Vi gives me a grateful, fragile smile as I drape the blanket around her shoulders. I sit down next to her, patting my lap, and she flops over, resting her head on my leg. I ruffle her soft, fluffy white hair as I lean back, staring off into space, and taking a gulp of brandy. There’s not enough drink in the worlds to take this edge off.
“Smoke?” Rose asks, perching on the edge of the table just across from me and holding out a cig.
“Thanks.” I put it to my lip and she snaps open her lighter with an easy motion, holding the flame to the tip of the cigarette. I breathe in, watching the little roll of şen flare orange and red, the sweet smoke warming my lungs. I exhale, resting my wrist on the armrest, my eyes moving cautiously to Rose.
She smiles. It’s still got that playful edge but it’s gentle this time, not predatory. “How are you feeling?” she asks.
“Like I just shot a ghost.”
“Sounds like there’s a story here.”
I laugh shakily. “So you don’t know everything about me, then.”
“Guilty as charged.” Rose grins. “Just enough to put you off balance.”
I nod, closing my eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, there is a story.” I take another drag, Vi reaching up to pluck the cig from between my fingers as I exhale. “You know what he was, right?”
“I have had the exceptionally good fortune never to cross paths with his like before,” Rose replies, picking her own glass of brandy back up. “What was he?”
“You ever hear folks throwing around the word ‘masculist?’ Or ‘zia dzuang?’”
She nods. “Once or twice. Saw some men get kicked out of a tavern once.”
Vi hands the smoke back up to me and I take another drag, my hands still quivering a little. “Well. That’s what he is. Was. They’re… cults, I guess; men who worship the Patriarchs.”
“The Patriarchs?” She raises an eyebrow. “As in the old Zyahua raider lords? Pre-Empire?”
“For a Green you sure know your history.” I nod. “They’re… rejects, outcasts. Psychos as ain’t satisfied with peace and prosperity. They hate women something fierce, hate us for keeping them in check. They hole up in abandoned buildings, or out in the wilderness sometimes. Sometimes they steal ships. Their… their whole thing is they try to live life the way the Patriarchs did—”
“So, murdering, stealing, and raping, then?”
I flinch. “That’s about it, yeah.”
The door opens and the other Green — Lena? — walks in, latching it behind him. Rose looks up at him, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s taken care of, ma’am,” Lena says, saluting lazily and giving me a reassuring smile. His voice is… pretty, light and feminine. “Got it called in; Shevi and the boys are handling it.”
“Good to hear. Wouldn’t want our new friend up on a murder charge, now would we?” Rose turns to me. “Would you feel better with some extra muscle at hand, darling?”
I hesitate for a moment before reluctantly nodding. Rose gestures to Lena. “Come in and have a seat, will you? You and Rhea should get to know each other anyway.”
“Be right there, ma’am; just need to clean some of this blood off before it stains.”
Lena disappears into the washroom and Rose turns back to me. “You were saying?” she asks, leaning forward.
The gentle, calming warmth of the şen is slowly soothing my frayed nerves. Seems like Vi’s doing better with a fresh shot in her system; she doesn’t seem so scared of me now, at any rate. It’s not exactly the first murder the poor thing’s ever witnessed but it’s not like it gets much easier.
She’s in her happy place now though, blissed out in my lap while I pet her like a sleepy cat.
“Cougar’s kind,” I say, “is how men wind up when they’re too broken for the world. There’s always a cell around somewhere ready to take advantange of the delinquents, give them a taste of power and get them hooked. They tell them everything wrong in the world is on account of us women, that the zia dzuang are the rightful masters of the Universe. That they’re destined to throw down the Empire some day, bring back the old ways and subjugate us all.” I laugh bitterly. “Even though all they ever do is steal shit, mug drunkards in alleys, kidnap helpless women, and smoke themselves stupid. Or ‘commune with the gods,’ as they like to call it.”
“You know a lot about these people.”
“Should do. I spent enough years tracking them down, seeing how the Justicariat’s too prissy for it these days. The trick is the opium. They’re always dug deep into the distribution networks. The greys just want to smash heads and the justiciars’ girls just want easy convictions, but you actually talk to the junkies instead of trying to send them to the camps, there’s all sorts of dark little secrets they’ll let slip. Rooted out half a dozen different cells before C—” I stop, shake my head sharply, throw back half the glass in one gulp.
