”What should a ruler do when faced with internal strife or an attempted coup by a peer? The first instinct is to retaliate, but things are not so simple for those in a position of power. Allowing your emotions to get the best of you endangers everyone you rule over. This is especially true if you don't have solid evidence against those you wish to take revenge against. Even if you do have evidence, it doesn't mean the other party can't claim the evidence to be fabricated, which it very well could be. Then you find yourself mixed up in a propaganda war, and nobody walks away from one of those clean. That doesn’t even approach the possible military implications of the situation. Do you even have the power to take revenge? And if you do, what will be the price you will have to pay? Is it worth it? And what if you lose? Then again, just letting some large slight go unanswered will send a signal that you are weak and that further attacks are a good idea, since you don’t have the guts to respond. There are no right answers, just very few winners and a lot of losers.”
- High Ambassador of the Mrrroww
With the chaos of the celebration venue, Selendil and Moonshadow decided it was time for them to leave. They had achieved their objective in coming here, so theoretically they were free to go. The problem was that the military Tetrarch had expressly requested them to remain on the planet, and while they weren’t actually forced to comply, it would be the diplomatic thing to do. As they were not in a rush to be elsewhere, they decided to oblige. Additionally, while the two humans that they had spent some time with had not contributed much to their success, they had held their end of the bargain.
Leon’s father suggested that the two Mrrroww spend the night in one of the villas his company owned, and brought his own family along just to be safe. Despite the two Mrrroww being relative strangers, they also provided a rather palpable sense of security due to their obvious strength. Since Selendil’s and Moonshadow’s previous lodging were in orbit, they decided to take the offer. The rest of the family had been summoned to the villa via various means that showed to the children that their parents were serious, which meant that even the daughter that had left before the hostilities started and the wayward son were present. Most of them kept away from the two feline aliens though.
As the evening was turning into the first hours of the night, five people gathered in the casually decorated kitchen area of the villa. Leon’s mother had already figured out that Selendil was much more cooperative when there was food placed in front of her, and the woman rather enjoyed cooking. Her children tended to be bit of food snobs thanks to the family wealth, and she wasn’t an expert cook, so her family often ate somewhere else even when they were around. Selendil’s frank appreciation of the rather simple cuisine made her quite pleased with herself.
The other three, Moonshadow, Leon and Leon’s father Ulrich watched in confusion as the duo got along like they were old friends, despite the fact that they had just come from a battle. None of their mannerism or short discussions indicated that the two were in any way affected by the battle and the death they had seen or dealt. Ulrich had spent time in the fleet and Leon was an active member of the military, but neither of them actually got to see that much death from close. It was one thing to know the weapons your ship fired killed hundreds or thousands of people. It was all numbers and theory. Actually seeing people die in front of you was quite a bit more visceral. The two had both lost crew members they served with, but they were not as hardened by those experiences. They were likely going to have a restless night ahead of them.
“Well, despite how everything turned out, our mission was successful, and you have fulfilled your part of the bargain.” Moonshadow drew everyone’s attention and opened the discussion.
“Bargain?” Leon’s mother asked, her tone turning slightly suspicious for the first time. The mess they had just been in seemed like a rather bad time for bargains. Or a very good one depending on your perspective. Desperate and scared people would promise anything just to live a bit longer after all.
“Yes. You don’t have to worry too much. Your husband and son simply made some introductions, and it was actually the Tetrarch that provided us with the opportunity we needed. Nevertheless, we got what we came for, so it is time we repay that favor. You wanted information on a certain individual, I believe?" Moonshadow allayed the woman's fears while trying to not say what exactly they had come here to do. The woman would likely learn that information from her husband or son, but that was their business.
“Yes! I need to know if Miyo is still alive!” Leon exclaimed without giving his parents the chance to speak.
Selendil gave a small bark of laughter. “Hah! This Miyo girl is a rather popular person. You’re not the first person to come looking for her. Well, to give you some peace of mind, this Miyo is still alive, technically.”
“Technically?” Leon demanded. He was understandably agitated but was calmed down by his mother.
“Let them speak Leon. They’re getting to it.” She said simply while placing a hand on her son’s shoulder.
“Well, she is alive only technically, because her mind is broken. The damage can be fixed, but it isn’t something that just anyone can do. And it will also take time. For the time being, she is in stasis to stop her condition from worsening.” Selendil stated in a tone that betrayed no emotion, as if she was talking about the weather.
