Csevet handed Maia the nesecho-sealed package of books after Maia had taken his first sip of chamomile and blinked the sleep from his eyes.
"Your Serenity did not open your gift last night." At first Maia thought he heard reproof in Csevet's voice, but that did not seem right. Maia looked down at the wrapped package to hide his frown, then had to hide a grin instead. Csevet was curious, and quite terribly so for him to allow such a note of complaint in his voice.
Maia moved his plate aside so that he could raise the package to the table to open it. The two waterbirds of the nesecho, wings outstretched and overlapping, legs tucked up for flight, were as beautiful as they had been when Merrem Vizhenka had handed him the package late the night before. "From your aunt Shaleän," she had said, with an almost embarrassed smile. "With her best unofficial wishes for a long and happy marriage."
The nervous warmth of remembering that the wedding was in just over a month made Maia's fingers fumble on the beaded cord that released the nesecho's knot. The knots fell away and left the cloth wrapping to slip down and reveal three slim volumes in soft leather binding, atop a bound sheaf of papers. The books had no titles, merely an intricate pattern of fruits and blossoms in stamped relief, and Maia could not resist trailing a finger over the spines. He opened the letter first.
To our serene imperial kinsman, Edrehasivar VII, greetings.
We offer our deepest felicitations on your upcoming marriage. The treatise on reconstructing the use of archaic shortswords that your betrothed wrote has reached our hands, and we must approve the practical knowledge evident within, styled though it is as a scholarly exercise. We enclose a small pamphlet on the use of falchions aboard ship, mostly sketches made by our wife, in hopes that it may provide her further inspiration.
We were pleased to learn that our sister Nadeian has found a place in Cetho, though we mourn the difficulty of visiting so far from the coast. We venture to hope that travel will become easier as you improve the Istandaärtha. We hope also that you will find the books we send from our home in Solunee informative. We have not found their like outside the large port cities, though perhaps it is only that we know not where to look, for we were surprised indeed to find these in Ethuverazhin translation.
Trusting in our sister's discretion, we style ourself informally,
Maia lowered the letter, feeling as though his aunt had--what had Osmerrem Gormaned called it?--exploded all her boilers at once. He looked at the slashing, confident writing again and revised the thought. He doubted they were all her boilers. "We did not realize Csethiro's treatises on swordwork had reached as far as Barizhan."
Csevet's ears twitched. "The Barizheise merchants are a very good information network. Not as efficient as couriers, of course, but more widespread."
Maia handed the letter to Csevet. He looked over the sheaf, which was indeed a hand-sketched pamphlet detailing the use of a short, single-edged blade, which must be the falchion. Then he turned his attention to the books. The title page, when Maia opened the first volume, was of paper much too coarse for the fine cover, making it clear that the binding had been an afterthought. Csevet, craning his neck discreetly to read the title, coughed sharply, almost as if he were choking.
Maia looked up sharply. "Csevet?"
A fine blush crawled over his normally unflappable secretary's face. Csevet looked down at the letter, but he no longer seemed to be reading it.
"Csevet?" Maia asked again, seeing Telimezh begin to drift over from the door. Kiru Athmaza, when he looked at her briefly, was as unruffled as ever.
"It is a gift given by family or close friends," Csevet managed finally, "though more often by older brothers than by aunts." He avoided Maia's eyes still, though he was beginning to get his face under control. Telimezh returned to his position at the door.
Maia looked back down at the book, seeing now a small note in Shaleän's strong hand: Know Yourself. He turned the page and promptly snapped the book closed, blushing furiously himself now. The naked elf on the page was anatomically detailed, but somehow sensual as well. It was clearly not a medical text. "Oh," he said faintly. Gingerly, he reached for the next, careful to open only to the safe title page. Your Spouse, said this note. He closed the cover and cracked open the third. Together.
Csevet cleared his throat. "Solunee-over-the-Water is considered to be more accurate in such works than most from Barizhan or the Ethuveraz."
"Well," Maia said, unable to think of anything to say. "Well, we suppose we can keep them in our apartments?" He winced at the squeaky lilt of question in his voice, swallowed a sip of tea, and tried again. "We will investigate them at our leisure," he said more firmly. He wrapped the three books and the pamphlet back in their covering and let his edocharei take the bundle away.
Csevet busied himself with his papers. When he spoke again, his voice was businesslike. "Serenity. After your public audiences today, you have scheduled the meeting with Captain Orthema."
Maia brightened. "Did he give you more information about the reason for the meeting?"
"Not conclusively, Serenity," Csevet said with a grimace. "His courier suggested that it has aught to do with the captain's recent return from the Evressai Steppes, but his official message says no such thing."
"It wouldn't, would it?" Maia said. "Anything to do with the Nazhmorhathveras must go officially through the Witness for Foreigners." He put the barest emphasis on officially.
Csevet's face was serious, but a conspiratorial smile glinted in his eyes. "It should." He frowned. "Though I should wish for better information. It is difficult to prepare without it."
"We agree," Maia said. "But we will have the information soon enough, and I doubt that Captain Orthema will expect an immediate decision."
