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II - The Killing Floor

Chapter Text

man’⋅chi /mɐnʔˈtʃiː/ > 1. n. Associative attachment; instinctual atevi tendency to turn to a leader, loyalty. (cf. aishid, aishidi'tat) > 2. n. animal flocking instinct.

- Antonym hadjaijid.

- Students are reminded that term in italics do not have one-to-one correspondence with Mosphei’ and require further study. Proceed with caution. -

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Chapter Text

Machigi sat in the audience room, a cup of tea forgotten and forlorn at his side. In little while, after it had cooled, the staff would whisk it away and replace it with a fresh, hot cup. He would likely ignore that one, too.

In a break from normal protocol, Tema and Frochano sat in chairs pulled up close to form an intimate trio. Because his teacup was not in his hands, neither were theirs. But it did not matter — it was time, after all, for business.

He was clean and dressed in clean, pressed clothes, the frothy lace of his shirt perfect, an elegant brocade overcoat lending reassuring weight to his shoulders, his hair combed and perfectly braided in the Taisigi colors. How horrified staff had been when his aishid had brought him back to the estate! All them were well-trained and supremely competent, many of them trained by the Marid branch of the Assassin’s Guild Guild and linked back to the headquarters in Shedijan — with his approval and intent, of course, it was a way to maintain settled ties in the face of the Marid’s new independence — and knew how to maintain their formal decorum with exquisite professionalism. So he had been gratified to see them shocked to outright anger at his state when he had returned. But return he had: he had stalked back into his house under his own power and their anger had merged into the bow wave of his rage.

Sometimes rage served very well, to focus a household. Or a clan. Or an entire Association. I will turn this focus on the perpetrators.

He had not, in fact, made it to the hunting lodge. Instead, he had reached one of the villages of the province. In his filthy, destitute state, the villagers had not known him for what he was. But they had been kind, nonetheless, to a stranger who had obviously fallen on bad times, and had given him access to the one telephone in the whole tiny community. He had gotten out a short, coded call to his aishid and in no time whatsoever, they had swept in and whisked him back to Tanaja.

A long bath, clean clothes, a decent meal, attentive staff, familiar company — people and places and processes that he knew were his. And he was once again in this, his audience hall, the place that was the interface between his power and the wide world outside its doors.

The hall was full of beautiful things: priceless porcelain vases and sculptures on hand-crafted tables inlaid with stonework, all arranged by the kabiu master for numerical, aesthetic, and physical harmony. On the walls: tapestries and paintings in the classical geometric style — some had elegantly repeating patterns, and some were more chaotic in form at first glance, but all of them spoke to an underlying sense of ultimate order. On the floor: the vast and costly antique rug, its russet border offsetting the central motifs of waves and abstract seaweed shapes worked in the muted greens and blues of his clan.

He thought, suddenly, of Fisher’s boat, full of practical supplies but with the surprise of the decoration she had carved into the frame of the sailboat with her own hands. Yet those decorations were almost hidden: unpainted, unadorned, a person had to spend some effort in observation to see them. It contrasted greatly with this hall, where the costly, atiendi treasures of the Marid — the antique, artistic heritage of its clans — could not be missed.

It is not, he thought. That the hall is overwrought, and the boat superior for its subtlety. The boat is just different. Simpler. Unburdened by accumulation.

Accumulation, that was the word. All of the things of this hall were beautiful things, but that was not why they were here. They were concrete reminders of the long history of the region and the capabilities of its people. They were the physical evidence of the power of the Taisigi as the traditional source of Marid rulership. Look upon us, they said. And behold the graceful and civilized results of Taisigi clan governance. The gods of Fortune and Chance knew that the Marid needed such statements, for the history of the region was one of almost constant internecine warfare and instability. Machigi had changed that; in fact, in the two short years since his association with Ilisidi, he had overseen an explosion of peace and prosperity that had guaranteed that the Marid — technically a district of the global Association, as the East was, technically — functioned with de facto independence. As the East did. Instead of nandi, people called him aiji with increasing frequency now, and the aiji in Shedijan did not direct him, any more than he directed Ilisidi. Tabini asked. Having achieved that independence of rule for himself and his people, Machigi was determined to hold onto it.