“Before what, Rhea, darling?” Rose asks softly, leaning closer, her hand on my thigh.
This is ridiculous. I’m a fucking spy for the Throne. Her Radiance’s finest. The goddamn definition of badass. I’ve gone toe to toe with masculists, socialists, scheming nobles, crime bosses, and bomb-throwing anarchists and came out smelling like roses damn near every time. I’ve put down coups. I’ve unraveled conspiracies. I’ve shot assassins in my nightclothes more times than I’d like to count. I live and breathe power.
And here I am pouring out my heart to the Enemy, the literal actual big-E Enemy, and tearing up like a pampered schoolgirl.
What’s the world coming to?
“Before Cougar… got in the way,” I finish lamely.
“Rhea,” says Rose gently, clearly not buying it for a second, “can I tell you something about my people?”
“You don’t need to ask permission to give me intel on the enemy.”
She clicks her tongue. “Oh, and we were so close. So close to getting somewhere and your defenses go right back up again.” She leans closer, until her eyes are inches from mine, smirking. “That’s okay. I do so enjoy breaking them down.” She pats me on the cheek; I flinch, pulling away. “Here’s the thing about ‘the enemy,’ Rhea darling. We take care of our own. You’re a spy. You know how the business works. You may feign loyalty to your dead Empress but we both know there’s only one person you’re really, truly loyal to.”
“Myself. Right. And your point is—?”
“Actually, I was going to say her,” Rose replies, glancing at Violet. “Your battered little Khmai girl. You’re so protective; it’s really quite endearing.”
I glare at her. “You keep her out of this. I’ll do what you want; you don’t gotta threaten my girl—”
“Rhea.” Rose fixes her eyes on mine, idly swirling the liquor around in her glass. “I’m not threatening anyone. I sincerely admire your devotion to Violet. But that’s just it— I can’t even talk about her without you assuming it’s a threat. Is that really the world you want to live in?”
“What choice do I got? It’s the world that is.”
“It’s not the only world.” Rose takes another sip, her eyes not moving from mine. “Do you know, we have a word for what you are to Violet? Back on Casshal we’d call you her ‘vartash.’ Her protector, her lover, her guardian angel who swooped down and saved her from the streets.”
“Yeah. My angel.” Violet giggles sleepily, snuggling closer to me. “’S’what you are alright.”
“I know you’re far too jaded and cynical to reel you in with big talk about changing the world,” Rose continues, smiling at Violet, “so I’ll spare you the partisan pep-rally, super-spy. But what I will tell you is this. You know how precarious Violet’s position is. She is utterly dependent on you, for safety and financial support, and you’re in a dangerous line of work. If anything happened to you, she’d be alone in the cold. Am I right?”
I gaze longingly at my empty tumbler. “…yeah,” I mutter. “It’s… I worry about that a lot.”
“Guess what?” Rose leans closer, ducking her head to catch my eye. “I can take that worry away, darling.”
I look up at her sharply. “The fuck do you mean?”
“I mean, we take care of our own. If you join Team Green, we’ll look after you both. Financial support, better healthcare than you’ll find anywhere in the Empire, tech you’ve only heard of in old trader’s tales. Most importantly, if anything happens to you, on the job or otherwise, Violet will be cared for.”
“What do you mean, ‘cared for?’” I reply suspiciously. I squeeze Vi’s shoulder and she makes a quiet, happy noise.
“She’d be moved to a safe home and given a lifelong pension. We’d find her a new vartash, someone she could love and feel safe with, whether among your people or ours. If necessary we’d evacuate her to Society space, where survival would be a non-issue; our civilization provides for all, no matter what their needs might be.” She leans back, crossing her legs idly. “And if nothing happens to you, as I hope will be the case, then we will provide you with security. Two live-in bodyguards as your point of contact, both to protect you and to look after your partner when you’re away.” She smiles. “We’ll even attend to your girl’s… needs.”
I stiffen. “What do you mean, her ‘needs’?”
“Oh, so those aren’t track marks, then?”
Violet sits up in alarm, grabbing the sleeves of her pajama top and yanking them down. I put an arm protectively around her. “What are you offering?”
