The sun was rising as I walked up the paved path toward the front entrance of the hospice.

As always, I appreciated the peace and beauty of the place. The building was close to the seashore, so that patients could easily be granted the sight, sounds, and scent of the ocean. The grounds were rich with trees and flowering plants, and one could hear the buzz of insects and the chatter of small avians in the foliage. The whole district had been lovingly restored by a team of talented architects and eco-engineers, supported by the devoted labor of thousands of asari. It was like a small slice of the old Thessia, when the world was healthy and beautiful and no one had ever heard of the Reapers.

{What is her condition?} I asked my daimon.

{Stable for the moment, but she has refused sedatives since midnight. She has told the staff that she wants to be clear-minded for your visit today.}

I shook my head in exasperation. She is already too frail. Too much stress could be the end of her.

"Good morning, exarkhōn." The healer on duty rose bowed slightly as I approached her desk. "Your father has been asking for you. She's on the rear terrace."

"Thank you, Melitta."

I found my father reclining on a couch, propped up with soft pillows and covered with a light blanket. She was looking out to sea, seeming to be at peace, but I did not like her color at all. I had my daimon query the medical monitors built into the couch, and frowned at the result.

"Dad, you should be inside resting. Not to mention taking your medication."

"Hmm. Not going to happen, Little Wing. I'll let you in on a little secret: you get as far along as I have, you start hearing the Courier's wings in the silence, and they get closer as time goes on. They sound pretty damn close to me right now."

"That's all the more reason for you to be resting."

"Bah. It's all the more reason for me to be right here, where I can see the ocean and hold your hand and be awake to enjoy it." Aethyta sighed. "Not to mention there's something we need to talk about."

I sat down next to her couch and took her hand in mine. "What's that, Dad?"

She frowned, but said nothing for a long time, as if mustering her courage. Finally she turned to look up at me, her eyes shadowed. "It's that time during the war. When I was . . . crap, there's no polite way to say it. Spying on you."

"Is that still bothering you?" I shook my head and smiled at her. "You know I forgave you for that a long time ago. Even for keeping the truth about our relationship hidden, until I had to dig it out for myself."

"I know. I know. Damn the others for making me do that." She closed her eyes for a long moment, until I almost thought she had fallen asleep despite herself. Then they snapped open and focused on me, a little of the old fire in them once more. "It's not that. You need to know why."

I nearly protested that I did know why, that she shouldn't worry about it . . . but one thing I could be sure about, Aethyta would not be struggling to confess something that superficial. She had always possessed a sharp wit and a good sense of priorities, none of which had deserted her in her final decline.

She was watching me think it through, just the corner of her mouth quirking in amused pride. "So damn smart, just like Nezzie. You already guessed I couldn't be talking about anything little, like bumping off people who got in your way, or playing games with Cerberus, or taking over the galaxy's biggest black-ops organization."

"Something like that," I agreed.

Aethyta snorted in mock-disgust. "You young people, jamming all that hardware in your brains, you think that makes you so clever. You'll forget to use your eyes if you aren't careful. I know you, Little Wing, even if I don't have a fake geth whispering advice in my ear."

"You'll be complaining about our music and ordering us off your lawn next," I chided her.

"Probably." She took a deep breath. "No. It's nothing that trivial. You live long enough to become a Matriarch yourself, you'll probably figure all this out along the way, but I'm betting you'll need to know a long time before that. I have to tell you, because sure as shit no one else will."

"I'm listening."

"Here's the thing," she said, lowering her voice so I had to lean close. "We asari . . . you have to understand something about us. We are the biggest pack of liars in the whole Goddess-damned galaxy."

I cocked my head at her skeptically. "That's not exactly a secret to me, Dad."

"I know, you're thinking about the whole business with Athame and the temples." She smiled. "Turned you into quite the cynical little atheist, didn't it? Almost did the same thing to me, except I was already about as cynical as they come, and I never had much time for that religious crap to begin with. Still, what a kick in the quad, right? To find out almost everything we accomplished over thousands of years was due to a galaxy-class cheat sheet."

I sighed. "Yeah, Dad. What a kick in the quad."

"Don't patronize me, kid, I'm dying and I don't have time for it. Here's something for you to think about. Get right down to it, so what if Athame was some Prothean scientist? So what if the religion our ancestors built up around her turned out to be just smoke and mirrors? It's not our fault the Protheans uplifted our ancestors. We did the best we could with the situation we were given. Besides, the Athame cult isn't a bad religion as such things go. I haven't noticed you throwing out all the ethical teachings you learned, even if you don't go to temple anymore."