“Miyo!” Leon exclaimed sadly and filled with emotion. His mother gave him a small hug and spoke quickly. “I still have some connections within the Psicom. I might be able to get them to help.”
“I’m afraid you’re misunderstanding slightly.” Moonshadow interjected. “Only one person is capable of performing the repairs to her mind.” She calmly pointed a paw towards Selendil.
Leon’s mother’s eyebrow rose as she looked at Selendil. “Just you? What makes you so special? I don’t want to imply you’re lying or incapable, I get that you’re very powerful, but something like this requires delicate skill, not power.”
“Two things. First thing is that I’m simply more skilled when it comes to such things than anyone in this galaxy and I’ve done something like this before. Secondly, the reason it has to be me is because I’m the one who broke her mind in the first place. It's much easier to put together pieces of a puzzle when you already know what the picture needs to look like.” Selendil dropped a bombshell.
“YOU WHAT?!” Leon almost lunged at Selendil but was restrained by both of his parents.
“Before you get all hypocritical on me, I didn’t just do it randomly for kicks. The ship you spoke of earlier that she and others so callously entered is mine. When I say mine, I don’t just mean that I got to it first. I mean that the ship was made for me and has had no other owners besides me. What would you do when you are suddenly woken from stasis by intruders? Well, I reacted in a rather hostile manner. You should be happy I didn’t execute the whole lot of grave robbers that they were trying to be.” Selendil’s tone got rather hostile and the other’s had to pull back just from the sheer presence she exuded.
“But…wasn’t the ship supposed to be…?” Leon muttered.
"Well, it was mine. And I didn't appreciate the hostile boarding party. I dealt with them as I saw fit.” Selendil replied firmly, her words obscuring the origin of the ship again. Once people were presented with a viable alternative explanation, they didn't bother thinking about the more outlandish possibilities. For instance, it was much easier for everyone to believe that the Mrrroww had built or found a ship reminiscent of a Progenitor ship than think that Selendil was an actual Dhar pretending to be a Mrrroww.
Moonshadow decided to interject to prevent any hostilities. “I get that you’re personally affected by this young man, but you have to look at this objectively. By most agreements made between the various races, she was well within her rights to kill all of the boarders. The fact that she didn’t was a show of mercy.”
Leon struggled to get his feelings under control. “I’d like her to be returned to us while she remains in stasis. She’s still my fiancée and I wouldn’t want her to remain in the hands of strangers.”
“That’s where we come to the part that you might not want to hear.” Moonshadow said a little cryptically.
“You meant what we already heard wasn’t already bad enough?” Leon shot back a little acerbically.
“No. That was just us laying out the current situation.” Selendil replied, still a little agitated from her earlier outburst. “I did say that you were not the first ones to come looking for her earlier. As it happens, you are not the only party to lay a claim to her, and their claim takes precedence.” Not that the girl was going anywhere anyway. The only thing keeping her alive was the stasis equipment on Selendil’s ship.
“How can their claim take precedence? She’s my future wife, and I’m fairly sure she wasn’t being unfaithful.” Leon asked, now confused and angry in equal measure.
“Well, that depends on how you define unfaithful. You have heard of the Illum term Envoy haven’t you?” Moonshadow asked. She wasn’t entirely sure if it was a good idea to reveal Miyo’s spy status this early, but it wasn’t really fair to hide it either.
Leon’s mother was the one who replied. “That’s the word the Illum use for their deep cover spies. I think I see what you’re trying to say.” Her mood wasn’t very positive. She had kind of liked Miyo, though they had only met a few times, but the girl had always seemed a bit off to her. Not that she would’ve ever suspected this of course. At worst she thought the girl might have been a bit of a gold digger, though her son had assured her that Miyo didn’t even know about his family wealth.
“Miyo isn’t a spy!” Leon claimed heatedly, once again showing the same conviction.
“Well, this was told to us by the Empress of the Illum herself, so…” Moonshadow said, leaving the sentence hanging in the air. “Apparently Miyo used to be one of her handmaidens before she was sent here. Now, as you can likely understand, we can’t exactly send a spy to an empire hostile to her where she will likely be executed.”