“Have you ever heard of fentadone?”
“Can’t say as I have.”
“It’s a drug, like opium. We use it to treat melancholy and pain from battlefield wounds, among other things.” Rose plucks a tiny glass vial from her coat pocket and hands it to Violet, who hesitantly takes it. It’s filled with little green squares that look like some kind of candy. “It’s much stronger than opium in every way, or so I’m told.”
“What are these?” Vi murmurs.
“Fent tabs.” Rose smiles encouragingly. “I wasn’t sure what kind of tolerance you have, so I brought a hundred or so.”
Vi looks skeptical. “How do you shoot these?”
“You don’t,” Rose replies firmly. “You put them under your tongue and they dissolve.”
“Yes, dear,” says Rose, giving me an amused glance. “Trust me, I take these for bullet wounds all the time.”
“And they’ll… they’ll get me high?”
“At the very least they’ll keep you well. Depends on how many you take. Have you shot up recently?”
Vi nods timidly.
“Then give it an hour or so, take one or two, and see what happens.”
“Okay. Um.” Vi looks up at her gratefully. “Th-thank you.”
“If they work out, we can keep her supplied,” Rose says to me. “And she can throw away the syringes. No more risk of overdose from an iffy batch, no more collapsed veins, no more money burned on opium, no more worries about her getting caught. Fent’s not even illegal; nobody knows what it is this far rimwards. How does that sound?”
“You’re being real generous and all,” I reply cautiously, “but why in ash should I believe any of this? Why should I believe you’ll keep looking after Vi if I’m too dead to be valuable to you?”
“Because we’re not actually horrible people.” Rose pats my leg. “I’ve shown you you’re completely in our power. That we know all of your weaknesses. How to hurt you, how to coerce you. How helpless you are.” She smiles coyly at the word. “It would be simplicity itself to force everything we want out of you. It would take much less time, money, and effort than we’re offering to put in. There is simply no reason for us to be nice to you other than ‘we care about our own.’ And even if you don’t believe we’ll look after Violet, it’s still a net improvement over your current situation.”
“What’s to stop you from turning on me? From taking her hostage, torturing me, the usual?”
“Absolutely nothing. But nothing is stopping us from doing that right now, either. Saying ‘no’ won’t take away our ability to coerce you. Even if you’re convinced we’re evil and going to start bullying you eventually—”
“You’re already bullying me,” I mutter.
“—there’s no reason not to take advantage of our kindness for as long as it lasts. It might even turn out we’re telling the truth,” she adds with a wink. “Answer me something sincerely, Rhea?”
“If it’s not a state secret.”
“What have you got to lose?”
I open my mouth.
I shut my mouth.
“Supposing… supposing I say yes,” I say slowly, “what happens then? Where do we go from here?”
“Well, right this very moment, I’d get out of your hair and let you get to your sleep. Tch, I’ve kept you both up much too late, haven’t I? Lena and Seli will stay here to keep watch, take care of any further surprise guests who might show up. You’d wake up tomorrow secure in your newfound stability. You’ll be debriefed that afternoon, and my superiors will decide where we go from there. But,” she adds, sliding closer, until I can smell her sweet, warm, smoky breath, “just between you and me?”
“There’s a reason we went to this much trouble for you. We know you, Rhea; we know your reputation and your skills. You,” she continues, touching me softly on the cheek, “are wanted for a leadership position.”
I turn, gazing at Violet, at the little vial she has clutched in her hands. Then back to Rose and her deep, confident, otherworldly green eyes.
Her expression is… hopeful.
I take a deep breath.
She’s right. I — we — really have nothing left to lose.
At least, not that we aren’t about to lose anyway.
“Okay,” I say in a small voice. “I’m in.”
The washroom door slides back and Lena steps back out. He’s changed out of his bloodstained body armor, into a simple grey tunic. Underneath, his frame is… not at all what I expected. His body is slim, scarcely larger than Violet’s, and slightly curvy; the understated muscle on his arms shows only a modest hint of the ferocious strength it must have taken to restrain Cougar. He notices my inquisitive gaze and gives me a grin.
Is he a… do they even have…?
“Lena, come over here!” Rose waves. “Let me introduce you properly.”