"I suppose that's true. I just . . . can't pretend the lie never happened."

"Nor should you. Which leads me back to the subject: the even bigger lie we've been telling ourselves – and the rest of the galaxy – almost as long as the one about Athame. This one we can't blame on the Protheans."

"What are you talking about?"

She shifted position slightly, emitting a hiss of pain as something moved inside her. "Liara, how does the rest of the galaxy think about us? What's the stereotype of asari?"

"Hmm. Intelligence, wisdom, culture, art, philosophy, diplomatic skill, science and technology . . ."

"Yeah. That's the lie, all right. We've presented ourselves that way to the galaxy for so long that most of us believe it too. I know you do, even now. Sorry, kid, but let me tell you what we asari really are." She stared up at me. "Selfish. Cruel. Manipulative. Violent. We are the queen-bitches of the galaxy, all dressed up and glamorous. We look pretty, but if you get in our way we will fuck you up."

I stared at her in shock.

"Don't look at me like I've lost my mind, Little Wing. Think it through and you'll see it's true. Why are we so damn good at manipulating people through money, political influence, and sex appeal? Why do so many maidens go in for commando training and the huntress guilds or mercenary units? Why does every Matriarch keep her own bodyguard of combat-ready acolytes? Why is an average asari almost ten times as likely to die a violent death as an average salarian, turian, or human, even in peacetime?" She sighed and relaxed back onto her couch. "It's how we're wired. Some of the things your friend Javik said to me once . . . I think the Protheans might have wanted us this way, the bastards. We're a lot like them. We would have been good foot-soldiers for their empire, at least. Maybe they even wanted apprentice imperialists: a client race to help them dominate the galaxy, or to rebuild their empire if they failed."

I let go of her hand and leaned back in my chair, looking out to sea and thinking about what she had said. Finally I had to shake my head.

"No, Dad, I don't buy it. There's more to the asari than that. I've certainly known enough individual asari whose personalities fit what you've said, but as a whole we're not an undisciplined horde of barbarians. Before the Reapers we had the most cohesive civilization in the galaxy. Even now we're pulling together and rebuilding. If we have yet to catch up to the others it's only because the Reapers hammered us down further, not because our population is constantly out of control."

Aethyta nodded. "That's all true. Because the Matriarchs keep a lid on us. I should know. I was in on the scam, all the way up to my fringe."

I had to nod reluctantly, conceding her point. "Asari psychology does encourage us to defer to our elders. To the Matriarchs."

"Sure. That's probably how asari civilization started, after the Protheans left. Some asari lived long enough to become Matriarchs and got control of a small community. They helped it to grow, helped more asari survive to hit the Matriarch stage in turn. Sure. But there's more to it than that. They had to bring the matrons and especially the maidens in line. Get them organized . . . or at least give them some outlet for their aggression, something that wouldn't keep knocking the supports out from under civilization."

"Like what?"

"Like give them weapons, encourage them to spar with each other all the time, and then get the survivors to think of themselves as defenders of the community. Or use them as expendable pawns in one scheme or another for political power. Or encourage them to go wander around the world, feasting, fighting, fucking, and stay away until they turn into matrons, ready to settle down and be responsible."

"Hmm."

"Yeah, you're seeing the pattern. I read an article about humans once, something about their development into adults. Seems the part of their brains that helps them defer gratification, make good decisions, be responsible . . . that part doesn't really get completely hooked up until a few years after they're already physically mature. Human societies always have to figure out how to keep all the young people in line until their brains finish developing. We've got a similar problem, Little Wing, except your average asari isn't really wired to become a responsible and moral member of society until she's over three hundred. It's a real dilemma."

One of my hands reached up to toy with my fringe. "You haven't said yet what this has to do with me."

Aethyta watched me soberly. "I think you can figure it out. This is why I was watching over you during those years, Little Wing. Even though Nezzie had pretty much shut me out of your life . . . I still loved you, kid, and I was so damn proud of you, and I didn't want anyone else on that assignment."

"Anyone less sympathetic."

"Screw sympathetic, kid. I didn't want anyone on that assignment who was already terrified of you."

I blinked. "I find it hard to believe that anyone would find me frightening. At least not until I became the Shadow Broker. You were posted to watch over me long before then."

"Believe it, Little Wing. It started before you were even born. I've given you all the pieces of the puzzle. What do you think?"

I stood and walked to the edge of the terrace, leaning on a wall and looking down on the beach a short distance away. The sun was rising high now, and it promised to be a warm day. I listened to the surf and the wind, and worked my way through the chain of logic.

