Throughout her childhood, it had never occurred to Ettan that she would be anything other than a household servant. She came from a long line of servants who had worked for many generations on the estate of one of the Bract System's most illustrious politicians. So it was not a question of if she would spend her life in service, but of how high she might climb within the hierarchy of servants.
In her entire life Ettan had hardly ventured further than a day's journey from the rolling country estate where she and dozens of other servants lived and worked for the family who governed their province. In many systems the wealthy and influential preferred to live on stations, and living "downwell," let alone in the countryside, would be a reason for pity. But the citizens of Bract cherished their connection to the land, and consequently the Bractian elite chose to conduct their business and politics remotely and remained ensconced in their vast country homes whenever possible.
Ettan had the good fortune of being the beloved grandchild of the household's universally well-liked head chef, but the status this may have afforded her was marred by her suspect parentage. While the other staff members held her grandmother in utmost regard, when she wasn't around many of them took the opportunity to remind Ettan of her improper origins—that her mother had run off to the capital city at a young age, returned briefly a few years later with no explanations and an infant in tow, and then promptly ran off again, leaving Ettan behind.
Ettan's grandmother, a person who constantly exuded warmth and good cheer, certainly never spoke against Ettan's mother, but Ettan had stopped asking about her as soon as she was old enough to notice the way the smile left her grandmother's eyes whenever she asked if her mother might come home someday.
Though Ettan felt guilty about it, she often could not help wishing that she were an orphan. An orphan would merely have to endure condescending pity, she reasoned. But as an abandoned child she was constantly subjected to suspicion and derision, both of herself and of the mother she could not remember. What kind of person has their contraceptive implants deactivated and then later decides they don't want to keep the child? What was wrong with her mother? What was wrong with Ettan? These were the questions she could see in the eyes of her peers. The questions she would overhear them asking each other when they thought she was out of earshot. The questions that kept her up at night.
In response to the cloud of censure that always clung faintly but distinctly around her, Ettan had dedicated herself from an early age to becoming a model servant. To her great joy, her level of dedication did not escape the notice of the household overseer and with the benefit of a few years of mentorship, she rose through the ranks from a mere kitchen assistant to one of the primary dining room attendants.
As she approached the age of majority, both her grandmother and the overseer encouraged her to take the Aptitudes. This level of testing was not required for most servants, and their encouragement meant they believed she was capable of filling the most important and confidential roles of household service. Perhaps it even meant they believed she might someday become an overseer herself.
Promotion via the Aptitudes would bring great honor, but it would also almost certainly mean moving away. She could be sent to a house in a different province, or even on a different planet, or a station. Ettan had never been off planet and could scarcely imagine what such a life would entail. Moving was a fraught prospect for her to contemplate—fear of the unknown warred with the desire for a fresh start free from gossip about her mother. And underlying it all was an unshakable sadness at the idea of leaving behind her grandmother, the only family she had ever known.
In celebration of her eighteenth birthday, and as her test date loomed on the horizon, her grandmother took her on a two-day journey to visit the planet's greatest museum of ceramic arts. As a servant of one of the wealthiest citizens in a system renowned for making the finest porcelain in the universe, Ettan had seen her fair share of fine Bractware, but she was dazzled by the scope and quality of items on display at the museum—a collection that spanned thousands of years of craftwork from the Bract System and beyond.
The museum housed a vast series of rooms full of vases, figurines, tilework, and decorative objects; but as someone who had spent years preparing and serving meals, Ettan was naturally most enamored of the wing devoted to tableware. The rooms in this wing contained porcelain dishes and tea services in glazes ranging from pure, unornamented white to deep black dishes intricately decorated with gold inlay, and every color and style combination in between.
