Donovan Ashton was greeted by only one Raven. His Raven, to be precise. She stood at the end of the narrow hangar, just outside of the marked yellow lines, with her hands folded behind her back. She was dressed in black, her skirt to her knees, her shirt clinging to her body from wrist to just under the chin. Curiously, she was barefoot, and her black hair was to her waist and cut in a severe line across the forehead. The Prime Terras of Foerster unbuckled from his seat, ignoring his pilot's protest that the landing sequence wasn't done yet, and leaned forward across the dash to get a better look, such as he could as the small craft bobbed in its descent. There was a lurch, he swayed as it settled to the ground, and the engines whined as they shut down.
“She's not very imposing,” Donovan complained.
“Doesn't have to be imposing. Just has to be smart,” the pilot replied, distracted by shutting down the ship.
“I would think there is more to war than simply being clever.”
In truth, Donovan didn't know much of war. No one did, except the Ravens. After the the Last World War, with the skies sundered and the most of the continents shattered and uninhabitable, the teaching of war was eliminated. Books were burned, no matter how old or priceless, and any records pertaining to modern military methods were destroyed, along with all the equipment. The first order of the new governments – and the remnants of the old – was to scour the remains of their civilizations and destroy any weapon they found. These were the accords of peace. The world could not afford another war.
Donovan approached her alone, as escorts were not permitted within the Spire. The Ravens had been explicit with their directions – that he was to remain here until the war was concluded and that he was to come alone. Once Donovan's belongings were unloaded, the pilot would leave and not return until Donovan contacted him. The Prime Terras was not used to being alone. Walking out across the hangar floor, for the Raven refused to come meet him, was unnerving. Disrespectful, even. He supposed that was the intent, to humble him, but he merely found the effect irritating. He stopped a yard away from the woman and she blinked slowly, her long lashes languid, and raked her brown eyes up and down his slim figure. She looked young, he thought.
“Prime Terras,” she finally said. “Follow me, if you will.”
“Are you my Raven, then?” he asked as she turned and led him into the Spire.
“What is your name?”
“I have none.”
He slowed his pace a moment, the only indication of surprise he would give, and narrowed his eyes at her back and the curtain of her hair.
“Then how am I supposed to distinguish you from the other Ravens?” he complained.
“You aren't. I do not come at your beck and call, Prime Terras.”
Her tone was coldly polite. There was no insult here, just a statement of fact. He grimaced and followed her in silence through the wide corridors of the Spire. The pilot had circled the building on their approach to give him a good view of it. It'd been built in the rubble of the most densely populated city before the war. Now, it was an expanse of slagged metal, the buildings drooping like melted candles, puddling at the bottom with debris piled up into rivers between the mounds. They built the Spire out of the remains of ships and tanks, melting down the accoutrements of war into walls and floors. At its prime, the Spire must have gleamed in what little light filtered through the clouds. That hadn't lasted. It was stained with soot, dusted black, and it loomed over the devastated city, pointing towards the sky in slender towers, the edges sharp. Pointing to the heavens and reminding everyone what humanity had done.
The Raven led him to an antechamber, round with a dome ceiling, the struts silver and the inlaid panels black. His opponent was already there and Donovan exhaled slowly as he approached. Kelly Marian, Prime Terras of Augusta. Her territory sat on his border and while she controlled a much smaller country, it was far richer both in terms of agriculture and monetary wealth. This was why they were going to war. Donovan needed technology and his attempts to buy, beg, or steal it from Kelly's nation had all failed. He would take it by force, Ravens willing.
She had four of them flanking her and his jaw tightened at the sight. By right, every nation was entitled to one Raven. Extras could be purchased, of course. Donovan couldn't afford such an extravagance, no matter how desperately it was needed, and so he had to gamble on this one Raven and hope she succeeded. He approached, Kelly walked to meet him, and they paused there in the middle of the room and regarded each other. Her hair was cut short, just below her ears, and he saw the metal stud of implants at the corner of each eye. She was a stocky woman, short but muscular, and her clothing was comprised of severe lines to minimize what few feminine qualities she possessed.
“Donovan,” she said coolly. He did not react to the use of his first name. “I do not appreciate this interruption.”
“Nor do I, Prime Terras,” he replied. He would show respect, even if she did not. “I hope this will be concluded before harvest season is upon us.”
A slight shrug and she looked away.
“It matters little to me.”