Lena walks over to the couch, perches on the armrest next to me. “Rhea,” Rose says, turning back to me, “let me introduce to your new bodyguard, Lenshal Casvari Listeli.”
“You can just call me Lena.” Lena offers me his hand, smiling warmly, and I shake it hesitantly. His grip is even stronger than Rose’s. “I know you Zyahua tend to have trouble with closed syllables.”
“Uh. Th-thanks,” I stammer. “You— you can just call me… well, Rhea, then, I guess.”
“Welcome to the team, Rhea.” He slaps me gently on the shoulder. “Looking forward to working with you. Violet, right?”
Vi nods hesitantly, peeking up at him nervously from behind me.
“It’s good to meet you, Violet!” He gives her a small wave.
“For the record,” I say, ashing the stub of my cigarette, “I speak four languages and I am perfectly capable of pronouncing Lenshal, Lena.”
Lena laughs. “Nice! Which four?”
“Khmaira, Kapagirwe, and Saramyr. And, Zia Ţai, obviously.”
“Shuvarakh je meir?” Lena replies, grinning. “Tura bajash ku je’i bae khnajuson ekhujalo.” Is that right? I wish I knew as many as you do.
Violet sits up sharply. “Khmaira mo ra’e?” she asks excitedly. You speak Khmaira?
“Meta’ule,” he answers. “Meta’uku Khmaira mo bae.” I speak a little bit.
“Well, I should let you girls get to bed.” Rose stands, clapping me on the shoulder. “You’ll be hearing from me very soon, my dear,” she tells me, in perfect Kapagirwe. “Do take care. Oh, but before I go—” She reaches into a pocket and pulls out a slim metal case, handing it to me alongside my pocketknife. “Consider it a token of good will.”
I breathe a quiet sigh of relief as the door snaps shut behind Rose. With some trepidation, I press the latch on the case and it pops open.
Inside is a pistol. Society make. Just like Rose’s.
“I can help you get that set up with your fingerprint,” Lena offers.
I slot the mag into the gun and aim it experimentally, getting a feel for how it handles. It’s light, a lot lighter than any coilgun I’ve ever carried. Small, too. I could hide this under anything looser than my underwear.
“So, what exactly is this routine?” I ask Lena. “She’s the bad cop, you’re the good cop?”
Lena laughs. “Oh no. She’s the bad cop and the good cop. I’m just a soldier.”
“Really? Not a spy?”
“Nope, that’s her job. I just shoot who she tells me to.” He pats me on the shoulder. “Or who you tell me, now.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m— I’m gonna take Vi back to bed. After that— can we talk for a bit? Out on the balcony, maybe?”
“Absolutely.” He makes a shooing gesture with his hand. “You go take care of your girl. I’ll be here.”
Vi’s so strung out she can barely walk straight. “Did you take some of those tablets already?” I ask her, as I lead her down the hall.
She nods sheepishly. “They’re good shit, babe.”
I kiss her on top of the head. “Be careful. I don’t want you OD’ing again, okay?”
I shut our bedroom door behind us, and pull back the sheets. I lay down next to Vi as she snuggles under the covers, and I wrap my arms tight around her, holding her warm little body close to mine. After everything I’ve been through this evening, I don’t ever want to let go of her again.
“I love you,” I finally manage uselessly.
She kisses me on the arm. “I love you too.”
I’m so glad she’s still alive.
“I’m sorry. God, Vi, I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” she mumbles.
“For… for everything. I mean for fuck’s sake, I murdered a guy in front of you tonight.”
“Eh.” She shrugs. “I seen worse. He had it comin’.”
“Don’t mean it was any easier on you. God, I just— I’m sorry I let Rose in.”
“Y’know she’d probably just’a kicked down the door, right?”
I sigh. “Yeah.”
“She ain’t seem to be the kinda girl takes no for an answer.”
“Yeah. Yeah that she ain’t.” I shake my head. “What did you think of her?”
“I dunno.” Vi kisses me on the neck. “Like she’s a smug, handsy piece of shit, obvs. But also, like. She gave me some really great drugs? So I dunno.”
“Good to know your priorities are in the right place.” I ruffle her hair and she giggles. “How high are you right now?”
