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I - Kelikiin in the Wake

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a⋅i⋅ji /aɪˈiːdʒiː/ > 1. n. ruler of a multi-clan, multi-domain atevi association. > 2. suf. title for a person recognized as lord or leader of one’s clan or sept. > formal suf. title applied to the name of the holder of one’s loyalty or loyal service, used as verbal confirmation or affirmation of that loyalty (c.f. man’chi). > 3. informal n. term for a person born without the ability to feel upward loyalty but who receives it from others (not applicable to pathological isolation; c.f., hadjaijid). ■ neutral pl. a⋅i⋅ji⋅in /aɪiːdʒiːˈiːn/ See vol. 2 for an overview of Ragi numerical philosophy & court requirements, prefixes, affixes, and infixes.

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Chapter Text

He is going in and out of consciousness — it’s a splash of water that brings him to. It is dark and yet there is a bright, roaring orange monster nearby. The deck is tilting beneath him, back and forth. What happened? An explosion, he recalls fuzzily, as the ship’s sailors had tried to wave off the smaller boat that had made a run in at them. He couldn’t recall seeing anyone aboard the little craft — it was odd, that. It is hard to remember, because his head is a mass of pain, discordantly clanging like a broken bell.

More water hits him in the face. Is his aishid trying to wake him? He blinks and licks his lips, tastes copper and salt. He does not see anyone. Where is his aishid? I ordered them to protect the dowager, he remembers, but nothing after that. Then the deck, tilting again, does not rock back the other way. It keeps tilting, tilting and he is sliding and now falling and the orange beast is reaching out for him with yellow and white teeth and the heat hits him in the face and

he is in the air and

somehow he hits the water where it is not burning. He just manages to take a breath before the sea closes over his head. The sea is moving, it is alive, it has just swallowed him and now swirls him this way and that in its mouth, tasting him on all sides. It is getting ready to force him down its gullet.

He looks around and sees the surface of the ocean from below: on fire, it is the only light there is. It is “up” and he knows he has to move that way. He strikes out with his arms and legs and somewhat to his surprise, they obey. He remembers how to swim, but the blanket of orange above him seems to be receding. It is the weight of his dress coat his boots, he realizes, pulling him down into the deep. His lungs begin to burn as he shrugs out of the coat and kicks off his boots, offering them to the hungry gods of the deep in exchange for his life and, finally, he is able to make headway upwards.

The current has borne him beyond the fire and he breaks through into the air, howling for life, just as his vision is beginning to dim. He looks around as the waves lift him, drop him, slap him in the face, and sees the fire on the water and beyond that, illuminated by the glow, his ship. The sea is pulling him away from it, farther and farther. He cannot draw a breath to let out a cry — it is just enough to get air through the froth of water that is trying to force itself down his throat. “Aiji-ma!” He hears an anguished voice call out across the water. Tema-ji, he thinks. At least one of his aishid lives and it is the best news he has had for, oh, the last five minutes, which to his aching head make up the entirety of the universe.

It is so, so dark — full dark, now. It is a night of the new moon, and a cloudy one at that. He can no longer see the ship and the fire itself is but a small orange blob: he is being swept out to sea. It is not a good place to be.

Something touches his fingers. He jerks back, thinking that it is one of the creatures of the ocean coming to determine if he is edible. But it is only a large piece of wood, probably blown out of the ship. It is large enough to climb upon and allows him to keep most of his body out of the water, even though it heaves alarmingly, tossed about on the waves like the matchstick that it is.

Separation from his aishid tears at him, a great gaping void. Whither will they turn without him? But I am still aiji! Some part of him insists. Aiji of this little piece of wood and of this large, large sea.

He can no longer hear the cries from the ship or see the fire: it is pitch black, all around him, and he is alone.

Chapter Text

Machigi woke to the sound of waves gently lapping against something that sounded wooden and hollow. Incongruously, there appeared to be a wall next to him in the water. No, wait, it was curved. Was there such a thing as a curved wall? There was a flapping sound and he looked further up to see a pale-colored canvas sail fluttering in the breeze. Comprehension dawned: a boat!

He was half soaking wet and half crusted with dried salt, still clinging somehow, despite having been asleep, to the piece of wood that had found him in the dark during the night. It seemed to him to be early morning now, judging from the pale light the flooded the world. He struggled to push up against the board despite its attempts to jiggle out from under him — he tried to gain height, some sort of vantage, craning upwards, and found himself looking into a blurry face. “Nadi?” Said the face, and now his vision cleared. He was looking at a woman, her expression one of unconcealed concern.

A swell abruptly heaved him upward and the wood tipped alarmingly and threw him into the side of the boat. He grunted and scrabbled at it, fingers unclawing themselves to grasp the lip of the boat’s side. The sailor in the boat caught him by the back of his shirt, almost lost him when the swell subsided and tried to suck and scrape him back down against the boat’s side — the boat tipped and for a moment he thought it would capsize on him, but she gave a mighty heave just as the swell returned and he thumped, hard, tumbling into an ungainly heap against the inside of the boat, still tilted at an angle.

The boat righted itself neatly and the inside became the bottom, punching his breath out of him as he rolled again. He untangled his limbs and sat up, struggling to regain a sense of what and when and maybe, if he was very fortunate, where. He found himself in the bow of the boat — a small sailboat, really, of the kind handily worked by one person and indeed, there was only one other person aboard. His gaze settled on the sailor, who had reached out to rest a hand on the line that kept the sail boom secured while the wind was tugging at the canvas sail above their heads.

