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III - Conference at Najida

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Machigi aiji of the aishihai’mar, to Bren-paidhi

Nand’ paidhi (Bren read), if you are reading this, then I have had to quit the hospitality of your house in an abrupt manner. Please let me assure you that this in no way reflects upon the quality of your house, your staff, or your own competence. The quality of all of these is without question in the whole wide world. But it does perhaps reflect on the quality of certain of your other guests.

As I write this, I am not certain as to how they will react to my proposal to Rao-daja, or to her acceptance of it. But should they treat her poorly or subject her to abuse because of it, I am not prepared to allow them to continue down that path. I am in fact prepared to move us both to a path of my own choosing and in this, I will not hesitate.

If this letter is in your hands, then it means that I have indeed found the need to withdraw from your conference. I very much regret these disruptions to your and the aiji-dowager’s most commendable plans for accord. Perhaps if the passage of time should result in cooler perspectives, we will be able to avail ourselves of your matchless diplomacy, and once again return to your table. With any luck, we will do so soon.

That “we”, Bren noted, was not the royal “we” of an aiji, but rather the fortunate dual of pairing: one plus one.

Please convey to your staff my official thanks for their impeccable service, and please reassure them, nand’ paidhi, that my departure in no way reflects on their professionalism, courtesy, or service.

Signed, Machigi of the Marid

The letter has been delivered to Bren, sitting with Ilisidi in her sitting room, along with the information that the aiji and Rao had departed so abruptly that Machigi had left his porcelain message cylinder behind. It is most likely an antique and a treasure and priceless, but he still apparently abandoned it without a second thought. He already had the only treasure he wanted.

“This letter was in no ways written within the past fifteen minutes,” He exclaimed, astonished. Perhaps it was because of his long association with the dowager, but Bren simply could not keep himself impassive. “He knew, aiji-ma. He knew! He had it all planned, the house is in uproar, the Edi and the Gan want to go to war —” my meticulously-planned, hand-crafted masterwork of a peace conference is lying shattered on the floor, my peace is in pieces — “and he apologizes for the inconvenience!

Ilisidi laughed, outright laughed. “A pert boy,” she said, delighted. “With all the self-satisfaction of his youth. One suspects he planned far less than you think, paidhi. Your mastery of diplomacy was in no ways faulty — this has all the hallmarks of an opportunity observed, understood, and seized, wholly on the fly. By both of them.” The approval was apparent in her voice — it was, after all, how she had operated her whole long life. He should have expected nothing less.

“We did not need to be present to follow what was happening in your sitting room, paidhi,” she continued. God. No one did. “We observed that this young person held her own in the face of her elders and peers,” Ilisidi continued. “And, having done so, charted her own course.” From Ilisidi, this was high praise indeed. She sees herself in Rao-daja, Bren thought.

“It is a good match,” The dowager emphasized the pronouncement with a solid thump of her cane. “It is a fine and proper match, I say, regardless of the Grandmother’s reaction! The young woman has a fierceness that pairs well with his, but a gentle regard for the world that will settle his rough edges and only serve to focus his will. She will bring an earthy grace to his house. All this time he was looking to the west, thinking it was the coast he wanted. Ha! Aichano is a fool to not recognize what this marriage could do for the Edi. They fit one another,” she added.

An entendre? Bren wondered, a little shocked, although it would not have been the first time. He knew that Ilisidi had a wicked sense of humor and was always trying to catch him, the human, out. And she often succeeded. He stole a glance at the dowager’s expression, but no, she looked entirely serious this time.

“Aiji-ma, help me understand,” he pleaded with her. “Being human, I lack a full understanding of ateva nature — even after so many years living among you, I still do not understand how this could have come to be. Did he obtain her man’chi?”

Ilisidi readjusted her grip on her cane and shook her head. “No, paidhi-ji. Rao-daja would not have been First Granddaughter if such a thing were possible. She is an aiji in her own right.”

An aiji: not wired to give man’chi, only to receive it. “Then how—?”

“Look to Jago, paidhi,” Ilisidi said, with that firm tone that told him not to push the topic with her. But she had not shut him off from that terribly sensitive topic entirely; in fact, she had all but given Jago, standing by the door as his escort, a direct order to explain it to him. Finally! He knew that explanation would not be forthcoming until much later in the evening, but he was willing to be patient.

In the meantime… “One cannot help but wonder, aiji-ma, if the reaction of his own people to this union will be much the same, or perhaps even worse, than that of her clan’s.”

The dowager dismissed the thought with a negligent wave of her hand. “We have no doubt that he is strong enough to maintain their man’chi.”

Or we would not have allied ourselves with him in the first place, he understood her to mean.

“I trust in your judgement, aiji-ma,” Bren said. He himself, though, was still a little worried. I sincerely hope that he will not have another reason to resort to his particular brand of, ah, crisis management.

As for himself, well, he was left with two furious Grandmothers. In his house. And it now fell to him, somehow, to mollify them. God. I have no idea how I will do that. He prayed that Ilisidi’s presence would somehow assist the impossible task he had before him.

Damn it, Machigi!