He did not reply, feeling the muscle in his jaw tighten. No. Of course not. She had artificial sunlight over the fields and irrigation. Her people could plant and harvest at their leisure, no longer subject to the erratic seasons of this sundered planet. Her people did not have to worry about storms that would herald a period of near-starvation.
“This is your first war, is it not?” Kelly asked, her eyes narrowing as she turned back towards him.
“You'll find it tedious, I'm sure. Hopefully you'll be better company than some of the other Primes I've warred against. God knows the Ravens aren't the most interesting bunch.”
He was surprised to hear scorn in her voice. As a child, he'd been raised to fear and revere the Ravens, and once he went into politics he found that having access to them, being able to demand they run a war for him, did nothing to assuage the mysticism. Perhaps that would change, he thought, if he did this more often.
“You know this is nothing personal,” he said abruptly. “I just--”
“I know.” She waved a hand and turned her shoulder to him. “Of course it's not personal. You just want something and are taking shortcuts.”
With that, she walked away, leaving Donovan standing there with his hands clenched so that the nails dug into his palms. Her four Ravens followed her and they departed down the far hallway. He could hear Kelly haranguing her entourage, demanding that this be settled quickly. Donovan forced himself to relax as his own Raven came up to stand beside him, watching her sisters depart.
“Is that what I'm doing?” he asked of her, his voice tight. “Am I taking the easy route and telling myself it's the only option left? Have I lied to myself?”
He was aware of the Raven studying him intently. He did not think it was so – but – he needed to be certain.
“I will be assessing your situation this evening,” she said. “Do you want me to inform you as to what conclusion I draw?”
“No.” He exhaled hard. “That won't be necessary.”
She led him away, to his rooms. They would be sparse compared to what he was used to, she said, but adequate. They did not allow communication outside the Spire. It was enclosed, a world of its own, and he would remain here for the duration of the war. She had all the information she needed already, all the vital statistics of his nation. Population. Economy. Education. Industry. Given these variables, and her own knowledge, she'd wage a war on his behalf. A silent one, behind closed doors, fought in theory alone between her and her sisters. In the end, they'd decide the victor and what was lost and how much was gained, and the nations would be expected to abide by their decision.
There were consequences for those that did not, she said. She did not specify what they would be. The Ravens worked in secret, always, and the threat alone was enough to enforce compliance.
It was an elegant solution for a world still teetering on the brink of destruction. A war of theory and logic, hypothetical, with no actual loss of life or capital involved.
They paused just outside the door to his room. It was open and he could see his bags already placed inside. He turned to face his Raven. He had to look down to meet her eyes.
“One last question,” he said. “Is Prime Terras Kelly always this rude?”
“The Spire does not have the comforts she is accustomed to.”
“That doesn't exactly answer my question.”
A pause and he saw her blink, slowly.
“Yes,” she finally replied. “She is.”
He let out a soft huff of disgust and then stepped inside the room and shut the door behind him, encasing himself in silence. He stood there in the half-light, listening to the beat of his own heart. He was the middle child of five and had grown up in a crowded house, then gone to a crowded university, the only in his family to be accepted. Education was a precious commodity, afforded only to the best. Then he'd gone into politics and his time had been consumed with endless meetings and negotiations... and then he'd been elected Prime Terras and earned himself an ever-present bodyguard. Now, here, in the silence of this room in the remote confines of the Spire, surrounded by a city devoid of life, he'd never been so alone.
There had been dozens of reasons to come here. He'd reviewed them all, over and over, in endless meetings with his experts and panels and the conclusion was always the same. Foerster did not have the resources to sustain a scientific initiative and the only alternative left was to take what they needed, no matter the risk. Now, however, with only his own thoughts rattling around in his head, encased in the eerie isolation of the Spire with the ruins of the Last World War built into the very walls of his room, he wasn't so certain.
It was too late for second guesses now. War had been declared and he'd pinned his country's future on this lone, barefoot girl.
He hardly slept that night.
The Ravens made them wait to announce the results of their initial assessment. They sat in a small cloister off the war room, in which only the Ravens were allowed. It was protected by heavy metal double doors, twice the height of a person, arched and carved with ravens across every inch of the surface. The pattern was discordant and unsettling to look at, the black lines seeming to draw the eye into the pits and crevices in the metal. He was too uncomfortable to look at Kelly either, for she had settled on a bench with her back against the metal wall, arms folded across her chest, with an expression that said she was clearly unhappy to be here. He stared at the floor just between his feet instead, hands drooping between his knees.
