15 September 2190, Kandros Mountains/Thessia
"So, who is this person you've called me fifty thousand light-years out of my way to see?"
I glanced at the skycar's other passenger.
Miranda Lawson seemed little changed since I had last seen her. I knew she had just passed forty standard years of age, which for humans was well into maturity. Between her artificial genetics and careful medical attention she still looked quite young. She was certainly as coldly beautiful as ever. The facial scar Kai Leng once gave her had faded almost to invisibility. She had taken to arranging her hair in a thick braid that fell halfway down her back. She wore the same black suit of light armor I had first seen on her during the fight against the Collectors, five years before.
"I don't know," I admitted.
"You don't know," Miranda said archly. "You don't know."
I rolled my eyes. "The universe is full of things that don't come to the attention of the Shadow Broker's network, especially since the war. The Reapers tore gaping holes in the web, and I've been too busy helping to rebuild Thessia and Earth to bring it back up to the old standard."
"Then why respond to this at all? Why call me?"
"Because whoever it is, she said it was a matter of grave importance, and she attached the Matriarch's Seal to the message. She also specifically asked for the two of us."
"It sounds like a trap."
"Well, that's why we're bringing the troops."
Miranda looked around, and out the skycar's windows. Two of my acolytes sat in the front seat, driving and performing lookout duty. Three other skycars flew in formation around us.
"Just how many acolytes do you have these days, anyway?" she asked, dryly amused.
I rolled my eyes in exasperation. "I don't want to talk about it."
Without diverting any attention away from her piloting, Nerylla said, "Forty-three, Ms. Lawson."
"Which is forty-three more than the Matriarchs think I should have."
"To bloody hell with the Matriarchs," said Miranda.
"Maidens do not attract acolytes. It just isn't done."
"Most maidens don't become major political players, help save the galaxy several times over, and then spend billions of credits out of their own pockets on reconstruction." Miranda shrugged. "Besides, you could turn them away."
"I do turn most of them away. The desperate ones, the ones who lost everything in the war. I'll help them but I won't accept their oaths. That would be . . . seriously unethical."
"That just means the ones you do accept tend to be rather formidable. I have no problem with that. I'd rather see you safe, even if a few superannuated asari take offense."
"I will admit that I need the help," I said. "There, that's the place up ahead."
Our skycars swept down out of the air, our escorts descending first to secure the landing zone for us.
It certainly didn't look like a trap.
We stood in the foothills of the Kandros Mountains, in Thessia's high northern latitudes. It was deep wilderness country, dozens of kilometers from the nearest settlement. In wintertime deep snow would have covered the land, but this was northern summer and the hillsides shimmered with rich green.
We had landed at the base of a gentle slope, looking up across open fields of grass and flowering plants to a forested area at the top. Just before the trees stood a house, low to the ground and sprawling over about twenty-five meters of the hillside. It had a very rustic style, constructed out of wood and other natural materials. Of course, whoever lived here was not entirely out of touch with civilization. I could see an uplink dish, for contact with the planetary comm grid and the extranet.
One asari came down the hill to meet us, an indigo-skinned matron, most likely in her fifth century. She wore a tough jacket and trousers suitable for life at a wilderness lodge, and carried a simple pistol at her hip. With both hands she gave us the gesture of an acolyte making a polite greeting on behalf of her principal. Nerylla met her at a distance and discussed protocol.
Finally my own acolytes permitted her to approach. She stopped at a respectful distance from me and gave a polite bow. "Dr. T'Soni. Ms. Lawson. I am Pelagia Tassalo, in service to the Matriarch."
"We are pleased to make your acquaintance, Matron Pelagia. Are you here to conduct us to your principal?"
"I am. Doctor, I must ask that your acolytes remain here. My principal poses no threat to you or anyone, but she very much values her privacy."
I exchanged a glance with Nerylla. She didn't look very happy.
"I don't think we're in any danger, Nerylla. Stand by, while Miranda and I see what's going on."
