“Don’t stay out too late,” her father had said the night before.
Eve hadn’t technically disobeyed. “Late” was a relative state, and certainly she’d gone to bed earlier than some of the other Lazari. According to the computer’s timestamp, the poker game had continued into the very early hours.
She had no reason to complain. Forever smiled to herself, thinking about Joacquim and the time they’d spent together. Her chapped lips and the slight bruise on her neck had already healed, but their memory remained.
Today was the first official day of the Conclave. In a few hours her father and the other Families would sequester themselves to discuss the matter at hand: the return of Jonah Carlyle to the Family he had betrayed. He’d fled to Hock seeking asylum, but judging by the finger old man Hock sent as proof of life, Jonah hadn’t found safe haven.
Forever felt her stomach twist whenever she thought about it. He was her brother, but a traitor...yet still Family. She was profoundly glad no Lazari were allowed at the negotiations—she wouldn’t have been able to maintain her composure. Or resist the urge to twist Hock’s neck, which was of course the primary reason no Lazari were permitted. The potential for immediate bloodshed diminished at least somewhat without the Family guardians present.
Meanwhile, she had work to do. She showered and dressed in casual workout gear, took the pills her sister Beth had laid out on her dresser, and ate a protein-rich breakfast while she reviewed the latest intel on the other Families and their Lazari.
Each Family maintained a cadre of official representatives, diplomats extensively trained in the politics of gentle requests and polite refusals. The most delicate or dangerous situations demanded the special attention of a Lazarus. And when it came to politics behind the scenes, Lazari had their own codes.
This morning, while the Family representatives sat in Conclave, she would be making the rounds and speaking to the other Lazari. This was one of the ways Families without official alliances communicated: through their Lazari, who stood as ambassadors on equal footing. And this gathering provided a unique opportunity to meet with them and, yes, size each of them up against the possibility of future conflict.
As Sir Thomas had said last night, they all might be killing each other before this was over.
The interactions between the Families were too complex to define most of their relationships strictly as “ally” or “enemy.” But those labels served as convenient markers for the current state of their associations.
Forever considered the current coalitions and the participants at this Conclave. Martins, Vassalovka, Inamura, and Soleri (of course) hadn’t sent representatives. She couldn’t deny the spark of satisfaction in knowing that none of them were Carlyle allies, and that those allied with Hock hadn’t bothered to show their support for his claims. Their absence made her Family look all the stronger. Hock had no Lazarus, and she wouldn’t speak with his delegate anyway. Some enmities ran too deep.
Eve wasn’t a sophisticated mediator like her sister Johanna, but she could approach the others and speak to them in their shared language, the idiom of guardians and enforcers. The language of a Lazarus.
She found Sir Thomas Huston running laps along the edges of the Triton One facility, a repurposed old-world oil rig. The North Sea was stormy today, the weather gray and threatening rain.
Family Armitage was hosting the Conclave, considered a “neutral” party for its lack of official alliances. But Armitage and Carlyle maintained cordial ties...and even more important, Armitage was in conflict with Hock’s allies. The enemy of her enemy wasn’t necessarily her friend, but certainly counted as a colleague worth cultivating.
Sir Thomas flashed a grin as she fell into step beside him. The Armitage Lazarus was an affable man who’d modeled his public demeanor (Forever had heard) after certain fictional British characters. He’d kissed her hand at last night’s gala and kept the peace at the poker game, no easy task given the volatile personalities in the room. This morning, having set aside his formal wear and elegant demeanor, he looked like any other Family servant. A favored Serf, perhaps, like Arthur Cohn was to her father. But Forever saw the balance and precision of his steps and the coiled strength in his arms and knew him for what he was.
“Carlyle again extends thanks to your Family for your hospitality,” she told him as they ran, her breathing even.
“Our pleasure,” he returned with the same ease. “If there’s anything that might make your stay more pleasant, do let me know.”