She appeared to be a young adult, maybe about his age. Her black hair, tied loosely at the nap of her neck with what appeared to be rough-spun cord, had been bleached in streaks by the sun. The breeze whipped several loose strands around the edges of her face, which she ignored. She was wearing simple seafarer’s clothing: a plain shirt over un-dyed trews — if he had to guess, he would say they were fashioned around her waist with a string. A commoner, a fisher most like, with a sturdy build and strong-looking arms. He did not think she was from Taisigi lands — something perhaps about the bones of her face marked her as non-local. Other than that, though, there was nothing particularly remarkable about her at all except for her eyes: they were disconcertingly keen and an odd, mottled shade of gold. They reminded him of an autumn sunset on water as seen through dappled shade.

“Nadi?” She said again. Her voice was a dusky contralto and he realized he was staring.

“One is grateful—” he wanted to say, but his voice came out as a unintelligible croak. She wordlessly handed him a canteen and he took it more eagerly than he wanted to, drinking from it with a greed that would have appalled the staff at Tanaja. Gods less fortunate! He could not recall having ever drunk sweeter.

While he was drinking, the sailor moved to the boat’s stern, so surely that the boat barely rocked. With one hand on the tiller, she took the boom line the other. She unwrapped several turns of the line from around its starboard cleat and, with a neat flick of the wrist, freed it. The sail immediately filled, rounding out into a curve, and the boom swung over to port. The sailboat began to make way and the piece of wood that had saved his life dwindled in view. He would not miss it.

“One is grateful, nadi.” Now, properly lubricated, his voice worked. He made as if to move sternward to return the canteen, but she said, “please keep it, nadi. You will need more water. It is best if you remain still for now.” In truth, he was grateful she had said this, because all his body was beginning to speak to him in a most uncomplimentary and insulting fashion, and he was glad to lean back where the sides came together and the bow made a shape that seemed to fit his back very well.

The boat rolled gently as it moved through the water and almost lulled him back to sleep, but he had no intention of sleeping in such an ignorant state. So, dismissing his body’s demands, he took a few minutes to get his bearings.

He was in a sailboat to be sure — the large sail attached to the mainmast was supplemented with a smaller triangular jib, a classic profile common to boats of this type along the mainland’s coasts. It was moderately equipped, a pair of oars neatly tucked into the side at his left hand, along with with hand-held fishing gear that confirmed to him his suspicion of her vocation. On his right hand, there were a few other boxes, two small barrels, a net neatly folded into a cube with a smaller hand-net laid atop it (more proof, if he had needed it, that she was a fisher), two large coils of rope, a large bundle of what appeared to be seaweed wrapped up in string, and some rolled cloth that he supposed was blankets or possibly extra clothing. Along the boat’s centerline, just off to one side of the mast, was a longer cylinder of oiled canvas with grommets sewn in along the one long edge that was visible. These seemed to match up with pegs around the boat’s gunnels; he realized that it was a rain cover that likely doubled as a rain catcher. Everything was neatly lashed into place with extra cord. A broad hat woven out of long grasses sat in the bottom of the stern at the sailor’s side, going unused at the moment.

What thusly satisfied, for now, and already guessing it to be early morning — when completed, such progress I make! — he moved on to where. Unfortunately, he was able to scan the entire horizon and see nothing but water. There was no land, which was bad, and also no other sea-going vessels, which was worse. Surely his aishid, if it had survived, had gotten the dowager safely into port and had sent out search and rescue parties. This must be so, he thought; it was necessary to him that he think so. But wherever they are, this boat is not.

Perhaps, then, it was time to add another element: who.

Chapter Text

When she had told him to stay still in the boat’s bow, her accent confirmed his suspicion about her non-locality, but he could not for his life place it.

I will need to take care not to reveal who I am. It helped that his shirt — lace hanging in rags from collar and cuffs — and dress trousers were a wreck and that his hair, having lost its ribbon, had come completely unbraided and lay about his shoulders in an unconstrained manner that would have appalled his staff. In short, he in no ways appeared noble; perhaps this would work in his favor. But it was absolutely vital that he knew in whose company he had found himself. Best be plain, like a commoner, and direct.

“Who are you, nadi?” He asked.

She tilted her head, considering him. “The owner of this sailboat,” she replied. “Who are you, nadi?”

If she will not give her name, I am not obliged to make one up. Let us both be cagey, then. “A traveler,” he said cautiously. “Become separated from his ship.”

A raised eyebrow as if to say, well, obviously. “How?”

“Pirates,” he said. He had always found it helpful to mix in a little truth now if one thought one might need to lie later.

“From a large ship?” She asked. He hesitated and she added, “The piece of wood one found you on, nadi. It was large.”

“Yes,” he said.

“What happened?”

He did not like that she had taken control, that she was the one asking questions and he the one answering. It should be the other way around.

“They rammed the ship. One was thrown overboard.” Before she could speak, he got in a question of his own. “Where are you from, nadi? From Tanji?” Even though he knew that she was not from there, nor from any of his lands.

“As you are the passenger, best restrict yourself from asking questions for now, nadi,” she said firmly. “Your time for answers may come later, if one is satisfied.”

It was shocking. She dares—! He fumed silently.

Something of the thought must have flashed across face despite his best efforts to remain impassive, for she raised an eyebrow again and chuckled. “Oh, does one challenge you, na…di?” Her eyes sparkled, challenging him to supply the missing consonant.