Much, much later — in the middle of the night, in fact, for that is how long it had taken him to calm down the Grandmothers long enough to get them fully extracted from his house and on their way to theirs — Jago slipped into his bed. “All of the guests are gone, Bren-ji,” she reported. “Security is on alert in case there are any lingering surprises. But we do not anticipate trouble. You may rest easy, if you can.” She knew him far too well, though, to know that he could actually rest, much less easily, after all of that.

He sighed. “When she first wrote to ask for this, Ilisidi said that I had never failed her. I cannot say that now.

Jago ran her fingers through his hair, the followed the curve of his ears lightly with her fingertips. It had never ceased to amaze her how round his ears were. Exotic, she called them. “It is not anyone’s opinion that you failed, Bren-ji, at least among the staff. There was no way that any reasonable person could have expected what happened today. We are all of us still trying to understand it, ourselves.”

“I simply don’t understand Machigi,” Bren said. “He is young, he is brash, he is bold, but he is not mad. What kind of person comes to a peace conference and absconds with one of the other side’s kin?”

“The Grandmothers were certainly generous with the word ‘kidnapping’,” Jago said. “But you were right to point out that nand’ Aichano cast her out, and that Rao-daja used that freedom to made her own choice.”

“I didn’t even know that lords could do that, Jago-ji,” Bren said. “I thought it only happened in the machimi.”

“It is rare,” she replied. “But not unknown. It is more common to file Intent. Safer.”

He shifted in the bed and propped himself on his elbow to look at her. In the dim light, her eyes glowed. “Jago-ji,” he said. “What happened? What is this word, a’hrani? The Grandmothers used it like an accusation, while they were accusing Machigi of kidnapping.”

She pondered the question. Her specialty was guns, not words. “It is a feeling, Bren-ji. A yearning. Like man’chi, but not man’chi. You have seen it in the machimi.”

“I have?” He was surprised. “I have never heard the word before today.”

“It is not said,” Jago explained. “It is the connection that confuses man’chi.”

“False man’chi,” said Bren, beginning to understand.

“Yes,” said Jago. “That is one of the things it is called, to avoid using the word itself.”

“Is it forbidden to say it?”

“Not forbidden, Bren-ji. Infelicitous. The word simply brings unease. Because of its power. To say the thing is to bring it into being.”

Bren blinked. “I did not know that there were superstitions so strong as to stop a person’s mouth.”

Jago gave a little shrug. “It is rarely a topic of discussion to begin with. These matters are close-held, Bren-ji, even among atevi. You should not put it in your dictionary.”

No. God. Humans would instantly map the word to “love” and it would cause no manner of issues. Even he felt himself felt a powerful and insidious temptation to believe that this was, in fact, the breakthrough that humans always thought would someday happen that would prove them and the atevi fundamentally similar after all. That he, Bren Cameron, would be the one to have made that crucial discovery. A seductive idea…but false. It was exactly those kinds of attempted correspondences, he reminded himself, that caused the War of the Landing. No, he would in no ways put the word into the Dictionary. “But the dowager wanted you to tell me.”

“I believe she only thought it fair that you understand what happened so that you would not blame yourself.”

“So you are saying that Machigi-aiji feels an attachment — however false — to Rao-daja, or she to him? Is that possible?”

Jago frowned a little. “No, Bren-ji. Not for aijiin. Unless one of them is somehow not truly an aiji.”

Bren knew that aiji were born, not made — it was in the wiring. And he knew Machigi for what he was, an aiji through and through, reaching through blood and fire and smoke to grasp, and keep, the man’chi of his people. Of that he had no doubt. As for Rao — he did not know her. But the Grandmother of the Edi had set her into the line of succession. She would not do that if she were not assured of Rao’s nature, would she? Can atevi be wrong about this?

Something occurred to him. “Jago-ji, in the machimi, when a’hrani comes into play, it always affects man’chi, does it not?”

“Yes, Bren-ji. It clouds man’chi, so that people do not know until the crisis comes, all is revealed, and collapses into tragedy.”

“But how does a’hrani affect people who do not feel man’chi? How does it affect aijiin, Jago-ji?”

The light of Jago-ji’s eyes flickered in the gloom as she blinked. “I do not know, Bren-ji.”

“Perhaps it is something that evolved for such people,” Bren suggested. “So that they might still feel a connection to another person in the absence of being able to feel man’chi. Or for a hadjaijid person—” that was to say, one who could neither give nor receive man’chi or feel it in any direction: a sociopath, in atevi terms — “maybe it would allow such a person to still touch and be touched, and have a meaningful life.”

“Are you saying that the machimi are wrong, Bren-ji?” Jago was amused.

“Perhaps they don’t have the whole picture,” he said — the cliche worked as well in Ragi as Mosphei’. “I would like to think that all of this happened for a good reason, Jago-ji, and that things will not turn into tragedy. I think that is why the dowager is unconcerned. I think she knows.

“Well,” Jago-ji said. “I think that if any person knew the truth of it, it would be Ilisidi of Malguri.”

Bren thought about all the rumors about the dowager — all the rumored lovers. “I agree, Jago-ji. I do agree.”