"As you command, despoina. We will be ready to intervene at a moment's notice if you call."
Miranda and I walked up the long slope. Pelagia did not invite us into the house itself. Instead she led us around to the side, up onto a wide wooden deck that caught the afternoon sun.
The Matriarch reclined on her left side on a couch, enjoying the sunlight and the cool breeze from the mountains. She wore an elegant gown in deep crimson, which covered her from neck to ankles. Her face showed a great spray of white dapples across her forehead and cheeks, her full lips bore a white half-stripe, and her eyes shone a brilliant sky-blue. She rather reminded me of Councilor Tevos, if the councilor had been fifteen kilos heavier and considerably more voluptuous.
She did not rise, only making a courteous gesture of welcome with her free hand. "Dr. T'Soni. Ms. Lawson. I am Matriarch Trellani Keldaris."
I made a correct bow, Miranda following suit at my side. I tried to remember where I had heard the Matriarch's name before.
"I'm pleased that you have seen fit to visit me," she said. "I think you will hear something to your advantage. Please make yourselves at ease in my home."
I found a chair and relaxed into it. Miranda also sat down, but she sat on the edge of her chair and leaned forward, like a hunting beast on the trail. "Cut to the chase, Matriarch. I left a lot of work half-done when I came here. The only reason I came at all was because Liara called me."
The Matriarch smiled. "You place your trust in Dr. T'Soni?"
"Too right I do." Miranda glanced at me, as if confirming my presence. "We've been through a lot together. We're . . . friends."
"Which is not to say that we haven't had each other at gunpoint from time to time," I murmured.
"No friendship worth having is entirely without strain," said the Matriarch, smiling more broadly at the two of us. "In any case, Ms. Lawson, I think you will find this relevant to your work. As I understand it, you are currently engaged in tracking down and destroying remnants of the organization known as Cerberus. An organization in which you once held very high station."
"That's no secret. I broke with Cerberus before the Reapers arrived."
"Of course you did. Although it might be more accurate to say that you broke with the Illusive Man. You still subscribe to some of the ideals he promoted, even to the present day, do you not?"
"I don't see what business that is of yours," Miranda said. I could hear the flat tone in her voice, the one that said she kept her temper in tight check.
"All in good time." The Matriarch dropped her gaze, looking down as if trying to avoid our eyes. "You see, I knew the Illusive Man quite well. I was his mistress."
Miranda and I exchanged a startled glance.
"Forgive me, Matriarch," I said. "You carried on a liaison . . . with the Illusive Man?"
"I was hardly alone." Matriarch Trellani shifted on her couch, the movement suddenly suggesting indolence and sensuality. "I could not begin to count how many women I had to share Jack's bed with. Models, athletes, actresses, the daughters of the idle rich . . . his appetite for young, beautiful, high-status women was absolutely boundless. He collected them. Like trophies."
"What utter nonsense," Miranda spat, abruptly standing as if preparing to leave.
"Miranda . . ." I found I could not continue.
She glanced at me, and the anger drained out of her face as she saw the expression on mine.
"That's where I saw your name before," I told the Matriarch. "For a time, the yahg had informants buried so deep inside Cerberus that he knew everything about the Illusive Man. He actually counted how many cigarettes and servings of alcohol the Illusive Man used each day, in an attempt to detect changes in Cerberus operational patterns. I saw long lists of Mr. Harper's sexual partners as well."
Slowly Miranda sat down, her face even more pale than usual.
"I have often wondered how many of those women also served as informants for your predecessor," said Trellani. "Most of them did not seem very bright."
"I would rather not say, Matriarch. In my profession, it is important to protect sources and methods."
She snorted. "I see my guess is not far off the mark. No matter. I think if you were to review those lists, you would find that I was the only non-human lover he had."
"To be honest, Matriarch, I did not examine the lists closely." I shrugged. "I suppose we can stipulate the fact."
