a short story by Lexi Summer Hale
919/125 S1100 TCT // 442ᵉ
“This is all we brought in?”
Jasmine’s clipboard clattered on the desk. Three Crow “Ox” Wildheart jumped slightly.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. People have gotten stingy since the war got close.”
Jasmine massaged her forehead and sat down. “Shit. How are we supposed to feed these people now? We’re running on fumes, Ox. We’ve got enough left in the bank for maybe half a turn. Then—”
She was interrupted by a sharp rap on the door. “Come in,” she called, irritation tinging her faint Khmai accent.
The door opened, and Lark Summerwind stepped into Jasmine’s small office. “Hey.”
“Lark!” Jasmine rushed up to her and gave her a welcoming kiss. “You’re the first good news I’ve had all week. When did you get back in?”
“Caught the morning train.” Lark smiled awkwardly. “It’s good to see you too, Jaz.”
“How was the trip? Is your aunt doing alright?”
“I…” Lark pursed her lips. “Jaz, we need to talk.” She glanced at Ox. “Alone.”
“Ah.” Jasmine glanced at her desk. “Can it wait? We’re in the middle of trying to figure out how to feed a thousand hungry people—”
Lark touched Jasmine’s cheek gently, looked her in the eyes. “It really, really can’t.”
“Um.” Jasmine hesitated, and then looked at Ox. “Can we have the room for a moment?”
“Of course.” Ox bowed quickly and left. Lark locked the door behind him.
“Honey…?” Jasmine stepped closer. “What’s going on?”
“I wasn’t visiting my aunt,” said Lark quietly. “To be honest, I don’t even have an aunt.”
Jasmine blinked. “Wh— is—” Her heart was racing. “Oh. Oh, Lark— sweetheart— you wanted to be away from— you’re… you’re going to break up with me, aren’t you?”
“What?” Lark stared for a moment and shook her head violently. “No! No, not at all. I—” She stopped. “Can we sit down?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Jasmine breathed a shuddering sigh of relief, and sat back in her rickety office chair. Lark perched on the corner of her desk, and tousled her hair fondly.
“All right.” She took a deep breath. “Jaz. You know how you always talk about everything you could do for this city if you just had the resources? If it weren’t for the nobles always getting in your way? The limited funds?”
Jasmine nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“What if I told you there was a way?”
“A way?” Jasmine frowned. “A way to what?”
“A way to take the nobles out of the picture. And money. And status. A way you could start calling the shots for Havenrun.”
Jasmine laughed awkwardly. “It, uh. Sounds like you’re talking about taking over the city of something.”
Lark did not laugh. She took Jasmine’s hands in hers. “Jaz. My name isn’t Lark Summerwind. My real name is Sashuan Solnadi.”
Jasmine went pale. News of the war, of their enigmatic enemy was never clear or easy to come by. For every truth there were a thousand lies and tall tales. But she knew the names she’d heard on the radio. She knew what they sounded like. “That… that’s a…”
Lark — Sashuan — leaned back, and rubbed at her eyes. Two contact lenses came away, and she looked back at Jasmine. Her eyes were no longer the familiar, dull Imperial red, but a bright, piercing green.
“I’m not Zyahua. I’m not an Imperial citizen. I am a citizen of the Society of Worlds, and—” She took a deep breath. “—an operative of the Infiltration Subdirectorate on assignment behind enemy lines.”
Jasmine stumbled to her feet and backed away. “What— what are you saying!? You— you’re a spy!? You—” She was hyperventilating now. “Oh my God. You used me. None of this was even real, was it? You—”
Sashuan slid off the desk and grabbed Jasmine by the shoulders. “All of it was real,” she said, firmly. “Every single moment we had, Jaz. I love you, I truly do. I never used you. Ever.”
Jasmine shook her head violently. “No. No, how can I believe you? You’ve been lying to me all along.”
“I’ve only ever told you three lies, Jaz,” said Sashuan. “That I was born in Roselake, that I had an aunt in North Pineglade, and that my name was Lark. Everything else was true. I left things out, but everything else I told you? It was true.”
“Bullshit!” Jasmine pulled away from Sashuan. “You told me you were here to feed the homeless. You told me you wanted to be part of something! You—”
“That is exactly why I’m here.” Sashuan sat down again, and looked at Jasmine with pleading eyes. “My mission on Topaz was to make contacts. That was all. Not to sabotage your industries, not to hurt people. I was never told to… to seduce anyone, least of all you.”
“Contacts?” Jasmine spat. “For what?”
“For my government.” Sashuan looked down. “I went to Pineglade yesterday to meet with my agency contact. My handler. Jaz, the war is coming here.”
“H-here? The war is coming here!?”
“Topaz is a heavy industrial world. It’s an important part of Imperial supply lines. We’ve been preparing to occupy it for years. And they’ve finally decided to bring down the hammer.”