"It's very rare for an asari to bear her first child as a Matriarch," I observed after a time.

"Goddess, it's almost unheard of," said Aethyta, her voice suddenly a little weaker. "I don't know what made Nezzie decide to have you at her age, after so long with no kids of her own. We never really discussed it, and when she knew she was pregnant . . . well, we didn't last much longer after that."

I came back to sit beside her once more. "It's medically difficult for a Matriarch to conceive and bear children. Also socially disapproved. Asari society expects matrons to have children, not Matriarchs."

Aethyta's eyes were closed. "The age difference."

"Yes. A matron has children. While her children are still maidens, she still lives, moves into the Matriarch stage, retains control of the lineage's wealth and political position. Her children are dependent on her, or they go out into the world as wandering maidens with no resources. Either way they have no capacity to harm others in large numbers. By the time the Matriarch dies, the lineage falls to children who are now themselves matrons, responsible citizens with children of their own."

". . . but that didn't work for you."

"No. The Matriarchs had to know that I would inherit Benezia's wealth and position when I was still very young."

"Right. Bad enough you were a pureblood. That just made you scandalous; it didn't make you a threat. Everyone knew you were going to be head of the T'Soni lineage centuries before you hit the matron stage. You did fit the normal pattern for a while. Ran away from Nezzie when you were only fifty. Studied a subject that most of the Matriarchs didn't think would ever be important. Typical maiden, off doing her own thing. Harmless."

I snorted. "Not the last error in judgment they made regarding me."

"Goddess, no." My father opened her eyes and watched me. "All of a sudden there you are, in the middle of a galactic war. Your expertise turns out to be important after all. Then Nezzie dies and leaves you everything . . . and you completely slip your leash. You go from being nobody to one of the most important players in the whole damn galaxy, in less than three years. You talk and the Matriarchs have to listen, and they don't have a thing on you to bring you back under control. You even start pushing Tevos around, and damn my eyes if that didn't scare the crap out of half of the Matriarchs on Thessia."

"Hmm. Put that way, it does sound like a concern."

"Concern? Little Wing, to this day some of them still think you're the biggest threat to asari society in a thousand years. And they're right."

I gave her a skeptical glance. "Bigger than the Reapers?"

She chuckled, closing her eyes and wincing slightly with the pain that followed. ". . . No, I suppose not. Think that's what's kept you off the Matriarchs' collective shit list for so long. Wasn't for you and Shepard, asari would be extinct now, and most of them are smart enough to know it. Still. The Reapers are gone now, and you're back at the top of the list if you don't watch out."

I patted her hand. "You've given me a lot to think about."

"Good. You do that." Once more she opened her eyes to look up at me. "Just remember the why. You've proven yourself more an asset than a threat, but that could change if you ever make a false step. If you ever look like all the power has gone to your head. I won't be around to keep them off your back."

"I'll remember." I leaned close, to give her the comfort of my embrace. "Do you know one of the first things I thought when Mother died?"

"Mmm."

"I thought: Benezia is dead. I am her heir. I will have to be Benezia from now on. Maybe I'm not quite 150, maybe I'm not wired yet to be sober and responsible. I can still behave that way if I choose to. I can function as if I were the youngest Matriarch in asari history. I can help to keep asari civilization sane and strong. You have my word on it."

"Good. Good. Never doubted it for an instant."

Aethyta lay quietly, one arm circling my shoulders to hold me close as I rested my head on her shoulder. Her eyes closed. She still spoke once in a while, but she was half-asleep and not much of it made sense. Perhaps an hour passed before she opened her eyes again.

"Wish I could have seen your kids, Little Wing."

"I know, Dad."

"They'll be special. One more thing we gave up when you came along so late in our lives. Too damn bad."

"I'll make sure they know about you."

"Hmm. Not much comfort there. You tell that bondmate of yours . . . she had better take good care of you, or I'll come back from the blessed shores and kick her ass."

She said nothing more. After a time I raised my head to look into her face, which was calm and at peace.

{Status?} I asked my daimon.

{She has accepted sedatives. Heartbeat and respiration slowing. Estimate about an hour before death.}

So I half-lay there in the warm sunlight, listening to the sea and the air and the small sounds of living things all around us, and I held my father. When she was gone, I stood and dried my tears, and bowed slightly to the healer as she came to do what was necessary.

Suffer now thy servant to depart in peace, I thought, human words I had learned from Shepard long ago. It seemed appropriate. It was the first time I had prayed in almost forty years.