925/214 M0153 TCT // 448ᵉ
There aren’t many things in the universe worse to wake up to than a fireteam of Imperial Guard dragging you to your feet. By the time the girl in the tattered servant’s nightgown realizes the horrific choice she has to make — to fight to the death or face nightmarish torture for the mere hope of rescue — it’s already been made for her.
Her arms are forced behind her back, restraints ratcheting shut around them. The Guardswomen say nothing as they drag her out into the hallway. An icy pang of dread spears her heart as she realizes their sidearms have been holstered all along.
They were ordered to take me alive.
Doors open and shut as they lead her through the flagship’s labyrinthine corridors, into a deck she’s never seen before. Lavish ornamentation encrusts every inch of the walls, carvings of mythic scenes picked out in gold and silver, its lines glowing faintly from within and casting the only light in the dark hall. She recognizes a few. The crowning of the First Empress. The Battle of Blossom Creek. Even the Emasculation of Tang Luo — her Unconquered Supremacy appears to have a morbid sense of humor.
A great portal creaks open before them and she’s shoved forward into a room uncommonly bright for Rosie sensibilities. Her eyes take a moment to adjust to the light, and slowly, a room full of figures comes into focus.
Scattered about the vast chamber are towering women, bodies delicate to the point of emaciation and atrophy, clad in flowing robes, flowers and petals adorning their hair and sewn into their finery. Their bare waists and legs are covered in the decorative scarification and bruising of the highest Imperial peers. At their center is a much bulkier woman, taller than any of the peers, muscles taut and toned, bosom small and flat, in the unmistakable cloak — and with the unmistakable physique — of an officer of the Imperial Guard.
They all turn to face her as she enters. The chamber falls silent.
The girl looks from face to face, a note of confusion breaking through the swelling dread in her heart. The peers look terrified. There are even tears trickling down the cheeks of some. A few flinch away from her gaze.
And the Dame-General herself has the look of a woman broken down and beaten.
The girl clears her throat. She doesn’t bother to hide her real accent. “I suppose you know who I am, then.”
The General nods. She hesitates. “Might I… be permitted the courtesy of your true name?”
Her register takes the girl by shock. It is the highest, most florid of Zia Ţai’s many forms. Positively drenched in respect and humility.
What in all Haven is going on?
She hesitates. Then takes a leap of faith.
“I am Citran Mirshoni Shirlani of the Society of Worlds,” she says quietly.
The General inclines her head. “Honored… Kí-tşan.” Her tongue trips over the foreign syllables. “I am Dame-General Sparrowhawk Moonwatcher of the Imperial Guard. And many titles beside, but they scarcely matter now.” She gestures to the soldiers holding Citran; they remove her restraints and step back to a respectful distance. “But I suppose you know that.” She gazes at Citran. “I suppose you know a great deal.”
Citran clasps her hands behind her back. “How long have you known what I am?”
“For some few moons now. You disguised yourself well, honored Kí-tşan.”
The words hit Citran with the force of a blow. Months. They’ve known about me for months. All this time I thought… I was safe… A chill runs down her spine. How much bad intel have I sent the People?
How many lives have been wasted for my stupidity?
Citran can’t meet the General’s gaze anymore. She closes her eyes, her face a picture of humiliation. “Why…” She clears her throat, her voice shaking. “Why am I not suffering in your dungeons, Moonwatcher?” She almost wishes they’d torture her now. I deserve it. I deserve to suffer. I deserve to die in agony.
“I foresaw a… certain wisdom, in permitting one of the enemy to walk among us,” the General replies quietly. “And it seems… I was right to. Though scarcely for the reasons I imagined.”
“What would you have done with me?”
The General looks to the nobles around her, then back to Citran. And then she bows.
“I would like… to negotiate our surrender.”
For a moment, the only sound in the room is the distant thrum of the engines and the rattle of ventilation fans. Citran blinks several times.
“I speak for… what is left of the Empire of a Thousand Suns. For what fragments I have managed to unify under my control. And I… we wish to sue for peace. For all of our people.”
Citran stares at her. “What has happened?”
“The Empress… is dead.” Moonwatcher clasps her hands upon the pommel of her sword, a single tear trickling from her eyes.
“Along with twenty billion honored souls.”
“Our common foe the Shadows struck with a force we knew not they possessed.” Moonwatcher’s voice is shaking now, her sincerity frighteningly evident. “Our holiest of worlds, great Carnelian, is no more. All her hills and valleys are flattened, her forests burned to ash, her mighty oceans boiled away. Here in this room is all that remains of the Great Houses, scattered heiresses I have scoured the galaxy to collect in one place, who wield what reins of power remain in the name of this council. And we are of a single mind.”
Citran can’t quite process what she’s hearing. The Echoes destroyed a world? Not even atomics could do that, not with all the fissile matter ever mined. She wants to believe this is some colossal scheme, a wild attempt to extract some kind of useful intel from her… but who would ever believe such a fantastical story?
And the General…
I didn’t know Imperial Guard even could cry.
“I’m.” Citran clears her throat, gazing about the room, her face now as fearful as the nobles’. The implications of all this are worming their way through her head and it’s all she can do not to collapse from outright panic. “You… you want me to negotiate a ceasefire?”
“A surrender,” the General corrects her. “The Empress is dead, and so is her awful thirst for conquest. Our people have suffered enough.” She hesitates. “As, no doubt, have yours. We relinquish all claims to your worlds, Kí-tşan. We will offer whatever reparations we must for our aggression. Nothing, no territory, no power, no glory is worth the price we have now paid. The price we continue to pay. We wish only to tend the wounds of our battered worlds in peace.”
Citran stares at her.
Am I dreaming?
“I…” She clears her throat again, trying to force herself to focus on the immediate, on the mundane logistics of the awesome task before her. “W-will you permit me use of your communication buoys?”
“Then I can reach out to my people. Try to arrange a summit. I… cannot guarantee what will happen. But we have no more appetite for war than you seem to, General.”
The gathered peers exhale collectively. The General, to Citran’s utter shock, takes a knee before her, and one by one, the nobles follow suit.
“A thousand boons to you and your clan, honored Kí-tşan of House Mí-šo-ni.” Sparrowhawk lowers her head. “It… it shall be done.”