“Oh my God.” Jasmine slid down against the wall, hands over her mouth. “I… I need to warn them! The governor, the Army, they need to—”
Sashuan hopped off the table and knelt down by Jasmine, putting a hand on her shoulder. Jasmine flinched.
“They wouldn’t believe you, Jaz.”
“I have to try!”
“Why? Why do you have to try?” Sashuan squeezed her shoulder. “Jaz, you have no love for the Empress! You’ve been fighting against the Empire for years. Why would you want to protect them now?”
“I’m— I haven’t been fighting! I’m not a goddamned revolutionary!” Jasmine cried out. “I run homeless shelters! I do charity! I—”
“You protect those the Empire casts off,” said Sashuan gently. “You take the people it tries to destroy, that it labels unworthy, and you give them comfort and safety and maybe even hope. Of course you’re a fighter. That’s the most important kind of fighting there is.”
“The Imperial system exploits the many for the benefit of the few. That is its single defining trait. There is nothing, nothing more revolutionary than spiting that machinery, the way you’ve been doing for years. You’re a goddamned hero, Jaz. I see it in you every day. That’s why I’m coming to you now.”
Jasmine hugged her legs to her chest and glanced fearfully up at Sashuan. She couldn’t meet her gaze.
“What do you want from me?” she asked, her voice shaking.
“I was sent here to make contacts. To find good people we can count on when the war comes here to Havenrun. Jaz, we’re going to take this world. The Empire can’t stop us, it couldn’t even if it was forewarned. And when we do, everything is going to change.”
“What are you saying?”
Sashuan sat next to her, putting an arm around her shoulders, and gently wiping Jasmine’s tears away with her hand. “I’m saying that there is a place for you in the occupational government, if you’ll accept it. You’ll be elevated to a position of real power. You’ll have resources. Personnel. All those changes you’ve been calling for for years? You can make them happen.”
Jasmine’s every muscle was trembling. “And what’s the price, huh? What’s the catch? What do you want from me so badly you’re willing to give me so much power to get?”
“No catch. What we want from you is for you to do exactly what you want. Jaz, we’re not the bad guys! We’re the Empire’s enemy, not yours. We want the people of Topaz to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to end the homelessness and injustice here, same as you do.”
“You expect me to believe that’s why you’re conquering our worlds? Why you declared war!?”
“We declared war because the Empress demanded we submit and become part of the Empire. Because your nobles wanted to rape and pillage our worlds and people the way they already have done to their own. She was ready to use her armies to take away everything we have. All we’re trying to do is defend our people. And if we can make the galaxy a better place in the process, so much the better.”
“You still haven’t given me a single reason I should believe anything you say!”
“What do you think this is to us? A game? Like we’re just trying to take the Empress’ chips off the board?” Sashuan shook her head. “If all we wanted to do was to stop the flow of resources from Topaz and destroy her shipyards, we’d launch a nuclear strike from orbit. It would take all of an hour to obliterate the entire world. Nothing would grow here again for a thousand years. We could do that easily, but we’ve chosen not to. We’ve decided to expend vastly more resources to occupy this world and protect its people. That is why you should believe me.” Sashuan squeezed her tightly. “Oh, Jaz. I am so, so sorry. I never wanted to scare you like this.”
“Stop!” Jasmine pulled away. “Stop it! You don’t love me. You don’t. You said it yourself. You came here to make contacts. I’m just a… a means to an end to you.”
“No!” Sashuan cried out, leaping to her feet. “No. You are so much more than that. I became your friend because it was my job. I fell in love with you because you are an amazing, beautiful person. Because you’re strong and you never give up and you always fight for what you think is right, no matter how many people get in your way, no matter what it costs you. Because I admire you more than I have ever admired anyone.” Her voice wavered, and she blinked tears out of her eyes. “You’re a hero to me, Jasmine Autumn-Lily.”
Jasmine slumped to the floor again, and stared blearily out the window. At the clouds in the smog-choked sky. At the bustle of carriages and people going about their daily lives. The food carts across the street, where her cousins were hawking rokhata to the pedestrians. The innocents. The people who had no idea what they were about to be swept up in.
“…when is the war coming here?” she asked quietly.
Sashuan took her hands in hers. “Tonight,” she said.
“The first wave of troops is going to land tonight, in Ravenway, Hawk’s Triumph, and… here.”
“What’s going to happen to us? To me? To my family? To…”
“Nothing, because I am going to protect you.” Sashuan squeezed her hands. “I can tell the General that your shelters are allied facilities. They’ll post troops to guard you and everybody who lives here until the fighting is over, and you’ll be first in line for ration shipments.”
“I can’t…” Jasmine choked out, her body shaken by sobs. “I…”
“Jaz.” Sashuan looked her in the eye. “Remember that night we spent by the lake? The night we kissed for the first time?”
Jasmine laughed bitterly. “How could I forget?”
