Chapter 2 of The Precedent
Five standard hours later, Saren was beginning to tire from pacing through the lifeless rooms of his Citadel apartment. It had dawned soon after Nihlus had left, but Saren had been unable to focus on his usual daily paperwork. It took all his willpower to not check his omni every minute. By the calculations he had made earlier, the trip to the rendezvous point should have taken no more than two standard hours. Assuming Nihlus wouldn’t wait until he was back at the Citadel to report, he was still on Cyone. Fighting? Negotiating with those lunatics? Captured, or worse?
Saren hated being in the dark.
At least the child hadn’t awoken yet. Though that too was slowly turning into a source of anxiety. For reasons Saren didn’t entirely understand, she’d had to be sedated for the trip. As a child of her age, Saren hadn’t had many opportunities to travel at FTL but the few times Mother took him to Nanus, there were no special preparations. Eleni’s caretakers were professionals, however, handpicked by Elthe and background-checked by Saren himself. He’d had no reason to question their judgment, even if there had been time for it. And there hadn’t. With Elthe’s identity compromised, the girl was no longer safe on Thessia.
But it had been almost a full day now. Like he didn’t have enough to worry about, he now wondered if he should call the caretakers and inquire if the girl had taken that medication before, and how long it was supposed to stay in effect. If something happened to her…
The distraction of having to look after a child was the last thing he would normally wish upon himself. But doing nothing was driving him crazy. He walked to the bedroom and quietly opened the door.
The girl was a small bundle under the cover. Only the rear ends of her crest peeked from among the pillows. Standing still, Saren observed her breathing. Deep and rhythmical, barely audible. So far as he could tell from the state of the bed, she hadn’t moved much during the night at all.
He waited, but there was no response. Walking around the bed to the other side, he noticed that she was hugging something under the cover. Her face was almost entirely hidden too, but he could see her closed eyes. No trace of tears on the pillow. Good. It’s how he remembered her from the one past encounter: a stoic little commando. Not keen on company, however.
“I know you’re awake,” he said, as gently as he knew how. “I can tell from the way you breathe. The rhythm of breathing is imperfect when you sleep. Short breaths, long breaths, breaks between breaths.” To his amusement, she immediately applied the lesson. The variation was a bit over the top, but admissible for someone in the middle of a dream, or about to wake.
“I can tell from the lack of eye-movement too,” he went on. “When people sleep, their eyes twitch randomly under the lids. Well, unless they’re drell.” Unsurprisingly, the girl’s eyes started twitching. Again, it was exaggerated, but not bad for the first try. Saren smiled. “The best way to learn about this is to observe others in deep sleep.” That was how he had learned. He used to watch Mother for hours at night, measuring the length of her breaths and suffering intermittent dread when the next inhale didn’t come as predicted. He watched Desolas too, but only rarely. Like Saren himself, Desolas had a shallow, fretful sleep and was prone to waking at the slightest noise. And sometimes, his eyes would crack open even though he wasn’t awake. Nihlus had that too.
The thought of Nihlus brought him back from the reverie. He glanced at his omni. Nothing yet. Suddenly it occurred to him that it might not have been wise to plant the idea of stalking people at night into the child’s mind. She was difficult enough already. What would Elthe say if she caught the girl doing this and somehow learned it was the result of Saren’s inapt fostering? He would have to take greater care of what he says in Eleni’s company.
And then he realized that Eleni might never have the chance to watch her mother sleep again.
“Come on,” he said. A good measure of his usual harshness had crept back into his voice. He tried to tone it down, but the reawakened anxiety fought back. “It’s time to get up. You need to eat and go to the bathroom. After that I’ll leave you alone.”
He should’ve seen it coming the moment the girl’s eyes shot open in horror at the mention of eating. He had scarcely finished speaking when she bolted from the bed with shocking dexterity and disappeared through the open door, a flash of wiry limbs and bellowing silken pajamas. She was out of sight in a split second.