Csevet inclined his head, still looking dissatisfied. "We have given him the last audience, if the matter is a difficult one." With that, he turned to the rest of Maia's correspondence. Maia did his best to concentrate, but curiosity buzzed in the back of his mind.
The curiosity carried him through that day's disputes, which were unusually venomous. Maia wondered with only a little irony if the emperor's upcoming marriage drove the influx of inheritance disputes, claiming infidelity, or falsified testaments, or any manner of other perfidy. He thought that many of them would rather the emperor confirm their superiority over their kin than confirm their inheritance.
Even those were better than the case where the law and evidence were so clearly on one side that the emperor could do nothing but confirm the viscount's rights, though the bearings and attitudes of the petitioner, defendant, and witness vel ama for the local forest were such that Maia was certain that the defendant ran his household with the worst habits of Lord Chavar and Setheris combined. He caught Csevet's eye as the pair left the Michen'theileian, and Csevet came close enough for Maia to murmur, "Can we have someone look into the management of that estate?"
Csevet made a note. "Yes, Serenity." There was no time to say more before the next petitioners entered, but Maia picked up the thread again as secretaries collected maps and he and Csevet turned their steps to the Tortoise Room. Csevet was confident. "There is a great deal of research to be done here in the Untheileneise. Lord Berenar's secretaries are familiar with treasury records, and the archprelacy has records of untimely deaths that may be relevant. Couriers are always observant, as well." He shrugged a little. "We have often seen malfeasance accompany such open malice." He hesitated briefly. "The previous emperor looked more kindly upon petitions by those with historic claims than those simply claiming hardship, but that was a matter more of politics than of law."
Maia surprised himself with a choke of laughter. "We suppose the Tethimada would not have taken kindly to anyone overseeing their management."
Csevet's expression was exceptionally open, a blend of bitterness and satisfaction. "They would not." Yet the Tethimada were now extirpated, and Lord Chavar's mismanagement exposed to the court.
"We want the truth," Maia said firmly.
Csevet smiled at him. "We know, Serenity. We will discover it."
They reached the Tortoise Room with just enough time for Maia to settle himself before Captain Orthema appeared. He was dressed in his Guard uniform, though he had removed the sun mask. He also carried a small but beautiful pelt of pure white. He bowed deeply and presented it to Maia with a quiet, "Your Serenity."
Maia looked at the pelt in consternation, realizing too late to stop himself that his hand was rising to stroke the fur. It was incredibly soft. "What is this?"
Captain Orthema squared his shoulders and said, "Your Serenity is aware that we went to the Evressai border while our wife visited her family in the badlands." It was not a question. Maia nodded anyway. "One of the tribes discovered that we was there--we know not how--and they sent a messenger under truce flag." He looked deeply uncomfortable but forged onward. 'Your Serenity, they knew that we were captain of the Untheileneise Guard." Csevet's shocked inhale matched Maia's. He had not imagined the steppe barbarians would have the means to discover the workings of the Untheileneise Court. Captain Orthema's expression was unreadable, not because it was blank, but because there was simply too much to read. He continued, "Your Serenity, they also know that your wedding approaches. They are willing to pay a tithe this year, in the form of a wedding gift."
"A wedding gift," Maia echoed. It was a useless response, but he had nothing better. Abruptly, he realized that Orthema was still holding the pelt out, like a shelf or a statue. Maia took the pelt, settling it in his lap, so that Orthema could relax.
"Yes, Serenity," Orthema said. "Before they refused to pay tithe during your grandfather Varevesena's reign, there was an official trade between the capital and the most prominent tribes, in addition to the unofficial exchanges that happen at the borders." His face relaxed a little, in what might in another man be a wry smile. "But the emperor Varevesena felt it necessary that they should recognize his lordship over them with an outright tithe. And so they refused and the official trade ended."
"And the unofficial trade?" Maia asked dryly.
"Continues, Serenity," Orthema acknowledged. "But it is discreet, and what items reach the court are inferior and expensive."
"Items like these?" Maia stroked his hand down the soft, warm fur.
"Many larger furs, Serenity," Orthema said. "I was given this only as a sample. Horses and cattle as well. Many of the finest horses in the Untheileneise stables come from Nazhmorhathvereise stock, though much enhanced by careful breeding with Barizheise lines. And there is also this." He offered a carved wooden box, lid removed to show a collection of yellowish roots. "We believe your nohecharis is familiar with the plants used in medicines." He bowed slightly toward Kiru Athmaza, and Maia gestured her forward.
Kiru Athmaza's indrawn breath was sharp when she pulled a single root from the box. "This is the finest Mountain Life we have seen, Serenity. If they are willing to offer it in trade, many would rejoice."
Even as an uneducated child, Maia had heard of Mountain Life. His mother had eaten it in Isvaroë, as much as a relegated and isolated goblin could acquire, in powdered form when she could not get fresh. The doctor in her household thought it helped prolong her life, and some days Maia had thought her unusually bright and strong those rare times she had enough fresh Mountain Life to eat it for several days. It grew only on the steppes and was hideously difficult to obtain in quantity.
