Chapter 1 of The Precedent
Nihlus was swaying on his toes to the rhythm of the quiet music, rolling the azure brandy inside the impossibly thin glass. The human dignitary, a tall, white-haired man with a wrinkled face and extremely limp lips, was speaking incessantly, occasionally spraying him with spit. At first, Nihlus had been trying to keep up in earnest, cocking his head at odd angles in the attempts to catch the human’s name-tag, but after a while it became clear that the human was perfectly satisfied to supply the conversation on his own and Nihlus settled for giving random smiles and nods. There was no hope for escape; the human had locked his gaze with a focused intensity and to look away even for a second in search for salvation would probably constitute casus belli.
“It was a different thing back in the 60s. As a diplomatic currier, I was allowed on most turian colonies, but not on Palaven. We tried many tricks.” The human laughed, and Nihlus subdued the reflex to wipe his face clean. “We even tried to organize an artistic workshop of sorts and brought with us a choir that numbered one hundred and fifty young men and women. Of course, it was a misfire; but to make nice, the turians allowed us to land on Nanus, and organized a joint concert. It was magnificent. Our musicians learned Die for the Cause, and the turians learned the Ode to Joy. Do you know the tune?”
Nihlus cleared his throat and intoned the beginning of the human anthem. He had always liked it. Conversation around them died out, and when he finished, the humans gave him a polite little applause. It was a perfect opportunity to excuse himself. He made a court nod and wormed his way into the crowd, where more than a few turian faces turned to frown at his performance. Somehow, no matter the actual reason for the gathering, every reception at the human embassy that involved any number of turians, turned into a commemoration of the first-contact incident. The air was heavy with saccharine spirit of reconciliation that half of the guests on both sides resented in secret.
And then there were some who resented it openly. Nihlus stopped short and spilled his brandy. Saren was staring at him from across the room. Everything and everyone else suddenly faded into a mute, blurry background. Clad in black and silver, with the long flaps of a velveteen robe pooling around his feet and a matched set of mandible and crest rings sparkling around his statuesque face, Saren looked like one of the paintings exhibited as a part of the event: exalted, as intimidating and intangible as an approaching storm, the stuff of myth and legend misplaced among ordinary men.
Nihlus tried to swallow the rest of his drink, noticed that most of it had ended up on his hand, and caught himself trying to lick it off his talons. Spirits. Not even a decade of friendship could quell the excitement of an unexpected meeting with Saren. He put the glass down on the nearest table and grabbed a paper tissue, struggling to regain his dignity before walking over.
“Saren,” he said, with a smile that was impossible to hold back.
“Nihlus.” Saren took his measure from crest to toe. “I knew I’d find you here.”
The remark had Saren’s signature tone of biting disapproval, but Nihlus just laughed. “Wish I could say the same! I’d have dressed better.” He waited, in vain, for a polite compliment on his relatively casual attire, the fact that he could make even casual look exquisitely good, or at least a, you look fine, Nihlus. But nope. “What brings you?”
“Curiosity.” The cursory glance he gave to the room and the exhibits testified to anything but. He sighed. “Sparatus insisted.”
“Ah.” That made more sense. “Come on. Let me get you a drink.”
“Not with those hands.”
Looking down, Nihlus realized that the nervous knotting of his fingers shredded the paper tissue he had used to “wipe” them “clean” before, and the red tatters clung to his sticky talons in a theatrical mess. “It’s your fault,” he said. “I assure you I’m perfectly normal when you’re not around.”
Nihlus laughed some more. “I’ll be a minute.”
Chasing down a waiter on the way back from the restroom, he grabbed two glasses, gobbled one down right there, replaced it. He found Saren in the main hall, studying one of the exhibits.
“I wonder what idiot thought this would be appropriate for the occasion,” he said, accepting the glass. The offending object was some ancient turian tablet. Nihlus squinted at the tiny letters of the holo description but he was already a bit drunk and in truth, didn’t really care. Saren glanced at him and flicked his mandibles. “It’s from the Temple. See those symmetric lines? It’s supposed to be a depiction of a winged turian.”
