"You are too kind, Rigel Praetorian." Susan said liltingly, inclining her head in a graceful nod at her patron's warm welcome. The jewelry threaded around her tentacles jingling musically with the motion.
"Lady, it is only what a true artist such as yourself deserves." The human before her held out a gauntleted hand, which she took with a grateful smile. He led her past the foyer into a smaller room that was still part of this highly populated planet's main Temple. She kept her pace to an easy glide and resisted the urge to see if Marcus was still at her heels, clad head to toe in that crimson shell. She'd no reason to doubt, could almost feel the pressure of his presence, but a glimpse of him would help calm the fluttering in her stomach.
Marcus was glad to see that she'd indeed toned it down, it was just disturbing to see her bright, intelligent eyes become vacant to the point of idiocy. She seemed to have settled somewhere between spoiled society lady and naive tourist. Her obvious disregard or ignorance of local politics and intrigue making those she'd come to entertain relax in her presence. As a ruse, it was alarmingly effective. Another sign that his uncle's teachings had been abandoned. These people were too comfortable in their power and he hoped that it one day led to their downfall.
"Tell me again why we're not using the main chapel?" She said, smiling shyly at her escort.
"My dear, your talents would be wasted on those who would not understand, could not understand. Not like we do." He gestured around the room. It was filled to the brim with the elite of this converted world and fairly reeked of self importance and pomposity. "Besides, they do not need it. The common people have ever been closer to the god, though I doubt they'd ever realize it, being simple in deed and thought. Your efforts should be reserved for those of us who could stand to be enlightened further to the truth."
That had been a shocker, when she'd found out that access to anything about Shepard, her music, the details of her life were far from available to the general populace. In fact, it had become blasphemy for anyone to listen to her music outside of the Temple or even own copies of it. The leaders guarded it jealously, instead beat into the populace a doctrine of ultimate obedience, self sacrifice for the greater good, all things that sounded good on paper but couldn't convey the reality of seeing the blank stares, the shuffling of docile supplicants in this place of white marble. Like any religion, they strove to put themselves between the people and their god, securing the necessity of their rule with commandments and rituals.
Punishment for transgressions like theft, murder, rape were swift and brutal, final. And she had a feeling from what her kind host had already said about the state of this planet that every day there were fewer and fewer transgressions. They clearly took this to mean that they were winning against the baser nature of people. She wondered if it didn't mean something else.
She paused on the dais before turning to take in the faces of the people who waited for her to 'enlighten' them. The man who'd led her there sat himself in the front row and without looking at Marcus directly, she took solace in the red shape of him that lurked in her peripheral vision. She lifted her head and took a measured breath before setting her diaphragm and letting it out in the opening bars of one of Shepard's more popular pieces. Popular for its sweet melody and high coloratura.
The acoustics in this room were far from perfect, but she felt out the right resonance for the space, the best emphasis on pitch and tone. She 'heard' an answering resonance from the people before her and closed her eyes to it and just felt the music for what it was, not what they wanted it to be. It tugged at her and she swayed with it, let it move her limbs however it wished and felt it wash through her, felt it wash through them. She felt the approval of the thing that resided in her mind and flushed with it, in fear and pleasure.
Marcus watched as the sound filled the room with a euphoric sense of wonder, feeling touched by it himself slightly. The faces that stared up at her slackened and he was amused to see that not too few were also swaying in their seats, as though she was controlling them with her waving arms. It was strange and almost mystical, how moved they were by a simple song. How oddly blank their faces became. How incongruously it clashed with what the music seemed to be trying to convey.
It brought to mind what he'd seen on the way here. The streets had not been particularly crowded, but every face had this same blankness, and while they moved with purpose, it seemed a mindless one, a machine-like execution of their tasks only. Unsettling. Unnerving, even. He had the feeling that something was going very wrong out here. Even more wrong than it had already.
He thought back to his long conversation with Ushal back on the ship, 'Leilani' as it was designated. How surprised he'd been when he'd found out that the geth that flew her was none other than his old companion, that the geth had been the first to volunteer when this dangerous and ambitious assignment had been proposed.
