No, you are doing the opposite, aren't you? You are fully prepared to leave an entire planet to burn, as long as he gets to walk away.”

“And if I am? If I'm not going to continue this madness with you?”

“But you're going to,” she says, “because it's the only way to at least help him, a little.” Her voice is cool; assured. The nervous twitch of her fingers decidedly less so. “We've given you that information. Without our support you are never going to overthrow the woman responsible for the murder of your lover's family. Think about what is worth more to you: pride at the cost of total failure, or the possibility of giving Severne Tremark a more comfortable life, free from the Queen's influence. Even if the price for that is a loss of freedom.”

“Athannus has definitely agreed to all of this, has he?”

“Of course.”

Jay smiles again, thin and cruel and unkind. “Liar. For someone so used to it, you still need the practice. I think you know he's not going to stand for it, and you're trying to make sure you get to Severne Tremark first, aren't you?”

“Think what you like,” she says delicately, “all that matters is who is left holding the prize at the end of it all.”

“Which could be any one of us,” Jay says. “Technically.” He can feel himself, cold; hardening off any vulnerability..

“Perhaps. Unless, of course, Severne Tremark discovers you are responsible for the death of his aunt.” Her words are cool, calculated; the keen knife edge of them slipping between his ribs in painful promise. “I wonder how long he would stay with you then?”

“Ah,” Jay says. “Blackmail. You really have learnt well studying under the Queen, haven't you?”

“I do what I have to,” Pyrrhine says. “Even if I have to make unpleasant choices. So, I will ask you again: what are your intentions?”

She has left him, for the moment, no alternative. It does not mean that Jay is without resources, without hope. It does mean that if he intends to walk out of here with the information she has provided, and a slightly smaller target on his back, he will need to be seen to compromise.

He raises an eyebrow. “You have made your point,” he says. “If nothing else I will not deny that. You want me to work with you? Alright, I will. The question of unseating the Queen is never something we have disagreed on.” He lowers his voice, stepping forward to take her arm in a hard, implacable grip, before she can move away.

“But once that is done, if you want to reach Samiel Tremark, you are going to have to come through me, first.”

*

Because the night has not yet been long enough, Jay goes to see Athannus.

He needs to speak to him now, before Pyrrhine can get to him. Before Athannus has a chance to arm himself with well-reasoned denials and sidestepping. It is the middle of the night and unprecedented, but Jay can't take the chance he will be warned by the rebellion.

His first attempt to speak to Athannus is thwarted by the two guards posted outside his door. The blank, reflective surfaces of their masks seem intent on making a mockery of his failure, particularly when he is unceremoniously turned away without even a cursory knock to see if Athannus is available.

Hird, who has accompanied him, predictably does not like this.

The second attempt goes better, in that she draws herself up to her full height next to Jay, and with the kind of utter certainty that comes from a lifetime of lying to her superiors, tells them that Lord Athannus has sent for Wing Commander Lane. They are, of course, welcome to ignore this summons, she says, and she will be happy to explain to Lord Athannus how devotedly they have carried out their duty. Her tone very much implies she would relish the opportunity to do so.

There is a brief exchange and then, to Jay's surprise, he is ushered inside. His last sight before the door closes behind him is of Hird, settling against the opposite wall. She is eyeing the two guards with some speculation. Jay can practically feel her assessing their weaknesses.

“This is unexpected,” Athannus says.

If he is truly surprised at Jay's late night visit, he does not show it. There is no trace of sleep in his voice; no disturbance to his clothing that might suggest he was in bed, resting.

“Lord Athannus,” Jay says, and then has to take a moment to breathe.

It is different now, knowing what he does. He finds that he doesn't quite know where to begin. He wonders how much Athannus knows; how much he has found out.

He means to say I have spoken to Adrasteia. What comes out instead is, “Take off your mask.”

“I beg your pardon?” For one moment there is genuine bafflement in Athannus' voice.

Jay tries to reframe the demand; to smooth the edges of it into a request. “Please.”

“Why?” Athannus keeps his hands at his sides, his posture relaxed. His tone has returned to glass; crystalline and beautiful and completely empty.

“Because,” Jay says around the hundred different excuses he wants to make, “I need to know.”

Silence, then, as Athannus considers his request. For a long moment, Jay doesn't think he is going to acquiesce; that he will turn him out of his rooms and the utter certainty, the confirmation, that Jay is after will fail to materialise.

“Very well,” Athannus says.

The agreement is unexpected, and Jay can't quite control his intake of breath. He watches closely as Athannus reaches up

When he draws his mask off, Jay sees it.

If you are looking – really looking – the similarities are there.

They are in the line of his jaw and the sweep of his brows. The patrician nose and the clear, high set of his cheekbones. But where Samiel is softer, Athannus is all angles; the planes of his face sharpened into something slightly different with age, and the lack of Aoide's genes. They both have the same stubborn set to their mouths, but Samiel's lips are wider, more generous; the curve of them more mischievous.

These are all things that may, if needed, be explained away by family ties as cousins. But then, Jay realises, that has probably always been the easiest excuse, should anyone ever ask.

But no one had ever thought to, had they? Why would they? Samiel Tremark is not related to the Queen, or Athannus. He is a nobody; a Severne trained as a bodyguard and nothing more.

“You never said,” Jay says hoarsely. “Not once. You never gave any indication.”

“So, you know.”

“Adrasteia, she told me. She – ”

“Pyrrhine Medala,” Athannus says calmly. It is odd, to see the movement of his face now; the immovable severity in his eyes. “We may as well call her what she is.”

“You never even told him.”

“He never asked.”

“He wouldn't know to,” Jay says, grating and terrible. “Did you even think to – ”

“Constantly,” Athannus says softly. “Always. And I never could. If I had, Deneira would have killed him.” He delivers this with as much inflection as ever. His voice is expressionless; his eyes are not.

“You've waited – ”

“A long time, yes.” Carefully Athannus sets his mask down. “For a while I did not even know he was alive, although she always swore he was. Foolish, I suppose, to think she might have killed him.”

“Why did you never say anything to me?” Jay asks. He is struggling, mind tired, adrenaline still humming in his veins. Somewhere at the back of his mind there is Samiel, walled off. Another problem to be dealt with at some point.

“To you?” Athannus clasps his hand. He sinks down, sitting in one of the chairs scattered around the room. “Why would I? I do not know you; I do not know your intentions. You are a human – you had no vested interest in ensuring his safety, as far as I was aware.”

“You didn't know about meshala?” Jay asks, incredulous.

“Not until Samiel threatened me,” Athannus says. “Not until it was too late.”

“Too late?”

He lifts one shoulder, half shrugging. “Too late to stop it from becoming common knowledge.”

“The rebellion knew,” Jay says, and watches Athannus' expression shutter still further. “They've known for a while, I think. They were looking for it when they took us.” He frowns. “They didn't tell you?”

“Why would they?” Athannus asks. “If they told me, they would be giving up an advantage.”

“But they want to keep him.”

“I know.”

“You agreed to – ”

“I had no choice,” Athannus says simply. “There comes a point where you have to decide, Wing Commander, which is the lesser of two evils. Do I want to let my son stay for the rest of his life, living in blind obedience to a Queen who would kill him without hesitation if she thought him a threat? No. So, I had to ask for help, and the help came with a price.”

He draws a breath, long and slow, as though stifling some ancient hurt. “I have tried... other avenues. They too have failed. This is what I am left with.” He studies Jay for a long moment. “I don't know where else I have left to turn.”

“Look,” Jay says, “there are other options.” He thinks, briefly, of Ssafyr. He can't speak of that; not yet. It is too early to give up what might be his only other alternative. “Have you considered speaking with humanity? With a representative of – ”

“Humanity,” Athannus says. “Why would I trust humanity?” His expression tightens. “Just because you claim to want to help, doesn't mean I will trust you, or your delegation.”

“I am not interested in helping you,” Jay says with bitter honesty. “I am not interested in helping Lenia, or toppling a regime. I am only interested in helping Samiel, in whatever way I can.”

“And that includes regicide and interfering in politics that have nothing to do with your own race, does it?” Athannus says coolly. “Tell me, how much of an advantage would humanity gain if Deneira was overthrown?” He nods as Jay hesitates, as though he has had something confirmed. “You would be a fool not to see the advantages that can be gained, even if you claim only to want to help my son.”

“Listen,” Jay says, “I want to help Samiel. I don't care if you believe me or not, but I'm asking you to at least understand that. I'm not willing to leave him and, quite frankly, if it comes to it I don't care how your power struggle with Deneira falls out. I just want him safe.”