Impertinent woman! He refused to take the bait and instead took a breath to steady himself. “It is not important,” he said.

“Certainly.” The dance had not left her eyes.

He decided, for his immediate safety, to change the subject and perhaps obtain a clue indirectly. He indicated a carving, a geometric band, stylized flowers and shells and waves, around the base of the mast just below the boom. From the quality of it and the other decoration around the vessel, some master carver had worked here — it was genuine artistry, exquisite. It looked too new to be something she’d inherited from generations past. And again this begged the question: Who is she, that such a master would work on a simple sailboat like this? “It is lovely work. One has never seen anything like it. Is that common, where you come from?”

She shrugged and again, failed to accept the hook. “It is one’s own,” she said. She reached down beneath her seat and produced a wicked little knife. He did not need to touch it to know that she kept it sharp. “Sometimes, when waiting for the fish to bite, one has a great deal of free time.” She waggled the blade and it winked in the sunlight, and now he knew she was armed.

But he barely marked it. “Yours?” He raised an eyebrow and leaned forward to take another look and no, he had not been mistaken before. He could not help but be deeply impressed. “This is first-class work, nadi!”

She tilted her head. “How would you know?”

Gods less fortunate! He was utterly speechless, having so neatly been caught out, this had never happened before in his life, he blamed the explosion, there must have been head trauma —

She laughed and bowed her head, tucking her knife back into its storage spot. “You need not answer, nadi.” She sobered up and said, “One thinks it would be best not to know, actually. One feels it would be safer for both of us if one did not know.”

“Are you sure?” He still stung at having been bested. “Perhaps one might be worth a ransom,” he suggested, irked.

“Oh? Perhaps one should call you ‘nandi’, then.” She smiled. “No, such a thing is outside an acceptable world view. One is not a pirate.”

Oh? “What are you, then?”

She pointed at the fishing gear. “A fisher will suffice.”

“I know of no fisher who carves like that.”

“Perhaps you do not know enough fishers.”

He let out a snort of frustration. “But if there is a crisis in the boat between here and there,” he complained. “If one needs to call out to you, one needs a name.”

“Will not ‘Fisher’ do, nadi?”

“I suppose.” It was not satisfactory. But then again, it was her boat. ‘Fisher’ it was.

“And perhaps, for safety’s sake, one should simply call you ‘You,’ nadi,” she said, using the impersonal, neutral, unnumbered pronoun. “In that way, there is no temptation to offer clues. One knows that you are important, by the way you hold yourself, by the way you speak. For your sake and one’s own, one does not wish to know more.”

For many years now, he was utterly unaccustomed to being called anything other than ‘nandi’ or, now, ‘aiji-ma’, which he had grown to like very much. So the simple ‘nadi’ had been grating enough, but ‘You’ — it was not just insulting and breathtakingly rude, it was downright outrageous.

And yet it was absolutely perfect for his present needs: to survive, incognito, long enough to make it home. He dipped his head, just the slightest bow. “Very well. One will be ‘You’.”

Chapter Text

Getting on towards mid-day, she passed him her hat. “Do not concern yourself for me. One is accustomed. One will put up the rain cover if the sun beats down overly.” He felt foolish wearing it, but it cut down the appalling amount of light that was going into his eyes. Then she broke out their luncheon and despite his hunger, there was nothing to recommend it. It was the dried fish from storage, more properly a jerky, barely seasoned and splintery in the mouth, washed down with water. He thought of sliced vegetables in a seasoned broth, seasonal game-and-grain richly sauced, of poached eggs, and fruit compote, and afterwards an elegant glass of brandy from an old vintage, taken in his favorite chair in the map room, in front of the great expanse of windows overlooking the bay. His bay. He wondered what the kitchen staff had prepared for the mid-day meal today. And who was eating it.

Still, it was nutrition. It was what his body needed, that, and the water — he hadn’t realized how dehydrated his night in the ocean had left him. And now that things were working, he realized that he had other needs. “One, ah —“

“Off the stern, please, nadi.” She locked down the tiller and moved forward, positioning herself in the bow and searching the horizon ahead to afford him privacy. Once he had relieved himself and rearranged his clothes — his rags — they switched back to their original places.

He wanted to replace his ruined, salt-encrusted clothes, and for that he would need to get back to his city. “One would be grateful if you would take one to Tanaja, Fisher. But at night,” he said as he sat back down in the bow.

Fisher shook her head. “That, one will not do, nadi. Choose another place.”


“Let one simply say that it is outside of the permissible range, and one would prefer not to have to work one’s way out of that sea.” This did not at all have the ring of full truth to him. “One is also not certain that sailing directly into Tanaja Bay would be safe for either of us.”

He had been growing aware, for some time, of the fact that her speech was not the speech of a commoner. She had been using the indirect and polite “one” in place of the direct and simple “I”, and she used formal modes of phrasing. She had done it so naturally that he himself had slipped into that mode, the mode of court, without realizing it. It was incongruous with the idea of her being a simple fisher, much less being a commoner of the Marid. And: “the permissible range,” she had said. So where, then, was she from? She does not want to sail into the Marid Sea, for reasons that have to do with more than having to work against the wind and tide.

He tilted his head. “Why would it not be safe?”

She gave him a level glance. “This morning, one noted the burn marks and splintering on the wood you were trying to use as a raft. As well as the considerable damage to your clothing which, though certainly ruined, appears to have been finely made. One surmises that you, at least, are no common sailor, and that you did not come to that situation by choice. And you asked one to take you in at night,” she added.

