The water of Tsion sang soft in the warm silence. Miriam stood with her eyes closed, listening, stance wide and solid with her hands joined behind her. Uniform white as marble, hair a golden filigrees decorating her shoulders and back, Miriam was a slender monument on the concrete bank of the lake. The fountain's mist caught in her eyelashes and shone.
Miriam's glowing eyelashes shivered. Veiled blue irises turned towards the man who had addressed her, a head shorter than she, a few shades darker. "Hm?" Her voice boiled lazily from her stomach, as though she'd been dozing on her feet.
"The Taranish." That man's own white-and-gold uniform looked somehow gray on him. "It was sighted passing around the Mezeket Cluster, on its way to the Vhallas System."
Miriam's slender form straightened, muscles hardening. The hair on the back of her neck stood electrified. Her glowing eyelashes parted and she glowered at the domed ceiling of Tsion. The name: the Taranish. It brought to her mind other such ugly words: Sarnath, Brimstone, Guinangap. The war-carrier Taranish did not belong in space controlled by the Blessed Confederation. The Guinangap had been exiled far from the Mezeket Cluster, farther still from the holy worlds of the Vhallas System. Light shone deep inside of those worlds, like fire inside of pearls. They should not be there, the Guinangap, those people of darkness, those outcast sinners who huddled in shadowy cities, brains riddled with sacrilegious cybernetics, thoughts ever on money and power and perversions.
Like a birch tree, Miriam swayed before the lake, gaze full of its waters and the flickering light on is surface. Terrestrial seas mirrored the heavens as they had once been, it was said. Miriam swung her long arms up in front of her, fingers white as shafts of sugar, fingernails of caramel, eying over them the vague shape of a sieve that circled the fountain at the center of the lake. Her fingers curled between her eyes and that roiling near-starlight. "The Taranish. That's Eva's ship."
"Who?" The gray-uniformed man blinked. His eyes did not catch the light. It was not that he was dull or distant. That wouldn't matter. It was simply how the light fell.
Eva was not a woman widely known by her first name. Miriam joined her fingers and pressed the doubled fist to her breast. "The spawn of the geist-Emperor of the Guinangap."
Now the man's eyes rose in recognition. "Her again? So her loathsome hobby continues."
"It is just so, yes." Miriam's high head inclined. Eva and the Taranish had slipped past the borders of the Confederation's space a half dozen times in the past. Four of those times, it had been Miriam's fleet that had chased Eva away. But never had Eva sought to reach a place so deep, so holy, and so vulnerable as the Vhallas system.
"A war-carrier, Commodore. Eva will be carrying a thousand fighters, weapons platforms, heavy munitions, sentient machines heretically bound to human mounds."
"Yes, all of that. Perhaps more than we know."
"Into holy space!"
Miriam watch the sky panels that covered Tsion's ceiling, shedding light that alternated between white and yellow in the manner of a great, rippling golden sheet. A mist drifted up towards it from the surface of the lake. "Audacity. It suits her."
Miriam chuckled. "Am I the only one not surprised by her intrusion?" Eva was a tiny woman, slight and sickly, garbed in purple scales, dark sashes, and the flirtatious sneer of a devil. Bold impetuousness had always hung about her: she the short-on-life girl who thought she could obtain immortality if only she managed to slam the doors of Heaven with enough force. Miriam's shoulders rose in a sigh. "I could have predicted it. Every time I chased her away, she only returned more voracious, better-armed, and more eager for conflict. Will she start a fight this time, or will I be able to defuse her again? Regardless, something must be done. Something different."
"The provincial council agrees. The Taranish will be within range of the Mezeket Cluster's accelerator cannons for another hour. They want you to use them."
Miriam's hands unfurled from one another, and she looked down at her upturned fingernails. "The accelerator cannons? Destroy the Taranish before it even reaches the Vhallas System? Kill Eva and everyone with her?"