“Why?” Athannus asks. He seems genuinely interested in the answer. “I understand the compulsion of meshala, of logosykia, but is that enough for you?”

“Yes.”

“Enough that you would be willing to go against your own people, if it came to it?”

Jay can feel it: that implacable anger he can't quite keep down; the chill of rage, silent and sincere. “I don't think you quite understand,” he says. “I would go against anyone who tried to take him away from me.” He can hear it in his own voice – echoes of Samiel and that irrational, dangerous madness that keeps driving them both.

“Good,” Athannus says, startling him. “That is what I need.” His shoulders slump then, as though a heavy weight has been lifted from them.

It is the first time Jay has seen any kind of softening; an unbending of the facade he is presenting. “You actually... approve?” he asks, incredulous.

“Of course I do,” Athannus says. “I do not need someone motivated by their own political needs. I don't want to hand my son over to another Pyrrhine Medala.” He shuts his eyes briefly, as though he cannot quite contain himself; hurt visible in the lines of his face. “I have already failed enough enough. I could not do that as well.”

“You're talking about Aoide,” Jay realises. “That's what you mean when you speak of failure, isn't it?” In spite of himself, he is curious. He wants to know. No, he needs to know. Here may be the answer to at least some of the questions he has burning. Here is the truth he can carry to Samiel.

“Aoide,” Athannus says softly. “Yes.” The corners of his lips move, almost as though, if he could, he would be smiling. “I failed her, as well.”

“What happened?”

“I let her get killed,” Athannus says simply.

“No.” Jay runs a hand through his hair, frustrated. He takes the seat opposite Athannus and leans forward. “From the beginning. How did Samiel's mother die?”

“And what will you do with this information?” Athannus asks. “What gain is there to be had from me reliving my greatest failure?”

“The truth,” Jay says. “And that is something I can give to Samiel.”

“You can't. Deneira will – ”

“You said it yourself: her days are numbered. Don't you think Samiel deserves to know, at least? To understand who he is and where he came from? She hasn't told him – she never will. He needs to be told the truth.”

There is a long silence. Athannus stares hard at Jay. If he is looking for honesty, Jay doesn't know how else to show it. He means every word: Samiel deserves to know. Whether that is through Athannus, or through Jay, it doesn't matter. But the truth should be spoken, as gently as it can be.

“Better he hears it from someone who loves him,” Jay says, into the dead air between them.

“Do you?” Athannus asks. “Love him?”

“I – ” Jay opens his mouth; closes it again.

Does he?

He would fight for Samiel – he is fighting for Samiel. He would, he realises, do whatever he needed to keep him safe. Does that mean love?

There is desire there, certainly, and a willingness to compromise himself to the point of madness just to protect him. There is something fragile and warm and as resolute as iron in the core of him, when he thinks of Samiel.

What I want, he thinks. Then, Choices.

Because he has already chosen – has already told Samiel he has chosen – and there is no turning back from this path. His career is done, after this. His world will not be the same – Hird had been right when she had said it – and he has already made the decision.

No regrets, he thinks.

“I care for him,” he says, with utter conviction. “A great deal.”

Athannus sighs. His posture softens, as though someone has cut the strings keeping him together. “Aoide Callios was not the woman who was intended to marry me,” he says, and it is not a response to Jay's answer, except for all the ways it is. “Deneira was.”

Jay recognises Athannus's words for the capitulation they are, the display of trust; but he can't help himself. “What?”

Athannus's gaze is steady. Implacable. “Years ago, long before all of this took place, there had been a decision made to unite our two families; to forge an alliance that would give us a better chance at the throne. It wasn't unusual; quite a lot of families were arranging similar matches at the time. The idea was to create a united front: one less competitor for each of us to worry about, until the end.”

“But then who would inherit the throne?” Jay asks. “Surely that doesn't – ”

“It had been agreed in advance that if the marriage took place, we would leave each other be until we had no further options,” “Athannus says. “We were both too young at the time to argue otherwise. But Deneira was already demonstrating a remarkable aptitude for ruthlessness.

“Later, as we got older and the King was weakening, I also noticed in her a tendency towards manipulation. It's no bad thing in a queen, but the lengths she would go to were disturbing.” He lets out a slow breath. “Honestly, I wish I had seen it sooner.”

“So why marry Aoide, then?”

“Aoide Callios was kind. She was beautiful and clever and ambitious and very much like her sister. But where Deneira had been raised with the expectation she would rule – and been taught to use any means to achieve it – Aoide had none of that same sense of entitlement.” Athannus tilts his head at Jay's disbelief. “It's the truth,” he says. “She wanted the throne, but she didn't expect it. She came to me long before Deneira was crowned, and suggested we marry instead.

“It hadn't occurred to me to break the betrothal, but her arguments were sound. She had already amassed some political support and so had I. She was also willing to actually share power with me on a more equal basis. No biding our time; no eventual victor. A true, permanent, alliance. We could show a new way forward and temper one another, she said.”

Athannus hesitates. “She also knew that her sister was considering war with humanity, as a means to solidify her own support. Deneira had made overtures to the Interior Circle Parliament on behalf of the King, indicating that Lenia was interested in a small, but significant, territory on the outliers of the Interior Circle.”

“Elysium,” Jay realises. “You mean Elysium.”

“I do.” Athannus passes a hand across his face; for a moment he looks unspeakably weary. “Elysium remains one of my biggest regrets. Deneira knew humanity wanted Elysium. She knew too that they had already begun to preemptively move colonists in. It was a very good excuse to begin a war that would ensure she could emerge with support from most of the Council, and with an enemy for Lenia that would keep her in power.”

“And Aoide knew this?”

“She did. But when she came to me with the proposal we join forces I thought she was mad, at first.” There is a look in Athannus' eyes; something fond and tired and unspeakably sad. “But she had this... way about her. She spoke, and eventually you listened, even when you didn't mean to.”

“And did you?” Jay asks. “Mean to?”

“I did.” Absently, Athannus raises a hand, touching his breastbone. A smile flickers briefly across his face, there and gone before Jay can begin to understand it.

“I loved Aoide very much,” he says, “even before she offered for my hand. She was my favourite cousin. We used to play together. We...” He looks almost embarrassed – the strongest emotion Jay has seen from him yet. “We used to make each other laugh,” he confesses softly. “I wasn't in love with her, but I did love her. Do you see? I believe she felt the same.”

“And Deneira didn't realise this?”

“Deneira was using me to shore up her claim to the throne,” Athannus says. “By this point, I had already risen to the position of Commander of the One Hundred and Fifth. That alone would have helped secure her reign, until she no longer needed me. She didn't know what Aoide and I had agreed to – what we had planned – until it was too late.”

“You were already married when she found out?”

“We were,” Athannus confirms. “In secret, before the King died. By then Deneira had already used the promise of war to seize power. She was Decime – the heir. Eventually she was crowned before either of us could move to expose her.” His mouth, so much like Samiel's, tightens; lips thinning as he thinks of the past. “We didn't have enough proof of her plans. She was careful; so careful. And – ”

“Aoide became pregnant.”

“Yes.” Athannus bows his head. “And our goals changed.” He clasps his hands together, fingers clutching tight, until his knuckles whiten under the pressure.

“Then came the choice. We couldn't keep it a secret for long. Our marriage, our son, everything would be exposed. Deneira was on her way to becoming Queen, but she knew that Aoide hadn't given in – that we were both working against her. Even if she was crowned, well, a Queen isn't normally killed; but she can be forced to resign.”

Athannus looks at Jay, his expression open. “You must understand, with a child on the way we were vulnerable. How can you then hand your enemy an advantage like that?”

“So you made the decision not to carry on fighting?” Jay asks. “You knew it would put Samiel at risk?”

“Yes,” Athannus says, “but then unexpected happened. Aoide fell in love with a human. Meshala. Logosykia. It was...well, it was perfect, in a way. Mikhail helped us to move her to safety, and for five years I kept the secret of where they were hidden.”

“Why?” Jay asks. “Why not bring them back to court?”

“Because if Deneira had realised Aoide had bonded to a human, she would have done everything in her power to kill her, and him. How can you stand in front of your people and claim that humans are nothing more than savage warmongers, when your own sister is bound to one? There would have been questions, and Aoide would have brought up Elysium again. Deneira's position was stable, she had moderate support from the Council; popularity amongst the people and no further threats to her ascension to the throne. But if I had supported Aoide if she returned, Deneira would have faced real difficulty.”