“I was also reading her mind when I accidentally broke her.” Selendil reminded them. “I can say with certainty that she is part of the Illum. She was planning on stealing the ship and trying to pilot it to the Illum for study.”
“So what will you do?” Moonshadow asked Leon. “Will you be satisfied with the fact that your lover is alive and in time will be well? She will return back to Illum and has a decent position waiting for her back home, even if she can’t ever return here.”
“Can I come with you?” Leon finally asked, his voice sounding extremely reluctant.
“Leon, no!” His mother shouted. “If you go, you will not be able to return.”
“She is right son.” His father added. “Remember that you already borderline abandoned your duty once for this woman. Admiral Gestalt was able to gloss over it, but he will not do so again. If you go now, you will be throwing away your career for an enemy spy! You will be treated as a deserter! Worse, once the word of her role as a spy gets out, you will be seen as a traitor and an accomplice. You will be executed! Do not throw your life and your career away for a woman who might not even truly love you!”
Leon looked extremely pained. “Father, she might have been a spy, but I know she loved me. And I love her! I can’t just abandon her.”
“What about your family?” His mother asked in a sad voice. “You might be willing to throw your own career away for love, but will you throw your family away as well? Now, normally I’d love to see you happy and support you in everything, but there are other people in this family. What about the consequences to us? I raised you to be true to yourself, but I didn’t raise you to be foolish! Love is a great thing, but it is not the only important thing in the universe. Are you willing to throw our futures away as well for your selfish love that might or might not become a reality?”
That caused Leon to hesitate. Selendil’s voice suddenly interjected to add to the hesitation. ”I think you’re under some misapprehensions. You behave as if you can just come along like it’s nothing. Why would I take you in? What do you bring that is worth it for me to suddenly accept you on my ship? Secondly, I did say I was reading the girl’s mind when it broke. She is fond of you, but love? Hard to say. She doesn’t have your dedication at least. She was willing to throw away your future to get my ship. She did feel it was something of a shame, but she was going to do it anyway.”
That caused Leon to scream in anger and storm out. Moonshadow looked towards Selendil. “I’m slightly surprised. So far you’ve been quite willing to hire new crew members.”
Selendil shrugged in reply. "The crew was getting a bit Human-centric. Besides, I truly think we are better off without him. From the reports Nox provided, he might be intelligent, but he will not fit our crew due to his habit of throwing everything away for his lover.”
Leon's mother had remained in the room and turned towards Selendil. "Thank you. Your words might say differently, but I get the feeling you said what you did as a favor to us. You said exactly what he needed. Anything more forceful would’ve caused him to get defensive, and anything lighter he could’ve brushed aside. You planted the seed of doubt in him, and that was enough.”
“I only spoke the truth.” Selendil shrugged again.
“Perhaps. But you didn’t have to. And you certainly didn’t have to do so when you did.” She gave a small bow to the two Mrrroww.
Selendil gave a small smile. She had said what she did on purpose, knowing exactly the reaction it would cause. Although she didn’t bother with being diplomatic or observant most of the time, she was fully capable of such small manipulation. “Well, I did enjoy your cooking after all.”
“Just for that?” Leon’s mother asked slightly surprised.
“Oh don’t pretend like you didn’t notice.” Moonshadow burst out. “She’s a glutton and you know it. Putting food in front of her is probably the best way to get her to do anything at all.”
The woman gave a small smile and a soft and pleased ‘Hmm’. She then followed after her husband. She was going to have to make sure the two men didn’t kill each other or undo the progress that had just been made.
The Tetrarch watched on as her advisors debated and argued about the various issues the recent attack had left behind. She was a little disappointed in the fact that they were all focused on the wrong things. They worried about the anger of the important families that had lost someone during the attack. They worried about the hit in reputation they would no doubt receive as a result of the attack, never mind the fact that they were not in charge of the security. They worried about the fallout from the death of the civilian Tetrarch. That at least was something important, even if it wasn’t the thing they should be discussing at the moment.
“Catherine, what do you think?” Her bodyguard asked in a quiet voice that still carried enough authority to silence everyone present.