He met Kiru Athmaza's eyes and saw her awareness of that fact. Then he turned to Orthema. "You are no merchant, Captain Orthema. I do not think you come directly to me simply to encourage trade."
Orthema gave him a small smile. "No, Serenity. But when the Nazhmorhathveras trade, they do not raid. Or perhaps it is better to say, they raid less. This is evident in our, that is, the Guard's, records of the Evressai Steppes." He offered a small sheaf of papers. "We have a summary of the records here, as well as our speculation on what the tribe may expect in return. We regret that the Witness for Foreigners considers all goods sent to the Steppes tribute to barbarians and beneath the dignity of the Ethuveraz."
Maia winced. Lord Bromar still considered his emperor's approach to the steppe barbarians quite mad. "We will consider our options." He glanced at Csevet. "Can we meet again soon?"
Csevet consulted his schedule. "If Captain Orthema can meet you for luncheon in three days' time?"
Orthema bowed. "I am at Your Serenity's disposal." Maia offered the white pelt back to him, but Orthema shook his head. "The gift is for Your Serenity."
Maia said, "We thank you, Captain Orthema, for bringing this opportunity to us."
Orthema bowed wordlessly and saw himself out.
Csevet and Maia exchanged looks. "We will query the office of the Witness for Foreigners, though it may be difficult to persuade him in time to modify the order of ceremony," Csevet said. "The gifts must be accepted publicly if you wish to use them to change policy toward the Nazhmorhathveras, Serenity."
Maia gestured agreement. "If Csethiro could bring them with her..." He riffled through the paper, taking the summary of expectations and handing the historical research over to Csevet.
"It would ease the protocol, Serenity," Csevet said hopefully, accepting the papers. "And the Ceredada are just south of the badlands and would be well-placed to benefit if the steppe trade began again."
"We will ask," Maia said. "Perhaps she will know a way to accomplish it." He and Csevet parted ways then, the emperor to return to his apartments and Csevet to marshal his undersecretaries and messengers for inquiries at the offices of government.
Maia dined that night in the Alcethmeret with Arbelan Drazharan as usual, but also her great-niece, and he found himself pinned by matching bright blue eyes as he apologized awkwardly for bringing business to the dining table. Csethiro Ceredin said decisively, "We would like to hear what you think we may help with." Arbelan merely smiled when Maia startled.
"That is," he stumbled, then inhaled while Csethiro waited patiently. He began again. "Captain Orthema came to us today with an opportunity on the Evressai Steppes." He explained the situation and finished with, "We thought perhaps if the Ceredada could present them as part of the ceremonial procession..."
"We should like to ride to the Untheileian on a Nazhmorhathveras-bred horse, we think," Csethiro said thoughtfully. She ducked her head when her great-aunt looked at her, eyebrows raised. "Yes, we know that we cannot, but we should still like to. We could at least have them pulling the carriage."
"If they are trained to a team," Arbelan said. She took a sip of her wine, and added, "It is the sort of trade my nephew would have interest in, if he is much like my brother."
Csethiro nodded sharp agreement. "Profit and honor together." She tapped the table, thinking. "He would want permission from the Witness for Foreigners." She met Maia's worried gaze. "Not approval, we think, for he has little fondness for Lord Bromar, but permission to engage in contact."
That sounded more likely to Maia, though he still foresaw difficulty. "Could such permission come under the seal of the office, rather than the Witness himself?"
Arbelan answered when Csethiro looked uncertain. "The permission must come from the Witness but need not come from Lord Bromar himself." Maia remembered anew that she had been Varenechibel's empress for many years, and so well-regarded that the Corazhas had not forgotten her in the still longer years of her relegation. "Lord Bromar can permit his underlings to use his seal of office, but he must permit it."
And of course, Maia thought with irony, no blame could come to the Witness for Foreigners if he refused to set his personal seal to his emperor's foolish fancy and the entire scheme fell apart. "We will offer the choice." After negotiating. "We thank you for the information."
Arbelan raised her glass to him and changed the subject. She still carried most of the conversation, and after a penetrating glance that made Maia sit straighter so that he would not cringe, Csethiro joined her. He could see the shape of Csethiro's questions, though he would not have thought to ask them himself, seeking the roots during Varevesena's reign of alliances in the modern court, or the petty jealousies that when pressed might sway a critical decision. He listened, trying to remember the pattern even if he could not hold onto the details.
As the three of them lingered over dessert, Maia sent his edocharei to collect Shaleän's falchion pamphlet, and only the pamphlet. "Our mother's sister has an interest in weaponswork and thought highly of your treatise on shortswords." He tried a smile as Csethiro flushed pink. "She is a ship captain and better placed than we ourself to judge such things." He slid the papers across the cleared table. "She thought you might find these sketches of falchion use aboard ship useful." Maia had to clench his fingers beneath the table to keep them from trembling. He couldn't look away from Csethiro, even to see how Arbelan reacted to the nearly inappropriate gift.
Csethiro opened the pamphlet and traced a finger over the shape of a sword. "We are honored, Serenity, by her interest and her gift. We hope that we may meet her someday."
"So do we," Maia said. He met Csethiro's eyes when she raised her head, and this time he did not flinch at all. "So do we."