"No we can't." Miranda still looked pale, but she had mustered her resources for an argument. "You're asari, Matriarch Trellani. Even assuming I believe this story about the lllusive Man's habits, the last thing he would do is seek out a partner who could read his mind in detail, every time he slept with her."
"Of course he would. If he trusted the partner."
"The Illusive Man never trusted anyone."
"He trusted you, Ms. Lawson. Right up to the moment you betrayed him."
Trellani lifted a hand. "I apologize. I did not intend to be so harsh. Ms. Lawson, I fully understand why you broke with him, and I do not intend to criticize you for that decision. Jack was a man to inspire devotion, but in the end he was not a man to deserve it."
"So the Illusive Man trusted you," I said, hoping to distract the Matriarch from Miranda. "Why?"
"Because I knew him for a long time, as humans measure things." She rose from her couch at last, moving gracefully to the edge of the deck and leaning against the railing, looking away from us. "I met him just after the end of the First Contact War. He was simply Jack Harper then, a human mercenary soldier. He came to Illium to search out an ancient relic of some kind. It was almost certainly a Reaper artifact, although no one recognized it as such at the time. He was obsessed with the artifact, and the visions it had given him."
I nodded. "The yahg was aware of Mr. Harper's visit to Illium."
"I had never encountered a human before. He impressed me greatly: his intelligence, his strength of will, even his arrogance. Even then he seemed far larger than life. I did not begin a liaison with him then, but I did aid him in his quest. After he left Illium, I remained in contact with him. As the years passed, even after he established Cerberus, I advised him from time to time. Eventually he came to trust me, not as an asari, but as myself."
"How did that become a liaison with him?" I asked gently.
"Actually, I have your mother to thank for that." Trellani turned back to us, returned to recline on her couch once more. "I saw when Benezia chose to begin working closely with Saren Arterius. I thought she showed great courage. It made me think of Jack. At the time Jack did not seem to be a threat to the galaxy's peace on the same level as Saren . . . but I knew him better than any other asari. I knew his potential, knew his capacity for great evil or for great good."
"So you went to him. Offered to help him."
"Yes. I was no great Matriarch, not like Benezia with her billion-credit holdings and her thousands of acolytes. I was simply Trellani, with centuries of education and experience in the galaxy. I was of use to him as an advisor, a sounding board, not as a fellow power. So you see, when I finally came to his bed and our minds merged, he already felt accustomed to confiding in me. He knew I posed no threat to him. And you must remember that he learned everything there was to know about me as well. After that first time, he knew he could trust me not to betray him."
"Do you think it helped?" Miranda asked quietly.
"I don't know, child." Trellani sighed. "Looking back on it, I think I may have called him back from the abyss once or twice. There was so much darkness in him, ever since his encounter with that relic. Yet sometimes I was able to help him see . . . alternatives. Ways to pursue his goals without letting the darkness run free. Sometimes. In the end it made no difference."
I fell silent. Trellani's story had suddenly planted a very unpleasant thought in the back of my mind.
Did my mother . . . and Saren?
I remembered some of Benezia's last words.
Oh, Goddess! He is upon me, inside me, tearing at me from the inside.
The strength of my revulsion surprised me. I thought I had long since come to terms with my mother's fate. Now the thought of her mating with that monster . . .
"Liara?" Miranda's voice, full of sudden concern.
"I'm sorry," I said, standing and rushing to the side. I made it to the edge of the deck before my stomach heaved and I was left helpless, convulsing, clinging to the rail to avoid complete collapse.
"Liara!" Miranda was there, her hands surprisingly gentle on my shoulders. "God, what's wrong?"
"She has deduced something unpleasant," said Trellani, her voice quiet and rather sad.
Somehow I got my legs under me again, and wiped my mouth clean. I turned to glare at the Matriarch through streaming eyes. "I should hate you for this."
The Matriarch said nothing.
Suddenly Miranda understood. She took my shoulders, braced me, and stared into my eyes. "Liara. It wasn't her choice. It wasn't her fault."