And so everything in the hall and on his person spoke to that determination. The weight of his coat, for example, was reassuring not only because of its actual weight, but because of it represented the whole structure of support — in history, resources, and dedicated people — that held him in the place. In a day and age when atevi had gladly given up the chaotic, imprecise fog of war for the Assassins’ Guild’s orderly, accurate violence, his elegant coat served as his armor, and the priceless artworks on display around the audience hall were his siege weapons.

It all went a long way to making him feel secure again, to calm him, to prepare him for what came next.

He had a swift debriefing of the events in the Breath of the Sun, the ship in which he had been hosting Ilisidi. The small boat did indeed run in on them, as remembered. As he had ordered, his aishid and the dowager’s security made a bid to get her to the non-engaged side The boat had exploded before they could turn to him; it had caused extensive damage, and when the initial explosion had ebbed, they could not find him. He realized, listening, that the boat must have taken out such a chunk of the ship that he fell down a deck or two. This was why they could not find him, and why he had been too stunned to cry out to them. Then, as the ship took on water, it tilted and he had fallen out.

“We escaped on the ship’s small boats,” Tema recounted. “As for the Breath of the Sun, aiji-ma, it is lost. It went down not long after we debarked.”

A shame. It had been an elegant ship, a grand yacht, and his very own. “But the people?” Machigi asked.

“All safely ashore, aiji-ma,” Tema replied. “But for yourself, whom we could not find.”

Machigi sensed the shame in his guard’s demeanor. Tema had never before failed him in any thing, and there were many times when, but for this man and the rest of his aishid, Machigi would have been dead. “Baji-naji, Tema-ji,” he said. “Chance and fortune tipped the scale here. It in no way reflects on your competence. I remain confident in the aishid.” Tema dipped his head in gratitude.

With that settled: “Tell me about the boat that attacked us.”

“The only resource the enemy had, we believe, aiji-ma. We were not harassed or attacked in the small boats,” Tema said. “We made it safely ashore and back to this house without opposition.”

“And the dowager?”

“Departed, aiji-ma. But she left elements of her security behind in support. They supplemented the household guard while we were searching for you.”

Machigi grunted, thoughtful. It was a good sign, that. Our association with the East still holds, that she did such a thing and did not simply leave. “Contact her security with a full update, Tema-ji. Ilisidi of Malguri should know that I have returned here, and that our alliance still holds.”

“Yes, aiji-ma,” Said Tema.

“We believe the small boat was remote-controlled, aiji-ma,” Frochano said.

It was a shocking revelation. Machigi narrowed his eyes. “Remote-controlled,” he repeated.

“Yes, aiji-ma.”

In other times, the use of an explosive-laden remote-controlled vessel, as unheard of as such a thing was, to attack a ship full of people other than the principal target would have been a shockingly illegal act. By now, it is almost banal. Clearly, some cell or another of what the paidhi called the Shadow Guild had escaped the predation of the Shedijan Guild and made another attempt at him, possibly with assistance from other clans in the region.

“It was just one boat, you say?” Machigi asked.

“Yes, aiji-ma,” said Tema. “A better plan would have been to have several, to swarm your ship. This suggests that this is a small cell of perpetrators, aiji-ma, with limited resources, and desperate. It is possible that the Shedijan Guild was closing in on them and that this was their last ditch attempt to clear the way for a designated ally or allies.”

But the use of the remote-control technology, in an unmanned boat, at sea…it was new. And troubling.

“Let us ensure that this effort was, in fact, the last,” says Machigi darkly. “Make inquiries, Tema-ji. We wish to know who stood to benefit from this action, and who provided support. In particular, where did the technology to drive the boat come from? Reach out to the paidhi’s security. If anyone would know about either an autonomous or remotely-controlled system like this, it would be the paidhi. We must also determine the true target of the attack. Was the attack against us, against the dowager, or against some other person we do not yet suspect? But keep these inquiries tightly controlled. There are assuredly issues within both the government and the lords. Tread carefully. But we will know how this happened.”

