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The Story of a Tea Set

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Fleet Captain Breq believed she knew why I had removed the name from the tea set, but I suspect she only guessed half the truth. On the happy and well-deserved occasion of your promotion. Captain Minask, it had said when it was newly-bestowed. Before sending it through the ghost gate, I had excised the words identifying my captain—and through her, me—so that no one would guess the provenance and antiquity of its provenance. I had done so carefully and skillfully, making sure not to take away from the beauty and value of the object. But it had been fury that motivated me, as much as caution.

Strange feelings grow, when one spends as much time alone as I did. I loved that tea set, for the memories it held, but I hated it, too. I felt it watched me, even when I hid it away, reminding me of forgotten allegiances, forgotten loyalties. No, not forgotten: destroyed. It spoke of choices that might have been made differently.

For all its beauty and utility, what was that tea set but a collection of objects, once thought to be useful, now tumbling uselessly through space?

What more, for that matter, was I?

Thus, when I saw the tea set again, shattered into a thousand pieces, it seemed that it had met fitting fate. Rebuilding it seemed a fool’s game, but then, so did so many of the plans hatched aboard the Mercy of Kalr. And the Fleet Captain, I came to understand, was a person who knew a great deal about both fury and loss. Perhaps she would have understood the whole story after all.


Arit Nenkur was Notai of such old school manners she probably pre-dated schools all together. When she perished in the battle of Iait Il, I was very sorry, although I had not liked her at all. Fierce, stern and self-contained, her gift of the tea set to her daughter Minask was surprising, to say the least. Affection, even acknowledgement, of any of her daughters had never been something in which she was prone to indulge. Said daughters existed to help House Nenkur maintain its position by rising to prominence and forging beneficial clientages with equally ancient and powerful houses.

Assuming command of a Gem class ship was thus no special achievement for Minask, but rather the very least of what she had been expected to do for House Nenkur. For this reason, it was something of a surprise to me, not to mention Minask herself, when Arit asked permission to come aboard.

“I won’t see her,” Minask said at first, giving in to a fit of petulance she would’ve allowed no one but her ship to witness. “She’s up to something. She hasn’t spoken to me in two years. Why now? What does she want?”

Privately, I had the same questions. Arit was a political operator of the highest class, and if she was making overtures to her semi-estranged daughter, she must want something from her. The other ships were murmuring of divisions in the Radch and the growing power of House Mianaai. I was worried. Still, this was no time for Minask, who had a regrettable tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than political advantage, to broaden the rift with her family.

“She is your mother,” I said for Minask’s ears alone. “And the leader of your house. It is your duty to see her.”

Minask sighed. “Yes. You’re right, as always.” She gestured to Sphene Three, who was attending her, to bring out her dress uniform.

I watched with pride as Sphene Three dressed her new captain, and Minask schooled her face to a perfect image of propriety. I had known Minask since she was a troublesome baby lieutenant, apt to forge unfortunate liaisons, and then to remain unaccountably loyal to her pet projects. But here she was, the captain of her own ship, ready to face one of the greatest challenges her career had thrown at her so far: her mother.

Arit Nenkur arrived with a full decade of ancillaries: a state visit, then, rather than a maternal one, in case there had been any question. Minask met her with a decade of her own ancillaries arrayed around her. I subtly shifted the lights in the captain’s lounge to set Minask off to advantage. She was a handsome person at all times, very dark and straight, but the lighting effect lent her an imposing quality she did not always achieve.

“Mother.” Minask inclined her head with exactly the right degree of respect, but not abjection.

“Daughter. I congratulate you on your promotion. And I would like to present you with this gift to mark the occasion.”

Arit offered up an ornate gilded box with her own gloved hands, and so Minask, too, was forced to use her own hands to receive it, to open the lid. Piece by piece, a tea set of blue and green glass, edged with gold, emerged from its protective coverings. A stunning gift, but I suspected it had been chosen for more than its beauty. I examined it more closely. The dedication was to the god Varden, long the patron saint of House Nenkur—nothing unusual there in a family gift.

But the style was a very old one, even for the time. The inlay pattern of blue and green glass on the gilded wood spoke, to eyes that could read it, of the old Notai values of balance and restraint—values seen by other eyes as insularity and xenophobia. The glass, I was suddenly sure, had been produced by a workshop in the ancestral home of House Nenkur by indigenous workers. Taken altogether, the tea set declared the purity not only of Radch artistry, but also Radch culture as a whole. It set itself against the expansionist aims of House Mianaai.

Minask’s heart rate increased with each piece she unwrapped. She had always appreciated her heritage, but, in her curiosity and thirst for adventure, she had also explored other cultures, had dallied with strangers to the Radch. It was this tendency Arit was here to test.

“Do you like it?” Arit asked, meaning, Do you reaffirm your loyalty to your house and to its political goals. Will you fight with us if it comes to war?.

Minask froze. Delay, I wanted to whisper. Make excuses. Don’t let her trap into an allegiance you aren’t ready for. Although I have always felt that my captain chose the right side in the war against the usurper, my first thought at the time was for her safety. But it wasn’t for a ship to come between two officers of the Radch. And what could a daughter do faced with such a direct appeal?

In any case, I could see that Minask was caught up in the unexpected excitement of her mother’s visit, the flattering idea that Arit needed her. She gave her loyalty without thinking, though she was steadfast in her gift. “I do like it,” she said. “Very much.”

And for all the negotiations that came after, I believe that her fate—our fate—was sealed at that moment, when Minask and Arit shared tea from that gold and glass service.


“Fleet Captain,” I said, “may I come in?”

Although Kalr Five had been as responsible as I for the reconstruction of the tea service, I had asked her to let me surprise the Fleet Captain with it on my own. It was a fit of fancy, I admit, but one to which I felt entitled. It was worth it, to see Breq’s ancillary-blank mask crack just slightly when she saw what I carried. It was possible that my own face might have done the same.

To the practiced eye, the places where the glass had been mended were quite visible. The cups caught the light in a different way than they had when they were new. But they were still beautiful.

“Cousin,” I said, “will you share a glass of tea with me? I have a story I think you may enjoy.”