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III - Conference at Najida

Chapter Text

a⋅i⋅shid /ɐiːˈʃiːd/ > 1. n. associative collection of persons bound by loyalty (c.f. man’chi) > 2. n. basic unit of close support and/or security around a lord or leader, typically four (4) to form a fortunate five (5) in company with their principal, bound by loyalty (c.f. man’chi)

- Related aishi, aishidi’tat (c.f)

- 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 looked into a bank of shocked and angry faces. Then his small council began speaking all at once.

“The paidhi proposes what?

“Outrageous —”

“He wants you to meet with savages? To what end, aiji-ma?”

“Aiji-ma, this is an unforgivable insult —”

All but nand’ Siodi, whom he had recalled from Shedijan as his trade representative two years ago. Her service there had been exemplary but he had needed her back in the Marid — now, he needed her to replace the traitor Disidri. Siodi, who had long served his interests as his representative, both to the Sungeni Isles and to Shedijan, weathered all of this with her usual calm inscrutability. He respected her greatly as a thoughtful person who was adept at finding, and using, aspects of situations that no one around her noticed. He raised a hand in a dismissive wave and the rest of the council stopped their complaints.

“Nand’ Siodi, your thoughts.” Machigi said.

“One is curious as to whether the dowager has made any recommendation or request, aiji-ma.”

“The proposal comes through the paidhi from her, in fact.” He tapped a thin, folded folio on the table before him. “And she wrote separately, encouraging me to go.”

“Aiji-ma, it is a trap,” said Kaordi. “One is sure of it.”

“This does not concern us,” Machigi said. “We have survived traps before, even ones about which we were not forewarned.”

Kaordi jerked in his seat as if pricked.

“Is Marid the equal of Malguri,” Gediri asked indignantly. “Or does Malguri take Marid to be under her orders? You must not be seen as complying with her directives.”

“The dowager in no way orders us,” said Machigi, letting his voice take on a dangerous edge. “No one does. Not even you, nandi.”

Gediri’s skin went somewhat gray. “Aiji-ma, of course not. One would never —”

In that same tone, Machigi continued over him. “We have accepted the paidhi’s invitation.”

Dead silence. It was left to Siodi to bow her head and say, “Aiji-ma, nand’ Kaordi is correct. The Edi and the Gan are uncivilized — bandits and pirates. Have they ever been anything but? One advises that even if this is not a trap, no good can come from recognizing them in any way, from hearing their worthless words, or by granting them the honor they would acquire from the aiji’s presence at such a conference.”

“Savages they may be, but they have joined the Western association,” Machigi replied. “We wish to test whether the aiji in Shedijan is able to bring them to heel.”

“They have always stood in our way, aiji-ma.” said Kaordi.

“No longer,” said Machigi. “We have given up our claim on the west coast, nandi, in returned for association with the East and independent rule here — have you forgotten? We had understood that the port on the east coast is developed enough to support the largest of our supply ships, that trade has already begun to flow between our two associations to the benefit of the Marid, and that our fishing fleet has met with success in the Eastern seas. And you have not reported harassment to our shipping from the westward shores. That, in fact, it has appeared to have ceased.” He raised an eyebrow and dropped his voice dangerous. “Have we been misinformed, nandi?”

“No, aiji-ma. One argues only that this means that is no reason whatsoever to treat with the Edi and the Gan. The Marid does not need them for any thing — even if they are truly reformed and under control, which one very much doubts.”

“If they are not, then we will either find an alternate agreement with them under our own terms, or we will at least know,” Machigi said steadily, fingers still drumming against the letters. “And if they are, then we will know that as well. Besides, the idea amuses us. And we wish to test the Marid.”

“The Marid, aiji-ma?” Gediri asked, alarmed.