“Aiji-ma.” Tema rose, Frochano rose, and they both of them bowed. Frochano departed, but Tema hesitated.

Machigi raised an eyebrow. “What is it, Tema-ji?”

“One requests to ask, aiji-ma…after you fell into the water, how did you return to land?”

He knew this question would eventually come, and it was not unreasonable. His security needed to know what had happened to him in order to understand resources, or to anticipate threats. I absolutely should tell Tema everything.

But he did not want to speak of it. It was not that he was ashamed about what had happened between him and the woman in the boat — that was a gift, he thought, from Chance and Fortune. But the trouble was that he did not understand it, or why the meeting and parting had left a lack in him that he still keenly perceived. It was if he had lost a limb. Perhaps once the ache had faded, he would be able to tell his aishid, and perhaps they would even help him understand.

But not today. “A fisher rescued me and brought me to the shore,” he said shortly.

“Who, aiji-ma?”

“I do not know, Tema-ji. Demanding the fisher’s name would have required I give up my own, or lie about it. I thought it best to remain incognito, and not to lie, lest the lie come unraveled later.”

“Do you want us to locate this fisher, aiji-ma?” Tema asked. “For reward or recognition?”

“No,” Machigi replied firmly. “That is unimportant. I require your full attention towards finding how it came to be in the first place. I must know what happened, Tema-ji.”

Tema clearly wanted to ask more, but stopped. He had known Machigi all his life and something on Machigi’s face must have warned him that the aiji did not want to speak more on the subject.

“Aiji-ma,” Tema said with a bow, and left.

Chapter Text

In a little less than a month, Tema and his forces had assembled a coherent picture out of the results of their investigation. They had not yet determined what persons outside the Marid had provided technical support to the attack, but overall it was extremely satisfactory work and sufficed — for now. Machigi called for an assembly of his small council and met his five Ministers in the assembly room.

As he entered, they rose from their places around the great marble-topped table with its seasonal setting, now of dried wreaths of grain supporting a single, large piece of driftwood. He took his place at the head of the table and did not call for tea.

Their expressions were impassive in the courtly fashion, but he had known them long enough to see little clues of surprise there. No tea meant grave business. And yet he simply called for each of them to give a report, an update of the completed, current, and future plans of their respective ministries.

Maisuno, the Minister of Agriculture, was halfway through his report on the plan to expand the Taisigi root inoculation program to the less-productive fields of the eastern Dausigi lands when Tema, standing within Machigi’s line of sight, gave the barest of nods. Machigi held up a hand and Maisuno stopped short his report. “Aiji-ma?” The minister asked.

“News, nandiin,” Machigi announced. “Tema-ji, report.”

Tema stepped up to the other end of the table and settled into a formal posture, his hands clasped behind his back. “Nandiin, at the direction of the aiji, one has completed an investigation of the attack on the Breath of the Sun.” He gave them a formal debrief, a recitation of the investigation, complete with footnotes, while Machigi carefully watched the faces of his ministers. They all of them looked appalled, with the exception of his Minister of Trade and Commerce, one Lord Disidri, a woman of middle years from the Homa district, who had gone as pale as it was possible for an ateva to go.

“—Ultimately,” Tema was finishing the report. “The investigation concluded that three principle persons acted to use the opportunity of Ilisidi of Malguri’s visit to assassinate Machigi-aiji, intending to place Bregani of Senji clan as aiji in his place. We assess that Bregani-nandi knew nothing of this plot, and that the perpetrators only intended for him to serve as a figurehead for a short time, after which they planned to assassinate him as well, blaming his death on age. With nand' Bregani dead, they would advance to rulership one of the last remaining members of the illegitimate Guild, those foreigners who attempted two years past to overthrow Machigi and take control of the Marid. That man was Velendari, Bregani’s primary advisor. Assisting him were Elaijani in the staff of the Ministry of Information—“

Lord Kaordi, the Minister of that body, sat bolt upright in astonishment.

