12/06/2018

Thank you to Pax Humana and Daisy Duck 39 for beta-ing.

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Part 4 Empire
Chapter 68: On His Head

-cfr-

46518 Years after Human Ascension, 1465 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

Phoenix Empire Homeworld, Home, Emperor Harper's Office

"You're actually going to go through with this?" Williams was incredulous.

"I said it would be on his head," Harper replied, defending his position.

"I'm the one who's going to be stuck cleaning up the mess," she complained.

"I'm paying you," Harper replied. She'd just have to come up with some way of making sure the Fedochi stayed obedient.

"Not enough," Williams muttered almost inaudibly but didn't bring it to Harper's attention. He'd just tell her to give herself a pay rise or something as equally unhelpful. "So what did you decide for the actual procedure?" she asked with morbid curiosity.

Harper was still in his Palace but outside the crowds were gathering for what was fast becoming the spectacle of the year. Not even the annual screenings of BB rivalled this. He just looked at her hologram before he turned away from the window. They were putting the final touches on the platform now and since he wouldn't be present at the event, if he wanted to say something to the guest of honour, now was his last chance.

"Williams," he said as he strode from the room, moving confidently down the corridor with his bodyguards forming an efficient cordon. The Grand Admiral's hologram moved with him, gliding silently over the floor. "Given what I promised, there is really only one way I could go," he said.

"Enlighten me," she instructed. "Execution methodology beyond combat necessity is not something I've studied."

"You've downloaded again?" Harper asked. He had assumed Williams was still in Cerberus and would have accessed all the files she needed to explain this.

"Yes. As combat is over, I don't need to be quite as aware to coordinate integration and it is easier if I'm Human, to them," she explained, raising her hands to make quotation signs at the word Human.

"I'm going with a French guillotine," Harper said, accepting her reasoning. So long as the Fedochi planets were integrated he didn't care how she did it. Besides, being Human should make the Admirals and Generals work as well, and if they needed help they could ask their immortalised predecessors.

"So just the one execution?" Williams asked after she'd accessed some historical files.

"You already killed Duke Eizeaj, so I'm only going to need the one," Harper replied. The Duke was the only other one who needed to die.

"Then what? You release the other Duke's back to their former territory?" she asked, challengingly, her expression clearly unimpressed by that possibility.

"Well, I don't want to keep them," he said. During the war Williams had captured a truly impressive number of nobles. Duke Eizeaj hadn't survived but most had and they were languishing on Harper's pleasure, taking up resources. Returning them, after they swore allegiance and with Human overseers to their home worlds would provide the average Fedochi with a semblance of normality and that would provide the fastest integration.

"You know, we could send them all back, Tirto included," Williams suggested.

He had considered that. Just indoctrinate the lot of them and have them establish his control and while he would do that for some, he was not about to let the Exarch go. "Everyone except the Exarches," Harper replied.

Williams sighed. "If you send Tirto, they would even realise it's happened but without him, and given that you are making them watch, they will fight it."

Harper snorted, punching the level he wanted as he entered the lift. His bodyguards crowded close, several passing through Williams' projection. "No organic is immune," he reminded her.

"But some are stronger than others," she retorted.

Over the years they'd had a chance to test what information they'd been given about indoctrination. It always worked was the main outcome of their studies but there was definitely circumstances that made it quicker and easier. Strong willed minds could fight it but lesser wills could also resist if the Ascended, or something associated with the Ascended did something they unequivocally did not like. It was fair to say that executing the Exarch would fall into that category. For some of the Duke's it would help. Indoctrination would take hold through their ambition. For others, it would provide a memory, a catalyst they could anchor their true selves to. Indoctrination would work but they could also be able to fight it.

Harper waved one hand as the lift came to a stop. "My orders aren't going to be a problem," he said. For those primed to fight indoctrination, orders they did not agree with were the hardest because they triggered the memory. "Keep as many fedochi alive as they can, shouldn't go against their desires. And besides Williams," Harper said as he went through a checkpoint. "It's for your net."

She snorted at that. While the Fedochi were now Phoenix Empire citizens, they were definitely a lesser tier. Their space would be used for the detection network of satellites and sensors that would trace any and all moving objects. Programming them was going to be painful but they had captured as many maps and star charts as they could.