“I am soooo high right now, like you don’t even know.” She nuzzles my cheek. “Like. Fuck opium, opium is over, this is the shit right here.”
“Are you gonna be okay?” I put my fingers to her wrist, feeling for her heartbeat. It’s a little bit slow, just enough to make me worry. “Are you gonna be safe if I leave you here on your own for a bit?”
“I’m fiiine. You always worry so much.”
“I don’t think you worry enough, babe.” I squeeze her tight, kiss her tenderly on the lips before she can argue. In the moonlight, I see her eyelids flutter.
“Y-you have no idea how g-good that feels ri’ now, oh my God—”
I’m on top of her before my conscious mind even has a moment to articulate the desire. Kissing her frantically, gripping her tightly by her mound. She wraps her legs around my waist, shivering and shuddering at my touch, pulling my shirt over the top of my head. I slip my free hand under her gown, massaging her breast as I press my thumb against her clit, smothering her gasps of pleasure with my lips.
Finally, I feel her climax in my arms, her body spasming soundlessly and her muscles slackening. I give her crotch a final squeeze and collapse, spent, next to her, holding her tight as her fragile little form quivers.
“I l-love you so much,” she whispers.
“I love you too, babe,” I reply weakly.
She snuggles up next to me, digs her teeth into my neck exactly where she knows I’m most vulnerable as she teases my clit with her hand, just enough to keep me agitated. My back arches involuntarily as she nips a particularly sensitive spot.
“I wish I could make you feel everything I feel,” she says, running the sharp edges of her fingernails down my inner arm, making me twitch and vocalize indistinctly. “I wish I could take just that… that pure fuckin’ pleasure and happiness and gratefulness and stick it right into your head so you see just, just how much you— you mean to—”
“Shhh.” I stroke her side. “You’re doing great just like you are.”
She giggles. “I still can’t believe you like pain so much, gosh. They used to pay us extra if we’d let the boys smack us around a bit, nobody ever got off on it. They’d’a loved you.”
“Oh, hon.” I touch her gently on the cheek, kiss her on the lips. She allows me to for a moment before wrapping her fingers tight into my hair and yanking, pulling so hard it hurts. Her teeth find my breast and it’s all I can do to keep my voice down, keep from humiliating myself even further in the eyes — or ears — of my new bodyguard. Pleasure and pain suffuses my body as Vi toys with me, biting and scratching and pulling my hair, leaving bright red streaks down my back where her fingernails tear against my skin. I could overpower her easily, put an end to her assault in the blink of an eye, but the thought doesn’t even occur to me.
She’s too sleepy to keep it up, though. She curls up in my arms, yawning and nodding. I pet her softly, my skin still stinging from her attentions, my psyche still wonderfully raw.
“I’m gonna go talk to Lena, okay?” I murmur at length.
“Good girl. Be back soon.” I carefully extricate myself from the tangle of clothing, bedding, and Violet, pulling the blankets up to cover her as I slip out of bed. I check her pulse and her breathing one last time before I pull on a short nightgown and a cardigan and head out into the hallway.
Lena’s picking up bullets in the kitchen when I find him, slotting them back into my revolver. He waves as I clear my throat, snapping the gun shut and setting it aside. “Hey there,” he says with a smile.
“Hey.” I smile back awkwardly. “Um. You smoke?”
“Now and again.”
I hold up a cig case and my lighter. “Let’s step out on the balcony for a minute.”
It’s a warm summer night outside. The moons are high in the sky, gleaming like diamonds through the faint wisps of cloud here and there, bathing the city in reflected sunlight. I gaze down into the streets below as my lighter flashes to life and şen smoke fills my lungs. “So,” I say.
“So,” Lena replies.
I take a deep breath, puffing on the cigarette for a few moments before I finally turn to face him. “Look,” I say. “I’m just— I’m really just— I don’t—”
“You’re incredibly overwhelmed, you have strangers in your home, and you’re feeling panicky and violated after what Rose did to you and you don’t know what to do with any of those emotions right now?” Lena asks, slipping a cigarette out of the carton.
I stare at him for a few moments, blinking rapidly. “Y-yes,” I reply, after a moment’s thought. “Yes, exactly that.”
