Chapter 1: Starter
How Bren decided that he wanted to become the paidhi.
He had to pay more attention to what was going on around him; what if it had been an assassin trying to kill him? Not that there were assassins on Mospheira, and even if there were, why should they be interested in one Bren Cameron, pupil of Jackson Elementary School?
Kevin O'Reilly had explained it all to them during the meet and greet. Mr. O'Reilly was the paidhi successor, and it was really very special that he was talking to the new students.
The whole school was made to prepare for this occasion. Bren's whole class had drawn pictures of atevi and of the petalsail landers in celebration of Mr. O'Reilly's visit.
Mr. O'Reilly had been a nice man and had patiently answered all their questions:
Yes, atevi were really that tall. Yes, their eyes really glowed in the dark. Yes, it had been spooky at first, but was very fascinating once one got used to it. Yes, the ladies and lords wore really fancy and regal dresses. Yes, there were servants everywhere. No, one didn't have to fear assassins springing from behind every column. Yes, there were lots and lots of big beautiful carpets just like the one in the war museum. No, assassins didn't come after elementary schoolers. Yes, one really had to be good at maths . No, there weren't any atevi on the island. No, not even in the Shinini Woods, no matter what the Bretano Whisperer said every few issues. No, the atevi didn't have sharp and pointy teeth like the pictures in the Whisperer. No, they didn't eat little children who weren't eating their vegetables, but one should eat one's vegetables anyway.
He had also told the students about the few times he had been in Shejidan. He had even met Valasi, the aiji.
They had practiced to say aiji and Valasi.
Mr. O'Reilly had looked very proud when he told how, at one time, Wilson had been away on vacation and he had had to translate something for the satellite committee Without this information, the project would certainly have been delayed for months, because the committee couldn't vote on the felicitous day without that important piece of knowledge.
Then he had tried to explain to them about felicitious numbers, but no one had really understood that.
Still, it had been exciting, and Bren and his classmates had all wanted to become paidhiin, not paidhis as O'Reilly-paidhi had explained. He had also told them about the difficult training and how unlikely it would be that they would ever meet atevi face to face; only the paidhi and the paidhi successor got to see atevi in real life.
But Bren still wanted to try, even if it meant doing math all day long and being woken up in the middle of the night to answer questions about the declination of mecheiti. Even if he would never have atevi friends.
It was difficult to imagine that there would be people who didn't love or even have friends,but he had friends on Mospheira. He would come visit them from time to time when he was paidhi, and he would write letters to them every week.
He would have to visit Mospheira often, so his mother wasn't all alone. She always told him and Toby, how happy she was to have them and that she didn't know what she would do if they would leave her.
Bren nearly stumbled again.
He had again stopped paying attention and found himself already at the steps to his home.
Bren opened the door.
He couldn't wait to tell his mother and Toby about everything.
"Mom, I'm home!"
Today she only had the first two lessons, so Bren fully expected a response, which he got.
"Bren? Wash your hands and come eat. We are having blackflipper."
Oh, he liked blackflipper! It was one of his favorite foods, especially when his mother made it, so soft and salty and, with some sliced tomatoes, just about the best food in the world. Sniffing carefully he thought he could smell the mouth-watering blackflipper already.
Thinking back about what Mr. O'Reilly had told them earlier, the food season had to have changed on the mainland, because there was little fresh meat to be had on the mainland during this time of the year and the atevi ate lots and lots of fish. Bren had even heard someone grumble about it in the stores last week; all of the blackflippers Mospheiran fisher caught were sent to the mainland.
Bren hung up his coat and took off his shoes.
He had agreed with that man then, that the atevi should just eat preserved meat like the Mospheirans did. But now he knew better and how important all the fresh food was for the atevi. Mr. O'Reilly had even taught them the word for it: kabiu. Besides, it wasn't really that bad to eat magaeiwa for a few weeks every year, it was just not as great as blackflipper.
Taking his bag he ran down the floor to the kitchen.
"Bren, no running in the house! You know what happened to the swan."
Upon his mother's call, Bren slowed. The swan had been a glass figure Bren had broken, because he had run in the house and hadn't been able to stop in time from crashing into the display case it stood in. The figure had fallen and one of the wings had broken off. They had glued it back together, but it just didn't look the same. Bren had liked to look at it when he was younger. There weren't any swans on this world or any other animals like it.
Slowly he walked into the kitchen. Toby already sat at the table, waiting for lunch. After a hug and a smile by his mother, Bren sat down at the table too and got out his math book to do homework while eating.
"Put your homework away, Bren. You can do it later. And don't wolf down your food like that."
"But, Mom, if I want to become the paidhi, I have to be really good at math."
She looked amused.
"Become the paidhi? You know that means growing out your hair and combing and washing and drying it for hours?"