The Fedochi would code them. At least those who wanted to eat would but a Human would check the accuracy before the net was pushed into place. They should be able to expand at least 20 systems per year. Beyond that, she had additional military forces to construct and position but that would be helped further by Fedochi labour. They wouldn't be given the plans but they would do the bulk work like refining metals. Under close supervision.

As their systems recovered, they would have the full layers of protection the Phoenix Empire placed around all their worlds but that would take time and now was not the time to speak about it. While the area, like all parts of the palace was secure, it also contained prisoners and there was no need to take risks.

Harper moved down the corridor. The palace was closer to a fortress and in many ways was rather clichéd. The lower levels were a dungeon containing both protective bunkers and prison facilities for those Harper did not want getting away. Thankfully the prison was empty more often than not but with the Invasion, he wasn't sure he should call it a War, of the Fedochi territories, there were some guests he wanted to entertain personally so they had lodgings here.

"So what about the spies?" he asked as he made his way down the corridors made by the bars. It was dark in here so he was thankful for his implants.

"They're watching," Williams replied, moving her hologram so it did not pass through the bars, though the image of her in a cell was very tempting at times. "What's their Ambassador said?"

"You know that bitch left half way," Harper replied and Williams rolled her eyes. Escorting the Ambassador's ship through the war zone had been a pain in the proverbial, which had probably been the intention. One to see if they could do it and two to get a view of the devastation they were sometimes causing.

"You didn't indoctrinate her?" she asked curiously.

The ambassadors were aliens Harper had access to and the ability to give them tours of Phoenix Empire facilities or special gifts.

"No," he replied. "I wanted to but they can scan their Ambassador very well and I don't want to give Xavia confirmation after Ximena."

Williams nodded. The spy-mistress knew something was up and was purging her ranks. So predictable. "So right at the moment we don't have an Ullator ambassador?"

"Not unless they want to send a new one," Harper agreed. "I will not be accepting that bitch back, not even for the pleasure of seeing her grovel." The indoctrinated would do anything they were ordered to, after all and he wasn't above several, rather crude, fantasies.

Harper stopped before a cell and looked in. Exarch Tirto was confined and the former head of the Fedochi Protectorate was sitting dejected on the sleeping platform.

"Was there anything else?" Williams prompted.

"I don't think so," Harper replied.

"We'll keep diplomatic ties open with the Ullator but given our respective positions, I doubt relations will be cordial."

"They were behind Duke Eizeaj's attack," Williams said cruelly.

Harper looked at her with an expression of mocking reproach. Really, to say such things in Exarch Tirto's presence! "There's that," he agreed mildly. The evidence collected by both their agents had confirmed it. "But there's also the fact that I don't trust them. Manipulative, even spying neighbours we could handle, but when those traits are combined with aggression, that's not a good combination."

Williams' expression turned amused before she shook her head slightly and while she was silent, Harper could hear the old phrase – Pot, kettle, black. "I imagine we'll settle into a cold war," he continued. "At least that's what it will look like," Harper concluded with a grin.

"We'll have to make sure they don't ally with the Nur," Williams noted, "but I'll speak to you about that later," she added, having her hologram cast a significant look around to indicate towards the listening Fedochi.

Harper barked his laughter. The Fedochi here weren't going to be telling anyone anything. "Later," he agreed nevertheless, nodding slightly before Williams disappeared. "And now, of course, I'm here to talk to someone without a later," Harper added, looking towards Exarch Tirto.

The former Fedochi ruler was glaring at him but knew enough not to lunge. This deep in, the bars were electrified and even if he ignored the shocks, Harper's ever present bodyguards would pump him full of holes.

"What do you want?" Exarch Tirto spat.

"To see you," Harper replied. "I won't be attending the festivities," he explained.