“Can you do something about the weather?” she quipped. They both laughed, though it was less a joke than it first seemed; the weather control satellites surrounding the planet could be tasked to alter the atmosphere, if need demanded. But tampering with the climate wasn’t called for on account of a little chill. Neither she nor Sir Thomas felt it, anyway.
“I might wish,” he said after a pause, “Pater Hock had chosen a different tack for his demonstration. Such a disagreeable scene.”
She flashed him an honestly surprised eyebrow. Hock had used the gala to his advantage, asking her to dance and thereby displaying his surprising vigor—offering visible proof that he now held the keys to the longevity formula considered the exclusive domain of Family Carlyle. A formula, Eve knew, that had been harvested from her traitorous brother Jonah. She’d been dreadfully upset at the time, but her father’s reassurances—and Joacquim’s attention—had put the incident in proper perspective. Big fucking deal, as Bethany put it. If Hock thought her distress would make her any less vigilant, he was sorely mistaken.
“Do you believe him?” she asked, the only question that mattered.
Sir Thomas raised his own eyebrow, perhaps at her blunt delivery. “I believe Hock would do or say anything to convince the rest of us of his claim.”
It was more of an answer than she’d expected: the intimation that Hock wasn’t to be trusted went a long way. Sir Thomas’s Family would not be swayed by Hock’s promises, and Carlyle had no reason to fear Armitage betrayal. Ironic, perhaps, that an undeclared ally might prove more dependable than their recognized friends. But Forever was comforted by the reassurance nonetheless.
Curiosity compelled her to look next for the most unusual individual among all the unique Lazari. It was generally accepted that a Lazarus, to best function as the hand of his or her Family, must be at the very least a paragon of peak physical health, regardless of any enhancements. The Lazarus of Family Li was the exception that belied the rule.
She found Jiaolong (or perhaps he allowed himself to be found) in the small library. Of course. He wouldn’t have been in the gym or the café. Physical training was out of the question and no one had ever seen him eat or drink.
His automated chair turned slightly as she came in. “You wish to know,” he said without preamble through his vocal output device, “what Li intends to do in regard to the potentially shifting alliances on display at this Conclave.”
It wasn’t magic. Jiaolong (it was rumored) had been augmented with so many sensory devices he could analyze a person down to what they’d eaten for dinner two days ago. He’d proved his ability with his effortless humiliation of Captain Mueller at the poker game. His other capabilities were unknown, but Forever had no intention of testing those boundaries.
“It is my understanding,” Forever said evenly, “that Family Li prefers to keep cards close to the vest. Having seen your expertise on display, I would not expect you to reveal your Family’s hand prematurely.”
Jiaolong favored her with his lopsided smile. “Well spoken, Forever Carlyle.”
She bowed slightly. “I would, of course, be at your service to deliver any message, however trivial, to my father.”
He watched her for a moment, his expression impenetrable. “Not at this time. But your offer will be remembered, as well as its courteous delivery.”
That was as much as she could possibly hope for from a Family with faint association to her own. Part of her wanted to ask about the lady Jiaolong had been referring to last night, the one Mueller had taken all those special pharmaceutical enhancements for. But that was idle gossip and besides, after seeing Claudia Rausling dance with her Lazarus under her husband’s approving eye, Forever had her own suspicions. She’d heard that some Lazari served their Family in very private ways.
She suppressed a shudder and felt Jiaolong’s eyes on her, assessing. It was time to leave before he dissected her most private thoughts. “Enjoy the library, Li Jiaolong.”
He nodded in dismissal. “Go well, Commander Carlyle.”
(Days later, Forever remembered that he used her rank and wondered in retrospect if it had been meant as a warning. She would have asked her father, if Malcolm Carlyle had been capable of answering anything by that point.)
After the unsettling encounter with Jiaolong, it seemed natural to seek the familiar comfort of the gym. It seemed just as natural to find the Carragher Lazarus there.