“Huh,” Nihlus said, turning his head to the side to try and make out the shape. He had seen this exhibit half a dozen times since its debut at the official 20-years-of-peace celebration but had never bothered learning what it was. Probably the pride of someone’s private collection. He sipped his drink, discretely sniffing the air between them. It carried the soft fragrance of Palaven rain pine. “Does this kind of thing upset you?”
“No. But it has no place here.” He stalked away in the direction of a human painting. “I bet you know what this is.”
“Nope. My lack of culture is evenly distributed across all sentient species.”
Another flick of the mandible, this time of humor rather than annoyance. The painting depicted a human crazed with pain or despair, holding another, who looked dead. Striking stuff. Nihlus nodded with appreciation.
“Ivan the Terrible and his son,” Saren said. “A reproduction. A good one, at that.”
Of course, Saren knew what it was. “Don’t tell me you like it?”
“I think it’s a good reproduction.”
“I mean the content, not the form.”
“I know what you mean, Nihlus, and by now you should know how to recognize a useless line of questioning.”
Nihlus laughed and downed his drink. Up until a few years ago, this kind of comment could’ve ruined his evening. But those days were long gone, and no amount of Saren’s grumpiness could interfere with how happy Nihlus was to see him. “You’re in a fine mood.”
“Same as always.”
“Anyway, I like it.” Nihlus indicated the painting with his empty glass. “It’s disturbing.”
“You enjoy disturbing things?”
“Obviously. Why else would I seek your company?”
Saren snorted. He led the way again, absently swirling his untouched drink, and stopped in front of a few other exhibits but made no more comments. Nihlus followed, content to stay in his wake and savor his electrifying presence. Pleasantly warm from the alcohol, he fantasized about sneaking out through the back door and giving Saren a quick handjob in some dark passage between windowless buildings. He seemed tired and tense—indeed, same as always—and would surely benefit from blowing off some steam. Spirits knew Nihlus would.
After many minutes of companionable silence, just as he was about to suggest something along those lines, Sparatus waved at them from the middle of the room. Saren raised the glass to him, then placed it in Nihlus’s hand. “Duty calls.”
“I’ll pass,” Nihlus said. “Find me when you’re done, yeah?”
But Saren had already left. Nihlus gulped his drink and made a face. It was warm as piss.
The evening dragged out and by the time people started to leave, the only thing keeping Nihlus from doing the same was the prospect of spending the night with Saren. Where the hell was he? Certainly not at the bar—Nihlus had that covered. Although he had gotten fairly drunk, his sense of humor was gone. He stared wistfully at the scattered remnants of the crowd. Could Saren have left without him?
“Lately you often do that when you’re nervous.”
Nihlus jumped. “Fuck! You trying to give me a heart attack?” Somehow, he had failed to see Saren approach. He wasn’t that drunk, was he? Heads turned and the human barista was giving him an evil eye for yelling. “Sorry,” he said, to no one in particular. “Do what?”
“This.” Saren raised a hand to his own neck and felt under the mandible.
Miming the motion, Nihlus realized it was true. He’d developed a habit of touching the scars there. “Not nervous,” he muttered. “Just eager to leave.”
“As am I.” When that was met with a doubtful grunt, he added, “I didn’t plan to stay this long.” It was as close to an apology as Nihlus could hope for, even though there was nothing to apologize for.
They made it to Saren’s apartment without exchanging another word. It was dark inside, and the carpeted floor drowned the sound of their footsteps. The moment Saren locked the door, Nihlus fell upon him like a starved beast. He slammed bodily into him, closer, closer, drinking in the touch of him, the scent of him, the taste of him, and Spirits! There was nothing he’d ever experienced that could compare to the sensation of Saren’s arms around him. Nihlus held him in a drunken embrace, cheek to cheek, clumsily feeling the clasps of his robes. He breathed his lust into Saren’s ear and felt the moist caress of Saren’s breath as it turned into uneven, violent bursts. A deep, dark hum full of longing came from Saren’s chest and resonated through his own. But something was off.