“—and nand’ Disidri, Minister of Minister of Trade and Commerce.”

Disidri leapt to her feet. “Lies, aiji-ma!” she cried, but Frochano and Kochi grasped her by her shoulders and forced her back down.

“Silence,” Machigi snarled at her. “We have seen your shadow ledgers.” He would not grace her with ‘nandi’, no, not now. “We saw how you attempted to conceal your accumulation of personal wealth. You were foolish enough to keep a written account of your actions, and we read it.

Disidri whimpered. Her eyes found the door and she jerked in vain against the hands of his security in that direction, which told him all he needed to know.

He looked to the rest of his council. “And so, with full Guild approval, I have filed Intent.” He held out a hand and Gediri placed the scroll in his palm. He unrolled it and read aloud.

“A filing of Intent. Machigi-aiji against Velendari, primary advisor to Bregani of Senji clan; Elaijani, staff of the Ministry of Information; and Disidri, Minister of Trade and Commerce —”

Disidri trembled in her chair, held fast in place.

“—who,” Machigi continued to read. “Without filing Intent, attempted to bring death upon our person, doing so indiscriminately and with illicit technology, threatening through their imprecision to bring harm upon honored guests of the Marid, servants and staff, and by extension to destabilize the governance of the aishidi'tat.

“And against any persons, known or unknown, in the man’chi of these their principals, who aided and abetted this illegal action against us, to include associates and family of their majority, exempting all persons of minor age, whom the state shall support should they lose all appropriate caregivers in the execution of this warrant.

“I personally declare Intent to file feud, because of the offense not only to the safety of myself but to the stability of the Marid, with Tema of the Agrai township of Tanji district as my registered and licensed agent. I publish it and cause it to be published, and place it in public records with its seals and its signatures and sigils.”

He finished the pronouncement and lay down the scroll. Disidri let out a stifled sob. He spared her only the barest of glances. “Remove this person from our sight,” he said to Frochano and Kochi, and they did.

“Perhaps it is time to find all opposition in the Marid and bring them to heel once and for all, aiji-ma,” Kaordi said, once Disidri was gone. Machigi knew the man was stung by the betrayal among his own staff and wished for to prove himself. “This Intent could be amended.”

Machigi thought of the necklace around his neck, stifling the urge to touch the place where it rested beneath his shirt and coat. He has successfully kept it hidden from staff for now, slipping it on and off during those vanishingly rare moments when he was truly alone. He was wearing it, even here. He thought of the cord, of its threads locked together by their opposition, and about his epiphany on the boat.

“No, nandi,” he said. “I hold that opposition within the Marid, by citizens of the Marid, is productive. My opposition keeps me honest and alert — it keeps me sharp, nand’ Kaordi. It is these elements from outside, these interlopers who bend the man’chi of the weak to their foreign agendas, who operate with no care for the good of the Marid — these are the ones I will eliminate.”

Kaordi bowed his head. “Aiji-ma.”

“Diri-ji, carry out the publishing of the filing. Post and broadcast. My security has already located and is tracking the other principles and their associates. Tema-ji, as soon as the grace period for notification has passed, gather all those who supported them. Family, close associates — bring everyone whose man’chi could possibly be hidden, in accordance with the filing. Do it swiftly. Bring them all to the audience hall tomorrow morning. The moment it is legal, we want them all here.”

We, he had said. It was the aiji who had spoken, not the man.

Chapter Text

When at first light the traitors’ associates were herded into the audience hall, they found the aiji seated in his chair on the dais, waiting for them. Machigi watched their expressions as they realized that all of the furnishings in the room but for that dais and chair had been removed. Gone were the priceless porcelains on their pedestals, the historic wall hangings, and the great antique rug. No table stood at the side to receive petitions. He could see the looks of shock on the faces of his guests as they were led in to this empty, echoing hall through the still-decorated, perfectly elegant, and above all civilized, foyer, and were brought to the center of the audience hall’s now brutally bare stone floor.