He remained silent. What was there to argue?

“Instead of the bay,” she continued. “One can take you to the coast south and west of the Marid Sea. Towards the western border of the Tanji District’s boundaries. It would be a considerable distance for you, but an offset approach to Tanaja could be safer, perhaps? One suspects you have resources ashore that you could bring to bear, distance notwithstanding. It will take two days to reach the shore, to make landfall in the early hours of the third.”

Two days! Unacceptable! He looked at her, considering. She did look strong, but he was certain he was stronger. There were plenty of tools in the boat, plenty of cording and rope. He wouldn’t even have to kill her — surely she would have to sleep, or at least nap, and as soon as she had closed her eyes he could overwhelm her, swiftly enough to keep her from getting to her knife. He could bind her, and take over the sailboat himself, release her once he’d gotten to shore. He had plenty of experience with small craft such as this and was confident he could do sail it.

But he was not precisely sure where he was, for one. And for another…offset approach? It was a tactical term. She uses courtly forms of speech, weaves words into a net as well as any lord — better, even! — and now this? Who is this woman?

Besides, the reason he had suggested Tanaja at nightfall was because he was uncertain of the situation there. Someone had attacked his ship, and the dowager as well. It might have been Edi or Gan pirates or any of the other innumerable bandits that plied the waters, but he doubted it. He suspected, rather, that it was someone closer to home. Someone who, despite the growing prosperity — or perhaps because of it — was deeply unhappy about his alliance with the East. Fisher was correct: strolling boldly into Tanaja without knowing the situation there or the disposition of his aishid was not wise.

He was not a superstitious number-counter, but when one had three reasons not do to something, one had better pay attention.

He continued to think about it while she patiently waited for him to make up his mind. If someone in the Marid had attempted to assassinate him, then that person or persons might now think that he was dead. They might be moving on to the next phase of their plan, whatever it was. Perhaps, in fact, it might be well to let them think that they had been successful, and get comfortable with their situation. They would be less likely to expect him if he appeared after a delay. Two days might be about right.

The situation was exquisitely ironic. He had supported, however cleverly indirectly, a coup against the aiji in Shedijan. And now there appeared to have been a coup — a second one! — against him. Ilisidi of Malguri had demanded that he take, and keep, control of the Marid as a condition of their alliance. And he had done it and secured that alliance…or so he had thought, right up until the moment, last night, when he had fallen into the heaving sea.

Assuming Ilisidi was safe, which he did, what would she do now, she who characteristically moved with such swiftness when times were unsettled? What would she do in reaction to his apparent lost of primacy here? Would it undo his association with her? He hoped that two days were enough to recover it. And by all the gods fortunate, unfortunate, and unclear in their felicities, recover it I shall, he told himself grimly. He felt the muscles at the edges of his jaw work as he ground his teeth together. I shall reassert myself so assuredly that no one will ever, never or ever, attempt something like this again. Heads will roll, and those lucky enough to remain attached to the bodies of their birth will bow, so help me — my lords will bend the knee once and for all. The thought of it, of confronting his enemies — and more particularly of ending them — sent a thrill through his body. For the first time since Fisher had pulled him out of the water, he felt like himself.

Machigi looked up. “Very well,” he said to her. “One accepts.”

Chapter Text

“Fisher,” he said after a while. “Do you intend to stay awake until the day after tomorrow?”

She gave a minimal shrug. “One has done so before.”

“Let me take the tiller, from time to time,” he said. “One knows how to sail.”

She stared at him for a long time without speaking. He raised his hands. “One has agreed to your proposal,” he said. “One will by no means act against it. Your plan is safer; it is agreed. Besides, bringing the boat to the shore will require care. One would prefer you not to be exhausted at that point.” Because the actual point is to get ashore in one piece.

She remained silent. But just as he was sure she would refuse, she said, “very well. Can you sleep now?”

Oh, great fortunate gods of earth and sea and sky, yes, he wanted to say. But he simply nodded. She dipped her head in return. “Sleep, then,” she said. “Then I will give you a turn later and perhaps doze for a little while.” She tied down the tiller and, with his help, set up the sun shade part way so as to cast a little shadow where he head would go. He rearranged some of the cloth bundles into a pillow and lay himself down. And before he knew it, he was asleep.

He was in the central garden-courtyard of the legislative building in Tanaja. He was inspecting, perhaps. Or touring. Or supervising. In his hazy dream-logic, the quest kept changing. It settled: he was searching. Something was lost, or forgotten, or it was something he had missed, and he by all means had to find it.

But he could not. He searched the garden from corner to corner, and he discovered that the last one opened up into another section of the garden that he knew had not been there previously. It was more akin to an arboretum and it made the garden bigger on the inside than the outside, with ranks of trees stretching out into the distance. If the thing he needed to find was out there somewhere, he despaired of finding it, for it was so vast. And so of course knew, in his heart of hearts, that the object of his quest was out there in the trees, and the only thing he found was that he had run into a deadline of which his dream-logic only now saw fit to inform him.