Nihlus paused, breathless, pushed himself away and tried to read Saren’s face in the darkness, but the glow of his mechanical eyes revealed nothing. “You ok?”
“Nihlus.” He was out of breath too. Damn, that was hot. “Stop. We need to speak.”
“Right now?” Not waiting for a reply, he moved to dive back in, but Saren clasped his shoulders and held him at an arm’s length.
“I’m serious.” He disengaged and stepped aside, then turned on the light.
Nihlus squinted and growled in frustration. “So was I.”
Ignoring him, Saren bent down to pull off his boots. “Keep your voice down,” he instructed. “And take off your shoes.”
Nihlus gaped, unbelieving, until it became apparent that his case of extreme hardon would not be given any further consideration at this time. In the end he huffed and did as he was told.
Saren motioned him to follow and tiptoed toward the bedroom, going as far as to use the ‘keep quiet’ hand signal when they reached the closed door. Only then did Nihlus conceive of the notion that they might not be alone.
Holding the door ajar, Saren let him have a peek inside. The opulent bedroom, with heavy golden curtains and a glossy purple bed cover, was dark save for an incongruous rubber nightlight shaped as a pyjack that gave off a soft yellow glow. There was someone in the bed. Nihlus blinked to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. It was a kid. A tiny asari girl, surely no more than five years old.
He turned to give Saren a questioning look, but Saren just shook his head and signaled for retreat. Stunned, Nihlus followed him to the living room in silence.
“Sit,” Saren said. Nervous and suddenly chilly, Nihlus decided he’d rather stand. He hugged his elbows, looking around. Nothing had changed since the last time he’d been here. The place still looked as unlived-in as ever. Immaculate and impersonal, like an expensive hotel suite. “Would you like a drink?”
Nihlus watched in wonder as Saren walked back from the drink cabined carrying an unopened bottle of quarian black sherry and two glasses. “No, thanks,” he said absently. “I had more than enough already.”
Saren half-filled one of the glasses. Unable to hold back any longer, Nihlus squared his arms at the hips. “What’s going on?”
“I need your help, Nihlus.”
The words seemed to echo. In all the long years of their acquaintance, Saren had needed help on more than a few occasions, but had never actually asked for it. Never.
When no answer came, he looked up. “Will I have it?”
“Yes,” Nihlus breathed, shaking off the shock. “Of course. I’m sorry, I was just… Yes, my love. Anything you need.” My life, my body, my soul.
Saren nodded. “I also need you to agree to let questions go unanswered.”
“That bad, huh?”
In place of a reply, Saren took a sip of the drink—then downed it.
“Sure,” Nihlus said. “I won’t press you. Is this… about that girl?” It had to be.
Saren nodded again. “You remember Elethea?”
“Of course.” How could he forget? She used to be Saren’s biotics instructor, one of his very few friends, and, Nihlus speculated, a lover, at some point or another. She also once made it galactic news as a suspect in the murder of an asari matriarch.
“That’s her daughter in there.”
“I see.” Nihlus pinched the back of his neck. A headache was brewing there. “Is she in trouble?”
With the glass laid carefully on the tablecloth, Saren sat on the low sofa and cradled his forehead in his hands. The unusual gesture made Nihlus even more cautious and attentive. He had never seen Saren act like this. “What kind of trouble?” he ventured.
Saren lifted his face and took a deep breath. “I asked her to do me a favor. A risky, dangerous thing, you understand. She was to infiltrate the FOMA and get me some information about the cult.”
“FOMA,” Nihlus repeated, chasing a faint memory down the dark recesses of his numb brain. “The uh… Fellowship of… Mother… Athame?”
“Maiden Athame. The members are also known as Athamists.”
“Oh, alright. That rings a bell.”
“What do you know about them?”
“Uh. Not much?” It had been years since he’d last encountered these terms and he couldn’t even recall the context. “They’re a monotheistic sect. Fanatical but not exactly extremist. Also, rather apolitical? The sort that doesn’t care about the decisions of the secular government as long as no one challenges their religious views. Basically, the asari version of the Velluvian Knights: mysterious, few and exclusive, like a secret society. More hype than action.” He was now stabbing at random associations. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of them actually doing anything.”
