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Prologue

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Bren-paidhi, Lord of Najida Estate, to Ilisidi, aiji-dowager, Lord of the East

Aiji-ma, I was delighted to learn that you are visiting Machigi-aiji in the Marid. My staff tells me you traveled by ship, no less, but I was not surprised to learn that you were among the first to test the new passenger route from the port at Sanjara to Tanaja. You have ever been a pathfinder.

Bren Cameron, the translator and lord of his own lands on the Najida peninsula, leaned back and took a sip of his tea. He tapped the end of his flattened steel quill against the desk thoughtfully and carefully, not wishing to splatter ink. His was an unusual situation, being the only human allowed to live anywhere on the mainland of the planet, much less own an actual estate, and it had very much to do with history.

Some two hundred years ago, the human colony ship Phoenix had experienced an anomaly while traveling in folded space. Whatever had happened — and even now no one had a clear idea of what that had been — the ship had found itself so far of course that none of the visible stars matched up to anything in the whole catalogue of human cosmology.

They had, after some trials and tribulations, found a star very much of the sun of the now-lost planet of their origin; desperately low on fuel as resources, they had traveled to its system and found a habited planet capable of supporting oxygen-breathing, carbon-based life.

And it did support life - sentient life: the atevi, in the main tongue and lingua francs of their world, a humanoid species just entering its own steam age when the aliens arrived.

Those first humans had built an orbiting space station and the Phoenix had departed, leaving a small population on the station while the ship itself left the system to search for some marker, some way home. The initial station population had, after debate and conflict, abandoned the station for the planet below, falling to the earth of the atevi in their petal-sailed capsules.

Two hundred years later and the descendants of the first human refugees from space were now safely confined to the island of Mospheira, after a disastrous first attempt at integration had failed so spectacularly that the War of the Landing, as it was called, almost wiped out the human population.

I know you even as you read this, you are probably thinking, “shameless flatterer, that paidhi!”, and perhaps this is so. But over the years, I have come to feel true admiration for your intelligence, your skill, and above all your ability to recognize an opportunity and seize it. As a human, I lack the ways to convey this admiration in a truly atevi way and so must do it, as always, with too many words, which I am sure come across as ingratiating. But aiji-ma, it is true. It is the only way I have to express my regard for what you have achieved.

It was the wiring, Bren thought, pausing to take another sip of tea. It was always the wiring. Atevi were just human enough, in culture and form — never mind that they even the shortest one of them was at least a head taller than the tallest human, their skins jet black, and there eyes not only gold but chatoyant, glowing in the dark like cats — that the first humans had made the almost deadly mistake of thinking of them as friends.

“Friendship” - there wasn’t even a word for it in Ragi. Instead, it was “man’chi”, that homing instinct that turned an ateva instinctively towards a leader.

The gap was insurmountable. Humans couldn’t keep from yearning to call their atevi acquaintances friends, and atevi couldn’t help but see these child-sized people as capable of understanding how atevi associated through man’chi.

After the war, the Treaty restricted this possible point of failure to one human and one human only, the paidhi — the translator — whose role it was to be fluent in the language, understand the biological and cultural divide, and control the flow of technology to the atevi. It was the paidhi’s job to keep the pace of change constrained, slow enough that it would not destabilize atevi society a second time and bring about a second war, one the humans would most assuredly not survive.

In the two hundred years since the first meeting between human and ateva, however, the transfer of technology was largely complete. Bren Cameron, once simply the interface between the human government on Mospheira, had been folded into atevi society itself.

He had gone native.

I am perhaps bold in advancing this opinion, aiji-ma, but failing to make you the aiji of the aishidi’tat was perhaps the best decision those fools of the past legislatures in the capital have made. Had you been aiji of the aishidi’tat, aiji-ma, I fear you would have been trapped in Shedijan, and not free to move in the way that you have in fact moved, to the benefit of all of the people. That you are now able to sail to Tanaja and enjoy the respect of Machigi of the Marid is testament to the effectiveness of that freedom.

Gone native indeed — his human detractors on the Island would say so, seeing him holding not only his title as paidhi-aiji — translator to the ruler of the Western Association, one Tabini — but also a lord in his own right, of this his estate of Najida on the main continent’s west coast. As if that was not enough, Tabini had made him Lord of the Heavens, granting him as his personal domain the whole of the stars above.