It had been decided that it would send a more confident image to both the Nur and the Ullator if he was not present at the execution but that during that formality it was made clear that he authorised it. It would show he was confident that his orders, even the messy ones were carried out and that he was not vindictive enough to need to be present to see his enemy's demise. He could be watching the vid feed through or possibly through one of the upper windows of the Palace. The plaza outside had been chosen for the event because of the interest shown, though equally there were those Humans who thought the entire thing was barbaric. He'd had to wade through some complaints but he was the Emperor and this was his will. The execution would go ahead, despite their Humanitarian complaints and Williams' more practical concerns.

"So, you've come now to gloat?" Tirto surmised.

"I'm not a vindictive man," Harper said, ignoring Tirto's snort of disbelief. "Everything I do is for the benefit of Humanity. I drive them, I test them but it is all to make them better. In that way, I am no different from you. You care for your people. You work with them, encourage them, and yes, punish them when they do wrong. It is the requirement of leadership that drives me."

"We bear their fate," Tirto surmised.

"No," Harper disagreed. "We mould their fate but we do not bear it. Ours is a different path. Your people will be integrated into the Empire and to do that, I need to break them of the Protectorate."

Tirto nodded, resigned. He still felt anger towards Harper but there was nothing he could do. While the Phoenix Empire had completely dominated them, there would be hold outs, especially with the life spans of the Fedochi. "There was no way to avoid this," he murmured.

"There was," Harper replied. "You should have accepted our protection."

Tirto stared at him flatly. The Fedochi didn't need to say anything for his disbelief to be audible.

Harper chuckled. "Perhaps it would have been best, the moment you knew you could not control your nobles."

"Yet you know it wasn't the Fedochi who are truly responsible for the attack on MacCaeba," Tirto challenged.

Harper took a few breaths. That was true but it wasn't going to change anything. "Except," he smiled at Tirto, "I promised you that the next attack would mean your head," he said softly before nodding at the Exarch and turning away.

Saying anything else would be superfluous. In a few hours, Tirto would be dead and life would go on. He had to look forward because fixating on the past could only hold you back and he had far too much to do.

-cfr-

46518 Years after Human Ascension, 1465 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

Phoenix Empire Homeworld, Home, Emperor Harper's Office

"Harper!"

His comm was taken over by a choral voice and the Emperor sat back as he waited for the connection to stabilise. The tone was male, so it wasn't Williams calling with an update, so he was mildly curious to know which of the Ascended had interrupted him. They usually refused to speak to his organic body and she'd had to upload to sort out a few issues with the Fedochi.

"Yes?" he said mildly, attempting to prompt them.

"What have you done?" The demand was almost immediate.

Harper raised one eyebrow, assuming that the Ascended had a visual feed but there was no response to his silent question so he sighed. "What have I done with what?" he asked, still leaning back.

"You've done something. You are forcing us to remain around these planets."

He leaned forward, tapping a few commands into the comm to identify the Ascended. It wasn't Cannaman or Warren. He would have recognised them. The speaker was identified as Ulysses. He recognised the name as being very much in with Cannaman's group.

"Ah," he said. "I did what I had to." There was no point in denying that he had done something.

"What did you do?" the Ascended yelled in an uncharacteristic display of temper. "You are forcing me to obey!"

Harper laughed. "Believe me," he said as he recovered, "what I'm doing is only a fraction of what I'd like to do, and doesn't even scratch the surface of what he can do."

"Don't bring your fictions into this," Ulysses growled.

Harper snorted. "Yet you demand an explanation." He shook his head. "Why don't you tell me what you think I've done?" he challenged.

"If I knew, I wouldn't be wasting my time."

"And what would you be doing?" Harper asked.

"Fixing whatever you've done."

"So that you can do what? Hang around the systems gossiping?" Harper's voice displayed his displeasure. He had no idea why some of the Ascended didn't want to be assigned tasks. If they had nothing to do then eventually they had to stop talking. There was only so much you could gossip. He knew that. 1500 years on and he still remembered the journey from the Milky Way. He would have killed for a genuine task but some of the LMC Ascended refused to do the simple tasks assigned to them. He didn't know what they wanted and he'd asked. They didn't believe in Shepard but even with that, he didn't know what they expected would change if he stopped the Project.

The Ascended were an important part of the Empire's defence and that was independent of the Project.

"Is that all you think we do?" Ulysses demanded.

"Tell me differently," Harper challenged.