"I know." I broke free and stumbled back to my chair, blinking the tears out of my eyes. "My mother did far worse things under Reaper influence. She was complicit in the murder of millions. Compared to that, mating with that turian bastard was nothing."
"Perhaps, in the great scheme of things, that is true," said Trellani. "Yet you should not be ashamed of what you feel. Whom our parents choose to love, it strikes to the heart."
"You think she loved Saren?"
"Why not?" she asked with a shrug. "No doubt the indoctrination twisted both their souls, but perhaps there was something like love between them."
"Enough," I growled. "You called us here for a reason, Matriarch."
"I did. Now that you both have heard my story, I can make that reason plain." Trellani relaxed on her couch, once more at ease. "The crisis came when Commander Shepard destroyed the Collectors. To be betrayed by Shepard and by both of you, all at the same time . . . it broke something within him, some last restraint that had held him back. He gave himself entirely over to the darkness. Nothing I could do or say made any difference.
"I told him I had to leave, that I could give him no more help on the path he had chosen. I swore I would never betray him. I promised to vanish, live quietly somewhere far out of the way. He knew I told the truth. He let me go. I came here, to my family's lands. Here I somehow survived the Reapers, the chaos that followed the war, all of it.
"But I still have my memories of him. I have all his secrets, as of a few months before the Reapers arrived: names, dates, locations, operational plans, allocation of resources, everything. He had schemes within schemes, some of which might still be active. Perhaps that can still be useful to both of you."
"Doesn't that count as a betrayal?" asked Miranda.
"Why should it? Jack is dead. Cerberus should have died with him. I feel no loyalty to any of its remnants, still causing trouble and suffering out among the stars."
Once more Miranda and I exchanged a glance. I didn't have to ask out loud, I had come to know her that well. She simply nodded.
"Very well, Matriarch." I took a deep breath. "What do you want in return?"
She smiled. "You are that sure I want something?"
"Don't insult our intelligence. Of course you want something."
"You are correct, of course." She gestured with her free hand, as if to take in our surroundings: forest, meadows, hills, distant mountains. "I wish to live here, quiet and anonymous, until the galaxy has forgotten the Illusive Man and his crimes. If you want my information, you will come here to get it, and you will take steps to ensure my privacy continues uninterrupted."
"That's simple enough," I told her. "I can send analysts to debrief you here, and I can assign security assets to make sure you remain otherwise undisturbed. Miranda already has access to my network, so she will get anything useful that you can provide."
"Acceptable." The Matriarch hesitated. "There is one more thing."
She opened her omni-tool and touched a single control. "Pelagia."
The acolyte appeared almost at once, stepping out onto the deck from inside the house. She carried something, some small bundle . . .
The bundle squirmed and asked to be put down. As soon as its feet touched the ground, it ran across the deck to hurl itself into the Matriarch's arms. "Mata!"
"Oh dear God," observed Miranda.
"Another point on which I resemble Benezia," said Trellani quietly. "I was not even certain it would be possible. A Matriarch does not easily conceive children. But when I knew I had to leave Jack, when I saw the horrible fate he faced . . . I wanted to save something out of the disaster I could see coming."
"What's her name?" I asked gently.
Trellani glanced up from her daughter, watching the two of us. "Miranda."
I glanced over at my friend. She sat absolutely motionless, one fist clenched between her breasts as if she tried to hold her heart in place. I didn't even try to interpret the expression on her face.
"I know the question you have not asked, Ms. Lawson. With all those human women in his bed, why did Jack never come to you?"
Miranda looked down for a long moment, her fist still clenched. "I . . ."
"There were many reasons," said the Matriarch. "He did not wish to endanger his relationship with your father. He did not wish to compromise one of his most talented and trusted operatives."
"Is that all?" asked Miranda, in a small voice such as I had never heard from her before.
"No. He loved you, Ms. Lawson . . . Miranda. Like a daughter of his own, he loved you. He held you in such pride and respect. I don't think he knew quite what to do about those feelings. Certainly he never voiced them, even to me, but I saw them in his mind. I think that was part of the reason I stayed with him as long as I did. I could see he still had the capacity for honest love, buried somewhere in his heart."