“They have done plenty. This isn’t widely known, but they’re one of the oldest asari cults. They have labored for millennia to falsify certain… unflattering parts of pre-space asari history. Elethea was supposed to learn where they keep key artifacts and scriptures. Revealing them might destabilize the entire asari society, with far-reaching consequences for the politics and economy of all Council space.”
“Which is why you’re on the case, I assume.”
Saren stared at his hands, saying nothing.
“Aaaand… that’s where I don’t ask any more questions,” Nihlus concluded after a while.
“You’ll have to tell me what happened, though. Did Elethea got found out?”
“Yes. They captured her.” Saren closed his eyes and leaned back, his mandibles working. “And they will kill her unless we get to her first.”
Moving quietly, Nihlus lowered himself onto a soft seat too. As the gravity of the situation dawned on him, the drunken stupor started to retreat. “Did they ask for something? Ransom? Are you sure she’s still alive?”
“I can’t be sure of anything. But I hope they want this bad enough to trade her for it.” Out of a fold of his robe, Saren produced a talon-sized object that looked like an ornament or some archaic device. It gave off a faint green glow.
Nihlus squinted, knowing better than to reach for it. “What is it?”
“A powered prothean artifact.”
Saren’s eyes sparkled strangely and suddenly Nihlus felt this was a test. He raised his browplates. “Is it… genuine?”
“Of course not.” Saren turned the object around a few times, then placed it on the table between them. “But it’s the best imitation Council’s credits can buy.”
“A good reproduction, eh?”
Relieved, for no reason he could readily identify, Nihlus picked the thing up and scrutinized it. It was metallic and cold to the touch, but much lighter than it sounded upon contact with the table. The green glow came from incredibly thin grooves lining its surface in neat, but unfamiliar, geometric patterns. He wondered if he had passed the test and if inquiring about this further would make him sound smart or stupid. With ST&R resources at his disposal, he had easily done as much prothean research as any professional archaeologist, yet he had never come across anything like this. And why would some obscure asari sect care for it?
His head was buzzing with questions, but all he said was, “Alright.” He laid the artifact down. “So, uh… where do I come in?”
“I need you to make the exchange. I cannot be seen.”
“Because you’re afraid you might implicate Benezia?” Nihlus swallowed, trying to hide the sudden pang of jealousy that inevitably happened every time Benezia was mentioned. Saren’s friendship with her and their prodigious financial ventures of late were a matter of public knowledge—while his years-long relationship with Nihlus, he kept like a dirty secret.
When he didn’t answer, Nihlus nodded. “Okay. Doesn’t sound any worse than most shit we do for a living.” Not that he’d refuse even if it were. He’d drive his ship into a fucking star if Saren demanded it. “You’ll stay here with the kid?”
“Yes.” Saren brought up his omni. After a moment, Nihlus’s omni vibrated too. “These are the coordinates of the rendezvous point. I’ve already sent them a scan of the artifact and they agreed to bring Elethea. You’ll find all the other details in the file.” He looked up, and for the first time since the party, Nihlus had the impression of being really seen. “You must be exceedingly careful. Elthe is one of the greatest huntresses to have ever lived. I don’t know how her cover was blown, but if they could get her, they can get you too. Don’t give me that look,” he said, raising up a finger. “You know I’d be telling you the same even if we went together. More likely than not, Elthe is dead already and this is a trap. But I owe her to at least try.”
Elthe, Nihlus thought. He was pretty sure he had never heard Saren use that nickname. Saren wasn’t exactly a nickname sort of guy. What would he call Benezia? Bezie? Zee? He shuddered. “You know I’ll do my best.”
Saren heaved a heavy sigh. “The artifact isn’t genuine, but it’s worth so much that it may as well be. Keep it safe. And stay safe.” He seemed to debate whether to continue. “No unnecessary risks. Promise.”
Nihlus’s heart melted. “I promise, my love. I’ll bring her back to you. And to—what’s her name?”