“So you protected your family,” Jay says gently. “There's nothing wrong about that.”

Athannus bows his head. “I thought I was keeping them safe,” he says. “Both of them. Deneira knew Aoide had fled. By then she knew what we had done, as well. She had found our marriage contract. She was looking for them both: my wife, and my son. I think even then she was already planning how to use them against me.”

“So why keep you alive?”

“Because I was too dangerous to remove, and so we made a bargain,” Athannus says. “I was desperate. I knew she was searching for them and I wanted her to stop. I agreed to work with her – to support her – exactly as had been originally planned all along. An alliance, without the added burden of marriage. I was only biding my time and we both knew it. But I thought it would be enough of a price to keep them safe, for a while. When I offered her this, she swore not to look for Aoide.” His expression tightens. “She lied.”

“But why take Samiel then?” Jay runs a hand through his hair, thinking. “Why not simply kill Aoide and Samiel both, and then dispose of you too?”

“I was still valuable,” Athannus says. “More useful alive to her and working with her. And of course then she had my son, to make sure I stayed in line.”

He looks old; hopeless as he contemplates Jay. “It was never meant to be like this,” he says. “Aoide was meant to raise Samiel – to turn him into the kind of young man who would be benevolent; kind. When he was old enough, she was going to send him to me – undeniable proof of our own alliance and a way to begin to fight against Deneira. No one would have argued against it, if I turned my attention to supporting my son's efforts for the throne.”

“And this would have stopped the war, would it?” Jay asks dubiously.

“To start with? No. Eventually? Yes. What better way to show that the human race was not our enemy, than to demonstrate a son with a Lenian for a mother and a human for a stepfather?”

“I think that might have been a little optimistic,” Jay says, as gently as he can.

“You mean 'naïve',” Athannus says wryly. “You forget, we were young then. Deneira was not at the height of her power and we had faith we could overcome. I had faith. And then she – ” He falters, voice cracking.

“She found Aoide,” Jay finishes carefully.

“I lost them both that day,” Athannus says, voice rough. “I lost everything. Then the King died unexpectedly and that was...” He shuts his eyes, swallowing hard.

“That was when you stopped fighting her completely,” Jay says.

“Yes.”

Jay looks at him; studies the stark pain on his face and tries to reconcile it with everything he knows about Athannus. “Who was Tremark?” he asks at last, partly to spare the man from having to talk further about Aoide, and partly because he wants to know.

“No one,” Athannus says. He opens his eyes, staring sightlessly at the floor. “Absolutely no one. A minor noble that Deneira persuaded to facilitate her lie, presumably when she found Samiel. She removed him almost immediately after. She'd destroyed the evidence of my marriage to Aoide by then. It was easy to do, when she'd already sent me to the front to fight. I had no opportunity to stop her.”

“But all these years, you never once told Samiel? Never even hinted?” Jay asks. “He's clever – he could have worked it out.”

“I didn't see my son for eighteen long years,” Athannus says quietly. “When I finally did, he looked right through me. He never knew me; she'd never even mentioned my name to him. She had spent all that time grooming him to be her loyal bodyguard.” His expression twists. “And she'd made it quite clear that if I so much as breathed in his direction, she would kill him. No evidence, no proof, just my son, gone forever.”

There is a slowly growing horror building in Jay's chest; a terrible static in his mind that is swallowing him, piece by piece. Here, at last, is the truth. He had known Deneira was using Samiel; had known what she had done. But he hadn't stopped to consider the cost. To think beyond what had happened on Catta.

“Then the rebellion?” he says, and Athannus nods.

“Yes, then the rebellion, amongst other attempts to free him. Pyrrhine Medala reached out to me when she heard her mother's threnodia. By then I was desperate. I told her everything. I agreed to her terms. I just. I – ”

“You wanted him safe,” Jay says softly.

“Yes. More than anything.”

Jay can't help the small smile that flickers across his face. “Well, at least we can agree on that.”

“But I made it clear I wouldn't make a move whilst there was a risk to Samiel. We've been in a stalemate ever since, until – ”

“Until me.”

Athannus dips his head. For one moment his expression is pure Samiel. The slant of his lips, the line of his brow; they catch in Jay's chest, a painful recognition of familiarity made new in Athannus.

Jay clears his throat. “Why am I such a game changer?”

“Because Samiel values you more than Deneira,” Athannus says simply. “If the choice came down to dying for her, or living for you, I hope he would choose you. When I asked him to accompany you to Maa-Ilia, I was hoping the enforced proximity would encourage your relationship. He had seemed taken with you, and I –”

“You hoped to weaken her influence.”

“Exactly. But meshala.” Athannus shakes his head. “I hadn't been expecting that. Now, more than ever, you can hold sway over him. Convince him to – ”

“Wait,” Jay says sharply. “Wait. You're asking me to manipulate him. To use our bond to – what, exactly?”

“To get him away from here,” Athannus says. “To convince him to run.”

“And Deneira?” Jays asks. “The rebellion? Hell, humanity? Are we going to spend the rest of our lives outrunning them, because he's useful?” He shakes his head when Athannus goes to protest. “No. I am not begging him to run away, just to live the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders. You want my help? Fine. But it will be to end this. Then we can both walk away.”

“You are extremely stubborn,” Athannus says slowly. “And there is a great deal of anger in you. More, I think, than you realise.” He studies Jay, his expression thoughtful.

“I want to help,” Jay says, ignoring him, “but I want to help in the right way. Do you understand? You want to smash Deneira's hold on Samiel? Fine. The rebellion want to use Pyrrhine's mother's threnodia to destabilise the Queen's reign. I don't know exactly what's on there yet, I haven't listened, but Samiel deserves to hear it before it's made public.” He takes a deep breath. “Whether he believes it or not.”

“And when he tells the Queen?” Athannus asks quietly. “When he confronts her with this information?”

“We don't give him time,” Jay says, mind racing. “Let me listen to the threnodia – let me check what's on there. Then, let me talk to Samiel tomorrow morning.” He swallows hard, considering the idea from all angles. “Bring forward the hearing – can you do that? Make it tomorrow afternoon, before there is an opportunity for her to get to him. Then, let me play it in public.”

“Has the rebellion agreed to a shortened window of opportunity?” Athannus says.

“Do you think they'd really care?” Jay shrugs and leans forward, imploring. “Your legion, they're loyal, yes? Have them in place. Don't tell them what the plan is – don't trust anyone – but have them ready to move on your order.”

“To do what, exactly?”

“Capture the Queen. Minimal bloodshed; minimal violence.” Jay hesitates, thinking. “We play the threnodia and you make a statement. You won't need total support, just enough. Bloodline is everything, yes? You can kill in pursuit of the throne, but Deneira's actions here? That isn't competition, or victory. It's dishonourable. Paint it that way.”

“You have,” Athannus says slowly, “a point.” He raises an eyebrow. “If the threnodia provides enough evidence. If someone is willing to testify to its veracity and confirm that it has not been tampered with...”

“Leave that to me,” Jay says. He grins, fiercely. “I know a woman who knows a priest.”

Athannus regards him steadily. "Alright," he says at last. "I am trusting you with this. With my son. Commander, do not let me down."

Jay matches his gaze; feels the determination in himself to end this, properly, once and for all.

"I won't," he says, and means it.

*

Dawn is beginning to break when Jay finally returns to his rooms.

The night has been long, and the day is going to be even longer, he knows. He is in that strange place where he is so tired that he has passed straight though exhaustion and is now wide awake, even if the world is a little surreal at the edges.

He doesn't have long. Athannus has agreed to give him the morning to talk to Samiel, and will call for the hearing in the afternoon. He is also going to let Pyrrhine know that the hearing has been moved, and scramble as many of his troops as he can.

Hird has reluctantly agreed to speak to Venndred, if only to warn him to be present at the hearing. Jay half suspects she will tell him about what is going to happen anyway, and can't find it in himself to care.

Apart from snatching a few hours of sleep whilst he can, there is only one thing left to do.

He sits on the edge of his bed carefully, the Galtium crystal in his hands. It is a small thing, delicately made and as hard as steel. He turns it over in his fingers, thinking.

He doubts Pyrrhine is lying about the evidence. She has no reason to, right now. More than a political triumph over humanity, she needs Jay's support. If he is the only means of publicly discrediting the Queen – of forcing Athannus' hand – then he is more valuable as a threat to Deneira, than a concern of the rebellion.