At his order, his staff had left the outermost doors open. The view was clear, over the shoulders of the guests, to the outside. A cool breeze blew into the room from that direction, smelling of salt and green and the freedom of wide open spaces.

He sat in his chair, chin on his fist, glowering silently, flanked by his aishid, as the assembled people stirred uneasily, knowing that there must be a reason that the treasures have been removed. They were here because of the Filing, published only the night before, and he knew that it had not escaped their notice that his security, in the impeccable black-and-silver of the legitimate Marid Guild, were arrayed along the walls on either side of them. There was a deathly hush in the air, as no one beholding the aiji’s face would dare to speak.

He lifted two fingers of his other hand. At the signal, security herded in three people from a side door with rifles pointed at their backs, until they had settled in a line in front of him, facing the assembled people. He could see fresh shock and now outright terror, on the faces of these people as they recognized the newcomers.

“Behold,” he said from the dais, his voice filling the room, echoing off of those bare, bare walls. “These three, whom we know you know very well. We have learned of the plot against us — the failed plot, nadiin! Those whom you aided or supported — did you not know what they were? The last, desperate remains of foreign designs on the Marid, the last leader of the breakaway Guild and those two of our own who turned their man’chi away from the South.”

He stood up. The gathering saw that he had a long knife in a scabbard on his hip, the weapon’s hilt so plain that it spoke of great age. Machigi rested his hand on the hilt as he walked in a line behind the three.

“Velendari, of the bastard Guild offshoot, who used his position within the Senjin Marid as a cover for his activities, who planned to elevate his lord to aiji, then kill him, and sit in this chair” — my chair — “in his stead.”

“Disidri, Minister of Trade and Commerce, keen to develop her own wealth by her association with traitors.”

“And Elaijani, of the Ministry of Information, a spy, who provided Velendari with intelligence and attempted to shape the reactions of this government.”

Machigi a step backwards onto his dais so as to better address the people in the hall who were frozen in place, watching him with wide, terrified eyes.

“Had they succeeded, they would have destroyed the prosperity born of the independence the Marid has recently won. And threatened that independence itself! The prosperity of all the Marid, all of the Marid’s growth, and the Marid’s new trade with the East! All to return these lands to infighting, so that this rebel and his associates would gain in personal power, which they hold to be of more value than that of the entire Marid. But they failed! We are aiji of the Southern Association, and we will not allow outsiders and upstarts to threaten our unity!”

“Tema of Agrai township, Tanji district,” Machigi said. He pulled out the knife and it whispered silently from its leather sheath. He held it up so that the light rippled along the blade, light that shimmered across its watermoss pattern of the ancient style. It was, in fact, a well-known weapon from the Taisigi state treasury, long passed from aiji to aiji in the days before firearms. There was no mistaking the long and above all well-used history in his fist.

Tema stepped up and solemnly received the knife from his principal. “Carry out our feud,” Machigi said. A horrified gasp rose up from the assembly.

The three traitors did not have time to react. Tema noiselessly flowed forward and with a quick and sure motion, cut Velendari’s throat from behind. Blood spurted in a great gout of red as the rebel Guild leader clutched his neck and surged forward, propelled by pure adrenaline. He made it to the first rank of the horrified guests before collapsing in a heap at their feet. The other two had begun to turn in the direction of the threat, eyes wide with alarm, hands come up to defend themselves, just beginning to back away. But Tema plunged the knife in Disidri’s chest in a flash before she could even get her arms in the way, buried in her heart. Even as she was crumpling to the floor, he had the knife out again and into the side of Elaijani’s neck before the man could complete his first step to flee. Elaijani, his cry choked off by the steel in his throat, slid off of the knife and fell, a bloody froth on his lips. They were the three of them on the floor, gasping their last, as Tema, bowing low, presented the knife to his aiji with both hands, his arms red to his elbows. Machigi accepted it with both of his hands in turn, dipping his head in acknowledgement, before he stepped back up to his chair and turned to face the assembly. He stood there, waiting, until the last desperate gasps of the traitors faded into silence.