I nodded. "So when you had his daughter . . ."
"I named her after the daughter of his spirit." Trellani smiled sadly. "Miranda might almost be an asari name in any case."
"What more do you want, Matriarch?"
She looked down at her daughter, who sat in her lap and glanced around with the serious expression of a very small child. The little girl had blue eyes, of course. For a moment, I half expected them to glow with the odd luminosity of the Illusive Man's eyes.
"I am unlike Benezia in one respect, Dr. T'Soni. I am a young Matriarch, barely seven hundred years of age. If I am permitted my natural span, Miranda will be an adult and nearly a matron in her own right by the time I pass on to the blessed shores. Yet if the past few years have taught us anything, it is that nothing is ever certain."
"You want someone to watch over Miranda, should the worst come to pass."
"Yes." She looked up at me, her gaze calm and accepting. "I had two other daughters once. Both of them died in the war. Little Miranda is all I have left, the end of my lineage."
"I understand. Of course I will do what I can for her."
"So will I," said Miranda suddenly. "You have my word on it."
My friend stayed very quiet, as we walked back down the slope from Matriarch Trellani's house. Then, about halfway down, she stopped and lifted her eyes blindly to the distant mountains. She seemed to have lost any desire to continue moving forward.
I reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder.
Suddenly something seemed to break inside her. She turned and threw herself into my embrace, her face twisted with grief. She didn't weep aloud, but her shoulders shook with the effort of suppressing it. All I could do was hold her close and make soothing sounds, until the storm passed.
"Damn him," she said at last, standing quietly in my embrace.
"I'm sorry," I told her.
"Why?" she snarled, but I knew her anger was not for me. "Not your fault. We're in the same bloody fix anyway, both of us. Parent figures who fucked up our lives, and then went and died without bothering to repair the damage."
I nodded, not knowing what to say.
I had never known what to say to heal Miranda's heart. Under that tough, confident exterior, I knew just how lonely she was. She had so few friends, so few people she could trust, and never a lover to stand at her side. In all her life, she had given her full and honest devotion to only two men . . . but then she had been forced to betray one, the other had fallen in love with me instead, and both of them had long since died.
I put her at arm's length, still holding her by the shoulders so I could look into her eyes. "I'm here for you. Always. Whenever you need me."
"I know. You've always been a great help to my work . . ."
"That is not what I meant." I shook her slightly, giving her a wry smile. "Not the Shadow Broker. Me. Liara T'Soni. I'm your friend. Believe it."
Something in my voice got through. She stood up straight again, wiping at her cheeks with one hand. "Thank you."
"You are welcome." I put an arm around her shoulders and encouraged her to keep moving. "Now come on. We have a galaxy to save."
"Haven't we already done that, several times over?"
"It's one of those chores that you never get to claim is finished. Rather like mowing the lawn."
She laughed and walked with me, back to where the others waited to take us home.
Author's Note: This short story was first written back in July of 2013. At the time it was just a quick exercise in character development. I had noticed a bit of lore in the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC, referring to a week's worth of the Illusive Man's sexual partners, including "Matriarch Trellani (twice)." It occurred to me to wonder how the Illusive Man would ever consider sleeping with an asari Matriarch, of all people! This story followed, and it also gave me a chance to put Liara and Miranda on stage together, as they almost never appear in the source material.
Since then, to my vast surprise, this story has turned out to be something of a keystone for the entire Memoirs continuity. Both of the novels I'm currently working on refer back to it. In All the Western Stars, "little Miranda" is fully grown and a major character, and we've also seen a few hints as to Liara's deeper relationship with Miranda Lawson. That relationship, of course, is going to be a major plot element in The Silk Revolution.
So it made sense to me to polish this story a bit, and re-release it for the benefit of readers who haven't seen it before. Enjoy!