He sighs, and turns on the crystal.

The image of a woman is projected. She is tall, and every bit as lovely as her daughter. Her expression is serene as she stares out, spine straight, hands clasped in front of her.

“My name is Aletheia,” she says, “third daughter of the Medala family. Fourth handmaiden to the Queen. May the words I speak be known only to those of my family who wish to seek understanding. May the story of my life grant wisdom to those that follow along the paths of starlight in my wake. Let the knowledge gained from my life's lesson be used only in the service of betterment, and may the voices of the dead, of which I will count among, guide my children's children into a bright future.”

Briefly, Jay wonders if Aletheia is going to recount her life from the beginning. He hasn't got time to listen to it all. He debates with grim amusement, if it would count as heresy if he hit the fast forward button.

Before he can, however, Aletheia speaks again.

“Pyrrhine, blood of my blood, I will tell you this before all else: know that what I did, I did out of duty to my Queen and to Lenia. One day, you will want to know why, and the only explanation I can offer you is that there comes a time in your life where you must choose what to do. To my eternal regret, I chose wrongly. I am warning you now, not to make the same decisions.

“Not long before our Most Exalted was crowned, I was called from my rest in the middle of the night. The Decime herself had commanded my presence. I was taken to her, where she led me to an unmarked ship. There were three of us, and the Decime. I was the only handmaiden.”

The images of Aletheia wavers; the distress on her face is palpable, even through the recording. Jay leans forward, in spite of himself.

“We flew to Catta. Most Exalted would not say why, only that this was to be a mission of utmost secrecy. She was young, in those days, and fierce. None of us thought to contradict her.

“Catta is a colony on the edge of Lenian space. There are a mix of all peoples there. When we landed, we spent some time that day exploring. I was – well, I was astonished, to see how easily humans interacted with Medusae; Raxians with Lenians. It was not what I was expecting.

“I remember – ” she swallows, visibly, “I remember looking at all this, and wondering how such peace existed in a universe made for war.” She bows her head. “To my shame, I helped bring war that night.

“Most Exalted had received information, she said, that a fugitive was living on Catta. She told us where to find the house; who to ensure was killed. There was a child. She wanted the child brought to her.”

Aletheia's voice cracks. “May Tisiphene be merciful when it comes to my judgement, but I did as I was ordered. I took the two Severne with me, whilst Most Exalted stayed with the ship. I stood guard whilst they went inside; whilst they killed the parents. Who they were I didn't know then; hadn't even begun to guess. They must have been extremely dangerous, I reasoned, to warrant the attention of the Decime personally.

“A Severne brought the boy out of the house.” She presses a hand to her face, fingers trembling.

Jay watches as she wavers a moment. He can feel a deep, restless anger building in him. Watching Aletheia, he is reminded of his conversation with Isen Kallat: 'Just following orders' is not sufficient justification for murder. Here, there are so many people who fail to understand that. Who have ruined lives because of it. Aletheia is as guilty as Deneira, in her way.

It is a wonder, Jay thinks savagely, she could stand to look at herself in the mirror, after.

“The boy was crying,” Aletheia says hoarsely. “He was crying for his mother. She was already dead, I know. I do not think he had realised. The Severne handed him to me and went back into the house. In spite of everything, the boy did not deserve to see what was about to happen. I took him with me, before he could see his home being burnt.

“I carried the boy to Most Exalted. I did not wait. By the time we reached the ship, I could already smell smoke in the air. For my sins, I will always remember what happened next.

“Most Exalted met us just outside the ship. I remember thinking she was beautiful; serene in the face of justice done. Then, I did not question what had happened.

“'This is him?' she asked, and when I confirmed it, she took the boy from me.

“His sobs had only quietened a little as we walked. He was wide-eyed; terrified. We were strangers who had taken him from his home. He clung to Most Exalted as though she was the only certainty left in his world. I remember her looking at him; studying him. I remember wondering why she was keeping this child, when his parents had been traitors.

“'Samiel,' she said at last, over the boy's tears, 'I am sorry, but you cannot return to your mother. She is dead.'

“The boy didn't understand. You could see there was no comprehension of death; of life or how fragile it could be. He was still crying; deep, heaving sobs that wrenched at the soul.” Aletheia wrings her hands. “Then, I think, I began to realise. I watched as Most Exalted pressed a hand to the boy's brow.

“'It is alright,'” she said. “'You are safe now.'

“Children do not comprehend deception the same way adults do. The boy had obviously been raised by parents that adored him. He had no understanding of the deceit of adults and he believed her.

“'I am sorry,' Most Exalted said, 'We had to take you quickly to keep you safe.' She was watching the boy intently, waiting for him to disagree with her. He didn't. He watched her and trusted her, and may the gods judge me, but I kept silent.

“'Your father has killed you mother,' Most Exalted told him, and I could almost have believed the lie myself, from the gentle way she spoke it. 'We came to rescue you, before he could harm you as well.'

“He clung to her then, his face buried in her robes, and she met my eyes over his head. She looked startled; uneasy.

“'I am your aunt, Samiel,' she said. 'I will keep you safe.'

“I knew, then, what I had helped to do.” Aletheia reaches out, through the recording, as though she wants to touch something; someone. “You must realise Pyrrhine, that to kill a threat to the throne is accepted. To murder an entire family line is not. Most Exalted told me we would keep the boy safe, and that is what we did.

“But I have always wondered if by then Aoide Callios was a threat. Certainly, in the day I watched Catta live around me, she did not seem to be. I did not see her – did not speak to her – but always I have wondered why she would be living somewhere like that, and if she ever intended to leave.

“I am not sure there is justice in what Most Exalted did. I am not sure she killed on that day for the right reasons. I have always wondered, since, if it would not have been better to let Aoide Callios live.

“My life is nearly spent, and this regret has lived with me. The boy was taken and raised, but he was never told the truth of his mother's death. It was never explained to him what had happened.

“I leave this information for you, my dearest love, to do with as you will. You have much anger in your heart Pyrrhine. I only hope you do not judge us all too harshly for what we did to keep Most Exalted safe.”

Aletheia turns her head, then. There is a moment where the image flickers, and then she continues. She begins to speak of the early years of her life and the childhood she had.

Jay shuts the crystal off, ears ringing; mind numb. He had known what to expect – had know there had to be some kind of confession on here. But to listen to it. To hear that confession spelt out calmly, rationally, with no real defence...

He can feel the strain in his tendons, his bones, as he fists his hands and tries to breathe deeply. No excuses, for a ruined life. No real pity for the child Samiel had been, when he was snatched from his home and the only family he had ever known was murdered.

And then to spend the rest of your life being raised by the person responsible. Trained, to be nothing more than obedient to her every whim.

It's monstrous.

He had known, of course, what had happened. But to hear it spelt out. To hear the damage it is going to cause when Samiel listens to it.

He drops his head into his hands, because he knows, even now, that he is still going to use it.

And what using it might cost him.

What, he thinks, filled with horror at himself, at Deneira; at Aletheia and Pyrrhine, does that make me?

He knows the answer already; knows it in the savagery beating in his heart and the determination in his veins.

A monster.

Chapter Text

In the end, Jay sleeps for a couple of hours.

Hird comes and gets him sometime around ten. Her expression is grim, but not unkind, when she wakes him.

“He'll do it,” is all she says, and Jay feels a surge of relief that in this, at least, there is no additional problem. He wonders briefly what Hird has said to Venndred to convince him; but the luxury of time for a discussion is not on his side.

“Has the hearing been moved forward?” he asks instead.

She nods. “Lault told me this morning,” she says. “He's not happy. He thinks it's a deliberate move by Athannus or the Queen, to limit the amount of time the human delegation has to prepare.” She shrugs as Jay groans. “Sorry.”

“Is he trying to block it?”

“No, but only because Athannus offered him the evidence immediately, and agreed to stay with him to discuss it. Which gives you – ” she checks her commlink, “– about an hour.”

“Shit.” Jay scrambles up, raking a hand through his hair. “Are you coming with me?”

She shrugs again. “Apparently I'm the only one with a pass to see Tremark. I can bring one additional member of the delegation with me to talk to him.” She eyes him, dubiously. “You may want to freshen up first.”

“Thank you,” Jay says with heavy sarcasm. “I am well aware I look terrible.”

“Like a sack of shit,” she says cheerfully, and lets him past her and into the bathroom.

Jay showers quickly, throws on a clean set of clothes, and is ready to go in under ten minutes.