“Let’s make us a bit less strange, then.” Lena takes the lighter, holding the flame up to his cig. “Get to know each other a bit.”
I nod, exhaling raggedly. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good. Um.” I hesitate. “T-tell me a little about yourself? —God, no, sorry, that’s lame, I can do better than that.” Ashes, I really am acting like a flustered schoolgirl. I force myself to focus, think about Lena and the conversations we’ve had so far. Treat this like any other job. You’re just collecting intel on a mark. “Y-you said you’re a-a soldier, right?”
“Where all have you served? If you can tell me, I mean—”
He laughs. “It’s no secret. I fought on Topaz for a few years, real early on in the war. I’m talking back in nine-oh-nine— sorry, that’s, uh, early four-thirties in your years.”
“Oh yeah. Well, everything was the front line back in those days— it’s always the hardest right after the landings, when absolutely everyone in every direction is just trying to kill your ass.” He takes a drag on the cig, blows the smoke out over the sleeping city. Or, well, the city that’s pretending to sleep. “You?”
I’m making smalltalk with a man who invaded one of our worlds, a tiny voice in the back of my mind notes hysterically. This is my life now.
“Any military background, I mean?”
“N-no, not really. You don’t already know?”
“Phew, okay. So, not much chance I’ve shot anyone you care about.” He laughs ruefully. “And no. I’m just the muscle, they don’t read us in on the dossiers.”
…somehow that makes me feel a little bit better.
“Oh. Well, then, no— I got recruited straight into the Service when I was a kid. This was out on Sapphire, I’m not originally from Nightshade.”
“How’d you wind up here?”
“Been bouncing around the galaxy for a while now. Just, wherever they need me, I guess. Moved me to Nightshade… probably around the time Topaz fell, actually. I still remember the day I woke up and read that in the papers, the first world we’d ever lost.” I shiver. “God, this war’s been going on just about my whole life; how fucked is that?”
“If it’s any comfort, word is it’s wrapping up soon,” Lena replies.
“Well, they don’t tell us much, but after what happened to Carnelian—”
“Okay, what the fuck did happen to Carnelian?” I blurt out, unable to keep the emotion from my voice. “Everyone has been— saying the craziest shit and none of it makes sense; I haven’t been able to get telegrams through for weeks—”
Lena winces. “I— did you know anyone on Carnelian? Anyone who meant anything to you?”
“Meant anything? There was my… my handler, I guess, but— well, we’re… frenemies at best.” I can feel my heart speeding up. “Wh-why? Why do you ask that?”
He exhales. “I suppose that’s a small mercy. Rhea—” He puts a hand on my shoulder. “Carnelian’s gone. We don’t know… what happened, exactly, or if we do the Big Three aren’t telling, but… the Shadows did something. The entire planet surface is still molten. Even the mountain ranges are gone.”
“Th-that—” I stare at him, stuttering incoherently, shaking my head wildly. “No, no, no. That’s nuts. That’s—impossible, not even atomics can do that—”
“I’m sorry to say I’ve seen the footage myself. The moons are still there, some of the satellites are still there, but the planet’s just… there’s just nothing left.”
“That’s…” My heart is pounding in my ears. This is crazy. This is crazy. “There are… there’s like twenty billion people on Carnelian—”
He nods. “The Empire… the Empire’s pretty much gone, Rhea. The Empress is dead. Her heirs are dead. The heads of all the Great Houses are dead. The Dame-Marshall is dead. Everyone’s settling old scores. The IG is falling into chaos, the nobles… it’s become a goddamn civil war out there. Everyone is fighting everyone. The collapse is spreading, like a shockwave. It’ll take some time to hit, but when it does…”
My knees feel weak. My cigarette slips from between my fingers and plunges from the balcony, the tiny flicker of flame swallowed up in an instant by the dark streets below. I gasp for air. This can’t be true, this can’t be true, this can’t—
“Rhea?” Dimly I feel Lena’s arms around me. “Rhea, you’re hyperventilating. Rhea, look at me…”
The world feels like it’s going black. The darkness closing in on me and swallowing up the whole universe. The stars are going out.
“You need to take deep breaths— hey! Rhea!”
Twenty billion people can’t just be gone like that.
The Empire can’t just be gone like that.
The world can’t be over just like that.