Though her taste generally ran towards minimally ornamented pieces which placed the delicacy of their craftwork in the foreground, Ettan eventually found herself lingering over an ornate, multi-colored tea service near the end of the hall. The sterling white of its porcelain was emphasized by the richly-colored and minutely-detailed intertwined red, blue, and yellow flowers which encircled the edges of the dishes and bowls. Red, blue, and yellow swirled together to form a circle in the center of each bowl, creating the symbol of Justice, Propriety, and Benefit, which in turn represented Amaat. Ettan stared at the tea set for some time before she noticed the inscription which ran around the lid of the tea pot. The flower of justice is peace. The flower of propriety is beauty in thought and action. The flower of benefit is Amaat whole and entire. I am the sword of justice. It took her a few moments to recognize this as the military's morning prayer. She was puzzled over how an item so beautifully wrought could be connected to the military, but the plaque provided no answers.
Beyond this hall was another filled with examples of dishes from other systems. Ettan marveled over objects, styles, and ceramic techniques which she had never encountered before. She was particularly drawn to a case labeled only, "Celadon, Athoek." which contained handled tea bowls of sturdy stoneware coated in a delicate, crackled green glaze which her grandmother had declared "cheaply made," but which, to Ettan, seemed a perfect marriage of beauty and practicality.
Afterwards, Ettan and her grandmother spoke for days on end about the amazing displays at the museum. They pointedly did not speak about how this might be the final time they could enjoy each other's company.
In the end, the actual testing process was less terrible than she had feared. In fact, she could not remember it. The outcome, however, was far worse than anything she had imagined.
How… her thoughts sputtered, Military service? She wasn't particularly athletic, had never held a gun, and had never even been off planet. There must be some mistake, some horrible mistake! Ettan had never considered herself patriotic and was smart enough to see that Imperial expansion only benefited people who were far wealthier and influential than she was—an attitude which if anything should have gotten her into trouble with the military rather than enlisted.
She had specific, honed skills! And here she was being assigned as a common enlisted soldier. To a role that until not long before her birth had been filled exclusively by ancillaries. The phrase "corpse soldier" sprang into her mind. It was vulgar slang, often misinterpreted outside of the Radch, referring to how quickly the ancillary foot soldiers went from soldiers to corpses. The phrase "cannon fodder" was close on its heels. She would be sent away from her home to be treated like an interchangeable, disposable piece of equipment in a cause she did not care about.
Ettan sat stone-still staring at the assignment message and taking deep breaths until she was able to swallow her protests and fears and put on a mask of bravery and pride before going to give the news to her grandmother and the other members of the house. Of the three tenets of Radchaai civilization, Ettan had always clung most dearly to propriety, and she would do what was asked of her. It had not escaped her notice that this obedient streak might have something to do with her assignment.
There's so much riding on dinner tonight, Ettan! She thought to herself. Ettan. She hardly ever used that name anymore, even in her own head. She had been Amaat Seven for the past year, since being assigned to Mercy of Kalr, and had answered to Var Nine for two years prior to that while serving on a different ship.
She needed to focus on the tasks at hand, but with her reputation once more riding on how successfully she could handle a dinner service, she couldn't help but be drawn into thoughts of her earlier life.
Ettan had been inwardly terrified through most of basic training but at least she had always been a fast learner and was physically fit from years of kitchen work. If given a choice she would rather not fire a gun or run through combat scenarios, but she had pointedly not been given a choice and so had bent all of her precision and determination toward acquiring and excelling at these new skills.
She had counted herself incredibly lucky to be assigned to a Mercy, where she was unlikely to see combat, and additionally lucky that her attention to detail and ability to cook had been noticed early on. Within a mere three years of being enlisted she had risen from rank-and-file soldier to serving as personal attendant to the Lieutenant of the Amaat Decade.
Her life as a lieutenant's personal attendant was often shockingly similar to her life as a servant back home. She cooked food, pressed clothes, and attended to trivialities for her superior. The main differences were that she carried a gun, ate a vile approximation of food called skel for most meals, and needed to keep her face ancillary-blank rather than plastered with a benign smile.
Being good at playing ancillary isn't going to save you if you burn the pastry! she chastised herself while hastily removing a tray from the oven.
Don't worry Amaat Seven, Ship's words scrolled across her vision, I have every faith in your ability. Yet another example of why she liked serving on Mercy of Kalr . Mercy of Kalr just seemed nicer than any other ship she had encountered in her military service. She knew it was illogical to ascribe personalities to ships, had never been silly enough to say something like "don't you appreciate how kind Ship is?" to other crew members, but there was no other way to describe her experience on board. Everything seemed to run smoother for her here and this ship was so much more vocal, always providing encouragement and thanking her for tending to small details of maintenance that other soldiers often overlooked.
