Nihlus pretended to work at his small desk by the viewport when Saren emerged on top of the stairs. He had actually been chatting on Nebulosity the entire morning, but now he hid the app behind a carefully prearranged menagerie of status reports, instrument schematics, and even a textbook on the theory of stellar evolution thrown in for good measure.
“Where to?” he asked, although Saren’s attire spelled it out. He wore one of his black and silver robes and jewelry sparkled on his hands and chest. Nihlus’s gazed longingly. If only he knew where Saren kept the shinies!
“The Tower,” Saren said, straightening the scarf over his crest. He shot a silent look at Nihlus, who gestured next to his right ear. Saren pulled the fabric to his left.
“Perfect,” Nihlus said. In truth, there was still a slight wrinkle there and he wished he had the guts to walk over and fix it himself. He’d let his fingers brush against those gorgeous silver crest-blades – an immaculate touch if there ever was one – but Spirits, even thinking about it made his blood rise. And then he’d lean in close to check if everything was just so, and steal a breath of Saren’s clean, fresh-out-of-shower scent. A man could dream.
Saren left then, and Nihlus sat on the edge of the chair, waiting to see him pass by the viewport and enter the elevator. Saren moved at a quick, determined pace, and never came back for something he’d forgotten. Still, Nihlus would give him a good ten-minute head-start.
He spent five drumming his talons on the desk, and then he could wait no longer. He leaped up and snatched the half-eaten pastry from the plate he’d left in the kitchenette last night; it was dry but still good, and the image of Saren’s reaction, had he been there to see Nihlus eat it, made him chuckle. He then went straight down into the cabin, Saren’s lair, a place of mystery and secrets. Nihlus loved to sneak into the cabin. It made him feel like another secret.
The door was locked, but he’d busted the code long ago. Sometimes he liked to think he was so good that Saren didn’t even suspect his extracurricular activities, but in all honesty, it was much more likely that Saren simply didn’t care. He probably had the good stuff like the jewelry hidden someplace else, in some stash Nihlus hadn’t sniffed out yet. He’d find it eventually. He was yet to grow bored with exploring the cabin.
He had developed a search algorithm. First, he went for the bed. Looked under the pillow, felt under the mattress. Between the mattress and the bulkhead, where one could stuff, say, a datapad or a small hard-copy. He kept hoping he’d find porn, or a book, or a crumpled handkerchief, or a pair of warm socks – anything to give him more insight into Saren’s cryptic private habits. He never had, though.
Before moving on, he sniffed the air just above the pillow. The sheets smelled of the wienensis silver fruit; one of those Palaven-things that he had only seen on the extranet and the labels of cosmetic products.
Next, he opened the closet. Saren was an elegant man; well, at least his civilian persona was. He had a lot of clothes and they were all meticulously pressed and folded and hanging in a neat monochromatic gradient from identical hangers. White, light gray, dark gray, black. Holding the pastry between his teeth, Nihlus wiped his greasy, crumb-covered hand on his pants. If Saren was to see that, he’d blow a gasket. Hehe.
He proceeded to browse the wares. Not that he hoped to find anything new: Saren could hardly hide major fashion acquisitions. But the closet and everything in it smelled of Palaven rain pine – Saren’s favorite plate balm – and Nihlus felt an irresistible urge to dive in and breathe his full of it. The pastry in his mouth got in the way, though, so he took out a white robe instead. It was heavy and reflected a fuzzy shine in the artificial daylight. Nihlus inspected the embroidery: geometrical patterns, favorite pastime of turian artists, done in delicate cobalt thread. Definitely hand-made. Possibly even unique. Should he try it on? Better not. He’d step on it, or stain it, or pull out a thread when his crest caught in it. But he could… study it. Study its anatomy. For the unlikely case that someday he might find himself trying to take one off Saren. Yes. Saren believed in thorough preparation and here, Nihlus was being an apt pupil. He chuckled through the pastry, looking under the folds of the robe. Huh. That simple? He was a little disappointed.
He carefully replaced the robe and sat in front of the workstation, downing his snack in a single mouthful. The workstation came to life and asked for a password. Low security, no fingerprints or retinal scans, but the password had proven to be a tough nut. He had tried to hack it before. A decryption VI would bust it, but all the good stuff went out with Saren and his omnitool. The desktop was empty save for a writing pad with half the sheets torn off. Nihlus felt the surface with a fingertip; nothing there. Saren probably ripped the paper before writing, to avoid making imprints that could be traced later. Nothing like some healthy paranoia.