Forever had watched the feeds from Wening Pertiwi’s grueling “audition,” a multi-week competition between aspiring candidates for the newly open position of Carragher Lazarus. Eve heard the rumors about the competition being fixed, but didn’t believe a word of them. Not after screening Wening’s performance during the games, and especially not after seeing her in person. The Jakartan woman’s aura of competence utterly dismissed any such speculation.
“The legendary Forever Carlyle,” Wening said with a smirk on her lips as Eve entered the gym. “We haven’t been formally introduced.”
Eve smiled back, recognizing a friendly challenge. “Your reputation requires no introduction.”
Wening laughed. “Watched me, did you.”
“I was riveted by your performance,” Eve told her, sincerely meaning it. Especially since Wening hadn’t been subject to any known Lazarus enhancement at the time of the competition.
“‘Performance.’ Ha. I was fighting for my life. Literally, at times.” Wening shook her head, as if dismissing an unpleasant memory. She went over to the weight bench and made a few adjustments. “Spot me.”
Forever did, a touch surprised. But then, Carrigher was a longstanding ally and there was no reason for mistrust between them. “Lift off?”
“Nah.” Wening lifted the bar smoothly, hefting the considerable weight without difficulty. Forever could have done the same. Judging by yesterday’s sparring bout Sonja Bittner was stronger than either of them, but raw strength wasn’t everything.
From the feeds Forever knew that Wening was a skilled traceuse and expert at combat both unarmed and with improvised weapons. Eve’s admiration was genuine; she’d been trained since birth as a Lazarus and had every bioengineered advantage her Family could devise. Wening clawed her way to the top through sheer willpower.
“I met your predecessor,” Forever said. “Eliot Stanner was a fine Lazarus.”
“Until he got himself killed,” Wening said dismissively. “Damned ‘Free.’ Can’t figure what they’re so upset about! Our Waste don’t starve, there’re no forced labor camps, we don’t drug ’em into zombies. Fah!”
Well, she’d opened the door. “Your parents are Serfs, if I recall correctly?”
Wening spared her a glance under the bar. “Ya?”
“And I was raised in the Family. Maybe we can’t understand.”
That was enough for Wening to lose her grip on the bar. Forever had been waiting for that and reracked it. “You’re not sympathizing—”
“With terrorists? No. I’m just saying, neither you nor I have ever wondered where our next meal was coming from.”
Wening sat up and twisted around to stare at her. “Damned odd words from a Lazarus.”
Forever thought about the Waste she’d killed in her Family’s residence, the ones who’d broken in looking for food. She remembered Samuel Rosales, who’d volunteered for execution so his family could live. “Everyone’s got something to fight for.”
Wening stared at her for another moment, then broke into a broad grin. “Is this my ‘welcome to the club’ speech? Words of wisdom from my elder?”
Forever wasn’t actually older than Wening, but age meant little where Lazari were concerned. “If you like.” She nodded toward the bar. “And you can do better than that.”
“Damn right.” Wening lay down again and held out her hands. “Add on and drop.”
Eve spent the next hour working with Wening, trading places and gradually increasing the weights until both of them were feeling it. By then several of the other Lazari had come in for their workouts: Sir Thomas, Zeferino, and Alimah.
“Getting a bit crowded in here,” Eve told Wening. “I’ll come back later.”
Wening winked at her. “Happy to spar with you, Forever Carlyle, if you get tired of dancing with that Morray fellow.”
Eve laughed and Wening acknowledged her parting with a casual wave. “Hati hati.”
So prompted, she went looking for Joacquim and found Bir instead.
Family Minetta was the touchiest of Carlyle’s informal allies, because Minetta was engaged in significant conflict with Carragher over certain territories. Carragher was, frankly, a far more important ally and Minetta knew Carlyle would back the Aussies in any dispute. So courting Minetta toward Carlyle interests involved a delicate back-and-forth that carefully avoided any mention of the Carragher situation.