“I'd heard that you entered politics just after finishing university,” Kelly said abruptly, finally breaking the silence. Donovan just grunted in response, unsure where she was going with this. “I also heard that you're the youngest Prime Terras yet.”
“I promised them war,” he said frankly. “I told them something had to be done to address the growing technological gap, and that we'd take it to the Ravens.”
“You sold them on hope,” she said, scornfully.
“That's true,” he admitted. “I won't deny it. How did you come to be elected?”
“Worked at it. Took almost twenty years of navigating and making the right connections.”
“You're older than you look.”
She nodded slightly, looking away towards the double doors.
“And you're younger than you look,” she replied. “You've seen your fair share of the outdoors.”
“Of course.” He shrugged mildly. “We don't have climate buffers covering our fields.”
She seemed startled at this, her bored demeanor finally crumbling and she peered at him in renewed interest. He raised his gaze to meet her sharp green eyes.
“What were you doing in the fields?” she asked. “I'd have thought your career path--”
“Everyone works,” he interrupted. “The university cancels classes when the harvest comes in, no matter what point of the year we're at, and all the students go out into the fields until it's done. It's no different for the politicians or other upper class citizens. When the harvest is ready, it has to be gotten in before a storm hits or the season turns. We don't have the technology to do that -- so -- everyone works.”
“But you're Prime Terras now.”
She said it like a statement of fact and Donovan just laughed harshly. Naive. Very naive.
“Everyone works,” he repeated, his tone flat.
That effectively killed conversation until the Ravens appeared. Both Primes shot to their feet as the five women exited the chamber, single-file. Donovan caught a glimpse of a table, lit up with holographic grid, dominating the room, then the doors slid shut behind them. They fanned out, the four standing off to one side, his Raven off to the other. They were all similar in appearance, lithe with black hair and brown eyes, features like carved ice, and even their clothing was identical. His Raven, however, had fewer lines near the eyes or mouth, and she was still barefoot. She was younger than the others. He felt his heart sink a little. He, too, was young for his position but he was keenly aware of his own inexperience and how heavily he relied on his advisers. She stood alone, apart from her sisters, and had no one to support her.
“We've analyzed the initial situation,” one of the four intoned. “We believe the war will decide in your favor, Prime Terras Marion.”
She looked smug. Donovan turned his gaze to his Raven, not wanting to see Kelly's glee, not wanting to hear his prospects either, however. The Raven met his eyes and something about her posture, about the quiet confidence he saw there, reassured him.
“I've analyzed your initial situation,” she said quietly, her voice much softer than her sister, “and I believe this war will end in your favor, Prime Terras Ashton.”
He was afraid to breathe, that any movement would shatter this moment. He'd sold his people on hope and in doing so, he'd sold himself as well.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Kelly finally said, her tone impatient.
“That is my assessment,” Donovan's Raven replied.
“You're not very good at this, then,” the woman huffed.
She stalked away and after a moment, her four Ravens drifted after her, moving in one silent, eerie group, shoulder to shoulder. Donovan watched them go before returning his attention to his own.
“You mean what you said?” he asked her, softly. His heart felt like a bird's wing.
“We always speak the truth,” she said and finally, he heard a hint of emotion in her voice. Reproach, but it didn't affect him. It was at least some sign of humanity inside her small, frail body.
“Okay.” He ran a hand over his chin, feeling the faint stubble there. “Can I ask--”
“No. The details remain our own, as always.”
“Of course. My apologies. It's just--” He exhaled, hard. “It just seems impossible. I know the odds were slim to begin with, but I hoped since we have more people than them, or that sometimes even the losers can still gain something from a war--”
She couldn't comment, he realized, and he trailed off. Like arguing with stone. Little wonder Kelly derided the company of the Ravens, yet Donovan thought there was something there nonetheless. Her pronouncement was formal, yet, there had been something in there directed at him. For him.
“How many wars have you won?” he asked her.
“None. This is my first.”
“Well, that's reassuring. Of course, I'm hardly one to talk.”
“Your lack of experience is balanced by your willingness to listen to your appointed experts,” she said softly.
It wasn't what he'd been driving at, and for a moment he only laughed under his breath. He'd been told that the Ravens were coldly logical and that any display of emotion from them was rare, but he hadn't expected it taken to this extreme, such that even casual conversation was beyond their grasp.