There was a drawer, and Nihlus opened it to look at the uninspiring objects inside, although he already knew what he’d find. A block of ammo, with Saren’s name carved into it – a memory from boot camp. An old omni-tool; Nihlus had turned it on once, but it had been purged of all software and data. Some credit chits. An ID with one of Saren’s minor aliases. A sturdy, often-used talon file. Saren kept his talons very sharp. And of course, there was the faithful old Stiletto from his cabal days.
Suddenly, Nihlus became aware of the passage of time. He glanced at the greeting screen of the workstation; just over half an hour since Saren had left. He was still in the safe zone. The elevator ride to the Presidium and back took twenty minutes alone.
But there was nothing else to sniff or touch or explore. This was his third raid on Saren’s lair. The first time, everything had been new and exciting, and he’d even pocketed a couple convenient items, things that could easily get lost on the ship and that wouldn’t be missed much: a handy little pocketknife and a pair of black gloves. He smirked at the memory. It was silly to lift Saren’s things, he’d learned that soon enough – he simply had no place to keep them. The little drawer of his own desk in the commons was far from safe. He’d hidden the trophies in the space between the mattress of his bed and the bulkhead, which was getting cluttered anyway. With porn, yes. But also books, some of which were not porn. A few. Ok, maybe that one.
Nihlus stood up and stretched, then cursed as he banged his knuckles into the sloping ceiling. He stared upwards. The sound had been strange. He knocked on the panel again.
It sounded hollow.
He knocked on the panel next to it. That one sounded solid. And the one above, and the one below, and to the other side.
His heart raced. Eyes wide, tongue in the corner of his gaping mouth, he started tracing the edges of the hollow panel, feeling for some groove in which his talons could find purchase. He started scratching, and there! A corner came off, and then, the entire thing.
This was it, he realized with awe. It was the stash. Behind the panel, there was a hidden compartment. A shelf cut into the bulkhead, no more than a meter long and half that in depth and height.
Nihlus blinked at the items stored inside. The most prominent was a weapons case he recognized immediately: the Spectre-grade pistols Saren had worn when they first met, and that he’d replaced with newer, even deadlier prototypes a few months ago. Nihlus had been wondering what had happened to the old pair; he had hoped, for a while, that Saren would give them to him. But apparently he had other plans.
Next to the weapons case stood a fancy-looking metal cylinder guarding a bottle of hanar liquor. The cylinder was still wrapped in its original cryo-foil. Nihlus perched on his toe-tips to read the production date: five years old. Possibly worth more than all the credits he’d ever earned, squared.
He directed his attention to a folded dress uniform enclosed in a translucent plastic cover. There was a fat strip of decorations on the front. Nihlus took it out, unsealed the cover and sniffed. It wasn’t Saren’s. And those were the insignia of a general. Spirits. He hurriedly sealed the cover again and put the uniform back with reverence.
What he was doing suddenly felt wrong. He could just hear Saren berating him: I took you in and this is how you repay my trust? I gave you a place to stay, I gave you a future, and this is what I get in return? One thing, Nihlus, one place that I don’t want to share, and you had to defile it.
Oh, but if it was really just this one thing, just this one place.
His mood going sour, he almost replaced the panel. But there was just one thing left. A wooden box that had the distinct air of treasure-chestabout it. Nihlus stared at the box, and the box stared at Nihlus. It whispered to him in a language of secret smiles and promises of delicious discoveries. It didn’t even have a keyhole.
“Oh, fuck it,” he muttered and slid the box out. It wasn’t as heavy as he’d expected, but the rolling of trinkets inside made his mandibles work in anticipation. He put the box on the desk and lifted the lid. And sure enough, there was a trove inside. Nihlus smiled. He recognized most of it: finger-rings, wide for the lower knuckle and narrow, for the upper; crest-rings that Saren rarely wore even though they looked so good on him; the solid, wide bracelets he put over the gloves on special occasions. Nihlus ran his fingers through the treasure, then picked a ring to try on. Oooh! Perfect fit. He smiled and adorned his entire left hand in rings, the way Saren would do. They didn’t look half as good on Nihlus, though. Saren had smooth skin and long, shiny talons, and Nihlus’s hands were angular and rough. But it felt good. He flexed his fingers and resumed the research.