He banged down his fist. “Coups, nandiin! Have we finally brought all the hidden plots against us out into the light? You have told us that it is done, once and for all. Well, let us go to Najida and see if anything remains here to be tempted out of the woodwork by our absence. We leave it to you to ensure that the association remains peaceful — peaceful, compliant, and supportive, nandiin! — while we are attending this conference.” And he pointedly looked in the direction of the garden between the palace and the legislative hall, where the plantings had recently been…supplemented.

The eyes of the small council all shifted in that same direction. Machigi thought he might have heard one or two of them swallow. You think the garden is green enough, nandiin, he thought. Prove it.

As if in response to that thought: “Yes, aiji-ma,” said Gediri quietly.

Chapter Text

It was a short flight to Najida Township’s little airstrip from the port at Tanaja — the plane barely had reached its cruising altitude before it was time to begin its descent.

In addition to his aishid and a hand of support guard — literally, there were five of them — he had only brought two body servants, Tarsiti and Samano. They were both Marid born and also members of the Assassins’ Guild and would follow with the luggage presently, though it would not take them long at all to get everything into the suite the paidhi had assigned them — he had traveled lightly, relatively speaking.

The paidhi and his staff, and only they, met him and his people at the estate’s main portico, while the house’s main doors were thrown open to the main building’s central hall. Inside and spilling out onto the steps, the paidhi’s servants lined up on either side, offering deep bows.

The paidhi offered one of his own. “Nand’ Machigi,” he said. “Aiji of the Marid, one is deeply honored by your visit to this house. We hope to offer you and your staff every courtesy. Please allow me to show you to your suite,” a singular honor, to be shown to assigned quarters by the lord of the estate himself, but not entirely uncalled for given Machigi’s own status, and the paidhi’s staff withdrew inside to make way….and to make sure that the visiting lord’s security did not feel hemmed in by unknown persons. “Staff has arranged for refreshments inside, should you wish to rest after your travel. I hope the journey was smooth, nandi.”

“We are grateful to you and your staff for your gracious welcome, paidhi-aiji,” Machigi replied. “The journey was indeed smooth. And short. My staff will make arrangements with yours to settle our quarters but as for us, nand’ paidhi, we are eager to begin” — to be done with — “this conference of yours. Are the other attendees in residence?”

The paidhi bowed again. “Indeed they are, nandi.” He accompanied his guest up the main steps and into the main hall. Kochi, Sarjada and the hand of extra personnel peeled off to consult with their colleagues in the paidhi’s staff and get settled. “They are already present in the meeting room,” the paidhi said. “I will take you there directly if it is your wish.”

“Is is,” said Machigi.

At the far end of the hall, sunlight streamed through an immense stained-glass window. The paidhi must have caught his reaction to the piece, for he dipped his head and said, “It is a new work, nandi. The previous one, also in stained glass and an antique, was destroyed in the attack on the house.” By this, Machigi knew that he meant the attack of the Shadow Guild, the one he himself had met with his own forces, coming up from behind them on the road to the Marid. He had pinned the Shadow Guild up against the Shedijan Guild and the Edi irregulars who had risen up in defense of Najida and had helped to disperse them — a thoroughly gratifying action, one that left him grudgingly open to the idea of cooperation with the tribes.

“Remarkable,” Machigi said of the window, for it was. It depicted a tree, which itself was a departure from the more abstract and non-representational styles of conventional atevi art. But there was a classical kind of geometric patterning to it, hidden within the shapes of the glass that formed the image of the tree and those that made up the background fields of color. It was altogether subtle and clever.

“A gift from the dowager, nand’ aiji,” nand’ Bren explained. “So that she might bring prosperity to my lands and my neighbors, she hired Najida Township to craft it,” the paidhi explained. “And she engaged artists from the Edi and the Gan to create a new design using the old as their inspiration.”

“The seaward tribes!” Machigi said, intrigued despite himself. “Perhaps there is more to them than one had previously thought.” He was willing to give the paidhi that, given that the man had arranged this conference at his own estate — at Ilisidi’s behest, of course, but he had still done it.