But Bir Chikku Mehta seemed far more interested in continuing his enjoyment of Armitage’s liquor than talking shop. Forever understood, to a point; unless something drastic happened, this was currently the safest place in the world for the Lazari and the Family representatives. But it was her job to be prepared for the most drastic possibilities.
(And like as not, Bir’s enhancements could clear the alcohol from his system in an instant, same as hers would when confronted with a poisonous element. But Eve preferred not to test the theory.)
She ran into Xolani when she looked in on the gallery. She hadn’t taken him for an art lover, but Sir Edward’s collection was truly impressive.
Yesterday’s sparring session had given Forever a fair assessment of Xolani’s combat ability. She considered it for the best that Family Nkosi was a steady Carlyle ally; she liked Xolani.
“Ah, Forever, as lovely as always,” Xolani greeted her, though that surely had to be exaggeration after the morning’s exertions.
“Ah, Xolani, as charming as ever.”
He grinned at her. “You seem more well rested than I might have imagined.”
She gave him her best deadpan stare. “And what have you been imagining?”
“Nothing illicit, I assure you. But the thought is intriguing, two Lazari....”
She supposed she and Joacquim had become the subjects of considerable speculation. She didn’t need to indulge his curiosity, especially when there was business at hand. “My father speaks,” she intoned, and Xolani immediately came to attention.
If Carlyle wasn’t stretched thin at the moment, her Family might be willing to help Nkosi with the remnants of Soleri causing trouble in East Africa...but that ongoing conflict also kept Meyers-Qasimi and Nkosi and Martins from warring over newly uncontrolled territory. Forever thought that someday a Conclave might be called to officially declare Soleri defunct and carve up its territory among interested parties. That allocation might lead to new alliances or enmities, so for the moment each Family with interest in the area was playing a long game and keeping its options open.
“Good fences and broad spaces make good neighbors,” Forever said. “My father sends his regards to Family Nkosi, and counsels patience.”
“Nkosi hears, and thanks Carlyle for its advice,” Xolani returned formally. Than he grimaced. “But we won’t wait forever. No pun intended.”
“Forever doesn’t wait,” she deadpanned back. And...it was none of her business, but she remembered Xolani teasing Sonja during their sparring session, and Sonja’s blush. “Xolani, one more thing. Leave Sonja out of your games, or you will shortly thereafter lose the ability to play altogether.”
Xolani grinned, teeth flashing white. “Message received, Commander. Leave the naïve Lazarus alone.” He shifted closer. “I meant what I said, about you having grown up fine.”
She flicked her fingers to wave him away. “Go flirt with Wening.”
“I don’t think she plays for my team,” Xolani said mournfully.
She smiled at him, giving nothing away. “Perhaps you need to expand your horizons.”
Alimah Meyers-Qasimi came around a corner and nearly collided with Eve as she left the gallery. “Oh! Commander Carlyle—I mean Forever, you did say I could call you that—I was looking for you!”
“Yes, Alimah?” Forever asked, privately amused.
“I wanted to ask about the Vassalovka sim, I was hoping to get some advice on the final stages.”
“In the final stages,” Forever said gently, “you die. That’s the way the sim is designed.”
Alimah gestured impatiently. “Yes, of course, but that is not the point. The objective is to clear the enemy forces so one’s soldiers can successfully reach the target. Is it not?”
Forever allowed that it was. Alimah nodded. “So, then, you confront the scenario without the consideration of one’s own survival as a factor.”
“It sounds,” Forever said, “like you don’t need any advice at all.”
Alimah blinked at her. “I suppose...yes, that is correct.” She blushed but held her ground. “I have learned a great deal from your simulations. If you have any others you feel at liberty to share, I would be grateful.”