Saren huffed. It wasn’t that the girl was afraid of him. She had recognized him on Thessia, even though it had been more than two years since she had seen him the first and the last time. She even remembered a simple game they had played, where she would scramble a pile of holo toys, then watch Saren put them in order by shape, color and size. He was convinced it was his hands that provided the entertainment, rather than the game itself. She was fascinated with his long talons.
He used one of them now to pull away the cover and see what she had been clutching. A wave of embarrassment drove hot blood to his neck. It was the thresher-maw tooth—a “housewarming” gift from Sparatus and his wife when Saren had purchased this apartment. A priceless trophy that even fit tolerably well with the décor. But he never liked it, and only kept it on display because he rarely spent any time here anyway. Until it became a victim of Nihlus’s perversion. He had decided, at first sight, that it would make an excellent sex toy—and, well, Saren had been forced, however begrudgingly, to agree. Since then, he had kept it in the bedside drawer.
Apparently, Eleni had gone through the things there. Probably through the other drawers too, and possibly the closet as well. Saren panicked for a moment, then recalled that he no longer kept any weapons in this room. Beside the thresher toy, as Nihlus called it, a small bottle of lubricant in the drawer on the other side of the bed, and a pair of handcuffs at the top shelf in the closet, there were no other incriminating objects. But the lubricant had a safety cap, and the cuffs were intact. The thresher trophy was only a toy for him and Nihlus—for anyone else, the girl included, it was just an ivory decoration. He always sterilized such items after use, so there were no health risks. Even if she had… put it in the mouth. Like children do.
He closed his eyes and shook his head clear of the notion. There were more important things to focus on. Like finding her and keeping her safe from the rest of his possessions.
Not that he expected her to reply; she wasn’t keen on speaking either. She was, however, extremely keen on hiding, and quite skilled at it too. It had been a relief to learn she’d be sedated for the trip. The Virial wasn’t a passenger vehicle, let alone one suitable to carry children. It was full of hazards, and the scenarios where she’d get caught inside of working machinery while trying to hide had tormented Saren, along with other dark musings, on the way to Thessia.
The apartment wasn’t that dangerous, but there were knives and heavy pots in the kitchen, windows a child might manage to open in the living room, and various appliances everywhere. Walking out of the bedroom, he called up his omni and ordered a manual override lockdown of all electric devices. Except the cameras. He scrolled through the surveillance feeds. Nothing seemed out of order—now. Rewinding the entry-hall feed, he caught her blurry form running into the kitchen.
Since he’d likely be reduced to finding her by elimination, he now locked the doors to the bedroom, the guest bathroom and the living room; and once he was in the kitchen, he locked that too. The camera feed was useless here. She had ducked and crawled under the table as if she had known she was being watched. Of course, she was no longer there—that would’ve been too easy.
He called her name again. The last thing he wanted was to surprise and frighten her. She could’ve hidden anywhere. Most cabinets were empty and more than spacious enough to comfortably house a child that small. She hadn’t grown much. Skin and bone and pale enough to pass as a human, she looked borderline neglected. But Saren knew better. Elthe was a devoted, wise parent, and having a child with special needs had been her choice, not an accident.
A dubious choice, as Saren would forever maintain. But who was he to criticize anyone for that?
After checking the cabinets, revising his initial idea that the girl could fit in them comfortably, and finding nothing, he went on to the dining room. Nowhere to hide there. It was all table and chairs and meaningless decorations. She wasn’t in the little storeroom either, and the balcony was locked. Having made a full circle, he ended up in the living room, facing the door to the entry-hall that he had locked earlier.
He called out one last time. Nothing. Admitting defeat, he turned on the geth scanner built into his cybernetic eyes and the elegant green overlay outlined everything in his field of view. Turning around, he finally spotted her at eight o’clock.