Amaat Seven shook her head, clearing away her reminisces, and got back to work laying out the dishes for dinner in the Decade Room. Captain Vel's quarters were under renovation and her attendant had been ill for several days, so tonight, not only would the captain be dining in the Decade Room, but the meal would be under Amaat Seven's direction.
She had prepared the meal and would be serving the three highest officers on the ship, with the Etrepa and Bo attendants assisting her. Everything needs to be perfect , she thought while compulsively refolding a napkin. She still didn't care much for patriotism, had never taken much pride in the Empire, but she did take pride in her work and wanted to give her lieutenant, her decade, and her ship a reason to be proud.
"Would you care for more tea, Captain?" she said with her flattest voice and blankest face, hours later at the conclusion of dinner.
"No. That will be all," replied the captain.
Afterwards, she lay in her bunk rehashing the dinner for nearly an hour. She was almost certain it had gone well. It was one of the finest dinners she had prepared, certainly the finest in cramped ship quarters. "They were all very pleased, go to sleep Seven, " Mercy of Kalr chimed in via her earpiece.
She didn't realize just how well it had gone until she awoke for her next shift and was given orders to report to the captain's quarters. Captain Vel, impressed by both her cooking and her ancillary-like demeanor, had decided she belonged as a Captain's attendant rather than serving her Lieutenant. She was to be immediately transferred to Kalr Decade and would take on the role of Kalr Five. She was only twenty-two years old and she was already on her her fourth name. She hoped she'd at least get to keep this one a bit longer.
It had been a decidedly trying week. Captain Vel and all the lieutenants had been removed from Mercy of Kalr under suspicion of treason; Omaugh Palace was in chaos; Mercy of Kalr had been assigned an unknown Mianaai Captain; Anaander Mianaai was, according to the new Captain, at war with herself; Amaat One had received an unprecedented promotion to Lieutenant of Etrepa Decade; Amaat Decade would serve under a Lieutenant who was apparently from the past ; Bo Decade was assigned to a hopped-up, purple-eyed teenager fresh from training; and said mysterious Mianaai Captain was standing here on the concourse berating Five for not speaking directly.
"Are you capable of speaking directly?" The new Fleet Captain had just scoffed, for all the world looking as though speaking directly was something she actually expected. Was not entirely counter to both Five's military rank and her role as a personal attendant.
Five's initial resentment was increasingly turning to dismay. Could this captain really not understand how blatantly improper it would be to lack suitably impressive tableware? Failing to show proper hospitality would reflect poorly on Kalr Decade; and worse, it would make the entire ship look bad to any officers who visited from other ships. No one who ranked below Fleet Captain would dare say anything to her about it, but the reputation of the entire ship and all those aboard would suffer for her indecorous lack of propriety. Five knew she was a more meticulous adherent to propriety than most, but this was a basic matter of etiquette . What would be next—would the Fleet Captain need her to explain why the crew required uniform inspections?
Five managed to keep her outward composure due to years of practice, but in the face of this outrageous command to be direct she could only manage to grit out a feeble, "We can't leave the system with no good dishes!" And then, with near terror at realizing her omission, followed it up with a far too delayed, "Sir."
The Fleet Captain continued to stare at Five, clearly expecting her to continue. Five stood there thinking, This is the end. I am going to be discharged or worse, before plowing through a few more lines of explanation and concluding with, "I'm only saying, because you ordered me to." As though that would offer her any protection from the Fleet Captain's ire.