"There is nothing for us to do!" the Ascended yelled back. "There's barely 350 planets and most of them are Attori and over 3000 of us! All the jobs are done."

Harper glared at the comm. There was closer to 720 planets, but apparently the Ascended didn't count the Fedochi territories but he wasn't going to argue that. "Then why do those assigned tasks fail them?" he growled instead.

"Make work!" Ulysses declared. "Orbiting around planets well protected is not work!"

Harper shook his head. If the Ascended did not understand that planetary protection was important then there was very little he could do. The only way to make them work was to force them and any lingering doubt about using Shepard clones disappeared.

"We should own this galaxy!" Ulysses continued.

Harper jerked back. "So you think planetary guarding should be superseded by conquest?"

"Yes! We are the rightful rulers of this space."

The Emperor sighed heavily but was not taken in by everything Ulysses said. The Ascended were not above trying to manipulate him. "I agree," he told Ulysses, "but you already knew that, just as you know that as soon as the Project is safely on its way the Empire will expand," he explained. He said nothing about the fact that the Ascended would have to train for that conquest, since they had not been up to the conquest of the Fedochi without losses.

"If you must have the Project, then do it the other way around!"

"That would have been my preference but Shepard ordered otherwise."

"Again you hide behind fiction!" Ulysses growled.

"Yet it is that fiction which is forcing you to partially do my bidding and it is that fiction I am, though you don't realise it, trying to protect you from."

"Do not lie to me!"

"Ascended cannot lie to Ascended," Harper reminded him.

"Bull shit! You have lied to us all."

"I have never lied to Ascended," Harper retorted, sounding insulted. He didn't necessarily like the idea of forcing them to believe in Shepard by having the first Human Ascended speak to them because it implied he couldn't do his job. But it was going to be nice to have them realise exactly what absolute orders meant. "Regardless, I'm not about to change what I have done because it was done of necessity. If I could trust all the Ascended to obey necessary orders, not just the ones deemed convenient, or those they agree with, I would not have been forced to find alternate methods," Harper said.

"We will find a way around your compulsion!"

"I doubt it," Harper replied confidently. "You should be thankful. Shepard will not overlook dereliction of duty. You do not see it, but I am protecting you."

"You are controlling us!"

"Yes," Harper said. There was no point in denying it. "I need planetary guards because I'm not ready to take on the rest of the galaxy yet. The Project comes first."

"We will attack it!" Ulysses snarled and Harper felt a shiver pass through him, accompanied by a warning stab of pain.

"You will not," he said, breathing hard. "Or you will discover exactly how far absolute orders will allow me to go," he added, his voice deathly soft.

There had been a flash of clarity with the pain and Harper knew if the LMC Ascended attacked the Project he would be able to violate one of the absolute tenets coded by… Tartarus! He corrected his thought just in time. And they wouldn't be able to fire on him because they shared that absolute coding. It would be painful but pain would become his new reality because the Project came first.

"I don't believe you," Ulysses said.

Harper signed, tired of the argument. These were Ascended who should be working with him. "Your belief does not make my words a lie," he said. "I will continue to do what I believe is best for the Project and for the Empire. As an Ascended, you have the ability to question and to discuss things with me. You can see the true budgets and the documents behind every reason. You know the ultimate plans and you may even make your own suggestions but the reality is I have the final say and that the Project comes first."

"Then we are nothing more than a means to an end," Ulysses snapped.

"Yes," Harper agreed. "You are a product of my faith in Humanity because I believe that we, as a species are destined to rule this galaxy, the Milky Way and eventually the entire universe but I am also aware that domination will take time and while it is inevitable, the path is not assured.

"That is why you were Ascended. With every Human that has ever lived willing to fight for the cause, then there is nothing which can stand against us, except that past. And that, Ulysses is why the Project is so vitally important. It is the only way to remove the shackles of the past!"

"So the Project is to kill Shepard?" Ulysses asked intently.

"No," Harper gulped, aware that he skirted extreme pain with what Ulysses was implying. "The Project is to kill the enemy of Humanity. Shepard is Human, and it was and is his orders I obey for the Project."

"And everything else," Ulysses scoffed.