Not to mention his quietly scandalous relationship with Jago, one of his two senior personal guards, and a member of the Assassins’ Guild to boot. It wasn't “love” that he shared with her — he still, after all these years, wasn’t sure what it was.

What it was, was...complicated.

But it was, ironically, his inability to fully understand — on an emotional or instinctual level — that had made him so useful to Tabini and, in particular, Ilisidi, Tabini’s formidable grandmother and lord in her own right - one might even say “aiji” and not have the wrong of it — of the whole of the East. He could, at times, see through the emotional issues that clouded atevi interactions, specifically because he could not see them at all. This blindness, combined with his quick wit, his masterful diplomacy, and his exceptional mastery of the Ragi language, had allowed him to achieve breakthroughs in previously intractable disputes. He had not a small part in the Association’s current explosive growth and prosperity.

I am happy to report that Lord Geigi sent word to me this morning: the Marid’s team of meteorologists onboard the station correctly identified a large developing storm that would have assuredly caused much damage to freighters already enroute to Sanjara. They not only successfully rerouted the ships around the storm, but also ensured that east coast communities have been warned in time for them to minimize damage when the winds come ashore. The people of the Marid have lost no time in embracing the new educational institutions you sponsored and the work of their young students is bearing admirable fruit.

Case in point the first, the space station orbiting above was atevi now, their share of the heavens - operated in partnership with humans, but undisputedly theirs. The human government was simply not designed for agile, swift reaction, and even now a full five years after the return of the Phoenix to the atevi solar system, still did not have ground-to-station capabilities. It was the atevi who operated all five shuttles that the world had. It has been Bren who had urged Tabini to grasp the opportunity, and grasp it he had.

Case in point the second: the region of the south of the main continent was an association of five major clans and all of their sub-branches, or septs, which — after it had been forcibly made a part of the planet’s main government, the Western Association, by Tabini-aiji’s father and predecessor — had been nothing but a source of rebellion and coup, highly disruptive. The Marid, it was called, had laid claim on the continent’s west coast and developed enmity with the people there, especially the clans of the Gan and the Edi, the original inhabitants of Mospheira, who had been resettled on the coast there, but who had could not truly be said to have actually settled. They had, in fact, become something like pirates, in constant conflict with the established lords of the region but even more so with the Marid, whose repeated attempts to make inroads on the coast they rebuffed, often violently. It was a long-standing feud, and one not legally sanctioned through the only legitimate arbitrator of inter-atevi violence, the Assassins’ Guild. A mess, in short.

The Marid had been a constant source of conflict, both internally from endless infighting between its clans and in its reaching out to influence the rest of the world, by which it had directly sponsored or supported not just one but two coups against Tabini-aiji. Bren had been embroiled in both of these and had just barely survived, the most recent one reaching from the Marid across the intervening Sarini province and quite literally into his very own house.

I am also very happy to write that the region between the Marid and Sarini province here in the west has been, to the best of my knowledge, very quiet. Though I cannot discount that surviving elements of the Shadow Guild may still be present, it seems that they have been driven far enough underground as to present no further difficulties. With any luck, such elements — if they do in fact exist — may peacefully be absorbed into the lands in which they fight themselves and, giving up their vain desire for power, finally find peace. In this, aiji-ma, I am sure you find me hopelessly naive.

An offshoot of the legitimate Assassins’ Guild had split from that traditionally apolitical organization, a largely independent body that mediated legally lethal disputes between persons unable (or unwilling) to resolve their difficulties otherwise, and which was responsible for ensuring that collateral damage to non-involved persons and property was minimized. The Assassins' Guild remained apolitical so that it could serve as an agent of balance within the aishidi'tat. However, this offshoot was very, very very willing to interfere in politics for its own gain and had not shown itself particularly concerned with finesse, either. This “Shadow Guild”, as Bren had named it — had manipulated the infighting clans of the Marid into that second coup. Then, when that coup failed, the Shadow Guild had attempted to engineer an assassination of the Marid’s new lord, Machigi of Taisigi clan, in order to seize power in the region themselves.