“I think you will be pleasantly surprised, nand’ aiji,” the paidhi said, leading the way across the main hall into the side passage that lead towards the new wing. The light from the stained glass window reached even here, on this end of the hall, transforming the elegant carpet under their feet to a shifting pattern of greens and blues that reminded Machigi of the sea, touched here with a bit of gold and there with an earthy red-brown. “Being so long shut out of the larger economy of the mainland, and too poor to export anything, no one besides themselves knew of their industry—”

Besides banditry, Machigi thought. Which they exported very well indeed. It was an ancient, reflexive complaint. Be open to other possibilities, he told himself sternly.

“— in particular, their textiles are a wonder. I know the curators of the textile museum in Shedijan will be agog, nand’ aiji, positively agog with some of these products, and certainly the East will be interested, with their reverence of traditional crafts. The Marid could gain by transport of such goods.” Machigi doubted it. But he is a diplomat and this is his event, and he does his best to paint a broadly sunny picture for success. And who knows? Perhaps there is something there.

They exited the main house’s graceful little garden portico and crossed the garden itself, the air full of the scent of summertime blooms in their low beds, opening up to the noon-day sun overhead. The paidhi’s gardeners had erected trellises and arches over the garden’s paths to support flowering vines, and their party passed through three alternating bands of shade and sun before reaching the estate’s new west wing.

The paidhi lead him along a hallway therein and into a room on the wing’s seaward side. It was a very large room, decorated with excellent taste and perfect for large dinners or receptions, with floor-to-ceiling double-glazed windows on two walls. On the one side, the window looked into the paidhi’s garden. The other window afforded a view, across a cozy stone terrace, of Najida Bay, spreading out at the base of the rocky bluff on which the estate was situated. It was not the vast, city-rimmed and ship-filled view that only granted the occasional glimpse of actual water that Machigi had from his own map room; instead, it was an expanse of relatively open blue but for a few boats, here and there, and a graceful yacht riding at anchor down below. He felt a pang for his lost Breath of the Sun and found the scene serene, provincial, and charming.

What was decidedly not charming, however, was the scowling array of people waiting for him: a large arc of persons arrayed behind two large chairs and in those chairs, two women. The Grandmothers.

They were very large women, long ago gone not so much to fat, but to solidity, nearly spherical in their chairs. He knew that among these people, physical weight was a symbol of power and he found himself understanding it fully, impressed by the power they projected. It was not at all what he had expected of people that he had never considered to be much more than sea-going brigands.

The Grandmothers were dressed in quite formal clothing, though of a style that differed from regular atevi society. He would have said that it was of a country cut, only it was made of obviously expensive material and was layered, which only added to their bulk. This was topped with additional layers of shawls, some of which had a curiously golden-like sheen that was almost lost in the bewildering array of the rest, woven in the tribes’ traditional earth-tone hues. There had to be half a lifetime’s worth of work in those shawls alone — in the two years since their elevation to lordship in the Association, they and their people had acquired wealth, and they wanted everyone to know it.

Behind them, in at least three ranks, were a large number of people. These were also dressed in country clothing made of luxury cloth, but he was unable to think of them as anything other than motley. So many people! They could not possibly all be security.

He remembered something that Kaordi’s staff had told him in order to prepare him for this ordeal: that the Edi and the Gan ruled by consensus, usually achieved through much public debate which, to outsiders, would look and sound very much like a brawl. He had been mystified by this utterly alien way of doing things. It occurred to him that these must be the Grandmother’s small councils — though, by the sheer quantity of people here, they could not be said to be small. “But,” Kaordi had added. “In the end, it is the Grandmothers who have the final say, aiji-ma.” So, for all that, perhaps not all that different.