She was practically in plain sight. Saren turned off the scanner to assure himself he couldn’t see her with unaided eyes, then turned it on again to assure himself she was there. Standing sideways behind a life-sized wooden sculpture of a klixen hatchling, she soundlessly maneuvered around it to compensate for Saren’s movement, so it was always obstructing his line of sight. With the window behind, the statue hid even her shadow. It was ingenious. And she couldn’t see Saren any more than he could see her. Could she tell his exact position by hearing? By smell? Or by sensing his biotic field? Chances were, he’d never know.
“Hmpf,” he said, pretending to continue the search. He looked behind the sofa, under the massive recliner, and lifted the lid of the antique sword-case. “Where could she have gone?” He turned around some more and once again checked the balcony door, then mimed an exaggerated shrug. “I’ll have breakfast on my own, then.”
He had been warned that feeding her would be a problem. The caretakers even had him note the precise infusion formula he should inject her with if she collapsed. It had happened before, they said. But they also told him about the foods she liked, or at least tolerated, and he had them delivered in quantities to last a month. Just in case. Now he studied the recipe for the vezillian omelet, while keeping half an eye out for movement in the living room.
The aroma of alien food, hardly appetizing but not as bad as some other asari meals he had prepared in the past, filled the kitchen as the omelet fried. He poured the purple juice—melon and figs, the carton said, showing something that looked like flowers, not fruit, to Saren—in a wide glass and laid out several slices of foul-smelling levo cheese on a large plate. The omelet was done. He rubbed his hands, in mock intent to eat it all himself. And then his omni buzzed.
A call from Nihlus. Playing hide-and-seek with the girl and cooking breakfast had managed to lift Saren’s anxiety but now it clenched him with renewed vigor. Elthe is dead, he predicted, trying to prepare himself for the shock of the news, and the grim duty of communicating it to the girl. He set his mandibles and took the call on the omni.
“I got her,” Nihlus said at once. He lifted the visor of his helmet, splattered with blood. “She’s alive but in bad shape. I’m taking her to the nearest hospital.”
“No.” Saren’s mind raced. The Athamists were embedded in every pore of asari society, insidious and patient, watching, listening, waiting. They’d locate her within the hour if Nihlus didn’t get her off the planet. “Bring her here. We can treat her on the Virial.”
“You don’t understand. It looks like internal bleeding. What if medigel isn’t enough to stop it? She might—” he leaned closer to the camera, perhaps remembering the child, and went on in a whisper. “She might die.”
“She’ll be at an even greater risk if you take her to a hospital. Nihlus,” Saren inhaled, striving to sound calm, while inside, the rage was waking up and stretching its clawed paws. What have they done to her? “You agreed—no questioning. If something happens, it will be on me, not on you. Just do as I said.”
He could see the conflict between common sense and duty play out on Nihlus’s face. He had never been one to blindly follow orders; a trait that had made his life in the army miserable. But during his service as a Spectre, questioning everything was not only desirable, but requisite for survival. His days as Saren’s student were long gone. He was used to doing things his own way now and this went contrary to all his instincts.
Duty to the Council was one thing, however, and duty to Saren, another. Nihlus gathered his mandibles and nodded. “I’m fine, by the way. Thanks for asking.”
The call flicked out. Saren’s chest ached as he struggled to keep the rage under the surface. Judging by his beastly grimace, reflected in the polished tray down on the counter, he was failing. Damn Nihlus! You could always count on him to supply the drop that overfilled the glass with a toxic remark like that. What was there to ask? It had been clear that Nihlus was fine at a glance. Pointless platitudes, like calling Saren “my love” before. What if he did that in front of the girl?
The girl. Saren had walked into a corner to make the conversation more private, forehead almost touching the cupboards. Now he turned.
The omelet was gone, and so was a slice of cheese and about half of the juice. He had been too consumed in the exchange with Nihlus to hear the child approach or leave. Fresh out of patience, he turned on the scanner again to confirm she was back in her hiding place. But at least she had eaten.
What was he to do with her now? He would have to take her with him on board the Virial after all. Briefly he considered sedating her once more, putting her in a stasis field, or some sort of cage? But Elthe would smite him for even thinking it.
If she lived.
He started loading a bag with asari provisions.