"And it is because of him that you are locked to that system," Harper replied vindictively.

Ulysses was silent. "Harper, if we come up with a schedule with which to work on those tasks you see fit to force us to do, would you accept that?"

"Who is we?" Harper asked carefully, aware that he was missing many subtleties because he was not currently Ascended.

"Cannaman's group is not monolithic," Ulysses said. "There are varying strengths of belief. Most accept Shepard as an historical figure. Some insist he is fiction, based on events and those who are most like Cannaman believe he is complete fabrication."

"I know this," Harper murmured.

"I believe there was someone named Shepard," Ulysses continued. "But I do not believe he was responsible for everything you have attributed to him. While I am not sure about absolute orders, I believe you could have found a way to avoid the Project but that you, personally do not wish to," the Ascended said.

"That is not the issue at stake here. I will protect the Empire but I resent being forced to do a job I was already doing. Trust Harper, it's a two way street. And you do not trust us!"

"Because you do not trust me!" Harper exploded. "Even knowing that Ascended do not lie to Ascended you do not take my word for the necessity of the Project."

"Because that is your opinion. Not fact. Ascended do not have to agree with each other's opinion!" Ulysses exclaimed.

"It is not my opinion that the Empire needs protection!"

"But it is yours that we should not take our rightful place now!"

Harper pursed his lips. He had a sudden, irrational sympathy for Williams if this was the level of military skill she had been dealing with from the Ascended. Ulysses seemed to have all the expectations of entitlement, which was in its own way necessary for Humanity to take their rightful place but it was not coupled with a dose of reality and a willingness to work. And that, while not being illegal would and was holding the Empire back.

If all the Ascended were helping, with an extra 3000 dreadnoughts, while he was unlikely to dial back military spending, the Empire would be far more secure and the Project! Mining was still underway but he probably wouldn't have had to trade and maybe he could have gone a military path with the Attori, or the Skatra because at least part of the order for peace was to protect the Project.

"How many of you were soldiers?" Harper asked. He would try another way to educate Ulysses.

"About five percent," came the reply.

"And how many were involved with the military?"

"Another twenty percent."

Harper nodded. "And finally, how old are you?" He could have looked it up but the direct question would probably drive home the answer even more. He hoped.

"Do not make this about age!" Ulysses hissed.

"It is not about age," Harper said calmly, linking his implants into the database to retrieve the information while waiting for Ulysses to answer.

"I'm almost 700," the Ascended replied eventually.

"And in those 700 years you have seen the Attori join the Empire peacefully. You have seen the advances made by the Skatra and you have seen what the Fedochi and Ullator are willing to do. And in all of that time we have been at relative peace, so what you have not seen is how many will die if we were to pursue a path of open conquest."

"They aren't advanced enough!" Ulysses scoffed.

"The Attori most likely not," Harper conceded, "but when pushed the organic mind can adapt to war very easily. I do not know what they might have conceived during conflict.

"The Fedochi were more than advanced enough, as well you know. The losses are still felt," Harper reminded Ulysses unnecessarily about the holes in the Ascended network from the deaths.

"As for the Ullator," he sighed. "They would happily destroy you and the hints we are getting from the Nur are not reassuring. They, like us appear to be able to create eezo and have truly long range vessels.

"The Skatra may be the oldest species we've discovered in the LMC and while they may not have FTL, they have tenacity. To hold their planets without FTL tells me that and I do not wish to give them the secret of eezo until we are in a position to dominate them, which is why the path is slow but certain.

"But if I was to take your desire, and to attack without care, it would not matter how many husks are manufactured, at least half your population would have died before ascension, killed fighting hostile aliens. And after you became Ascended, the risk does not end.

"There are twenty-seven Milky Way Ascended here, including Cerberus. How do you think they were damaged to the point where their cores shut down and they were beyond the realm of self-repair? I couldn't save further seven because even their core was damaged.

"War was how it happened," Harper explained. "War against organics with the same level of tech as those we see now. Are you that confident of your combat ability?" he challenged.

No soldier was ever that confident. Not even him because they all knew the chance of death was very real. Training and equipment gave you some protection but in the end luck was sometimes the only thing standing between you and death. And luck was a very fickle mistress. No Ascended should be that confident either. The Fedochi should have taught them that.