The world was shaking because had run out of time, because he had failed. A mouth opened up in the earth and swallowed him whole, and it was wet and he was in water, deep and dark. As it closed around him, he looked up through a quavering ceiling of fire and saw a person looking down, a person who—

He abruptly awoke, feeling an odd motion of the boat under his back. Unsettled by his dream, he decided to feign sleep, just for a moment. To compose himself. So he stayed prone and kept his breathing slow. Through his slitted eyes saw that at least two thirds of the afternoon had passed and the sun was perhaps three hands above the horizon and sinking down, off of the sailboat’s port side, just forward of the beam. The boat was slightly heeled over, the wind coming at them as if being breathed out by the sun, the sail bent in the direction of the deepening night. She had not betrayed him, they were indeed sailing north by northwest. In between his eyes and the setting sun, however, was the reason for the ship’s strange shimmy: Fisher was dancing along the angled deck of the boat, moving as if it were perfectly flat.

She…dances? He had not expected her to be so graceful, stepping with ease and accuracy around and between the lashed down supplies. As he watched, he began to feel that the motions were strangely familiar. And then, abruptly, he could feel the blood draining out of all of his extremities as the realization sank in — it was not dancing he was seeing. Unarmed combat!

His memory flashed back — “offset approach” — and he sucked in his breath as slowly as he dared, trying to stifle a wave of alarm. What would an Assassin be doing out here? Is she in communication with the shore? If she could get word to Tema, she would have told me. It was too much to bear; he sat up abruptly. She stopped mid-dance and settled back down at the tiller, unlashed it. “What are you?” He demanded, glaring at her. “Are you Guild, nadi?”

She boggled at him. “Me?” She asked. “Are you asking if one is an Assassin?” He barely nodded, teeth clenched. And then, appallingly, she burst out laughing at him. He surged to his knees, got one foot planted on the deck. “How dare you,” he grated, fists clenched.

And now, for the very first time since she fished him out of the sea, her eyes flashed in anger. The expression dropped out of her face and the politeness out of her speech. “You, sit down,” she said in a cold, cold voice. “In what possible way could you ever consider me a part of the Guild in Shedijan?”

It could be an act. But she seemed genuinely offended. It did not add up. And he remembered suddenly that she had a knife. He sat down. “That. What you were practicing. Unarmed combat. I have seen it.”

“Do you think that the Western aishidi’tat is the only place where such things are practiced?”

“But the form, the motion—”

“A person’s body is shaped one much like the other,” she said flatly. “There will be motion common to all styles of fighting. That one can fight does not make one Shedijan Guild.”

He settled back, arms folded. Part of him wanted to keep arguing — to ensure that, in the end, he would be in the right. But he was in the wrong and he knew it. He had touched her pride and given him a glimpse of that person who was more than a fisher — she was the master of her world. Perhaps her world is only this boat, but it is still her world, and I am a guest in it. “Nadi,” he said gently, relaxing his arms. “One apologizes.” He had not failed to note the way she said ‘Shedijan Guild’; wherever she was from, it was a place in tension with the Western association. He could respect that.

Fisher sat, unmoving, and unspeaking, for a good long while. Then: “One forgets that you are injured, nadi. One will endeavor to be more patient.”

If only she knew. But as her guest, he would swallow his pride. He let out a soft breath. “Let me take the tiller, nadi.”

“How does one know you will not rush to the attack while one sleeps?” She asked, still prickly. “Would it be imprudent to close one’s eyes, if you believe one is Guild?”

“One thought you wished to be more patient? One will endeavor to be less offensive in return.”

“What guarantee does one have?”

He spread his hands. “None.” He let out a soft sigh, reluctant, but: “Truly, one apologizes,” he said, as humbly as he could. “One made assumptions, and was rude.”

She eyed him. But then she nodded and shifted over to the other side of the stern and he moved to take her original place. She loosed the tiller where she had secured it and let him take it. Then she pointed over the transom, at the boat’s wake. There was a rope trailing behind the boat, sharply angled away; he noted that there was perhaps a sixth of a half-circle’s worth of distance between the rope and the transom.

“The southern current,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “Keep it at that angle, for this direction of the wind. If the wind changes, or when the night falls, wake me, and so long as it is clear, the stars will guide.” It was a clear a test as anything: with this, he might not know where he was, but he knew now how to get to land.

“Yes,” he said. She settled herself in the bow, but he could see her eyes glowing within her shadowed face as she watched him, for a long, long while.

Fool! Do not, do not, do not lose this person’s trust. He was just beginning to appreciate just how much more than a common fisher she really was. He might actually survive this, if only he would forget that he was aiji. Just for a little while longer.

It was only much later when his brain caught up. Why would a fisher need to know how to fight?

Chapter Text

The sun had been below the horizon for a while. “Fisher,” he said, keeping his word, and she stirred and sat up. She stretched, blinking, and glanced around. “You let one sleep too long, nadi,” she said reproachfully.

At least I did not kill you in your sleep. Did you notice? He tilted his head up and looked where the River of Stars stretched across the sky and smiled a little. “These are the stars of Tanaja also,” he said. “One knows the way.”

She came to take the tiller. “You should rest some more, if you can,” she said.

“One is not that weary. One will look ahead.” At her nod, he went forward.

How extraordinary is the sea, he thought, seeing glimpses of waves now and then. It was still a night belonging to the new moon, but the sky was clear and the River cast enough light that he could see some way ahead. His people were sea-farers and all of this was in his blood, as if his ancestors had held man’chi to the stars and the waves and the wind singing in the sail. He felt it, as sure a connection as —

Something sparked in the water cast of by the boat's bow, just a little flash of gold in the water. Then another, then another. The bow wave took on an edge of golden sparkles. He looked back along the boat and saw the water peeling away all clad in light, and Fisher was silhouetted in the growing glow of the boat’s wake.