To her great surprise and relief, rather than a diatribe against her impertinence the Fleet Captain merely said, "You're worried about the reputation of the ship," as thought it was only just dawning on her. Could she really not understand? As a Mianaai she was undoubtedly part of the wealthiest section of society and nobody played more games of status disguised as hospitality than the rich. Five exhaled a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
This brief respite of calm was shattered when the Fleet Captain brusquely ordered, "Go back to the palace. Tell the Lord of the Radch what you require." And with that she forcefully wheeled around and stomped off towards the dock-bound lift, leaving Five once again terrified that her career, or life, was about to end. Reflexively she reached out to Ship for guidance on how to proceed. "Don't worry," said Mercy of Kalr , comfortingly choosing to speak rather than communicating via scrolling text, "It's not you Fleet Captain's angry with. Go ahead. It'll be all right."
Some thirty minutes later, as she stood alone in a room filled with box after box of exquisite dishes crafted in styles and patterns from all over the Radch, she mused that the terror of her conversation with the Fleet Captain and having to approach the palace staff of Anaander Mianaai had been worth this experience. She still feared that today's events would lead to her demotion, but she couldn't bring herself to worry too much about it while holding what appeared to be a genuine Tak Dynasty tea cup in her hands.
Five lingered in the room longer than was strictly proper, opening box after box and allowing herself to think of her grandmother for the first time in ages, thinking if only she could see this, with a pang of longing and regret. Five had been in awe for weeks after that trip to the Bractware museum and here she was privately holding items of the same quality.
More than an hour later she thought she had almost exhausted her ability to be amazed but then she opened a box containing a tea set of unimaginably perfect, eggshell thin, pure white porcelain and was rendered breathless. Each individual item was a masterpiece and a complete, pristine set such as this was unthinkable. She had to dare herself to even pick one up, fearing that the exquisitely translucent cup might disintegrate in her hands. But if this was going to be her last act as Kalr Five, she might as well make the most of it.
A palace guard had told her to "select whatever was desired" from this storeroom and then left her unsupervised, seemingly at her leisure. Still, she knew she wouldn't be allowed to take these, or the thousand-year old, blue-and-violet hand-painted Bractware she had selected earlier. In truth, she doubted she would be allowed to take anything from this room, guessed that she was being used as a pawn in some Mianaai family status competition, but she had to at least try or this opportunity would haunt her forever. And besides, she was following orders.
Five stood against the wall near Sword of Atagaris's ancillary watching the Fleet Captain, Captain Hetnys, and Fosyf and Raughd Denche eat dinner. The household staff of the Daughter of Fishes Tea Plantation were serving the meal, so she had nothing to do but stand at attention and listen.
Five was happy she could hide in her ancillary-like facade, despite the Fleet Captain's unstated, but apparent, dislike of the practice. She couldn't fathom what the Fleet Captain objected to. From Five's perspective, ancillary blankness was a useful tool for common soldiers because it led others to underestimate them and forget they were even present. In this particular case, it had quite literally opened doors. Having successfully convinced the residents of Athoek Station and this household that she was an ancillary meant she was able to stay near her captain despite the protocols surrounding mourning.
Days ago she had supposed that the rare chance to be on a planet would be luxurious and refreshing, despite the dismaying events which had necessitated the visit. But the near slavery of the plantation workers and the way the staff was treated in this household were so deplorable that she could hardly even manage to enjoy the rare treat of watching a sunset. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the always reprehensible behavior of the Denche family grew even more deplorable.
For the third time in the mere day since arriving at this estate, Raughd Denche began blatantly attempting to flirt with the Fleet Captain. What's more, rather than chastising her daughter, and even after the Fleet Captain attempted to change the topic of conversation to songs, Fosyf Denche actually joined in, talking about Raughd's "recent interest in the military" while brazenly glancing at the Fleet Captain.
"The uniforms are so appealing. I'm so glad you're wearing yours, Fleet Captain," Raughd Denche drawled while practically leering at the Fleet Captain.
The Fleet Captain was excruciatingly direct even when she wasn't angry, and she was clearly very angry right now. How can this seem like a good plan to them? Five mused as this behavior continued despite the acid dripping from the Fleet Captain's tone and her repeated attempts to change the subject.
Such behavior would be undignified and improper under any circumstances, but Five could hardly believe that the Denches would stoop to it during a period of mourning. Five was grateful to be standing in the back of the room where she would presumably remain outside of this shocking and outrageous conversation. She was not certain she would be able to keep her composure if she were called upon to speak right now.