“I thought you weren't supposed to disclose details,” he said.
Her posture shifted, her shoulders drawing back. A defensive gesture, he thought.
“It's no worry,” he continued. “I won't speak of it. And I certainly won't let Kelly know how new you are to this. She can complain about something else.”
“You do not want her to speak poorly of us,” she said. She sounded surprised.
He considered a moment. It was more than his dislike for how she treated the Ravens with disdain. He'd pitted this young woman against her sisters in coming here, divided them along lines and now she performed her duty, with him ignorant as to how much it wore on her or how heavy a burden she carried, with the fate of a nation resting on her decisions. At least he had the comfort of other minds alongside his, weighing the governance of the country in tandem. She had only herself, standing alone on one side of that table with four of her elder sisters opposite. Lonely indeed.
“I do not want her speaking poorly of you,” he corrected. “You're my Raven, after all.”
Then Donovan turned on his heel and walked away, quickly, before she could recover enough of her wits to respond. He had no idea where that had come from, the sudden possessiveness, and he wasn't certain he wanted to examine it further. He was here to wage a war, after all. Nothing more.
She found him, early the next morning. He stood on a balcony overlooking the city, staring at the silent ruins. There was no life among them, he'd heard. The radiation had seeped in deep here, wrapped claws into the earth and lay waiting in the still soil, a poison hidden underneath all that twisted metal. There were bodies down there, they said. Decayed by now, he suspected, but the bones would remain, just more debris among the rest of the detritus of war. The Spire was built upon the skulls of the dead.
“Humbling, isn't it?” she asked as she approached.
“I've never seen a city so big,” he responded. “Not even close.”
“Millions of people once lived here.”
She stood directly beside him, her hands resting on the railing like his own. Her fingers were thin and the skin was smooth. She had small hands.
“Augusta doesn't even have a million people in its entire nation,” he commented.
“I have a lot more land.” His gaze roved over the city once more. “Do you like living here?”
It took a moment for her to reply.
“I – don't know,” she admitted. “I've never really thought about it.”
“Then you've been here your entire life?”
“I have.” She hesitated. “We're born here, but I think that's not quite the right term. We're all the same, cloned from one set of DNA that was selected for intelligence, and we're grown in a lab. I have no mother or father, just dozens of sisters.”
“I have three sisters and one brother. I'm not even sure how many cousins I have.”
She was quiet at that and he wasn't certain why. He felt a need to keep her talking, to not let things settle into an uneasy silence. She seemed comfortable enough with it, but he came from a busy land with people all around him, and he found he could not tolerate the quiet.
“Do you like being a Raven?” he asked.
“You ask a lot of questions,” she said, and he wasn't certain if it was a reproach or not.
“I'm curious. Do you?”
“I don't know yet,” she whispered. “I suppose I'll know when the war ends.”
He wondered if he should be here, talking to her like this. From everything he'd heard, the Ravens were remote, almost mechanical in their duties. Inhuman, some said. He did not expect to hear such uncertainty from this nameless woman beside him and it frightened him. Donovan turned to go, but he stopped halfway to the door as the Raven spoke again.
“Donovan,” she said gently, “you weren't wrong in your decision to come here. I can't speak to your motives, but you were right to declare war. Is that comforting?”
He rubbed at his hair, his thumb brushing the edge of the scar above his left eye. How was he supposed to answer a question like that?
“No,” he said, erring with honesty. “It won't be comforting unless we win. Will we?”
She sounded earnest. Young, timid, and earnest. He almost regretted the war then, for coming here and dropping this on her. At least he had chosen his path, chosen to take up the mantle of Prime Terras. She'd been created for this with no say in what she would someday become. Here she was, deciding the fate of his nation, and she had no say in her own fate. The bitter irony of it made him want to laugh, so instead he hurried away, shivering against the chill wind, and he dared look back only once. She stood there with her back to him, leaning on the railing, her black hair fluttering in the wind like bird wings. Staring out across a barren city littered with the bones of the long-dead.
The war settled into a routine. He would wake in the morning and eat breakfast, alone, then wander the halls of the Spire, also alone. There was little to see and boredom ate at him, mingled with worry for his nation and curiosity as to how things were proceeding. If the crops continued to grow or if a sudden frost had killed them. Then, in the mid-afternoon, he'd gather with Kelly to wait for the Raven's update on the progress of the war. They talked some. Sporadically, with long stretches of silence between them. Sometimes the Ravens made them wait longer, sometimes there was little wait at all. It was impossible to predict.