At only twenty-two years old, the young lord had earned himself no small number of detractors when he boldly, forcefully, and fairly unilaterally seized power there, and undoubtedly the Shadow Guild had supporters in its attempt to overthrow him. They had done so by doing some spectacularly illegal things, such as placing indiscriminate explosives in a public road and kidnapping both a local child and a human woman — Bren’s ex-fiancee and his brother’s partner, no less — and attempting to make it seem as if Machigi were the source of those actions. The legitimate Assassins’ Guild in Shedijan had fallen for it entirely and had moved with swiftness to assassinate Machigi and his forces, thus almost becoming yet another catspaw of the Shadow Guild.

Almost assassinated Machgi, that was. Because Ilisidi, the aiji-dowager, lord of the East, grandmother of Tabini and almost — almost — aiji of the Western Association herself, had seen through it. Neither she nor Bren had thought Machigi that phenomenally stupid — everything that he had done thus far had indicated that the man had a quick, calculating intelligence. So Ilisidi had sent Bren in as her negotiator to meet with him and offer him an alliance with her as lord of the East. She would, through her influence in Shedijan as Lord of the East (and Tabini’s grandmother), call off the Shedijan Guild, make the Marid the linchpin of sea-borne trade between the West and East, make a place for its people in the orbiting station above, and all of this under the condition that Machigi fully seize control over the whole of the Marid and give up the Marid’s claim on the west coast. This is what she had sent Bren in to negotiate on her behalf. So, in other words, simplicity itself.. Certainly, Ilisidi had expected him to succeed — she always did — where everyone else thought he was committing suicide.

But Bren had done it — he had gained Machigi’s agreement. Such was his value. Two years ago it was. Not only had Ilisidi accomplished what her aiji husband, her aiji son, and her aiji grandson had not been able to do and finally brought the South into balance with both the East and the West, but she had also had engineered lands and lordships for the unsettled Edi and Gan on the west coast, settling them once and for all.

Should the topic happen to arise when you are guest in Machigi-aiji’s house, I would like to reassure you and him and his council that the Edi and the Gan have become most satisfactory neighbors. For two years, now, they have been fully subject to the law of the aishidi’tat and, I am happy to report, seem to be growing very well into their roles as fully-fledged members. Certainly, the older generations still have their hide-bound ways — the Grandmothers are both as still as forceful as ever, aiji-ma — but the youngsters had clearly been studying the Western court and its ways. I am gratified to observe that neither the Gan nor the Edi are assimilating as much as they are incorporating — they are maintaining their traditional ways while taking to courtly behavior and processes very well. I believe they will bring a lively diversity to Shedijan that will serve the Association well.

Aiji-ma, at some point in the future convenient to you and your staff, I would very much like to present to you some of the truly rare and fantastic textiles the Edi and the Gan heretofore have only produced in quantities small enough to keep entirely within their families. Now that they have land of their own and are reaping the peaceful rewards of their membership in the aishidi’tat, they are beginning to produce these textiles in large enough quantities to support a limited export. As you are the principle architect of their prosperity, aiji-ma, it seems only fair that you be the first from outside the region to hold these precious works in your hands.

Bren did truly hope that the peace that had settled over the western part of the continent might, just maybe, last for a little while. He had not failed to be caught up in every single outbreak of violence, it seemed, and in fact his cozy little coastal estate had suffered severely for it — an explosion in the house had destroyed his priceless stained glass window, and his garden had almost entirely been wrecked. The only silver lining in that particular cloud was that he was able to effect some improvements in the name of reconstruction, expanding the available guest quarters and even constructing a hall large enough for events, as well as improving the view down to the tidy little bay at the base of his estate’s grounds. It was shaping up to be truly wonderful and it was all his.

I would be greatly honored if, after your visit to the Marid, you might consider gracing Najida with your presence — I have recently completed renovations and would treasure the opportunity to shamelessly show them off to you on behalf of my staff and the people of the township who put so much work into the house and its grounds. Please consider the inestimable honor it would bring to us if you should be our first guest in my renewed home.

As much as he served Tabini-aiji and the Western Association, Bren would gladly die for the old woman; she only had to say the word, and it would be done.

Signed, Bren-paidhi.