He lets Hird lead as they head towards Samiel's cell, one hand clutched tight around the Galtium crystal. He feels sick; dizzy on lack of sleep and the implications of what he is about to do.

He doesn't know, he realises, if Samiel will ever forgive him for this.

“Orders,” Hird says without preamble, thrusting a linkpad under the nose of the nearest guard, when they stop outside of a nondescript door. Her gaze doesn't leave the guard's face. “Wing Commander Lane has been given leave to meet with the prisoner.”

The guards, Jay recognises on closer inspection, are not Severne. They are not even regular army. They each have three black stars stencilled onto the rerebrace on their upper arms. Their faces are covered with masks, but their postures are far more alert, more cautious, than they have any right to be.

“This says you're accompanying him?” says the guard now holding Hird's linkpad.

She rolls her eyes. “Only to the door. I'm waiting outside.”

“But shouldn't – ”

“I waive my right to enter,” she says loudly. “There, does that satisfy you?”

“If you say so,” the second guard says. He plucks the linkpad from his colleague's hands and passes it back to her. “We'll let him in.”

Jay's heart is in his mouth as they key in the code. They are Athannus' men, he knows. Clearly loyal, clearly under orders, but they are still guarding Samiel.

Samiel, who is just the other side of the door, not even aware of what Jay is about to do to him. Samiel, who is –

Who is sitting cross-legged on the bed, up to his elbows in the wires of a disassembled linkpad.

Jason,” he says, as Jay steps into the room, the door closing emphatically behind him. “What – I was so – where have you been?” He is not talking about physically.

“I'm sorry,” Jay says slowly. “I've been... looking into something. I didn't want to tell you before I – ”

“Is it about the trial?” Samiel asks eagerly. He discards the linkpad and scrambles off the bed. “Have you found evidence that will prove your innocence?” He reaches out, as if he is going to touch Jay's face, and Jay can't stand himself.

“No,” he says, ducking away to sit on the bed. He ignores the flash of hurt that flickers across Samiel's face. “No, I was looking into something else.” He palms the Galtium crystal, and finds he doesn't know where to start. “I – ”

“What?” Samiel asks. He moves slower now; steps closer and frowns down at Jay. “What's the matter?” His voice has gone flat; cautious.

“Samiel,” Jay manages to get out. “You're not going to...” He shuts his eyes and draws a deep breath. “You're never going to forgive me for this. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.”

“You're starting to frighten me,” Samiel says. “What's wrong, my master? What have you done?”

Wordlessly, Jay holds out the crystal. “You're going to need to listen to this,” he says, and wrenches their bond wide open.

Their first feeling is bewilderment – a complete lack of comprehension about what, exactly, could be so dreadful. If neither of them are in imminent danger, then surely it cannot be as dire as all that?

Their second feeling is hunger, warm and soft, as they realise the bond is open. They press against one another, frantic, as Jay bows his head and breathes through gritted teeth. Samiel staggers over to sit next to him, one hand reaching out to link their fingers together.

Touch, then, and with it unbearable sorrow. The bittersweet knowledge that I did this for you. Only for you. And the pain that comes of hurting someone you –

“Oh,” they say, in horrified, blissful comprehension. “That's what you – ” And of course that is what this is. Of course. Was there ever any doubt?

Finally there is fear and, underneath it all, a thread of absolute honesty at last. Whatever is to fall out now, it is the truth. There can be no further lies. No further misunderstanding of what their intentions are.

Samiel slumps, and takes the crystal from Jay's other hand. “Is this worth it?” he asks. “Just tell me that. What's on here. Is it worth it?”

“Yes,” Jay says, because he has no other comfort to give. “I think it is.” Because after this Samiel will have someone who loves him. He will have truth and he will have the means to make his own decisions. Distantly, he can feel them both shaking. He clings to Samiel, to the bond he has blocked until now, because this may be the last time he –

Samiel turns the crystal on.

“My name is Aletheia,” the hologram says, looking out from behind her threnodia recorded years ago, and into a distant future only she can see, “third daughter of the Medala family. Fourth handmaiden to the Queen. May the words I speak be known...”

Jay steels himself and listens patiently, as Samiel's world comes crashing down.

The wait is unbearable as Aletheia speaks, and Jay finds himself caught; terrified, as he watches Samiel's expression slowly harden the longer he listens.

Rage is the first thing that finally hits. A deep, wordless anger so vast it consumes them both.

“You would bring this to me,” Samiel says, his voice grinding with the harmonies of a thousand deaths, “and claim it's the truth? This?” He lets go of Jay's hand, and the loss of contact hurts far more than Jay thought it would.

It is not what Jay was expecting - not what he was hoping for - but he draws a breath. “Yes.”

“This is a forgery. A fake. No one would ever – how dare you even – ” Samiel wrenches himself away from Jay, tossing the crystal on the bed, where it continues to play on, unheeded. “Why would you do this to me?” he asks, and underneath the anger is the bewildered hurt of a child, uncomprehending of the world's cruelty.

“Because you deserve the truth.”

“This is not truth,” Samiel spits. “There is nothing here but lies.”

“No.” Jay says. He tries to remain calm; to steady himself. Samiel's distress is making that very difficult. “Samiel, no. I am not lying to you. I wouldn't. Not about this.”

“You're expecting me to believe that – to think that – ”

“You lived on Catta,” Jay says. “You lived on Catta and I knew you, and your aunt killed your mother and your stepfather and she took you away.”

“That doesn't make sense,” Samiel grinds out. “Why would she? If she killed my parents, why keep me alive?” He turns on Jay, furiously triumphant. “You see? I've asked you this before. It wouldn't – ”

“Your father is alive,” Jay says, and feels the second blow leave Samiel reeling.

What?

“You're not the son of a minor noble,” Jay says. He reaches out, desperate, and it is his turn to flinch when Samiel steps away from him. “Your father is Lord Athannus.”

Samiel stares at him. “Have you lost your mind?” he asks at last. His voice is calmer now. Underneath it, in the bond Jay can still feel wide open between them, he is still unspeakably angry.

“I'm not lying to you,” Jay says. “And I'm not making this up.”

“Then someone's tricked you,” Samiel says. He begins to pace, each movement tight with rage. “Someone's lied to you about this and got you to – ”

Jay closes his eyes. “They haven't,” he says, and feels the truth of it burn between them. “I've told you before: I remember this happening, when I lived on Catta. The Queen took you when you were a child as a hostage, so that your father would cooperate with her.”

“My father,” Samiel barks out. “My father. If what you're saying is true, where was he all these years? Why did he not come forward? You say he's my father? Well, why was my mother fleeing from him, then? Why were we nowhere near Lenia when she died?”

Jay opens his eyes; looks at him. Samiel is magnificent in his rage. His fury is a tightly controlled thing shown in the lines of his body; the way he pivots sharply each time he hits the length of the room, and the look in his eyes.

“Your mother was pregnant with you,” he says carefully. “She agreed with your father it would be best for her to leave. They were both working to stop the war with humanity before it could begin. Your aunt was using the beginnings of the conflict to gain support, and – ”

“So she was selfish as well as a traitor, is that what you're saying?”

“Right,” Jay says. “Enough.” He stands, reaching out as Samiel passes him, and grabs his arm. “Listen to me.”

Samiel growls, low and menacing. He tries to wrench his arm away, and Jay hangs on. There is a brief scuffle, and Jay shoves him, hard. Samiel staggers back a step, and Jay uses the momentum to push them both into the wall. He lets go of Samiel's arm and slams his hands down on either side of his head, effectively caging him.

“Your mother was scared for her life,” he says, as calmly as he can manage. Samiel sneers at this, and Jay ignores him. “More importantly she was scared for your life. Her sister was rising in power, and neither she nor your father could keep you safe. I spoke to Athannus; he told me all this. The risk of Deneira harming you and your mother was high. She and your father made the choice to stop fighting when your mother discovered she was pregnant and she experienced meshala.”

“Oh?” Samiel's voice is icy. “Meshala? How convenient. With who?” He makes no further move to break free of Jay's grip, but the anger, the disgust that Jay can feel simmering under both their skins, is warning enough.

“With a human,” Jay says. “I don't know much, only what Athannus has told me. But it was also an opportunity to move you both to safety, do you see?”

Samiel stares at him. “The only thing I see is a pack of lies, told by Athannus to try and weaken my loyalty, and a woman selfish enough to put her own lusts above the good of her people.”