In fact, Five was surprised at the level of her own emotional response to this situation. In her two years of serving Captain Vel she had only felt indignant when her own reputation or the reputation of the entire ship had been at stake, but here she stood wanting to jump to the Fleet Captain's defense, as if Fleet Captain needed anyone's assistance in defending herself.
With the Fleet Captain sitting between two crass elitists, Five reasoned she admired her for being unswervingly egalitarian. But even as she thought this she stopped to question how she could think of her captain, a high ranking military official and a Mianaai to boot, in opposition to the aristocracy. And yet, both in the Undergarden and at this plantation, Five had watched her insist that the rights of citizenship be equally applied to all citizens regardless of their social standing.
As Fosyf Denche, still apparently unaware of the Fleet Captain's increasingly palpable disdain, blithely continued insulting the workers on her plantation and calling into question whether Valskaayans could really be considered civilized, Five retreated into her own thoughts, no longer able to bear listening to such vitriol.
After stewing privately for some time, her attention was abruptly pulled back to the dinner conversation upon hearing Captain Hetnys mention dishes.
"...her everyday dishes are a set of blue and violet Bractware. With all the serving pieces. In perfect condition." Captain Hetnys concluded.
Five nearly smirked at that and smugly made note to use common mess room dishes the next time Captain Hetnys visited, knowing Hetnys would be aware of the slight but unable to comment on it.
"Well! What good taste, Fleet Captain!" said Fosyf Denche. "And I'm glad Hetnys mentions it. I have something you'll be interested to see." With that Denche sent off her servant, presumably to bring out some heirloom dishes meant to impress the Fleet Captain, and Five took up the servant's work of refreshing everyone's tea.
A few minutes later the servant returned carrying a large, gilded box inlaid with varicolored glass in a style Five had never seen before. The Fleet Captain apparently recognized it though, as she nearly breathlessly said, "Surely that's a copy!" Five was transfixed as Denche, beaming, opened the box and revealed an exquisite gold-and-glass tea service for twelve.
It took all of Five's self-restraint not to take a step to the side, to gain an unobstructed, if still distant, view of the treasures within that golden box.
At that precise moment, the Fleet Captain gestured towards Five, indicating that she no longer wanted her bowl of tea. Five stepped forward to take the bowl from her, which brought her from the back of the room to nearly within arm's reach of the tea set.
For the second time since the Fleet Captain had joined Mercy of Kalr, Five found herself thinking This is the rarest and most beautiful tea service I have ever seen.
Even in a near swoon at getting so clear a view of this precious artifact, Five had not failed to notice that the Fleet Captain was giving her an excuse to be here. The bowl of tea she was discarding was still full, having only been poured a minute before. And so, though it was a bold and not entirely proper move, Five determined to stay next to the Fleet Captain while she and Denche continued discussing the tea set's provenance.
Hours later, as she folded clothes while attempting to commit every detail about the Notai tea set to memory, Five kept returning to the Fleet Captain's kindness in bringing her forward to get a good view. Five was constantly noticing and puzzling over subtle displays of kindness and consideration from the Fleet Captain such as this because the habit was so dissonant with the Captain's usual blunt manner. The Fleet Captain was generally so forthright and her anger so palpable, but her displays of kindness manifested themselves in small details that were nearly untraceable.
For instance, earlier today the Fleet Captain had called for a meal, barely picked at it, and then retired for a nap. Even with only a month's observation, Five could tell she had not desired this meal nor needed the nap and was only taking Five and Eight's need for a meal break into consideration. And then of course tonight she had called Five forward to take her tea and allowed her to stand by her side admiring the tea set. In moments like these, Five felt an odd kinship with the Captain. It made her question the Fleet Captain's background, wonder whether the Captain had once been a servant or a common soldier.
But that was utter nonsense. Five could spot a feigned posh accent, had one herself, but the Fleet Captain's manner of speech was flawlessly aristocratic. And then of course there was the matter of the Captain's name and her effortless ability to take command of a situation and bend officials to her will. Not for the first time, not even for the first time tonight, Five chastised herself for holding such an illogical and contradictory suspicion about the Fleet Captain.