Ilisidi sat to his right in her own chair, a mere wisp of a woman by comparison, but for all that projecting more power than the two tribal lords could hope to muster, combined, in their entire lifetimes. The aiji-dowager was clothed in black lace over black silk, and everywhere on her person there were flashes of rubies and — here and there — amber. Rings glittered on the fingers she had wrapped around the head of her formidable cane, itself lacquered a deep black, its copper-shod tip resting firmly against the floor. She had her own entourage standing behind her, but a small one of only four persons, her own aishid. In its very minimalism, this also spoke to her power.

He came to a halt in the middle of the room with his own aishid of four, a match for Ilisidi and hers. In the face of all of that baleful tribal regard, he felt very much like a person facing judicial proceedings, which he supposed he was. For a moment, no one seemed to be inclined to offer him any courtesy. Let the trial begin!

Then, with great care, Ilisidi took hold of her cane and levered herself to her feet. Her silver-haired senior guard — Cenedi, the name came to him — offered her the merest assistance in the form of a hand under her elbow. With a rustling of costly cloth, so too did the Grandmothers rise — with some reluctance, it seemed to him. So, he thought. They do esteem Ilisidi highly.

He inclined his head politely to the aiji-dowager. “Nand’ Ilisidi,” he said. And then, because he too esteemed the dowager, he likewise dipped his head to her companions the tribal lords, putting an expression of neutral pleasantness on his face. “Nandiin Grandmothers,” he said.

The paidhi stepped in. “Nand’ Aichano, Grandmother of the Edi,” he said, working his way from one to the next. “Nand’ Pentai, Grandmother, of the Gan. Ilisidi, aiji-dowager, Lord of Malguri. Nand’ Machigi, aiji of the Marid.” An introduction that no one needs. They know who I am. And, by the hard frowns on their faces, they were not best pleased to be in his presence. Ah, yes, Kaordi had warned him about that. They are more free and passionate in their physical expression than those of the court at Shedijan, aiji-ma, and may seem outrageous in every reaction.

Indeed.

The paidhi’s staff had brought him a chair, and the moment it was in place, Ilisidi sank back down into her own. And so he, too, sat. The Grandmothers sat, settling down slowly so they maintained the higher honor of sitting last. He did not care. He was simply wondering what, if anything, would come of this. Nothing, I’ll wager. Perhaps Siodi was correct, and that this would ultimately prove to be a massive waste of time.

There was a general shifting of persons in the Grandmother’s retinue as individuals jockeyed for the best vantage point, he supposed, from which to glare at him. Two of Aichano’s entourage did not move and, by their stillness, drew his eye. They were two women, one middle-aged and one young — they stood out to him not only for a self-contained quality that was at odds with their more unrestrained fellows, but also because instead of wearing clothing of country cut, they were attired in wrap-around gowns that consisted of many layers of silken fabric alternating with what appeared to be a very fine matte linen. It was an elegant effect. Instead of the country folk’s broad shawls and surcoats, they both of them had stolas: long lengths of some extraordinary cloth draped behind them and looped over their forearms, graceful siblings of the shawls of the same cloth he had seen buried in the Grandmothers’ wrappings. The cloth shimmered in the light, now gold, now green. What is that?, He wondered, entranced. This must be the textile the paidhi mentioned. It was such a surprise to see something that fine in the couture of people he had always known as barbarians that he almost failed to notice that he knew the face of the younger of the two women standing behind the Grandmother of the Edi.

By all the fortunate gods —

It was Fisher.

Chapter Text

This cannot be. But it was — he would know those shade-dappled eyes anywhere. And he felt, in the core of his being, that compass needle finding north again.

She was certainly not dressed in the clothes of a sailor now. Her courtly clothing and that extraordinary cloth draped through her arms suited her as perfectly now as the wind tousling her hair at sea had then. She was no willowy court beauty, but she stood tall and confident behind the Grandmother, completely at her ease. By all the great fortunate gods of the sea, he thought. My Fisher is regal.

If she had been at all surprised to see him, it was not reflected in her face: she met his astonished gaze with one of level amusement. This gave him another shock. He had no idea who she was within the hierarchy of the Edi but clearly she was someone of note.