It was a small favor to grant. Carlyle and Meyers-Qasimi enjoyed cordial relations, mostly because they had little reason to be in conflict. Again, Forever was glad for that fact. Alimah seemed so tiny and delicate, she looked like Forever could break her in half. Eve knew better than to count on appearances where a Lazarus was concerned. The hero worship was somewhat embarrassing, especially from another Lazarus, but Forever wasn’t above trading on Alimah’s admiration to Carlyle’s benefit. “I’ll have them sent over. And if your Family would be willing to share its latest recognition algorithms...we’re due for an upgrade.”
Alimah bowed. “I will ask my parents. If it is permitted, it will be done.”
Having spoken to her Family’s allies and neutral parties—and with Joacquim nowhere to be found—that left only the rivals.
Zeferino Cardoso seemed pleasant enough, and Eve had nothing against him personally. But Family D’Souza’s firm alliance with Hock spoke for itself. Talking with Zeferino privately would raise Morray eyebrows, and Forever didn’t want anything to disrupt the still-fragile alliance between her Family and Joacquim’s.
And if Carlyle did choose to aid Morray against D’Souza’s incursions, she might even be sent to fight along their border. Forever would prefer not to kill someone she’d shared a friendly moment with...not that either of them would hesitate, if it came to a war. But speaking with Zeferino would gain her Family nothing.
As for the Rausling Lazarus, Forever had nothing to say to him. Captain Mueller’s unpleasantness made the decision easy. His Family was so deeply entwined with Hock that they would have little of value to say to each other in any case.
Bittner, on the other hand...if Eve was interpreting her father’s brief comment correctly, he was courting Bittner to abandon Hock. In that case, being on friendly terms with the Bittner Lazarus could only aid that effort. And Eve liked Sonja, despite (or perhaps because of) the woman’s astonishing naiveté.
Eve was just finishing a late lunch when Sonja came in to the café, as if summoned by her previous thoughts. “There you are!”
She was oddly grateful for the distraction. “Hello, Sonja.”
“I looked for you in the gym but you were not there.” Sonja looked momentarily uncertain. “May I... Am I interrupting? You wished to be alone?”
Forever smiled at her. “Not at all. Please, sit.”
“I just saw Xolani. He says they are still in conference. Five hours now, no one has come in or out of the room.”
Eve raised her hand to call the waiter. “It’s only the first day. I’m sure it took five hours just to get through everyone’s opening statements...might we get a fresh pot of tea, and a cup for my friend, please?” she asked the waiter. She turned back to Sonja. “How was the rest of your evening?”
“Xolani said that Jiaolong took us all up by the ankles and shook until even the loose change fell from our pockets. But I won a hand!” She paused, glancing at Forever curiously. “I did not see you leave. You and Joacquim. May I ask...you and he are...?”
Eve glanced down, unaccountably self-conscious. “I think so? I hope so?”
Sonja nodded, seeming delighted. “I very much hope your brother will be returned safely, then. That there will be no need for escalation, no need for a trial.”
All of Eve’s nerves went on high alert. “What do you mean?”
Sonja shook her head. “It is nothing. I am speaking rumors, forgive me.”
It was never “nothing” where her Family was concerned. “What rumors? What have you heard?”
Sonja looked nervous. “My sister and Tiago D’Souza shared breakfast this morning. I heard them saying, if Doctor Hock has what your Family has, Morray will return to...to our alliance.” She hastened to say, “It is only what I heard, my sister and Remigo D’Souza’s youngest, they are not privy to—”
Alert noises sounded on two devices. Sonja glanced at hers, speaking aloud what Eve had already seen. “They’re adjourned.”
The timing was excellent. Eve needed to see her father right away. She was suddenly, distressingly thankful she hadn’t caught up with Joacquim today. If what Sonja said was true...conflict on the southern border would inevitably follow. Joacquim had been certain Morray would never go back to Hock, but he would follow his Family’s orders, just as she would.
Each Lazarus was bound to obey the least commandment of their Family. No matter how conflicted any of them might feel about it, none of them would have it any other way. Family was everything.