At first, all they did was get caught up, Marcus found talking to the machine was so very easy and he felt as though another missing part had been found. He'd been gratified to hear that the telemetry data from their ill fated mission on that far moon had been instrumental in the release of Tali and EDI from the 'web' their minds were caught in and that the geth had been in the main assault on the forces sealing Rannoch away from the rest of the galaxy. He'd waved away his part in it, just glad that it had gone right for someone else for once.
After that, the conversation had moved onto their current objective. By then, Susan had joined him in the cockpit and they pored over astrogation charts together, coming to the conclusion with the help of Ushal's calculations that this planet, the one where Marcus was currently watching Susan woo the leaders of it with a song, this planet was the epicenter, it was ground zero for the epidemic of belief that Shepard was a god. From here it had spread and infected millions, through agents and subtler means, all culminating in the biggest betrayal in living history. It had to have taken much longer than a year to plan. Mutiny on a galactic scale.
That it was also known for its medical industry and research, and that Miranda had been spotted here by Shadow Broker agents at around the same time, couldn't be a coincidence. He was fast coming to believe that there was no such thing as coincidence.
He felt a shiver as the song ended, like some greater understanding was just out of reach, but it fell away promptly and he shook it off, resuming his careful watch over Susan. A glance at his chronometer told him that the better part of an hour had passed, though it felt as though only a few minutes had elapsed. Strange. He eyed the people who stirred in their seats. This bodyguard act had long ceased being an act, she needed someone to watch her back.
"Praise be to the Shepard." She intoned, hand over her heart. The words tasted bitter in her mouth, but she forced herself to say them sincerely and heard it echoed back to her from the people watching. She stepped down lightly, Marcus at her heels in a flash and found an older asari in her path, who looked at her speculatively down a long aquiline nose.
"You have quite the gift, Matron." Shrewd eyes assessed her and Susan reminded herself not to underestimate this woman, who was hundreds of years older than she.
Susan embraced her in asari fashion, cheek to cheek, lifting up on her toes to do so, "I thank you, Matriarch."
"Matron Elayna has graciously offered the hospitality of her ship, Priestess Helmina, for repast." Rigel said, standing beside them in the aisle as the rest of the patrons filtered out.
"How generous. Can she accommodate so many, though, I wonder." Helmina inquired, with a quirked brow.
"It should be more than adequate, Matriarch." She deferred to the powerful woman with a bow, keeping her expression pleasant and empty. Pride assuaged, the asari turned abruptly and glided gracefully out of the room.
Rigel smiled after her and Susan noted the calculating flicker of his eyes and tucked that away for future reference, the man turned to her genially and said, "Our high priestess can be a little overwhelming. Shall we?"
Once again, he escorted her out, back to her ship, where she would soon host enemies, close to her breast. A glance at Marcus and his solid, reassuring presence and she straightened her shoulders. She could do this. She had to do this. She could do anything with him at her back.
"That one there." His voice was low and almost subvocal as he leaned in to point out a particular man. Susan suppressed a shiver at his nearness and lifted her drink back up to her lips, its sweet aroma almost too sweet. A small sip of the powerful beverage, though her nerves screamed at her to take huge gulps to steady herself for this next crucial task. Lucky for her that her new 'friend' Rigel the praetorian was at that moment conversing with the drell, one of the few here that wore no insignia of rank that she could see, just a modest chain with a shepherd's crook around his striped neck.
She plastered a small vapid smile on her face and approached the two men, "Rigel, where have you been? You promised to show me the gardens...Oh, hello, have we been introduced?"
"This is Makryth Augurer. He runs the administrative side of our...projects." Rigel stood back as Susan clasped the drell's extended hand delicately and she saw herself reflected back in his large, dark eyes, her face painted prettily and an unfamiliar expression of mild conceit giving it a haughty air. A distorted vision of herself that was unsettling to the core and now she knew why she hated aliases. They showed her how easy it was to pretend to be someone else, to lie. The world was uncertain enough without not being sure just exactly who the person you were talking to was. But she shook it off for now and gave the man a nod in response to his half bow.
"I don't get to meet many drell. Let alone augurers. What does an augurer do?" Her voice dripped innocent curiosity and she watched the other's lips turn up at the corners.