Jay can feel their bond, a live thing between them, full of tearing anger and disbelief. It makes him want to give in. To rest his head on Samiel's shoulder and beg forgiveness for doing this.

“It's the truth,” he repeats again instead. “If you won't believe the evidence, at least believe me. Can you not understand that your aunt would have done anything to achieve power? That this all happened before she was crowned, and that the last thing – the very last thing – she did before she claimed the throne, was to kill your mother and remove the threat of your father?”

“Why would you say this?” Samiel chokes out. “Why can you not understand she is not like that? That she sometimes has to make difficult decisions, and you have been fed tales of nonsense?”

“Because I will not lie to you,” Jay says steadily. “Not about this; not about anything ever again, if I can help it.”

He breathes slowly, and maintains eye contact.

And there, there is the first tiny shift in Samiel's anger. Jay can feel it: the small sliver of doubt that comes with the way Samiel's gaze flickers to one side and back again.

“Can you at least believe your mother experiencing meshala with a human?” Jay asks gently, trying to build on that smallest of capitulations. “She chose to leave with her lover; to keep you safe and happy. You have that kind of soul bond in common, after all. In that way at least, surely you are similar?”

It is a miscalculation.

Samiel rears back as though struck. He moves so fast his head cracks against the wall. Their bond goes white hot with rageterrorhorror for one agonizing moment, before it slams shut completely. He shoves Jay back. The push is so hard Jay staggers, struggling to regain his footing as Samiel throws himself past and away from him.

“I am not my mother!” he screams. “I am not so selfish, so unkind and cruel. I am not a traitor!”

The sound of his voice is agonizing, even through the translators. Jay claps his hands over his ears as he reels from the force of it; from the absolute horror screaming through the harmonies.

The door to the room bursts open. Hird and the two guards come running in.

From the corner of his eye, Jay sees Hird assess the situation. She spots the Galtium crystal and makes a grab for it, as both guards skid to a stop in front of Samiel.

“What's – ” one begins.

“Get him out of my sight!” Samiel shouts. “Get him out of here, now!”

They are used to obeying orders; to listening to commands, and instinct has both guards turning to Jay without question. Even as a prisoner, Samiel is a Severne. He outranks both of them, in spite of their probable loyalty to Athannus.

“You need to – ”

“No,” Jay rasps, dropping his hands. “No, I haven't – ”

“You've done enough,” Samiel snarls.

“Lane,” Hird says gently. She steps around the guards, resting a hand on Jay's arm. “I think we should leave.”

“But I – ”

He has made this worse, Jay realises with utter horror. He has made this far, far worse.

He hadn't expected Samiel to take this new information well – hadn't even expected to be believed, to start with. But he had thought that at least he would be listened to. He had been hoping, he realises, to be able to persuade Samiel before they ever entered the hearing; to know that he was on his side in this.

Now, he doesn't.

“Samiel,” he says once, helplessly.

Samiel stares at him, and the look in his eyes is feral; unrecognisable. He is watching Jay as though he is something dangerous; as though he doesn't know who he is.

“Get out,” he says again, and there is something flat and cruel in the lines of his mouth when he does.

“Lane,” Hird says again.

This time, Jay goes.

*

“He didn't even give me the chance to explain,” Jay says later, as they wait in the antechamber outside the room allocated for the hearing. Lault is running late and he and Hird are both cooling their heels for the moment.

“Are you surprised?” Hird asks. She tugs uncomfortably at the high collar of her dress uniform. “You just told him down was up, and the woman he thinks of as his mother was really responsible for destroying his chance of a proper family.” She sighs at Jay's look. “I'm not defending his stance,” she says, “but given how long that bitch has had to sink her claws into him...”

“I know,” Jay says. He pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to stem the headache he can feel building. “I know. But I thought with this thing – this soul bond – he'd at least know I was telling the truth.”

She shrugs, perching next to him on the bench propped against one wall. “He probably does,” she says. “He just doesn't want to admit it to himself.”

“But what do I do?” Jay asks. “How do I convince him that – ”

“Lane, there's no time to convince him of anything. You don't have that window of opportunity any more.” She holds up a hand as he opens his mouth to disagree. “This is it,” she adds. “Whether he sides with you or not, we have to move now.”

“She's right,” Athannus says from the doorway.

They both look at him, startled. His mask is firmly in place; his robes formal. He is standing, straight-backed and proud.

“I'm sorry,” Jay says. “I tried to help. I tried to warn him about what we were going to do. He wouldn't listen, he – ”

“Not everything can be undone in one day,” Athannus says. He steps into the room and closes the door behind him. “What matters is that you tried.” His voice is gentle, kind.

“He should have at least listened,” Jay says, throat tight. “I was hoping he would trust me. If nothing else, I was hoping for that.” He swallows hard. “He didn't – doesn't.”

“He does,” Hird contradicts. She is staring hard at the opposite wall, frowning deeply. “There's just the small problem of a lifetime of being told that someone is the enemy, only to discover they may not be.”

“Hird – ”

She looks at him out of the corner of her eye. One side of her mouth quirks up in a small smile as she meets his gaze. “He'll have his realisation,” she says. “Trust me. It just might take a while for it to happen.”

“Time we don't have.”

“Time we will have if this works,” Athannus corrects. “Whether he believes us or not when this happens, he will have the luxury to think on it after.”

“Your men are in place?” Hird asks briskly, changing the subject as Jay bites back the vicious protest he can feel building.

“Yes.”

“And the rebellion?” Jay asks. He tries to force his mind to change track; to focus on the here and now.

“As far as I am aware.” Athannus shrugs lightly. “Adrasteia is with her mistress, of course; but she has assured me all is in place. The palace itself is not particularly defensible, and the intention is not to drag this matter out.”

Hird grins. “Quick and quiet,” she says. “I like it.”

“Quick and public,” Jay corrects. “Because that is the only way you're going to win support for this.”

Athannus tilts his head. “Maybe,” he allows. “Except I have about half the Council on my side already, and I am not planning to offer Deneira the opportunity to put up a fair fight.”

“In which case you need to get her away from the hearing as quickly as possible,” Jay says.

“She will do that herself.” Athannus holds out a linkpad, indicating the structural plan of the palace on it. “When the rebellion creates a distraction out near the front gates, it is going to put the whole building on lockdown. At that point my troops are going to move into position and cut off Deneira's forces along these three corridors." He indicates an apex on the plan. "We're leaving this corridor open, to allow her to withdraw towards her rooms.”

“You're going to risk her escaping,” Jay says flatly.

“No, we're going to corner her.”

“He's right,” Hird says, peering at the linkpad. “There's no further way in or out of those room. If you can secure it behind her, you're going to have the opportunity to trap her there.”

“And do what?” Jay asks. “What, exactly, are your intentions?” He studies Athannus. “The rebellion wants her killed. Do you agree with them?”

“No.” Athannus spreads his hands out at Hird's look of disbelief. “I don't,” he reiterates. “What is the point in starting a new era by murdering the old?”

“She's a threat,” Hird says. “You don't leave a threat waiting at your back for the first opportunity to stab you in it.” She glares at Athannus. “What's the bloody point of this whole thing, if we don't rid ourselves of her once and for all?”

Jay has been watching the way Athannus turns his head; the uncertainty in the lines of his face. As Hird speaks, he notes the flash of discomfort – there and gone so quickly it is almost as though it never existed.

Understanding dawns.

“Because she's the only one who can corroborate your story, isn't she?” he asks quietly.

Athannus' head dips slightly. “Yes,” he says reluctantly.

“She's already destroyed the evidence of you marrying Aoide; she's made sure Samiel won't believe you are who you claim to be. If she doesn't agree to confess, then no one will ever know the full extent of her crimes.”

“And her confessing will mean everyone backing you, will it?” Hird asks dubiously.

“I do not care if they back me,” Athannus says, his voice low and fierce. “I care that my son understands what has been done.”

Hird exhales sharply. “Alright,” she says slowly. “So you're going to corner her – ”

“She'll have troops of her own,” Jay interjects.

“Right. So, corner her, subdue her troops, and extract a confession from her.” Hird frowns. “How, exactly?”

“I am going to let her keep her life,” Athannus says, “if she will go on record with what she's done.”

Jay leans forwards, propping his elbows on his knees as he considers this. “And you'll somehow keep her from the rebellion?” he asks, and finds he's mimicking Hird's dubious tone. “Because Pyrrhine Medala is out for blood, and Hird's right: even with that confession Deneira will still be a threat to you.”