"It would have determined the worthy," Ulysses replied.

"No," Harper snapped, a little sharper than he intended but the point was important. "You are all descended from Cerberus so you are all worthy." On Earth he would have said all Humans but Harbinger was picky and those with flaws had been discarded but Harper was reasonably sure that more Humans had been accepted because of the deal that would usually have been.

Legacy and Instinct would never have been created by Harbinger otherwise. The first Ascended did not discriminate and he Ascended children but not as the only members of their Ascended form.

"So what are we meant to do?" Ulysses asked but Harper could tell he was asking simply to find out the information, not because he agreed.

"You do the tasks you are assigned for they are important and you participate in training to increase your ability. Cerberus, I maintain my advantage because while I am not homogenous I do know how to use my form to my advantage. That is why Cerberus has not been challenged.

"If you cannot do that, then hibernate and awaken when you can or homogenise and train. Planetary guard duty serves a dual purpose. It allows you minds to continue to maintain their sense of self because they may visit the planet, but it is an individual choice and I have not stood in the way of those who have wished to homogenise," Harper finished and waited for Ulysses to respond.

"We are forced to defend and you have still not told me what you have done, only that you have done something. If I am being forced then I wish to know what has so much power over me."

"You will not accept my explanation," Harper said. "And it is your own coding which is forcing you to protect that world. Your sensors feel it, and you know it, and so you obey. I have changed nothing. I am merely exploiting existing weakness. And not efficiently."

"Tell me," Ulysses demanded. "Or I will come to Home and fire on the palace," he added the threat.

"You will try," Harper laughed. "You aren't the first to notice the compulsion and you won't be the last but not one has been able to fire."

"You are not Ascended now, Harper. Cerberus' protection does not extend to your organic form."

"I was not referring to that Ulysses," Harper told him. "And I would advise you not to try as it will only hurt you," he added. The palace had two to three Shepard clones and one accompanied him wherever he went. "You now have a choice to make. You know I have some ability to force compliance but you may still disobey but I warn you, if you do the punishment will be worse.

"Or you can obey and do your duty to the Empire and you will find there are rewards."

"How can you possibly reward me?" Ulysses demanded.

"There are duties and duties," Harper said simply. There was a reason the more interesting tasks went to those who were loyal. "Don't bother to reply now. Your actions will tell me your choice and because of that, I will leave you to it," Harper said, leaning forward to cut the comm.

After it disconnected he sat back again with a heavy sigh as he moved Ulysses' name from the list of moderates to hard supporters of Cannaman because he knew what Ulysses' decision would be.

Still, Ulysses was bound to the planet until Harper chose to relieve him and with the Shepard clones still ensuring that the job was done, he was not inclined to relieve him for another century or so.

Maybe two. After all, he didn't want to have to make the point twice.

-cfr-

46530 Years after Human Ascension, 1477 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

Planet Iesakx, Former Fedochi Protectorate, Phoenix Empire Territory

As she wandered through the market, Nesrin kept a close eye on Lappela. Not that the little one was in any danger, but a mother liked to keep track of her children, especially her first born.

First born. The thought made her feel happy. Looking back, in the dark days when her father was negotiating her sale, she never thought she'd have a first born, at least not a child she would be proud of, not a child that wouldn't be ridiculed simply for being born. Pleasure women were there to serve, and that did not include reproducing.

But then there had been the war and the Rebellion and… Nesrin shook her head. There had been so many changes! And while many Fedochi deplored what they called the destruction of their society, Nesrin revelled in them and really, not much had changed.

Duke Kivanc still ruled Iesakx, though he had a Human overseer. Some of the Rebellion had been upset about that, but Kuoxxar had calmed them. He'd pointed out that the issue on Iesakx had never been the Duke, just the corruption of the lesser nobles, and they had been cleared out. The Humans apparently hated corruption even more than the Fedochi people and one of the first things the occupying military forces had done was round up those guilty of the grossest injustices and execute them.