“You told me something, when we were huddling together under that ratty old blanket. You told me there should be more to life. You said you wanted to chance to make a difference, a real difference, not just… ‘not just fighting the tide.’” Sashuan lifted Jasmine’s chin gently. “This is your chance, Jaz. You get to be part of something big, something real. You’ve deserved that for so long. More than that, the people have. They deserve someone like you to lead them, not those parasite peers and that sociopath justiciar.” She leaned close. “Please take that chance. Please.”
“I…” Jasmine closed her eyes. “You didn’t give me much time to process any of this.”
“I know. I am so, so sorry for that. Telling you now was the only way I could protect you. I didn’t think you were ready to hear it, but there’s no time left.”
“You’re right. I wasn’t. I’m not.” Jasmine stared at the ceiling. “You’ll… you’ll take care of my people?”
“And I’ll have the power to feed everyone? All the homeless people in Havenrun? The money?”
“We don’t use money, but yes. You’ll have everything you need.”
Jasmine took a deep, shuddering breath. She thought of the thin old woman in her tattered trenchcoat full of needles, who spent every day strung out on opium or out begging for more, and never ate unless you reminded her to. The young man whose merchant parents had thrown him to the streets without a penny to his name for nothing but loving another man. The little orphan boy who stayed up late every night just to help her wash sheets and tables, and would never take anything in return. The whore who hid with them when the Justiciar’s mercenaries came to round her up, and insisted on giving half her night’s earnings to the shelter.
The old man who she’d found dead by the side of the road, cloth sign still clutched in his arthritic hands, tin empty but for a single gold talent.
She looked at Sashuan, and saw the face of the woman who washed dishes and tended wounds and taught orphans to read and never complained. The woman who’d beaten a pimp half to death in a tavern when he tried to rape a drunken refugee. The woman who knew Jasmine’s body better than she did herself, whose touch was an old friend, whose lips were her refuge. She saw the tears in her eyes, the hope, the fear.
No matter how she looked at her, she couldn’t see a spy who had lied to her, a foreign devil who wanted to corrupt her world. She could only see the woman she loved.
She leaned forward and kissed Sashuan, wrapping her arms around her neck. Sashuan exhaled with relief, and pulled her into a tight hug.
“Okay, Sashuan. I’ll do it.”
“Oh, thank God,” Sashuan murmured. “Thank God. I was so afraid… I thought I was going to lose you for sure. I will never lie to you again, Jasmine; never, okay? No matter what. I swear to you on everything I have.”
Jasmine held her close, tears still trickling down her face. She stroked Sashuan’s hair fondly. “I guess— you’re probably a blonde, aren’t you?”
Sashuan laughed, wiping her tears from her eyes. “I can keep dying it if you like it red. I’d be happy to.”
“No.” Jasmine kissed her again. “If you’re not Lark, I want to be with who you are. I want to be with Sashuan.”
Sashuan rested her forehead against Jasmine’s. “You always have been. And you will be for as long as you want to.”
“Will I?” Jasmine sat back and looked at her. “What does this mean for… for us? What happens to us when the Greens— I mean. When the Society comes?”
“Things will be different. But I’m not going anywhere. I know this city better than anyone else among the People. The folks who are going to be building this world’s new government all know me. They trust me. I’m more valuable to the IS here than anywhere else.” She moved next to Jasmine, put an arm around her shoulders again. “When the battle for Havenrun is over, I’ll become the occupational government’s liaison to the occupying forces. That means we’ll still work together, just on a much bigger scale.”
“And I’ll be answering to you, instead of the other way around.”
Sashuan nodded. “If I give orders, you’ll have to obey them. But I won’t unless I have to. I want us — all of us — to be a team. I want to work together, not pass down edicts from on high.”
Jasmine nodded. “Okay. Um. Who else is going to be part of the new government?”
“The Popular Front and the Kaparttu Sisterhood are going to join forces with our troops, and when the city has been secured, they’ll become our peace officers. You’ll be on equal footing with their leaders.”
Jasmine shuddered. “Well. I can deal with the Sisterhood, at least. They’re good people, for all the papers say about them. And they help fund the shelters.”
“I know the Popular Front has a reputation. But they believe in socialism. They’re comrades, and I’m here to keep them in line if I need to.”
“‘Comrades,’” murmured Jasmine. “God, this is so surreal. I feel like I walked into a vid or something.”
Sashuan kissed her cheek. “I know. It’s going to last for a long time. Everything is changing for you so, so suddenly. You’re going to be dissociating a lot. Just remember, I’m here for you. I’m always here for you. My colors might have changed, but I’m still the woman you love. I always will be. And I will be your anchor if you let me.”
Jasmine buried her head in her shoulder. “I’d like that.”
They sat in silence for a while, the only sound the muted bustle of the street outside. After a while, Jasmine cleared her throat.
“What happens if the Empire takes back Havenrun? Won’t they kill you?”
“Then we need to make sure that never happens.”
Excerpt from The Seven Systems Sentinel, 462ᵉ