Athannus gives a small shrug. “I am going to imprison her in exile,” he says. “And I will make absolutely sure there is no opportunity for her to escape.”

“And I still think you're making a bloody mistake,” Hird says bluntly. “I've only just begun to see how that woman works, and even I know she's going to take full advantage of your kind offer.”

“I will not be that person,” Athannus says firmly. “I will not start my reign utilising the same means that she did. Bloodshed is not always the answer, and we have the opportunity here to be better.”

The way he speaks, the language he is using, it all sounds familiar. Jay frowns, trying to place it.

“Oh for – ” Hird visibly bites back her first three choices of words and throws up her hands. “You've been listening to that idiot priest, haven't you?”

“He is a most persuasive young man,” Athannus says, which is not a denial. “He speaks quite eloquently on striving for change, and he makes a very good point.”

Venndred. Jay sighs and drops his head in his hands. Of course, Venndred. The realisation is not as surprising as it should be, especially given Venndred's political knowledge and his keen interest in the human delegation. I should have worked that one out, he thinks wearily.

“And how long have you been working with him?” he asks out loud, voice muffled.

What?” Hird says.

“Not long,” Athannus says. “Six months, maybe a little more.” He ignores Hird's open-mouthed rage. “He is, of course, entirely blameless in this matter. He does not know what I've planned, or why, but he has helped me on occasion.”

“He is meant to be politically neutral,” Hird hisses. “Isn't that the whole fucking point?”

“And so he is,” Athannus says. “But from time to time he has helped me to move people to safety, when they may require sanctuary.” He holds up a hand as Hird draws herself up indignantly. “He has not worked against the Queen,” he continues. “Not knowingly. He is trying to make changes to the way Lenians think and act, and in saving some of these people he has helped to preserve some of those who would speak out against ongoing war and the horrors we inflict on each other.”

“He's an idealist,” Jay says, “and you have taken advantage of it.”

“He is a brilliantly clever idealist,” Athannus corrects, “and I have worked with him to try and save as many as we can from Deneira.”

“But the rebellion – ”

“Are interested in removing Deneira. They are also, I think, not especially driven in working towards the betterment of all. Their goals are limited; their ambitions clear. They have not entirely considered what comes after, beyond controlling me.”

Jay lifts his head. “And both you and Venndred have?”

“Yes.”

“What the hell – ” Hird begins.

“Sanctuary,” Jay says, interrupting her as realisation dawns. “That's what you've just said: sanctuary. You're working with him, but that's the other part of your plan, isn't it?”

“It is.”

“What – ”

“You're going to corner Deneira, you're going to get a confession out of her, and then you're going to make sure Samiel is in the Naos, before the rebellion can get their hands on him. Venndred's going to help you.”

Hird groans. “I'm going to kill him.”

“Please don't,” Athannus says mildly. “I do need him alive.”

“And exactly how are you going to get Samiel there?” Jay demands. “He's not going to go with you. He certainly won't go with your guards.”

“I'm not going to take him there. You are.”

Jay can't help his bitter laugh. “And he's going to follow me after this morning, is he?”

“He's going to have to,” Athannus says, “if he wants to stay out of the hands of the rebellion.”

“That's Lane's task, is it?” Hird says. “To make sure he gets his – ” She grinds to a halt, clears her throat and corrects herself, “To get Severne Tremark to the Naos?”

“If he can.”

Jay can feel the bond. It is sitting at the back of his mind like a void. Where he was already used to the familiar warmth of Samiel, there is now only a cold hollow. He is disturbed by how quickly he had come to rely on feeling that dear, familiar light, and how strangely empty he is without it now.

Since their discussion, Samiel has not opened his side of the bond once – has not even attempted to reach out. Even when Jay had been blocking him, he was still used to that soft presence. Now, there is nothing. The feel of it is abnormal; sickening.

“I'm not sure I'm going to be able to,” he admits, and the pain of it leaves him breathless. “I think – I think this morning...”

“I think you need to give him time,” Hird repeats, as patiently as she is clearly able to.

“Time which we do not have.”

“I think you need to give him more credit,” says Athannus. “You have given him a shock. He is struggling. But if he is half the man I think he has grown to be, something like this will not stop him from returning to you.”

Jay sighs. “This is going to be a moot point anyway, if your plan doesn't work.”

“It will.”

“Well,” Hird says with false cheer to Athannus, “I'm at least loving your optimism.” Her grin turns into something more genuine as she catches Jay's eye. “It could be worse, I suppose. 'Through adversity' and all that, right Lane?”

“I'm sorry?” Athannus says, puzzled.

Jay smiles in spite of himself. Hird's stubborn resilience is a bit more of a comfort than he is willing to admit. “Per ardua ad astra,” he says. “'Through adversity to the stars'. The Air Force's motto.”

“Well,” Athannus says, “it's good to see the humans got at least something right.” He sounds amused as he looks at the pair of them. “I think we may count on the next few hours as a battle 'through adversity', indeed.”

*

“I have objected to this in the strongest possible terms,” Lault says under his breath to Jay, some half hour later.

They are standing in the high-ceilinged room, under the gaze of the Council and the motionless scrutiny of three Severne. Above them, perched delicately on her throne, is Deneira. Even without the political power to interfere in the proceedings, her presence is tangible; the weight of her regard stifling.

“I don't think it's a bad thing that it's been brought forwards,” Jay says carefully. “I'm sure Lord Athannus explained the charges and evidence to you?”

Lault shrugs. “Yes, and they're negligible at best. That will not stop the Council from serving your head on a platter if they so choose.” He is carefully neutral; calm. “You are a political time bomb right now Lane. They have the capacity to make this extremely uncomfortable for humanity. If we are not careful, it is going to be the end of these peace talks here and now.”

“You mean if the Queen has her way,” Hird mutters under her breath. She is next to the pair of them, her hair still eye watering against the dark blue of her formal uniform. In the cool neutral colours of the court, she stands out like beacon.

“The Queen has remained impartial so far,” Lault says sternly.

Hird makes a low noise of disbelief. “I'm sure.”

“Where's Lord Athannus?” Jay asks, looking around. “And where's Severne Tremark?” His gaze moves across Pyrrhine, poised at Deneira's right hand, and Mirret, who is talking urgently to another masked Siren.

Lault nods across the room. “Here,” he says.

Jay's heart lurches as Samiel enters the room, escorted by the two guards from earlier. He is tidy now, neat; all evidence of distress packaged away under clean clothes. His robes are pressed, the hood of them down to reveal the familiar fall of his curls. He is not wearing a mask, but as his eyes meet Jay's, he might as well be.

From the bond there is nothing – no hint of emotion; of connection – and the thundering silence of it hurts more than Jay would like to admit. He swallows hard as Samiel looks away again, and examines Athannus instead, who is walking behind the small group.

He is wearing his mask and his robes are as impeccable as Samiel's. As he stands in the doorway, silence begins to creep across the room, the chatter of onlookers giving way to a heavy, expectant pause.

“Are we all present?” Athannus asks. He does not, Jay realises, need to raise his voice to be heard.

One of the Eleven on the Council stands. “We are,” she says.

Lault takes a step away from Jay, then another. “This is it," he says. "Just remember: I'll be here.” He shoots Jay a brief smile. “Let's sort this out, Wing Commander.”

“And if all else fails,” Hird says, softly enough that Lault can't hear, “we'll kick the front fucking door down and leave.” She gives Jay's arm a quick, reassuring squeeze. “You've got this. Now show that bitch what you're capable of.”

Jay takes a deep breath and tries to clear his mind as Hird and Lault take their seats. The Galtium crystal is a heavy weight in his pocket. He is achingly aware of it, as he watches Samiel being escorted across the room. Not for the first time, he questions his own sanity; his reasons for doing this and the possibility that he is making the wrong choice.

Samiel's movements are still graceful as he steps forward. But, Jay thinks, there is a hint of fatigue in the lines of his body and the way his head sinks a little. As he is shown to the space next to Jay, he glances at him again then away, as though he can't quite stand to look at him. They both remain standing, awkwardly, as the rest of the room take their seats.

“Hello,” Jay says gently, amidst the general shuffle.

Samiel does not turn his head. “Hello.”

The silence in the bond is a sharp, raw pain; the utter dismissal from Samiel even more so. Jay is not used to this - to being treated like a stranger, an acquaintance. It hurts, badly. Samiel has never done this. From their earliest days together there has always been some kind of reaction, some remark. To not have something, anything, makes Jay want to scream.