Bren really didn't like the combing and the washing and the drying; it was bad enough with his hair short. But Mr. O'Reilly had looked great with his braid. One of the girls in Bren's class had long hair, and Mr. O'Reilly had shown them how to do that braid on her. It hadn't looked that difficult, and she had to have a fast way to take care of it, because she went to all those after school activities. Bren would have to ask her how she did her hair.
"I'm sure it'll be okay. The last few times wasn't so bad as before, so maybe I'm growing used to it. Oh, and we learned how to write our name in Ragi. I even know how to write Toby."
Food momentarily forgotten, his mother and Toby looked in wonder at the sheet of paper he unpacked. It was a sheet filled with exotic signs speaking of a world far different than his own, a world of adventure and great wonders.
Chapter 2: Learner
Bren's family supports him during a difficult time.
"You are speaking to the aiji. List all possible modes of transports available under the premise that there are four, five or six flowerpots in the bathing chamber."
Bren was desperately trying to comply with Professor Blackflipper's task. This was one of the most important tests before graduating, even though the final tests were still more than one year away. This test would be a lot easier if Professor Blackflipper weren't flopping around so much and changing the questions every few minutes. Having the letters in his written answers not taking leisurely walks along the lines and switching places would be a great help, too.
"You are speaking to the Minister of Commerce. Arrange the bedsheets in such a way as to form a mecheiti."
Bren immediately tried folding the sheets on his desk, but no matter which way he folded them, his scribbled notes kept dancing on them. Listening to the loud clicking of the clock as it counted down the last minute until the test ended, he was starting to panic. Professor Blackflipper was on his way over, and the letters still jumped around on the sheet, which got bigger and bigger with each tick of the clock
Then the Professor stood next to him, disappointment clearly visible on his scaly face.
Groggily Bren became aware of where he was. His neck protested him moving his head off the table. His leg was hurting again,. His papers lay scattered on the table. One sported a damp spot.
"Imagine it was Mom – not me – finding you like this."
His brother was cheerfully divesting himself of his pullover, his coat already hanging on the rack. Bren looked at the clock. It was time for breakfast. Last time he had looked up, it had been shortly after midnight.
"You'd be in so much trouble, Bren. You know how Mom is: The paidhi program is not worth your health! Don't skip your meals! Get enough sleep! And go out from time to time. It's no shame if you only come in fourth or sixth."
The numbers were grating on him, especially with his testing nightmare still lingering in his mind.
"If I want to have a chance at becoming the paidhi and going to the mainland, I have to be the best. And I did sleep."
"Yeah, you did, though next time a bed might be better for that. Well, and I'm here now to take care of the eating part."
Bren found his notes unceremoniously dumped on a shelf, after watching Toby unpack what looked like a very large and hearty breakfast. His family might hassle him about sleep, food and his social life – he did have girlfriends from time to time – but he couldn't deny that it was good to have them around. With the current stress he was under due to his upcoming exams, and the added trouble of him breaking his leg during what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation, it really did help to have someone around to make sure he had food to eat – and did eat, and to keep his apartment in a reasonable shape.
Without them, he was sure he wouldn't be were he was today – at the head of the paidhi program.
Ever since that fateful day long ago, they had been at his side. He remembered it as if it had been yesterday – the nervous excitement as he had practically run home.
It had been one week after the all important entry tests, the day when the results were supposed to be mailed to them. He hadn't been able to sleep all week, but that day everything had been decided. With his hands shaking so nervously it had taken him several tries to get their mailbox open.
To his vast disappointment, the box had been empty. He had clung to the hope of the mail carrier being late that day. He had drudged inside, divesting himself of his clothes; sighing all the while, thinking that his dream wouldn't come true. He had had already started growing his hair out. He had had the brochure pinned to his wall.
Eventually he had arrived in the kitchen.
Bren remembered that school had let out earlier for Toby in those days. He had gone to get something to drink, not really paying attention to his younger brother, so it had taken him several moments to realize that Toby was starring intently at a letter lying in the middle of the table.
"It's for you, Bren. From the State Department."
It had looked so small and innocent, lying there all shiny and white.
They had both stared at it for several minutes. Bren had imagined what the letter would say, how it would change his life. He didn't know what he would do if they didn't accept him. He couldn't imagine what else he could become.
Finally, Toby had wordlessly pushed the letter towards him.
Bren had slowly lifted the letter up, feeling its weight The smooth paper under his hands. He had seen the all too Mospheiran form of the letter, so different from the atevi-style message scroll he had had made for fun.
Carefully he had ripped the letter open. It had seemed so loud to them in the silent kitchen, Bren's and Toby's attention utterly fixed on the letter.
In the end it had been too much for him. He had taken the letter out and almost tore it in his sudden haste to know the answer which had had plagued him all week.
And there it had been: "Bren Cameron ... paidhi program ... accepted".
All the worry and stress had fallen off him. He had sunk back on his chair, only seeing that one magical sentence. Then Toby had been there, hugging him.
He had simply hugged his brother, not finding any words at the time.