"The Taranish is in clear violation of the Guinangap exile, armed and ready for conflict. They've been antagonistic in the past. You yourself have given them more than enough warnings." The gray-garbed man gestured broadly, his voice gaining volume. It was, Miriam was sure, only an echo of the strength of the language the provincial council had argued with before sending him to her. "The Vhallas System has no defense against them. The Taranish could destroy everyone there before any Confederation fleet can get to the system."
Keeping her expression stubbornly neutral, Miriam dropped her hands to her sides and turned towards the gray man. "Eva has never hurt anyone in the past. She has come very close. Very close. But she has never hurt anyone."
"She has always been under threat in the past. If she escapes range of the accelerator cannons, there will be no way to stop her. Commodore, all of these things have been considered."
"I suppose they have." Miriam turned a sideways glare on the waters, Tsion's sea of stars.
"The Mezeket Cluster's defenses are yours to control. We implore you to use them."
Eva was a cruel woman, boisterous and mocking. It could not be an accident that the Taranish had passed through the Mezeket Cluster, considering the thousands of wiser routes it could have taken to the Vhallas System. Eva was calling out to Miriam. Daring her. The small, loud woman, shouting for attention again. Miriam questioned the lake, "Is she really, though?"
"Is she really what?"
"A moment, please."
"Commodore, the Taranish is moving out of range. A moment may be all we have."
"Then I will take it. Eva is doing this for a reason. Let me think." Miriam curled her fingers around one another, squeezing the joints until they ached. If Eva really just wanted to launch an attack, to start a war, then she wouldn't have passed the Mezeket Cluster. It was too much risk. And why the Vhallas system? There was no military presence there. It was a cultural and religious hub of the Confederacy, with only negligible industrial impact. It was undefended because there was no reason for it to be attacked. On the other hand, Eva was the daughter of the ghost-Emperor. Destroying the Taranish would start a war. There would be no way around that. Eva had always boasted such in their confrontations.
Eva was like a child who had been told she was not allowed to be somewhere. Now she was running into that place, calling out to let everyone know she was misbehaving. But even that was too simple an evaluation. Eva was a devil, clever and calculating. There was a reason she wanted Miriam's attention. There was a reason she wanted Miriam's intervention, far from Guinangap space. Miriam's. No one else's.
Miriam blinked at the waters, inhaling deeply the mist of the fountain, so that her chest swelled and her white face turned a measure pink. "Dona Nobis Pacem."
The gray man's brow lowered, and he shook his head. "Commodore?"
"Grant us peace. Sir, I will not use the cannons on the Taranish. I will take my fleet to the Vhallas System and confront Eva directly."
"Commodore!" The man snapped a half step forward, hands curling into fists. "She could kill everyone before you get there!"
"Or she could hurt no one." Miriam looked down on the man. "It's Eva. I'm sure she's going to do something to force my hand. I have no delusions that she's just going to float in space taking in the sights while she waits for me. However, I cannot defuse this situation by detonating it early. She deserves the chance to not start a war."
"She has done nothing to earn that! You don't know what she will do. You're supposed to protect those people."
Miriam turned directly towards the man and crossed her arms. "I am protecting the Confederation by preserving peace as long as I can. Sometimes war is the coward's way. Sometimes peace is risky, difficult, dangerous. I think Eva wants to talk. I'm willing to bet on it. I will not be the one to start a war today, sir."
The man released a tattered sigh that was half a growl, but he retreated a measure. He was the kind of soldier, the kind of man who did not like the flavor of this kind of peace. But as Miriam watched, the man swallowed it. "I will inform the provincial council of your decision."
She smirked and took a sideways step, and turned away from the water. The broad, low concrete buildings of Tsion awaited her, and past them, great domed structures where she could board a shuttle to the waiting flagship of her fleet high above. "Sometimes peace is just saying 'no' to conflict. Not that I expect Eva to make that easy on me." Her feet fell hard as she walked, limbs barely containing a simmering fury directed at Eva for daring to create this scenario. "Not that I think I'll make it easy on myself." She concentrated on keeping her hands open, though they wanted to pull into fists. "But I will do what I am capable of. And hopefully, Eva will reciprocate.”