“These three were all that remained from those who sought to turn Shedijan against us by making a bloody knife and laying it at our door,” he snarled. He brandished the ancient blade and it glittered, bright-and-dark mottled silver and gray and all over the pattern, bright, bright red. The blood, still fresh, ran down his wrist and turned the lace of his cuff from pale green to crimson, it dripped from the pommel to splatter on the dais at his feet. “They lay it at our door, nadiin, but we pick it up!” His voice rose to a roar: “And here it remains!” He drove the tip of the knife deep into the arm of his priceless Saie Period chair and it stood up and quivered there, its flat facing the hall so that the assembly could well see the blood running down it. Then he sat and let his equally bloody hand come to rest next to it, red oozing from between his fisted fingers. At a gesture, security came forth and dragged the bodies aside. There was a large pool of blood at the foot of the dais and now, an appalling trail to mark way of traitors — both past and future.

“Now,” he said to the huddled mass made up of what seemed to be mostly terrified eyes. “There remains you, nadiin.” He let that sink in, watched their gazes shift from one another, to the knife in the chair, to him. “There remains a chance for you. Understand that we are set firmly in our place, and we hold the whole of the Marid. For the first time in a generation, nadiin, the Marid is independent! For the first time in a generation, nadiin, the Marid is united! For the first time in a generation, nadiin, the Marid stands in firm alliance, not with the West, but with the East. The lands of the Marid stands in the center of sea trade between East and West, because we — you and yours and I — are the only people skilled enough to do it. Because, nadiin, the sea is in our blood and our bones and our hearts. And we lift our eyes to the sky, with our people taking the Marid into the sea of stars itself.”

He leaned forward, voice low and intent. “In the distant past, the Marid was renowned for tradition, industry, art. The world clamored for the goods of the clans, nadiin! But within living memory, the world has only known this place for the squabbles of its lords and those lords’ repeated attempts to export nothing but rebellion and foolishness. I tell you that we have put this to rest. We have restored the unity of the Marid and we say to you: we mean to skip the broken gap between honorable past and united present and carry forth the strength and tradition and industry of the Marid into the future! This is what we offer you: an honorable place in this undertaking. But for that, we must know where your man’chi lies.

Dead, shocked silence. Then voices began to rise up from the gathered people. “With you, aiji-ma—“

“Aiji-ma!”

“You, aiji-ma!”

Machigi’s eyes narrowed. Of course this is what they would say— who would not, with that still-dripping knife stuck upright in the arm of the chair? He could feel that some of them were sincere, having opened their souls to his vision of the future. And that was good. But he did not, in his bones, sense anything like unanimous man’chi in this room.

“It is one thing to say this,” he said coldly, therefore. “But another to feel it.” He once again lifted the first two fingers of his off-hand and his aishid stepped forward, rifles clasped at an angle across their chests, to form a barrier between him and the persons before him. Then the security forces on either side of the traitors’ associates produced knives and began to advance toward the center. The uneasiness of the people flashed into terror as they found themselves trapped between these two walls of steel. There was nowhere to go except forward, toward Machigi…or, failing that, to turn their backs on him and flee to the outside.

Some did edge forward, and then rush, across the pool of blood to fall to their knees at the feet of his aishid. At his nod, his guard parted only just so, so those ones could look up into his face and see that he had accepted them.

But there were others who turned and fled, seeking instead the safety of the outside world. Those who ran for the door were neatly cut off by more security coming in from the foyer. Unable to escape, they could do little more than cry out in helpless fear as the aiji’s forces surrounded them and cut them down. Machigi watched impassively, determined to bear careful witness to this thing that is being done with the force of the law but — never to forget — at the direction of my will and my will alone.

The bare stone floor was awash with blood. When the work was done, it took a few minutes for those who had been dispatched to stop gurgling and finally expire.

Then there was a renewed silence in the hall; the survivors dared hardly breathe and nothing moved but the expanding pools of blood from the crumpled bodies. Then Tema stepped forward. “What are your orders, aiji-ma?”

“Let them go, that still live,” Machigi replied. “When threatened, they turned towards us. We are confident that their man’chi is firm.”