“Kelikiin!” He called to her.

“It is their migration, nadi!” She called back.

And so it was. He followed the glow back to the stern and placed himself on the other side of the transom, twisted so as to watch the coruscating light, now very strong. It was strong enough that he could see their guide-rope behind them — there would be no need for the stars with such a light.

He carefully leaned over the edge and let his fingers trail in the water. The infant kelikiin were invisible except for their bioluminescent glow, of course, but the oldest, though very small, were large enough to discern, even with the boat moving along at a fair clip as it was. He watched as the bigger kelikiin swirled around his fingertips — little creatures with a circle of five eyes, the tiniest of pinpricks, on their button-like heads, from beneath which trailed slender fronds, some of them plain and some of them lined with the tiniest frills along their lengths, all glowing gold against the passage of the craft. It was unclear as to whether they were being tossed by the waves and the wake or if they were under their own power — he liked to think the latter, that something about the boat had drawn them thither, this enormous association of minuscule luminous animals flocking to mark where he and Fisher had gone. He looked up again at the stars, trying to mark out the station in the heavens. Some of his people were up there, now, learning to observe and predict the heretofore unpredictable storms of the southern coast and guiding the Marid’s fleet safely to the East. Would they be able to look down at the earth and see this road of light marked out across the sea?

He sat back up and looked at Fisher, her face in profile to him, features edged in gold from the light behind them. That light drew his gaze back to it; he could not look away from it for long. It was yet another piece of the heritage of his people that made him want — no, need, deep down in his bones — to get back to Tanaja and reclaim his place. It was his. They were his. It was all his, to hold and to protect. He was filled with ferocity again and not a small amount of wistfulness.

“One had hoped to have shown—” he started, and then stopped. Ilisidi, he was going to say. He had wanted Ilisidi to see this, these tiny glowing wi’itkitiin of the sea, because she was one to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, and shared his desire to see as much of it untrammeled as possible. “—An associate,” he finished lamely. “This. The kelikiin. But they had not yet reached where we were.”

If she had heard the hitch in his speech, she made no note of it. Instead, she said, “A pity to have missed it. An extraordinary sight, for those not accustomed to the open sea in this season.”

He watched for a while, dividing his attention between the stars and her face and the kelikiin in the wake and then, intending to spell her from the tiller again some time in the dark of the morning, he settled himself in the bow and slept. This time, he did not dream.

A day and a night remained, and the day ahead looked to be overcast. The guide rope still strained at the proper angle behind them, marking the current, so their inability to sight the sun was not an impediment. In fact, it was something of a relief to not having it beat down on them as the day wore on.

It seemed that the system that they had — trading catnaps, taking turns at the tiller — worked well. He had kenned to her habit of relieving herself when he was asleep and now that his body was back under his control, he did the same.

When it was time for his duty at the tiller and she was free to attend to other things, he watched, curious as to how she would spend her time.

Sometimes she fished, and sometimes she even pulled up a catch, which she would slice very fine with her knife. They ate it raw and it was delicious and oh, so much better than the jerky. When she was not so interested in actual fishing, she would cleverly affix her pole to an oar-lock. This freed her hands, so while the hook trailed alongside the boat, she whittled. She was working at a block of wood, roughly hand-sized.

As he watched, he understood that she was making it into a cup. Her hands were true and sure, swiftly boring out the inside before shaping the outer curve. Then she settled into working a decoration into that outer curve, around the rim of the cup, and he could not even see the knife’s tip move, so tiny and delicate and precise were its motions under her guidance. He entirely forgot his work at the tiller, watching her instead, and perhaps she felt his eyes on her, because she looked up. Catching his eye, she tilted her head, looking pointedly towards the wake. He shifted in his seat like a child, embarrassed, and turned to check the guide rope.

It was fine.

Later, she pulled a handful of seaweed from the stored bundle of the same. He watched as she shredded the dried stalks in her hands, breaking up the outer husks of them and extracting long, vanishingly fine fibers from their cores. She shook the remaining flakes of the seaweed’s husks directly into the sea and repeated the entire process until she had a neatly aligned pile of clean, pale core fibers at her side. Then she dipped a cup of water out of their freshwater store and surprised him by pouring it into her lap, on the leg one opposite the pile, drenching that leg of her trews. While he watched, she pulled a few of the fibers from her stack and began to roll them against her wet thigh. They twisted together under her hand and became thread.

Intellectually, he knew perfectly well what she was doing. It was part of his nature — his duty as aiji, even — to revere the skillful making of things by hand, so he had always taken care to learn about all of the things his people made. In this way, he knew the process of hand-twisting plant fiber into thread. He knew they were called ‘singles’ and than in a little while, she would twist several of those singles together but in the opposite direction, and he knew that, thusly locked together by their opposition, they would become a cord.

A good metaphor for rulership, that, he suddenly thought. When I return home, I must not crush the opposition entirely. Some must remain, because it is that tension between me and them that will make us stronger as a whole.

As for the making of actual — as opposed to metaphorical — cord: he had never actually seen it done and it was fascinating to watch her doing it. Simply knowing the process failed to give one a sense of the time it took, much less the skill and artistry of it. The knowledge of the process alone often failed to convey the story of how the thing came into being, which was so much more than the thing itself. In watching her, and in her awareness of him watching her, he realized that he himself was becoming part of the story of that which she was bringing into being. He was now part of that cup she had made. He would be part of this cord. He was a part of the story of her whole life now as well.