“This is a preliminary hearing only,” Athannus says from the front of the room, drawing attention back to himself. He has taken his own seat alongside the rest of the Council. “I have requested that it be brought forwards due to the urgent nature of the accusations.”

“And has your investigation been thorough enough because of it?” the Siren with Mirret asks.

Slowly, Athannus nods. “It has.”

“I would like it noted,” Lault says from behind Jay, “that I feel this entire process is unnecessary, and may have serious and detrimental consequences to the peace talks. Particularly given the inadequacy of any real proof, before attempts were made to arrest a member of a diplomatic delegation.”

“Noted,” says Athannus. “However, I am sure you will agree that my findings have been shared openly and honestly with you, Ambassador Lault, and you have had the opportunity to review them.”

“I have not had nearly long enough,” Lault says. “The shortened timeline of this process has not offered adequate – ”

Jay takes a deep breath. “I would like it on record that I agreed to the shortened period of time,” he says, cutting across Lault. “It is my understanding that the investigation has turned up no hard evidence, and I would like my name cleared in this matter, along with Severne Tremark's.”

“No hard – ” Mirret begins, incredulous.

“None,” Jay says. He pushes Samiel form his mind as much as he is able to, and stares coldly at Mirret. “Your accusations, Governor, are nothing more than a fabrication intended to disrupt diplomatic processes. I would question why you have taken it into your head to make such allegations, particularly given that during my stay in Maa-Ilia, there was an attempt on not only my life, but on Wing Commander Hird's.” He smiles thinly. “Or would you like to deny that as well?”

“That was nothing to do with me,” Mirret protests. “As I said at the time – ”

“Yes,” Jay says above the murmur of interest that has broken out around the room. “As you said at the time, it was your wife's fault. How convenient, then, that she can no longer dispute your version of events.”

“How dare you – ”

“Oh, I dare.” Jay raises an eyebrow. Next to him, Samiel inhales sharply. “If we are going to start throwing around baseless accusations Governor, perhaps we should look closely at your own actions.”

“You cannot make a mockery of these proceedings in such a way,” one of the Eleven says. Chantis Tarr, Jay thinks. “Governor Mirret is here to explain his assertions, not to be tried.”

“And yet his allegations form the entire basis of these proceedings,” Athannus says calmly. “Surely Wing Commander Lane is entitled to question them as part of his own defence?”

“I wasn't aware we had formally started yet,” Tarr says pointedly.

“Have we not?” Jay spreads his hands for emphasis. His heart is pounding. Here, at last, is the opportunity to strike first. He isn't ready; he has no idea if this is going to work, and Lault may very well murder him for this if he gets away with it. But –

But even if he loses his home, his colleagues and his career. It is worth it.

Samiel, he knows, is worth it.

“If we haven't formally started yet,” he says, “then I am sure that the Council will not mind if I point out that, if my own accusations prove true, then in all likelihood Governor Mirret did not act on his own. An attempt was made on my life whilst in Maa-Ilia. The Governor then claimed his wife was responsible. Shortly after, she was murdered in front of me by an unknown assailant. Now, he claims I am responsible for that tragedy.”

The room is silent now; the Council all watching him. Jay squares his shoulders, steeling himself.

“Why would he act alone in this?” he repeats. “The answer is: he wouldn't. Governor Mirret does not know me. He has nothing to gain from my death, unless someone else has promised him a reward for his help. Ask yourselves: who does benefit the most from an ongoing war with humanity? Who is clinging to power by using us as the enemy? Whose position is only going to be strengthened by my utter disgrace and a valid reason for these peace talks to fail?”

He looks at each of the Council in turn, head held high. He pulls the Galtium crystal from his pocket and holds it out like an offering; a condemnation.

Next to him, Samiel stiffens. “Don't do this,” he says, low and urgent. For a moment the bond between them is open; the sharp, bitter taste of Samiel's fear sits on the back of Jay's tongue. He has, Jay realises, lost control of his shielding. “Jason, don't – ”

“I'm sorry,” Jay says quietly, for Samiel alone. He looks at him and means something softer, and deeper, and infinitely more terrifying.

"Don't - "

“What is this?” Athannus asks.

Jay tears his gaze away from Samiel. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Deneira: motionless, expressionless, watching the proceedings as if she has no concerns at all. He meets Athannus' gaze; sees the tiniest twitch of his fingers and smiles.

“Proof,” he says loudly. “That your Queen will use any means necessary to secure her power.” He raises the Galtium crystal and activates it.

“My name is Aletheia,” says the threnodia of Aletheia Medala for the third and final time, “third daughter of the Medala family. Fourth handmaiden to the Queen. May the words I speak be known only to those of my family who wish to seek understanding...”

And then, there is chaos.

Chapter Text

The roar of voices in the room nearly drowns out the sound of Aletheia, still talking.

“Outrageous!”

“How did he –”

“Surely we must consider – ”

Next to Jay, Samiel is still frozen, his expression utterly still as he watches the riot surrounding them. They stand, two men alone in a gathering sea of scandal. Jay is aware that behind him, Hird has one hand on the pistol strapped to her hip.

Athannus' voice soars above the din, cutting through the heart of the hubbub. “Is this a genuine threnodia?” he asks. For a moment his eyes meet Jay's, the shared conspiracy a live thing between them.

“It is.”

“Prove it!” Chantis Tarr says. “What evidence can you offer that this is not some concoction by the human delegation to sow chaos amongst our Council?”

“Because the crystal is mine,” Pyrrhine says loudly. She takes a step forwards, then another, moving away from Deneira who is still sat, motionless, observing the proceedings. “It is the threnodia of my mother and it speaks the truth.”

“Psyke?” Athannus asks.

The overlap of sound, the protests, slowly begin to die away in the room. There is a tense moment of near-silence.

Jay waits, his heart hammering, as footsteps sound behind him. In his hand he holds the crystal tightly, unwilling to risk someone taking it from him. He is so very, very aware of Samiel and the utter horror pouring through their bond. He wants to close his eyes against it; to lean into Samiel's side and whisper reassurance.

He doesn't.

Venndred steps around to the front of the table. He is in formal dress. For a heartbeat his tall, lanky frame is practically unrecognisable. Where usually his face is open, cheerful, now he has a mask on. His posture and the way he moves are different, and for a dreadful moment Jay doesn't trust him. He clutches the Galtium crystal tighter.

Venndred holds out a hand. “It's alright,” he says quietly, and all the warmth that is hidden by the ceremony of his robes, is evident in his voice. “Give it to me.”

“Are you – ” Samiel rasps, and the sound of his voice is startling. “Don't tell me you're – ”

He means, Jay realises, You're involved with this as well.

“No,” he says, and hands the crystal carefully to Venndred. “He isn't.” It is, strictly speaking, the truth. The look Samiel shoots him says he very much doesn't believe him.

Venndred cradles the crystal carefully, turning it over in his long fingers as he examines it. As Jay watches, he takes a deep breath, his shoulders slumping a little. He meets Jay's eyes and holds the crystal back out.

“It's genuine,” he says.

The room explodes again.

“Why would – ”

“Treason, that's what this – ”

“Must be some – ”

And, underneath it all, his tone heartbreaking, Samiel says, “How could you.”

Jay takes the crystal back. He is not sure who Samiel is addressing, but he closes his eyes and focuses on the one thing that matters. “I could, because it's for you.” He bows his head and waits for the axe to fall.

Instead, there is the soft, startling, press of a shoulder against his. Jay doesn't so much hear the hitch in Samiel's breathing as he feels it. Around them is the roar of people. He can hear Lault behind them, hammering a fist on the table, and Hird shouting something that is probably highly insulting and will be a diplomatic nightmare to explain away later.

But here, in the lack of space between them, there is silence.

“Why?” Samiel asks. His fingers brush the back of Jay's hand. His touch burns.

“Because it's the truth,” Jay says. He can feel the honesty of it searing through him, white hot along the bond. This time, Samiel does not flinch from it. “And I want to save you.”

One of Samiel's fingers links carefully with one of Jay's. After nothing, after so long, it is like an explosion. The corner of Jay's soul that is Samiel's is a raw, seething mess of anger and bewilderment. Underneath the rage and frustration is a deep wellspring of hurt – at Jay or Deneira, Jay doesn't know. Painfully, perfectly, Samiel has not closed their bond again; has not shielded himself from Jay.

“Why?” he asks again.

Jay opens his eyes. “Because I – ”

“These accusations are deeply