“I think that while all that should be addressed, those matters are immaterial in the long run. Although the attack was a hit on our credibility, we can spin this to our advantage, and that includes all those families that lost people. Spin this the right way and they will be more dedicated to us, not less. No, we have bigger questions that need answers. First question, and the most minor one. How did our enemies manage to replace the security at the event? We need this question answered quickly so that it can’t happen to us again. Second question, and this time we get to something actually important. What should our response be? We can’t exactly declare war on the lower Tetrarchy but we can’t let this slide either.” The Tetrarch had all their attention now. It wasn’t that they didn’t know these things were more important, but they simply didn’t want to think about it.
“As for the third and most important question, what happened outside the party? The powers involved were staggering, easily enough to wipe all of us out if that power was directed at us. If the Mrrroww Grand Keeper had not been present, would that have been the outcome? If so, the threat against us is much more severe than we realize.” The Tetrarch got to the most important point.
One of the military officers spoke. “As to that, we do have some information, even if it only raises more questions. None of our observation posts managed to record the battle. It is not possible that none of our ships and satellites caught anything, which means that all recordings of the battle have been wiped clean. All we have are visual observations from those that could see some of the battle, and most of those people were rendered temporarily blind by the explosions of light involved. Incidentally, it also seems one of our fighters was used as a weapon in the battle and was completely destroyed.”
“What would it take for someone to delete all the recordings?” The Tetrarch asked.
“With the number of possible observers? An AI powerful enough to enter all our systems without any difficulty and smart enough to get out without leaving any traces. I think we can assume this was done by the Mrrroww, though we can’t be sure.” The same officer replied.
“Hmm, the Mrrroww aren’t exactly famous for their AI development, though they could’ve worked on it in secret.” The Tetrarch mused. She wasn’t going to hold the little tampering against the Mrrroww after what they had done to help her. Let them keep their secrets.
“Ah, ma’am, could I…?” One of the Tetrarch’s aides that had been present in the party suddenly requested permission to speak from the edge of the room where they were all sitting. The small woman was more an aide of an aide, but she had been present, so she was here as a witness.
“Go ahead.” The Tetrarch nodded. She knew the aide would not speak up unless it was something potentially important.
“I don’t think the Grand Keeper was a Mrrroww.” The mousy aide said quietly. This raised some eyebrows and got everyone’s attention.
“Explain please.” The Tetrarch encouraged. She knew the girl was extremely skilled and was one of the main reasons her patron, the son of the Serebryakov family, had risen to the position he was in. Interestingly he was absent, as he had been recalled by his family, which the Tetrarch had allowed after a thorough debriefing.
“Well, I don’t usually talk about it, but my main ability as a psion is to read auras of people. It usually doesn’t amount to much more than reading moods, helping determine if someone is lying or planning something nefarious, or determining how strong someone is.” The girl started to explain.
“That’s quite a lot already. A very useful ability. You have a bright future ahead of you.” The same bodyguard spoke again approvingly. She would no doubt be hired by the man before the day was over. The man would know the Tetrarch appreciated such abilities.
"Thank you, sir!" The girl exclaimed. “Anyway, what I was getting to is that while each person’s aura is a little different, there are usually certain similarities between members of the same race. The strength of the aura changes significantly between people depending on their strength and the strength of their personality. So the Grand Keeper should have a rather prominent aura as a Deity, right? Yet I didn’t see anything when I observed her. Even the weakest person has an aura, yet she had nothing. It was as if she knew about the existence of abilities like mine and was taking measures against it. Incidentally, the High Ambassador was also taking measures to mask her aura, but she still had one. I suppose that's something you would expect from an ambassador." The girl had actually been sent to train her ability with aliens once her patron found out about it.
“The point, please.” The Tetrarch prodded the girl a bit.
“Right. So while I didn't see the Grand Keepers aura, for the most part, I did get a glimpse when she returned after the battle. Her aura had nothing in common with the auras of other Mrrroww. Not that I've seen that many, but still. Usually, there should be at least something to indicate a common race, but the Grand Keeper's aura was something I've never seen before. While others have a slight glow about them, the short glimpse of the Grand Keepers aura was as if I was looking at the heart of a star." The girl had a clearly admiring tone at the end. It seemed the Grand Keeper had made an impression.
"Well, we knew she was strong, and this just confirms it. However, it is useful to know that she might not be a Mrrroww at all. This might be worth bringing up when I talk to them." The Tetrarch mused. "Well, that is something that we still need to get more information on. For now, we should focus on deciding our response to this attack.” The Tetrarch brought the topic back to the subject that needed a more immediate response.