And now for a third epiphany: he had forgotten about the tiller — again, to her vast amusement.

Gods less fortunate!

Chapter Text

Midway through the second day they crossed a vast stream of fish, snaggle-toothed ikevara’tiri, their vivid black and yellow stripes clearly visible even though they were swimming the height of a man below the surface of the water. Questing after the kelikiin, he knew. “May your hunt be delayed,” he told them from his post in the sailboat’s bow, making Fisher laugh and flash him a smile from her place in the stern.

His breath hitched in his throat and a frisson went through all his limbs at once. The sensation he felt in reaction to that fleeting smile of hers was not unpleasant, but it troubled him deeply.

As aiji, he received man’chi, he did not give it. It was part of who he was. He had not felt attachment since he was a child — it was a feeling that had vanished from his emotional repertoire even before he had reached puberty. What is this that I am feeling? It was most definitely not man’chi, he decided. He was sure that in a crisis, he would in no ways abandon anything to turn towards her — he would go his own way, as he always did. But whatever it was, it was making him feel as if he had walked into one of his aishid’s wires and had become trapped there.

Fisher was looking over her shoulder at the wake at the guide rope with some intensity. He leaned out to starboard as far as he could so that he could see the end of the rope as it stretched eastward with the current. As he watched, the rope slowly straightened until it was gone from his view.

She looked bow-ward. “We have left the current,” she told him. “We will make the shore before dawn.”

So soon! He thought, and was surprised at his reaction. Why did bother him? Important tasks awaited him there, things that most urgently needed his attention. In the beginning of the journey, he had been anxious to get back to it. Now he felt himself wishing for more time, which was irrational. Was it that, for the first time that he could remember, he was actually at peace out here? No assassins, no scheming lords, no poison, no paranoia. Just wind and wave and sky. The other living things out here would only devour him if he fell in and drowned — they were not conniving and plotting to cut him to pieces and take his power. They just were. Like he was. Like she was.

Fisher opened her most decorated storage chest, the little one all with carvings of seaweed made into puzzle knots, and pulled out an even smaller box, also ornately carved. A box within a box, which amused him. But when she opened that one, he knew it for what it was: a compass. He watched as she shifted and bent, setting the compass down on the deck in front of her where she could see it. She carefully aligned the box with the bow, and although he could not see it, in his imagination he could see the needle shift and line up with earth’s magnetic field. There was north, there was south. She made a light adjustment to the tiller and he knew that the boat was back on its north-northwest heading; in the absence of the current, Fisher knew the way.

The compass! He stared without seeing. That was what he was feeling, like had a a compass needle inside him that had, for his entire life, been pulled off of true. And now it was moving, towards her. It is not man’chi I feel, he realized. It is a’hrani.

A’hrani, connection, the word itself never spoken aloud in the machimi for fear of releasing its power. Only indirectly named, if necessary and usually in hushed tones, as “apparent connection” or “brittleness”. It was the knot that held until it gave at the worst possible moment, the static friction that held the snow bank together until that last tiny snowflake touched down and loosed the avalanche. In the machimi, a’hrani was the thing that persons mistook for man’chi, usually to their doom. A’hrani muddled man’chi, obscured it until some terrible event shook it loose, letting the heretofore hidden and constrained man’chi swing back to its proper orientation. And when it did, it tore through anything and everything in its path. In the machimi, a’hrani always lead to tragedy.

They have gotten it wrong, Machigi thought. It is something more, and it is not in any way brittle or false. Or was it because he was an aiji, who felt no man’chi towards anything in the world, that a’hrani was the only force that could bring him into that kind of alignment?

He realized he had been staring at Fisher for some time now and she was staring back at him. With a shock, he could see what he was feeling reflected in her eyes.

The needle inside him came to rest.

This is insane. He swallowed. “Fisher—“

She straightened up and folded her hands in her lap. “It would be foolish,” she said, barely a whisper. “You are a lord of this place.”

He did not deny it. “Need it matter?” He asked. “I think it does not,” he said, giving up all formality with her.

“It would, if —”

“I do not care, Fisher-daja,” he said, letting the corner of his mouth quirk up.

She rolled her eyes and huffed. “‘Daja’, you name me,” she threw up her hands. “You — you are a fool.”

But she had not said no.

“Secure the tiller,” he said softly. “It will abide for a time.” She regarded him with large dappled-gold eyes. He told her, “If you tell me no, I will not speak of it again.” He reached out a hand to her, palm upward. For a moment, she did not move.

And then she did. She lashed the tiller in its place and checked the boom on her way to him. For another moment, she crouched next to him and searched his face. He did not lower his hand.

She placed her hand atop his, palm to palm. Her palm was rough and calloused; the rasp of it across his own sent a wonderful shiver through his whole self. He brushed a thumb against the back of her hand and there, her skin was as soft as silk.

“Yes,” she said, and he pulled her gently to him.

“I have no idea who you are,” he marveled.

“We are naked and wrapped in one another’s arms, and this is only now occurring to you, You-ma?” She asked lightly, laughing, as she combed his hair with her fingertips. “Should I tell you?”

Yes. “No,” he said. “Let it remain a mystery.”

She ran a light fingertip across the scar that ran across his neck and up along his chin and he leaned into the touch. He knew what she was wordlessly asking. “It is part of that other world,” he murmured into her hair. “If I tell you, I will drag us there. I will tell you if you ask it of me.”