He had been sitting there, silently staring, for long enough that the assembled Edi and Gan began to mutter among themselves, expressions unhappy and growing ever more hostile by the moment. If anyone in the room had said anything, he had utterly missed it. The Grandmother of the Edi, seeking to find the destination of his gaze, twisted in her seat to look behind her.

Tap tap! went the dowager’s cane. “Nandiin, nadiin,” she said in that quiet voice of hers that managed to fill the room, still all competition, and draw attention entirely to herself. And a third tap! of the cane. “Let us begin by expressing gratitude towards the paidhi for the use of his estate, by his provision of elegant and comfortable surrounds, and by the gracious competence of his staff.”

Their host, so acknowledged, gave a deep and graceful bow before settling into his own seat.

“We are here,” Ilisidi continued. “To settle the long-standing disputes between the Edi and the Gan and the Marid, now that the Marid’s lord has, by association with us and the East, given up his claim to the west coast. And now that the Edi and the Gan are lords in their own right —” a nod to the two Grandmothers, who returned the nod with grimly proud expressions “—it is time for an understanding to be reached, between not one coastal association and one unsettled region, but between three lords firm in the man’chi of their people.”

Aichano leaned back and readjusted her shawls. “An admirable goal, Grandmother of the East,” she said. “If the Marid is truly ready to give up its attempts to obtain our coast.” Our coast!

“We have agreed to it, Grandmother of the Edi,” Machigi said cooly. “We accepted and signed and sealed that agreement in the capital itself, with copies in the Archives for anyone to see but for the asking of it. If you cannot accept that as legally binding, what more is there?”

This occasioned not a little grumbling from the combined retinues, and Ilisidi cut across it: “Nand’ Aichano, we are convinced of the legitimacy of the document. It bears our own signature.”

The Edi Grandmother seemed reluctant to be mollified, but she did murmur, “Of you, Grandmother of the East, we were never in doubt.”

“The coast has been peaceful these two years,” Pentai admitted. “The seas have been free of southern shipping.”

“It is all going eastward, nand’ Pentai,” Machigi observed. “We are far too busy being the hub of sea-born trade between the West and the East now.” “To agree to the shipping, we must agree to the lord,” Pentai said with sudden coldness.

What? Machigi tilted his head. “Your meaning is unclear, nand’ Pentai. Do you propose to do business with the Marid through some other government than ours? Because,” and here he leaned forward a little. “There is no other.”

“Yes,” said Aichano. “Of that we have heard. Of that we have heard much to displease us, lord of the Marid,” a doubled repetition that underscored the infelicity of that of which she had heard.

What has she — oh. That. “We are not inclined to discuss internal matters, Grandmother of the Edi,” he said flatly.

Aichano’s eyes flashed and she shifted in the chair, sitting up and leaning forward. “But we are so inclined, Machigi of the Marid,” she said, her eyes boring into him. “We have been asked to come here and treat with you. And we ask, why should we treat with a man who gathers people in the public audience hall of his house and then kills them all?”

“We did not kill them all,” he said mildly. And it was a private event.

The assembled retinues of the Edi and the Gan gasped and looked shocked. But not, he noted, Fisher.

“You did not kill them all,” Aichano repeated darkly. “Are we to take this for mercy? What stopped you?” Vakhe’in, yes, it was as clear as day — he knew what people were calling him.

He put his chin on his fist and looked at her. I in no ways owe these persons an accounting of anything I have done, he thought grimly to himself. He knew that Ilisidi understood, and was satisfied. That would suffice; he did not care one whit about the Grandmothers’ satisfaction.

But Fisher was standing behind her Grandmother, and he found that he did care, very much, about her regard. So for her, he would answer the Edi Grandmother’s question.

On his own terms.

“How do you know that you hold a person’s man’chi, Grandmothers?” He asked.