"Mostly I make sure the coffers are full, but mostly they come to me when they need ideas." His voice held interesting subharmonics, not the ringing thirds of turians, but a soft sussuration just below the natural timbre.
"Don't let him fool you with this humble act. He'd be the first to tell you about his grand Vision if he weren't playing modest." This earned him a sharp look from the drell. One that clearly said he'd overstepped his bounds.
"My praetorian makes too much of my contributions. We are all just servants of the Shepard." There was a deep flicker in the drell's eyes as he said this and Susan felt alarms go up in her mind. This was a true believer, and fanatics were always far more dangerous than they seemed. She would have to tread carefully.
She said, "The Shepard would surely bless your selfless endeavors."
Makryth smiled and had the grace to nod, "The god already has. We have enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity on this world and it is our fondest hope to share it with the rest of the galaxy."
"All in due time, of course." Rigel said, placating the other man with a respectful bow.
"Yes, they will all know the truth of the Shepard. And there will be joy and peace forever." Makryth's eyes were far away for quite some time before they found their way back to Susan's. She let her eyes drop coquettishly and was gratified to see interest spark in the other as the man spoke softly, "Thank you for your performance in the Temple, Matron Elayna. It's not often we hear the work of the Shepard sung with such love. It will be a memory I will relive often."
"Please just call me Elayna. We all contribute. It is all I have to give the god as tithe." She demurred.
Makryth made a sound deep in his throat, not quite a hum, "How long can we expect you to stay?"
"My original engagement was contracted to be a week, but it's not often that I get to stay somewhere so...civilized. Perhaps I can stay a little longer." With good reason, her tone said, inviting him to give her one.
"We would be pleased to host you for as long as you would like to stay." Makryth clasped her hand warmly in the two of his and she let herself smile in pleasure at him. "As I seem to recall that you have a fondness for gardens, perhaps you would like to visit my villa while you are here. I have quite a nice conservatory there with many rare indigenous flora."
"I think I'd like that, augurer."
"Please, surely if I can have the pleasure of calling you by name, then you may do the same." He put her hand on his arm and led her to the banquet tables, where the morsels Errol made did call to her invitingly. She briefly met the gaze of that turian himself, who stood there as a servant. His manner was perfectly solicitous as he handed her a new glass of fire brandy, but his eyes flicked to the side and behind her in concern.
Marcus was fighting a battle with himself. His senses were screaming that they were surrounded by hostiles, that he should be laying waste to them with the pistol at his hip, the grip of which his hand kept caressing. It was good that they couldn't see his face behind the helmet or the game would surely be given away. It helped that Susan was so very relaxed, but then again these games of intrigue and subterfuge had been hers for a year. He used all his discipline to keep it all under wraps, the only outward sign that all was not well inside his armor an occasional shifting from one hip to another, and the clenching of his hands.
"Something amiss with your...companion?" Makryth asked, following the line of Susan's gaze as she nonchalantly glanced behind her to the stiff figure of Marcus.
She laughed, high and breathy, "Oh, that's just Octavius Legionnaire. On loan from the Authority. He takes his job as my bodyguard very seriously."
The tension in him broke with her laugh and he made himself adopt a relaxed posture. Still wary as a bodyguard should be, but feigning comfort among these 'allies' in red attire all around him.
The drell laughed as well, "As he should. Obedience to duty is hardly a fault."
"Relax, Octavius. Your hovering is starting to annoy." She admonished him, her lips in a slight pout. He wondered if she knew how childish the expression was and smiled in his helmet. Of course she did, all these were weapons in her arsenal.
"Yes, Matron." He bowed and took a step back.
They all took her cue to dismiss his presence and once again, Marcus became just her shadow, everpresent, but not a threat in any way.
"Here is the key to my extranet address when you wish to visit. I look forward to it." His words dripped meaning layered over meaning and she took the data crystal from him and tucked it safe away in her clutch. She'd have Ushal analyze it later, for surely there would be surprises on there. No one was that trusting, but she put a trusting smile on her face so hide her suspicions.
She gave the man's hand a warm squeeze, letting her lips part seductively, suppressing a triumphant smirk as the drell's eyes tracked the movement of her tongue as it flicked out to wet her full lips and sighed, "As do I...Makryth."