Zavala stared at the terminal window until the words blurred together. He lowered his head and rubbed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts. There were reports from Hunters in the field. Increased Vex activity across the system. Coordinated attacks on Vanguard operations. Anomalous disturbances within the City. All on top of Eliksni and Human confrontations within the City's walls.
A buzzing hum bloomed to life over Zavala's shoulder, followed by the gentle weight of a Ghost that came to settle there. "Is this the best use of your time?" Targe wondered aloud, which elicited a look from the corner of Zavala's eye. Targe rarely spoke, but when he did, there was always purpose.
"I don't recall asking for your opinion," Zavala said as he tried to refocus.
"I don't recall giving one."
Zavala turned this time to give Targe another look.
"You two can't keep doing the work of three people," Targe insisted. "Talk to Ana again."
Zavala leaned back in his chair. "Targe, there is no way I am going to convince—"
An alert chimed at the command console to his right.
"Incoming call from Empress Caiatl," Targe said wearily. "Let it go to depot."
Zavala stubbornly rose from his chair. "No," he said, receiving the call. Caiatl's imperial seal appeared on the screen with a notice: AUDIO ONLY.
"Empress Caiatl, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Zavala asked, tiredly scratching a hand over his stubble. Targe watched for a moment before he dematerialized.
"Commander," Caiatl greeted, her voice swelling to fill the room as if she were standing there. "The fleet's long-range sensors detected a growing anomaly located in the vicinity of the Last City."
"Why the sudden concern?"
Caiatl snorted. "I bear no concern, Commander. But if the Vanguard were suddenly annihilated, it would behoove me to at least be aware."
"Of course," Zavala said softly. "Well, we're still here."
The leading edge in her tone hooked him. "Why are you really calling?"
There was no response from the other side for a few moments. When Caiatl spoke next, her tone was as measured as before, but lacked any performative airs. "Lakshmi-2's latest broadcast to the City reached our fleet," she said. "You are truly a proud hawk standing in a nest of vipers, aren't you?"
"Lakshmi is a politician."
"Words are the most dangerous of weapons, Commander," Caiatl reminded him. "It begins as whispering convictions, then full-voiced dissent, and the next thing you know, you will wake with a knife driven into your chest."
"Spoken from experience," Zavala jabbed back.
"Spoken from experience," Caiatl doubled down, unashamed. "Lakshmi is undermining the Vanguard's authority by diminishing your role in the eyes of the people. Spoken loudly enough and often enough, her words may begin to make sense even to those who are not of the same mind."
Zavala sighed, and Caiatl felt its weight all the way across the system.
"I trust you to honor the terms of our armistice. I do not trust whomever your successor might be," Caiatl warned.
Zavala weighed anger and intrigue against one another, finding the scales a useless tool in arbitrating his response to the situation. He stepped back to the console and did as Cayde might say: just wing it.
"This is not the first threat to my authority I've weathered," Zavala said, his voice rising. "So don't delude yourself into thinking otherwise. And don't you dare come at me for whatever remorse you might be feeling about deposing your father."
Zavala heard the low rumble of an appreciative vocalization over the speakers. "I do not feel remorse because Calus was my father," Caiatl explained, her tone softening. "I feel remorse because of what Ghaul did to my people. We opened the door for the Hive, handed Xivu Arath a knife, and were surprised when we felt the kiss of steel in our spine."
I hate to see a warrior I admire and respect do the same with a less worthy adversary. But perhaps you are not in need of such unsolicited counsel."
Zavala looked up, out to the lightless city beyond, and closed his eyes. "And what counsel is that?"
What Caiatl said next was not in the voice of an empress, but a friend: "Umun'arath was my most trusted counselor. The Darkness has many hands—will you recognize its caress before it finds your throat?"