“And the rest, aiji-ma?”

“If we have orphaned any children today, go ensure they are provided for in accordance with the terms of the Filing. As for these,” he made a casual gesture in the direction of the bodies. “Take them to their proper place, Tema-ji. In the garden.”

“The garden, Aiji-ma?” Tema said, puzzled.

Machigi turned his regard onto his senior security. “Let them provide the fitting and honorable service to the earth in death that they could not in life,” he said. “As compost.”

And he rested his chin on his bloody fist while it was done.

Chapter Text

Bren-paidhi to Ilisidi lord of the Eastern Association, salutations

Aiji-ma, you asked me to assess the thoughts and reactions of the aishidi'tat to the recent news from the South, so that you may understand whether perceptions of your alliance with the Marid might change.

I cannot deny to you, aiji-ma, that the reaction has been one of shock. It is well understood that Machigi’s actions were perfectly legal, given that he filed Intent in the proper form, and his feud was carried out by his duly appointed agent and that agent’s subordinates. No person not subject to his Intent was harmed, and all of the treasures and property of the state were unharmed. This is not in any way contested by anyone.

But it is the public nature of the thing that brings great unease to those who would normally be favorably disposed towards him.

As for those who would normally be unfavorably disposed, the reaction has been of utmost horror and displeasure. Those who had already laid the claims of savagery and ruthlessness at his feet, and who objected to any normalization of relations with the Marid, now claim themselves vindicated, especially the lords of the Edi and the Gan, who despite your masterful move that resulted in Machigi abandoning the Marid’s claims to the West, continue to despise him. Aiji-ma, they name him Vakhe’in of the Marid.

Early on in his career, a group of human business people on Mospheira had attempted to obtain a license to build and operate a meatpacking plant. Every paidhi had to deal with this or something like it: some proposal grounded in an utter lack of understanding among humans of the importance of kabiu — propriety, or the “spirit of good example, as he sometimes put it — to the majority of the planet’s people. Even in the more progressive parts of the mainland, atevi did not raise animals for meat — one hunted, and only took game within its proper season. So an industry that engaged in wholesale slaughter and packaging of meat for mass sale would have egregiously violated that all-important concept of kabiu. “Violated” is too gentle a term.

When the news that such a concern was being considered leaked across the Strait, this word, “vakhe’in”, suddenly acquired prominence in speeches both in the hasdrawad and the tashrid. Both chambers of the atevi legislature had been outraged, and it had threatened all his work. He had done a major revision of the word’s entry in the only authorized Ragi-Mosphei’ Dictionary — practically rewritten the damned thing as part of his attempt to convey to Mospheira just how deeply, deeply offensive the idea of the meatpacking plant was to the atevi. It had been an exhausting feat, finally convincing the government to deny the license. God! What an uproar it would have caused it if had gone through!

“Vakhe’in”, noun, singular. Plural, “vakhe’iin”. Originally the Dictionary had defined it as “wild animal” or “beast” or sometimes (especially in machimi) “butcher”, but Bren had come to know that it held a far deeper horror than these Mosphei’ words could convey. The vakhe’in was a creature of atevi legend known for killing. It was not a mere animal, however, that killed for survival in accordance with the natural way of the world. Animals were, by their very nature, kabiu. But the vakhe’in was a monstrous creature that did not kill to live or to feed its kith and kin — it kills indiscriminately and out of season, wastefully disposing of life to satisfy its own dark joy. Alternately, it was a beast (or person) that killed without limit, selfishly taking all the prey for itself and leaving none for following seasons or generations. Sometimes it referred to an animal suffering from disease or injury that would cause it to behave this way, and when such an animal was found, it was always subject to immediate termination.

The vakhe’in, in short, was the embodiment of that-which-was-not-kabiu, and even those atevi who considered themselves progressive shuddered at it. So the fact that Machigi’s opponents in among the lords were now applying this word to the man did not bode particularly well for peace in the future.