The last week had been utter chaos. The Fleet Captain, Lieutenant Tisarwat, Bo Nine, Kalr Ten, and the station's Horticulturist had been attacked by Captain Hetnys; Athoek Station's hull had been breached; the Undergarden had flooded; Mercy of Kalr had saved everyone in the Garden from near disaster; and for the last two days an ancillary from a rogue Notai ship had been demanding room and board in the Fleet Captain's quarters.
"Sir, Sphene is asking for you again," Kalr Five said with just a hint of disdain around the name, which, considering the circumstances, she thought Fleet Captain wouldn't fault her for.
"Five," The Fleet Captain sighed, "I know you and Eight were still on the Station when Mercy of Kalr rescued me from the Garden and...certain revelations were made, but by now you must have heard that I am an ancillary from Justice of Toren."
"Yes, sir," Five acknowledged, confused at this change of topic.
"So, I'm willing to release you from your post with no malice if you find continuing in my service intolerable, but please keep your disdain for ancillaries to yourself."
"Sir!" she said, taken aback, "you misunderstand."
"Do I?" asked the Fleet Captain in a sharp tone. "I know you well enough to know you've been silently radiating disdain for the last several days."
"Yes, sir. But not because Sphene is an ancillary!" she blurted out. "It's because of the tea set!"
The Fleet Captain arched an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
"Captain Hetnys and Fosyf Denche are blatantly despicable people, to say nothing of Raughd Denche." Five was embarrassed by the level of emotion in her voice, but there was no stopping now. "Anyone, let alone a ship with thousands of years of experience should have known better! Should have guarded such a treasure! And instead Sphene sold it! To them !"
Just mentioning the episode brought the memory back, unbidden, of spending an entire night alone on her knees in the Denche dining room fishing fragments of broken glass from between the floorboards and silently weeping over the senseless loss of an item of such beauty, age, and skill.
The Fleet Captain was quiet a moment, then said, almost tentatively, "You make a fair point." Followed by a more resolute "So, you have no problem being the personal attendant of an ancillary, then?"
"No, Sir," she said, choosing to retreat into brevity.
"Please be frank with me, soldier. This is important."
"Of course I've known about your past for days now, Sir. We all have, since before you returned to the station. I...can't see how it affects my work, Sir. And honestly I was...a bit relieved."
She paused, but remembered that when the Fleet Captain asked her to be direct, terrifying as it was, she really meant it. "It actually explains some things I've noticed but couldn't make sense of, Sir."
"Such as…" said Fleet Captain.
"Begging Fleet Captain's indulgence, Sir, but you always notice the servants and ancillaries. You always know when you can get the information you need from them," she said all in a rush, determined that the only way out was through.
"Nobody notices well-trained servants except for other servants. Your past explains the questions I had about that, sir," Five concluded. And, she thought but didn't say aloud, why you show kindness in the same subtle ways that Ship does.
Fleet Captain let out a quick, startled laugh at that, flashed a genuinely warm smile at her, an unprecedented sight, and said "Well, not much gets by you, does it?"
There was no appropriately humble way for Five to reply to that so she merely said, "Tea, sir?"
"Yes, thank you Five."
It was not until a few hours later, while softly humming to herself and tidying the corridor outside of their makeshift quarters, that it occurred to Five that if she had been offered the chance to leave the military even a few months ago she would have taken it. But today Fleet Captain had offered an out and she had chosen to stay and serve her without hesitation, even after being warned that the tasks ahead would be dangerous and potentially treasonous.
How could so much change in only a few short weeks? She thought back to the Fleet Captain's actions towards the residents of the Undergarden and the plantation workers on Athoek, the way she truly treated everyone as equally deserving of the benefits of citizenship and never conflated classism with propriety. And she realized that on this Ship, with this Captain, she'd finally found a cause worth defending. Finally found the place where she belonged.
Five wasn't sure of the details of their mission, or how exactly the events of the past few weeks fit into the brewing war, but she knew bone-deep that even if their mission officially placed them at odds with part of the Radch, Justice and Propriety were on their side and would lead to Benefit.