“No,” she said. “Let it stay there, and us here, for the time being.”

“Very well,” he said. “For the time being.”

There were many ways for persons to bring one another pleasure without the chance of sparking new life in one who was capable of bearing a child. They explored several of them, for the time being.

Chapter Text

When he woke, she was at the tiller, fully dressed. “Stay down, please. I am working close to shore and may need to move the sail without warning.”

He kept his head down but glanced over the gunnel. It was just before dawn and a heavy mist, typical of this season, blanketed the water. The wet air was thick enough to breathe and was redolent with the smells of the shore: salt, growth, and rot. Sound was distorted by the moisture, so that cries of waking birds and animals made it seem as if the land was no more distant than the length of his arm.

He watched her face, set in hard concentration, lips slightly parted to improve her hearing. He felt, rather than heard, the scraping of the boat’s keel against the rapidly-shallowing sand the sand of the shore. He put on the awful, reeking scraps of his clothes. Then the keel began to bite and the boat slowly ground to a halt a few paces from a shoreline he could hear but could not, through the foggy air, see.

“Now is the time,” she said softly. “If you’re to be safely away and into the trees before the mist burns off, you need to go ashore now.”

“Come with me,” he surprised himself saying it.

“I cannot,” she said. “It would be...unwise. But you could stay with me,” she offered, sounding hopeful and sad at the same time, as if she knew what he would say.

So he said it. “I cannot.” He moved back towards where she sat in the stern, where the boat was least like to rock when he debarked, and saw her hand lifting: something dangled there, on a cord.

He recognized it, remembered watching her roll it into being along her thigh. It was made into a loop — a necklace — and at its lowest point there hung a pendant fashioned from a piece of wood, delicately carved.

He reached out and took it. The little carved piece nested in the center of his palm: a complicated interlace of lines, here curved, here straight, which incorporated the shape of two kelikiin, as if they were dancing through one another in the boat’s wake. It was exquisite. She must have made it for him with her own hands when he was sleeping and in that moment, it was more precious to him than all of the treasures in Tanaja.

“It is beautiful,” he said, looking up after a long moment staring at it. “What is it — a symbol? I do not recognize it.”

She nodded. “Think of it as a rural thing. Something like baji-naji.”

“Something like?”

She smiled. “Yes. Though it is closer to ‘it will be well’.”

“‘It will be well,’” he murmured, carefully tilting it in his hand. “Rural, you say.”

“It would be best, I think, to keep it to yourself.”

“Ah.” She had given him a secret, and a clue — a pair, in fact: the pendant itself and the fact that it might mark her as someone questionable. A peasant’s symbol? He already knew that whatever she was, she was no peasant. The infelicity of the two clues nestled into his mind where it would, he know, remain as an itch until he had matched them up with their solution.

He slipped the cord on over his head and tucked the pendant under his ruined shirt before bracing himself against the gunnel, ready to go over the side. But before he went, he hesitated, turning back. “You could still come with us.” He offered a clue for her in return, with that royal “us”.

But if she marked it, it was apparently nothing she had not already guessed. She shook her head sorrowfully. “Perhaps our paths will cross again.”

“I have nothing to give you in return,” he said, delaying.

She smiled. “I will always have the memory of You. Go, now, before the light comes.”

He went over the side and splashed down, his bare feet sinking into the sand, a pinch here and there where skin too long accustomed to shoes met unfriendly stones. She came over the side as well, and together, they pushed the boat back and clear of the sand — it felt good to be joining his effort to hers at her side, and for the flash of a moment, he wanted to put his arms around her. But she had slipped back aboard and the moment was lost, leaving him to give the prow a gentle push to set her on her way.

He waded ashore, sand turning to mud and then mud squelching between his toes and then at last, there was solid earth beneath him. It had been a while since he had last been to sea and now that he was ashore again he felt the swooping dizziness of an inner ear still accustomed to the waves.

The tree line. It was up ahead. If he put the rising sun just to the right of straight ahead of him, and if he followed the trees where they marched away from the shore, he would be going towards Tanji District. He reached the trees and ducked into their shade.

He knew that there was a hunting lodge in the district’s southwest, one that he had visited several times before the Troubles. Once the sun was fully up, perhaps he could take some bearings and find it. With any luck, he would be able to gain access and get a coded message to his aishid, if they still lived. There were a number of ways to do it, but he had to get there first or, failing that, try his fortune in a village. The difficulties of that challenge stood on the enemy’s side of the ledger. On his side, though — he marked it with a short, bitter laugh — his once-fine clothes were little more than rags and his bare feet were caked with mud and sand and, now, fine bits of bracken and grass. In other words, there would be no one who, upon glancing over him, would mistake him for a country gentleman, much less the aiji of the whole of the Marid. It was not much of an advantage, but he would take it.

The sun was fully up over the horizon and was beginning to disperse the sea mist. He topped a slight rise and stopped beneath an ancient ilkani, its slender leaves draping down around him in long, lacy curtains. Peering through the cascade of green, he could see patches of clear water down below as the sun did its work. The pale triangle of Fisher’s sail entered one of these as he watched, bowed into a graceful curve by the wind that was carrying her away from him. He thought, perhaps, that he could see her turn and look back towards the land.

Perhaps they would meet again. But in order for that to happen, he would have to reach Tanaja, and he would have to retake his place as aiji there. And in order for that to happen, there was one more thing he would have to do: he would have to live.

He put his back to the sea and began to walk.