“You always seem so impatient,” Donovan said one day, growing weary of the incessant tapping of Kelly's foot against the floor.
“Don't you want to get out of here?” she snapped.
“I do, but--”
“I mean, we can't even contact the outside,” Kelly interrupted. It was a habit of hers, he was finding. “I know that doesn't seem like such an inconvenience to you, but it's a terrible setback for me. I have opponents in the political arena. They'll capitalize on this.”
“But if you win the war, what do they have to use against you?”
“The fact there was one.”
Her eyes fixed his, like pieces of stone. He met her with his own cold gaze, not a stranger to this form of sparring. Neither of them would back down.
“This is your first war,” she continued, “but it is my fifth. I have not started a single one; this is no fault of mine, but I'm forced to be here and let my opponents speak in my absence.”
“They cannot hold the wars against you, surely.”
“They do.” Her tone was bitter and she stared down at the floor. “They say that perhaps if I were better at negotiating or some nonsense, as if such a thing is possible when wars are so simple to declare. The consequences of losing aren't severe enough.”
“What would you suggest?” he demanded, not able to keep the crossness from his voice. “That we return to the days of killing each other? There aren't enough people left to accommodate that.”
“I know. I know. I just want – something.”
He heard genuine frustration in her voice and for one brief moment, he thought he understood it. They sat in silence for a while longer, until Kelly muttered something under her breath about the Ravens taking their sweet time this day. Even he had to agree. At that, the woman flickered her gaze up to him again and he saw her eyes focus in on his left brow, just above the eye.
“Did you get that scar from the blood sports?” she asked.
He laughed, genuinely amused. He'd been wondering if she'd work up the nerve to comment on it. The scar was certainly prominent enough.
“I did,” he admitted. “I was a bit more enthusiastic than my teammates and so, well, our opponents felt confident retaliating in kind.”
They'd cornered him, three against one, and broken his ribs and left a gash above his left eye with the cudgels they used, but it gave the rest of his team an opportunity to roll through the remainder of their opponents in force. He could no longer play, of course, not as Prime Terras. There was little restraint in the blood sports, and fewer rules. It was violence, without apology, for while humanity might have done away with war, it was far harder to rewrite nature. So they fought, in bouts, where the only objective was to subdue the opponent. It was an outlet and while safety wasn't guaranteed, it was at least close to immediate medical care for the inevitable injury.
“I played a bit when I was younger,” Kelly admitted. “People would try to knock me over, especially the men. They thought they could wrestle me down because of my size.”
“Didn't work out for them, did it?” he guessed.
“Nope.” She sounded grimly pleased. “It didn't.”
“You miss it?”
A long pause while she considered the question. When she answered, her words were reluctant.
“Yeah. I do.”
“I do too.”
There was a click of the double doors opening. Both of them shot to their feet, waiting to hear what the Ravens had to say. They fanned out, as they always did, and he met the eyes of his own Raven, hoping to see something there. She gave him a thin smile, only for a second, and her face slipped back into its cold mask.
“We've concluded the war,” one of the other Ravens intoned.
“Finally,” Kelly hissed.
Donovan couldn't speak. He waited, heart in his throat, and the Raven continued to talk. Lauding both nations, explaining that the war had come down to a matter of numbers against technology, and that the size of the technological gap was what determined the victor. And that the victor was Augusta.
It took everything that he was to not collapse. His knees felt weak and his stomach twisted around itself. This -- it had been his one hope -- and now --
He heard someone calling his name. His Raven. Dimly, he raised his head and looked at her and she raised a hand and touched her brow, just above the left eye. He mirrored the gesture. Off to the side, Kelly was talking heatedly with her Ravens, clearly displeased by something, but he wasn't listening. He felt the smooth ridge of the scar.
That day still stood in his mind in vivid clarity. They'd beaten him severely and he'd just laughed, down on his knees, clutching at his broken ribs. Perhaps that was why one finally struck him across the brow, spurring intervention by the referees. They'd carried him off the field in a stretcher and one eye had been shut against the blood that poured along the edge of the socket, but he could still see his teammates sweeping the field, rolling up the flank to win the day. It made the pain worth it, he'd thought, to see that.