Several things stood out. He examined a vial of light purple facial paint. It had expired more than ten years ago, though it didn’t look dry. Nihlus knew what that was. He caressed it and put it back with care.
Next he took out a plastic case with a magnetic seal and looked inside. A pair of bio-amps lodged in velvet padding. Saren’s first? How curious and endearing. The plastic and the velvet were a faint eezo cyan. He smiled and put the case down.
And then there was a small leather bag. Nihlus let his imagination run wild, feeling the contents through the soft material. Precious stones? Big ones! Or… a pendant for a necklace? More than one? A bone charm? No. Saren wasn’t superstitious. Nihlus undid the lace and emptied the bag into his left hand.
What came out were pieces of a broken ceramic badge. It looked as if it had been oval in shape, sized more or less to comfortably fit the palm, heavy and sturdy. It didn’t appear to be jewelry; more like some… medal? He singled out the largest piece and studied it closer. It bore a carved pattern, painted in a lovely shade of evening-sky-blue. But what was its significance? It didn’t look particularly valuable; the artistry seemed rather generic, and the materials were common enough. A memory, then. From his brother? Some friend? A lover? Now that he had the idea, he felt almost certain that there was something feminine about it.
“Put that down,” said the voice and Nihlus jumped as if electrocuted, sending the pieces of the badge flying in the air. Some fell on the desk with an awful din, and others, silently, on the carpeted floor. But the largest one, which he had been holding between his talons, hit the hard back of the chair and broke in two.
Nihlus froze in horror. He didn’t dare turn around and face the inevitable and for the longest time, the staccato of his heartbeat was the only thing he could hear, the treacherous shining of the rings on his fingers the only thing he could see.
But then he became aware of the sound of Saren’s breathing, deep, ragged, almost growling. That wasn’t good. He swallowed through his dry throat and hazarded a glance towards the door.
Saren stood there, a black, looming shadow. His head was down, chin almost touching his chest, lips drawn to reveal his teeth, eyes shining with menace that made Nihlus’s crest crawl. There was something so savage about the stare, so raw and cold and devoid of sympathy or any feeling other than blind rage or perhaps even hatred, that Nihlus was sure Saren would charge at him right that moment and rip his throat out with his bare hands.
But Saren lifted a hand to interrupt him. A ripple of biotic sparks flared up and died down at random over his entire body. Nihlus was pretty sure the display wasn’t intentional, as Saren wasn’t the type to do parlor tricks with his powers. And that made it all the more terrifying.
So he nodded, and started taking the jewelry off his fingers. Not really surprised to find his hands trembling. The shameful ringing tore holes in his ears. In his chest. Perhaps it was for the best, that Saren had shut him up. What was there to say? He struggled for ideas, but there were none, nothing, only the overwhelming feeling that he’d messed up, that he’d messed up bad, and that he would probably find himself on the wrong side of the airlock within minutes. Banishment scared him far more than death. He didn’t dare look at Saren again. He didn’t know what to do. Spirits! What the fuck have I done? He wished he knew. And how the fuck do I fix it? Provided that there was anything left to be fixed. Oh Spirits. Oh Spirits.
He clenched his teeth and knelt down to collect the pieces of the badge. Was it the right thing to do? Must have been, since Saren didn’t try to stop him.
“I’m sorry I dropped it,” he muttered at last, letting the shame vibrate under his cracked voice. “I just wanted to see… To… you know?” He gestured helplessly in the silence. “And it was already broken.” Like Saren didn’t know that. What a stupid, stupid thing to say.
But Saren made no reply. Nihlus turned towards the door. There was no one there.
He awoke in the middle of the night. The noise was coming from downstairs. And there was light on the staircase. Nihlus jumped like someone had spilled a bucket of cold water on him, hit the low ceiling with his head and stumbled forward with the blanket wrapped around his legs until it tightened into a knot and he fell face down.
“Fucking motherfucker,” he gritted, struggling to free himself, then leaped up and ran down the stairs.