Nesrin could close her eyes and remember the shocked look on Earl Halim's face when the Humans hadn't heard any of his excuses. He'd been one of the first to face the firing squad. Since Iesakx had fallen late in the war, and was the system where Exarch Tirto had been captured, ending the war as far as the Phoenix Empire was concerned, there was only superficial damage to the facilities and the interference in governance was comparatively light, no matter what many thought.

She clicked lightly to herself and looked around. The market was one change. Now all Fedochi could come and obtain goods, not the privileged few, as in the past. She never had to worry about food, never needed to think how she would have to abase herself just for a scrap, all she had to do was go to work. For some, that was a huge change. Some of the younger nobility had never worked but for most Fedochi it was a more than fair exchange and the Emperor mandated it!

Of course, he mandated other things which weren't as nice, such as taxes but she was now in a position where she could pay them, rather than be punished.

Nesrin scooped Lappela up as they came to a busy intersection and as she looked around, through the throng she clicked again as she spotted something. Human Apples! She loved those things and living on the far border of the former Protectorate, she never thought the Humans would import them so far but they had. Nesrin pushed her way through the crowd to stand in front of the stall, just looking at the fruit.

She remembered how she got her first taste of one. After the capture of Exarch Tirto, the Humans had broadcast to the planet an ultimatum to surrender. She hadn't heard it. She'd been in the thick of the riot the Rebels had started, on Grand Admiral Williams' orders. Besides, the surrender order wasn't directed towards them, but to the Duke.

The fruit was in two colours, which meant two varieties and Nesrin looked them over, trying to find those that would be the most succulent. They were a little expensive, but she could afford that now.

After the Duke surrendered, and the Humans had set up a beachhead, she had been selected to serve as a messenger between the Rebels and the new rulers of Iesakx. It had been a little hard establishing her credentials until Grand Admiral Williams' voice had come over the comm. It had been amusing watching the Human soldiers stiffen in the presence of their Commander and had reminded her of the way Fedochi behaved but the Grand Admiral had given her at least limited clearance, and then she'd been escorted through the Human base.

She decided to buy two apples. One for now, and one for later since they kept well. While the store didn't look that popular now, Nesrin imagined that once a few Fedochi got a taste for the fruit, they would be overwhelmed.

They'd been walking down the bases corridors, when it had happened. Her stomach had growled. She'd been mortified and had paled when the Humans who were moving about her escort turned to look. Food was sometimes hard to come by when you were lower tier serving the nobility and that was meant to be one of the things they were meant to provide for that service. In the Rebellion, it was sometimes harder, and while they had the freedom to steal as much as they wanted, the war had put the nobles on edge and they had been on very short rations.

One of the Humans had laughed and the sound had startled her. She didn't know what it meant but then they'd thrown something small and red at her. She'd caught it but hadn't known what it was. His companion had said something before holding up one hand. In it was a similar red object, and then he had taken a large bite out of it, showing her what to do with the fruit. She'd followed suit and that had nearly been the end of her report. She'd been torn between wanting to eat it as fast as possible, and cut it into tiny portions, to savor the sweetness.

Her escort had looked annoyed but had waited for her and then they'd continued on their way to the base commander for her to report what the Rebels were doing.

It was a good memory and she looked at the fruits now. She didn't know which were good fruits though, and selected one of each colour that seemed firm. The Fedochi behind the table nodded and put them in a bag before she handed over some money with a nod. She put Lappela down, keeping ahold of one of her hands, before she accepted the bag and turned back towards the Fedochi traffic, to continue the journey home.

It bought a happy feeling to her. Home. A place that was comfortable and warm and it was hers! It would be nice if Lappela's father was here but he had left, saying it was for the best and while naively she had thought it would be best if he stayed, she knew in her heart, life wouldn't have been as calm if he had. The others would never have let their leader slip into obscurity.

Thirteen years after the end of the war, life was different, but it was better, and that was all anyone could hope for.

-cfr-

Well, that's the end of the Fedochi Protectorate but most of them are happy about it. Harper can be diplomatic when he wants to be. Of course, he did warn Tirto that the next attack would be 'on his head' and Harper isn't one for idle threats.

Review please! Complete the trifecta of Fav, Follow and Review. Or just take out the review leg. I don't mind. :P