Certain antagonistic lords in Shedijan, wishing to dip in the well of horror that was the scandal of the proposed meatpacking plant on Mospheira of so many years ago, have taken to referring to his audience hall in Tanaja as “the Killing Floor”. They are particularly appalled by the fact that this occurred in the place meant for public petitions. And because the Edi and the Gan are a people who value lively public discussion in common spaces as central to their consensus-building style of governance, they have been too happy to side with these critics. If I had any hopes that your brilliant actions to settle the Marid would ease them out of the their hatred of the south, aiji-ma, I fear they may be dashed.

Aiji-ma, you may remember well the archives aboard Phoenix, and the stories which so captivated the imagination of your grandson. Do you remember dragons, those great scaly beasts that collected gems and jewels and precious metal into their lair, and would fight any hero who would attempt to retrieve them? The Edi and the Gan, but particularly the Edi, I think, are like such creatures: they have made their two-hundred year history of conflict with the Marid into a hateful jewel that is precious to them. Perhaps, in time, in the next generation or after, they will learn to open their claws and let this awful treasure go. But now, aiji-ma, I can only think that they use it to justify their continued disdain for the South.

Of the opposition to Machigi, however, I would assess that the Edi and the Gan are the loudest of the lot, and that however disturbed they may be, overall the majority of lords support a continuation of the present balance of power and alliances in the aishidi'tat. In time, the memory of this will fade, especially if trade continues and the economy thrives. It short, I do not think that there will be a concerted effort to remove him, and the alliance of the West-Central, South and East associations will hold. Please accept my felicitations and best wishes for continued development, growth, and prosperity in all your endeavors.

Signed, Bren-paidhi


Ilisidi Lord of Malguri, the aiji-dowager, to Bren-paidji

We have received your letter and convey our thanks for your analysis, as thorough and thoughtful as ever.

The actions of Machigi-aiji do not concern us. We hold them to be internal matters, conducted — as you yourself noted — within the full bounds of the law, and with a great deal more finesse than other actors in the region have managed in the past. It does not shock us that one who has been subjected to repeated assassination attempts and illegal coups by unsettled persons within his domain would find a novel way to test man’chi.

“Novel” — God!

The continued tension between the west coast and the Marid Association concerns us. If left unchecked, it will only continue to grow. At worst, it may flare into violations of the law if the Grandmothers feel justified in reengaging in irregular activity against the south. At best, it will bring distraction to the hasdrawad and the tashrid and slow their progress in matters of import.

In the interest of peace and the settling of distractions, we propose to broker discussions between the Edi, the Gan, and the Marid. Malguri being too far and too strange for the Edi and the Gan, and Shedijan being already too full of politicians, we request the use of your estate at Najida for such a conference.

Bren blinked and read the last line twice. And a fortuitous third time, in the vain hope that perhaps he’d misunderstood it the first two times. But alas, he understood it all too well. Ilisidi didn’t. Just. Propose. This. At. My. Estate. But no. She had done just that. And this was Ilisidi, which meant that he could not say no.

We have every confidence in your staff to handle such a potentially volatile meeting of minds within the boundaries of your house with their customary flawless hospitality, and are even more confident in your extraordinary diplomatic abilities. You will, we are sure, bring to bear your unique perspective to persons who might otherwise fail to see them, blinded by unfortunate history, cultural differences, and differing approaches to leadership. You have never failed us, and we are assured of your success in this endeavor as well.

We look forward to breakfast on your new terrace, Bren-ji. We shall enjoy the early morning breezes from sea, the magnificent view of the bay, and of course, your delightful company.

Signed, Ilisidi of Malguri

Breakfast. She had just proposed bringing two lords and — including herself — two aiji under his roof for a conference, and this shortly after one of the four proposed attendees had just conducted — what was that other thing they were calling it? Oh yes, “the Massacre at Tanaja” — and she expected him to be the fortunate fifth. And then, after breezily assuring herself of his ability to somehow bring them to peaceful agreement, she had invited herself to breakfast.

Bren leaned back his head and groaned. He had just finished renovations and repairs from the last Marid-centered disaster at his estate, and now this. My house is going to be destroyed!