It had been more than two days since Saren went missing. And now he was back.
Nihlus stopped in the doorway to the cabin, naked, breathless and barely holding back the impulse to crush Saren in an embrace of joy and relief. Saren wore the same robe and smelled of sweat and streets. He appeared to be looking at the jewelry case resting on the table, beside the big wooden box from the secret compartment.
Finally, he spoke, and for the life of him, Nihlus couldn’t interpret the color of his voice. “You have done this.”
Was he still angry? Didn’t sound like it. It didn’t sound like anything he’d heard from Saren before.
“I have,” Nihlus said. “Was I… was it the wrong thing to do?”
Saren turned now and looked him in the eye. It was just a short glance, but Nihlus melted under its intensity. And then his heart leaped as Saren shook his head. Once, shortly, then again, to confirm. He stared at the badge in his ungloved hand and didn’t speak for several long breaths. “They told me it was impossible to fix.”
“They were wrong.”
“Nihlus… this is remarkable.” Saren looked at him again and for the first time, Nihlus thought he could see an opening there, a tiny crawl-space, a crack in the wall. He tried to smile, but all he could muster was a gentle flick of the mandibles. Saren stepped forward, close enough for Nihlus to feel the warmth of his breath. “I’ve been looking… I can’t find a single seam.”
“Of course there are seams. They’re just… hidden. Had to add some paint. Hope that’s alright?”
He looked up and found Saren looking back, an alien air of vulnerability lingering about his face like an early morning mist. “Look,” Nihlus whispered, and pointed at the badge with a talontip. “See here?” And as he traced a microscopic seam that ran from top to bottom, his fingers brushed against Saren’s dry, warm palm. After a second of hesitation, he closed his hand around Saren’s, with the badge in between.
And unbelievably, Saren squeezed back.
It only lasted for a moment, but Nihlus was left dizzy and barely able to speak. “Will you tell me what it is?”
Saren nodded, but first he carried the badge back and placed it in its casing with something like a caress. “It belonged to my mother.”
“You never mentioned your parents,” Nihlus said after a pause. In truth, Saren never mentioned anything from his past. “Is she…?”
“She’s gone.” He lifted a hand to shut Nihlus up before he could deliver words of sympathy. “She died when I was little. But the badge… For a long time, I thought her spirit was in the badge. I liked to hold it, carry it around. Desolas was always terrified that I’d break it. Which of course I did, in the end.”
Nihlus waited for a time before speaking again. “How did you break it?” Somehow, he couldn’t imagine that Saren had just dropped it; there had to be a story behind it.
Saren sat at the edge of the desk and looked around, as if searching for another hidden place where he could safely put away his secrets. Then he gazed at Nihlus again with that strange, gut-wrenching intensity. “I shattered it after Desolas was killed.”
Nihlus swallowed. “Was he the last of your family?”
And now the badge was whole again. They both realized what it meant at the same time, and it was too much. Nihlus averted his eyes, and Saren turned to close to box. He put it back into the sanctuary and fixed the panel over it.
The following evening, Saren went out again. He told Nihlus not to wait up, for they would be heading off on a mission the day after, and he should get as much sleep as he could. Nihlus gave him his meekest nod, then hid next to the viewport until Saren passed by and disappeared in the elevator.
Not that Nihlus was particularly interested in going through Saren’s things so soon after his last raid, but there was one thing he had to know.
He stood in front of the cabin door for a long time before trying the entry code. This was to decide it all: had he really fixed it?
He entered the code. And the door swished open.
Nihlus smiled, blinking the happy haze out of his eyes. He went in, then, and felt between the mattress and the bulkhead… but no, Saren hadn’t hidden any porn there in the meantime. Nihlus chuckled and sat on the floor, leaning against the bed, crest resting on Saren’s pillow. There was something about the cabin. It was a good place. He simply liked being there.
When he awoke, he had no idea where he was. But then he heard soft snoring somewhere up and to his right and discovered that there was a pillow under his head and a blanket over his body. He started weaving an elaborate fantasy about ravishing Saren in his sleep, but then he drifted away. In the dream, he was a boy again, and he hurried behind Father’s long steps. Father took him with his strong arms and lifted him up on a tall crate, so they were of same height. Nihlus looked into Father’s eyes. They were made of silver.