“Then,” he asked her in an undertone, “the war isn't quite done, is it?”
“The war is finished,” she replied, just as softly. “The aftermath, however, will take years.”
He swallowed hard. She'd said the war would end in his favor.
“Are you serious?!” Kelly snapped, her voice steadily rising in volume and forcing his attention. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to integrate a conquered population? We don't need that land!”
She whirled on Donovan, anger in her eyes. Blaming him for whatever had happened.
“The plains,” she stressed. “They awarded me the plains. They're worthless.”
They served as a buffer between their two nations and he had to agree with her assessment. The lack of uneven terrain allowed the storms to roll across it in constant succession.
“Let Donovan's people emigrate back to their own land,” one of the Ravens suggested. “Fill it with your own people.”
“That could force a crisis among my own nation,” Donovan said stiffly. “You'd be sending them to starve if you do this, Kelly.”
“I didn't want to win like this,” Kelly hissed, turning her back to all of them. “I don't need this! I have enough problems – okay. I'll... I'll keep the people and the land. We can do some emergency construction over the fields, get some climate buffers in at least. I'll keep the citizens as long as I can but if there's unrest, Donovan, I'm exiling them all right back to you. This is going to look terrible. They'll plaster photos of starving children up and put my name all over it.”
His country was a mess, he knew this. It was the situation he'd been born into and assumed control of, willingly. Kelly had just been given this problem and now, it seemed she would be blamed for it, regardless of how much or how little of it she actually had a hand in.
“I'm sorry,” he said, awkwardly. “Our politics aren't so ruthless.”
“I know.” She ran a hand through her short hair and sighed. “You're too busy being concerned with growing enough food for the year to worry about idiotic things like public opinion. You know I can't simply give you the technology you want, right? There would be outrage. I'd be removed from office.”
No. He didn't understand.
“I know,” he just said.
“This is ridiculous,” she snarled, spinning on her heel and stalking away. “I hired three extra. You should have done better than this.”
He watched her go for a while, and the four Ravens went with her. His own came to stand just beside him, close enough that he could smell her hair, perfumed with lavender. It had been a long time since he'd smelled that particular flower anywhere.
“So I'm a bit slow in following,” he said quietly. “What, exactly, is my endgame here?”
“We predict that Kelly will try and keep your people as her own for as long as she can,” the woman said demurely. “When she does open the border up for them to rejoin their homeland, it will be messy and disorganized, as she will be ready to simply be rid of the political embarrassment this will become. They will be able to take certain things with them. We expect that with the knowledge and stolen technology they'll acquire, you'll be able to make up the technological gap in roughly three years.”
“We?” he asked sharply, not missing the plural. She turned her face up to his and he saw fierce pride in her eyes.
“Yes,” she said, sharply. “We.”
“Five Ravens,” he marveled. “I had five all along. We both did.”
“After the Last World War, the division of resources was done hurriedly,” she said. “It was not... efficiently distributed. We expect this problem will remedy itself, in time.”
He laughed in an undertone. So here was the truth of it. Not a war at all, merely an organized... redistribution. Framed in the context of a game, just as the blood sports were simply violence given a more civilized veneer. Augusta was small and the population was burgeoning. Perhaps it wasn't an issue now, but someday, they would outgrow their allotment. With the plains, they now had enough room to expand when that time came. And if the Ravens were correct – and he suspected they were – he had the solution of his own country's troubles as well. Perhaps not today, or tomorrow, but someday. In just three years or so.
“Why not call it what it is, then?” he asked her. “Do away with the pretense?”
“Because there will always be wars,” she replied, “and in one way or another, there will always be ravens to watch over them.”
She wasn't just referring to herself and her sisters. Something had stripped those bones clean out there in that dead city. On impulse, he turned and stepped in close to her, so that he felt the beat of her heart against his chest. He put a hand back behind her head, feeling the smoothness of her hair in his fingers, the scent of jasmine filling his lungs. It was a presumption, he knew this. He felt her stiffen, heard her startled intake of breath. Yet she did not move, did not try to draw away, and he kissed her first on the cheek, near the jaw, then on the lips. She felt cold to the touch and she was unyielding, her body straight and taut, and he drew away after a moment. Her eyes were wide.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Not an apology. Not an apology at all. Then, he turned and walked away. He'd find his pilot in the hangar, he was certain, waiting to take him home.