And today his brother was here, bringing food and company.
Yet as welcome as Toby was, the duality at the table had Bren twitching. He would be far happier if their mother was here as a felicitous third, even though she kept worrying about the possibility of Bren going to the unreachable mainland.
Chapter 3: Successor
The day has come, the first step has to be taken.
This was it.
No more tests. No more practicing. No more making mistakes.
This was the real thing.
The plane stood behind him, fueled for its trip. Its cargo had been loaded earlier. Now it was waiting for its sole passenger to go across the strait.
With the weather as pleasant as it was, Bren couldn't even hope for the distraction of a bumpy flight. No, all he could worry about was his first assignment.
His first time to cross the strait. To do what he had trained years to do.
He had been confident and anticipatory on the day of his graduation. When the final results had been announced and it became clear that this side of the strait he was the best, which meant he had become the paidhi successor. Second best after the paidhi, waiting on Mospheira till the paidhi needed a vacation or retired or died on the job.
Now he was more nervous than ever in his life. He was sure that the first time he met an ateva he would forget everything he had learned, and start his career with a grave numerical mistake leading to international disaster. Long training sessions and worked-through nights couldn't really prepare one for the reality of carrying the responsibility for the peace between the little island enclave and the aishidi'tat. For carrying the responsibility for the survival of the human species in this far away and unknown part of space.
He was reading through the notes that a messenger from the Foreign Office had brought to the airport, with his three week old computer standing at his feet, all programs he was allowed to take with him loaded and configured. He spend long hours with the machine, familiarizing himself with all options and search settings, and the limits of what was to be his constant companion in the perilous world of alien – or rather native – politics. He had memorized the security codes. There had even been one call late at night by someone from the State Department, having him rattle down the code sequences that render the computer completely unusable.
His mother stopped fingering his new custom-made, atevi-style clothes and hugged him.
"Oh, Bren. We will miss you. Be careful what you eat and come back safe, you hear?"
"It's only a week, mother. I'll be back in time for Independence Day. There's nothing critical going on at the mainland."
His mother sighed, but stepped back and let go of him so Toby could hug him.
"Don't worry, Bren. I'll have an eye on things here."
He hugged Toby back extra hard. Their mother didn't yet know that Toby planned to marry Jill and move to the other side of Mospheira, once he had become a doctor. They could only guess how their mother would take that. At least she liked Jill who had been Toby's girlfriend for a year now.
Their mother didn't take separations from her sons lightly and this was the first time either of them was going completely out of her reach. Unlike taking a car on Mospheira to go wherever one wanted, one couldn't just hop onto a plane to the mainland and visit one's family. One couldn't even count on making phone calls or getting letters – he former difficult due to the atevi operators not understanding Mosphei, and the later, as he had been warned, made difficult by the State Department censors which were liable to turn even the most innocent letter into a sieve of words, in fear of revealing some potentially upsetting concept to the atevi.
Another hug by their mother. Bren hoped the braid stayed in form. It had taken him three tries this morning to manage something halfway passable.
“I'll try to call, Mom, I'll earnestly try.”
She seemed to be somewhat mollified by that.
Bren took up his small carryall bag with underwear, a shaving kit and some other necessities. The atevi government would provide almost anything he asked for, but it was better to be prepared till one got settled in.
The case with the computer went over the other shoulder.
A final nod to his family, and then he turned around and walked to the waiting plane.
He had to get his act together. Out of the very few people who got into the paidhi program he was of the twenty percent who managed to graduate at all. Not only that, he was the currently the best, the best Mospheira had to offer, among the the top five to ever graduate from the program. And while his study mates got to sit in the university and write dictionaries with the notes the paidhi send back, he was the one who had been chosen to go across the strait. To deal directly with the atevi. The whole staff of the Foreign Office believed in him. Believed that he wouldn't tip over the Treaty and send Mospheira to its doom.
They didn't expect more of him, yet. Only: keep the peace, don't annoy the atevi till Wilson got back. Wilson who would be waiting at the airport to return to Mospheira with the plane bringing Bren. Strictly to protocol, as the Treaty stipulated. One and only one human on the mainland at any given time.
For the next few days that human would be him. He'd wear intricate court clothing instead of simple Mospheiran things. He'd eat food potentially lethal to him among people next to whom he stood as tall an eight year old. Offend someone and there was a good chance one would receive a notification of Intent by the Assassins' Guild in the evening mail.
He really had to stop worrying. There was no reason he would screw up and he finally got to see atevi in real life, just like he had imagined all those years back when Kevin O'Reilly, former paidhi-successor, was at his school, and told them about the paidhi program and why it was so important. He had decided than and there that he would become the paidhi one day.
Today was this day. Today he would become the acting paidhi. He would talk to atevi and walk among them. He had worked hard for this, neglecting sleep, food and social life for this day.
He could do it.
Bren took a deep breath and climbed up the ladder.