Pentai frowned and stuck out her chin. “We feel it,” she said, not a small amount of disdain in her voice. “Do you not, Lord of the Marid? It would explain much. Perhaps, with age and experience, you will feel it as well,” she said with false charity, and a murmur of amusement ran through her retinue and the retinue of the Edi.

He ignored the jibe. “And yet sometimes it is obscured, is it not? You are old, Grandmothers. Tell me, with all that experience that you have and I do not, have you never, then, experienced betrayal? Never, once, learned that a man’chi you thought you held was, in fact, not yours?”

“Of course we have,” Aichano muttered.

“Then I ask again, how do you know? At what point, Grandmothers, is a person absolutely sure of the direction another’s man’chi bends?”

There was absolute silence, and then it was Fisher who supplied the answer: “Crisis.”

“Yes,” he said, to her and her alone.

Then he returned his regard to two tribal lords. “We have explained it plainly enough,” he said. “And will entertain no further discussion of it.”

That caused a stir, and into that stir, Pentai spoke. “Is it true that you ground up the dead for your garden, Lord of the Marid?”

The murmuring of the assembled Edi and Gan hushed. It ceased, utterly, and they all watched him, a wall of silent accusation.

Machigi, his chin still resting on his fist, kept his face impassive. He favored the Grandmother of the Gan with a hard, unwavering gaze of his own and he did not speak. The silence dragged on, becoming more weighty with every passing second. Let that serve as your answer, Gan. The room took on a deathly chill.

Bang! went Ilisidi’s cane into that awful quiet. “We can in no ways settle matters for the future between our collective parties if we are bickering about matters of the past within the boundaries of the principals, nandiin,” Ilisidi said with decisive authority, her use of “collective” drawing her shocked and angry looks which she ignored. “We shall pause the proceedings for a short time.”

As if that were his cue — and it probably was — the paidhi stepped in and offered a low bow. “Nandiin, nadiin,” he said smoothly. “One has been informed that luncheon is ready. One has directed staff to distribute the meal separately to all parties” — so that we may enjoy your hospitality in peace, paidhi? Will they be able to eat with the image of my hall in their minds, I wonder? — “and recommends that the conference resume here in two hours’ time.”

Ilisidi leaned forward and gave a short tap of her cane, a clear sign of dismissal nonetheless. “Well!” She said briskly. “We are, all of us, making progress, by inches as it may be. Let us adjourn and return in a refocused frame of mind and perhaps attempt to gain a foot by the end of day.” She rose to her feet and led the way, her aishid silently falling in.

Machigi and his were not far behind her. He was definitely discovering that there was only so much conference he could take at a time.

Chapter Text

He was not particularly hungry, so while the rest of the attendees were, he supposed, enjoying their luncheons, he rested in his suite’s sitting room and drank a little tea while looking out the windows into the garden. His aishid took turns to eat, which he had encouraged — the paidhi’s kitchen staff was excellent and the cooking not at all dissimilar to the Marid’s own conservative style.

It was a good view from the windows of this elegant little sitting room. It showed the paidhi’s garden in a state of change — the paidhi had completed his renovation and expansion of the estate almost two years past, but the garden was still growing into its reorganized space. It would take decades, but from what he could see, the paidhi’s staff were supremely competent. It was lovely now. In time, it would be extraordinary.

He sat up suddenly and put down the cup with enough force to make it ring, startling Tema. “I will go for a walk in the garden, Tema-ji,” he said.

“Aiji-ma,” Tema replied with a nod. His aishid was always ready to move, and so he simply got up and walked out; Tema and Frochano settled into his wake with the ease of many years’ service, leaving Kochi and Sarjada to maintain watch and communications in the suite.

They went through the main hall, turned right, went down the front hallway, and came out into the garden. The sun was just past its maximum height for the day, but there was a tree or two to provide shade in addition to the garden’s trellises, whose flowers filled the whole space with fragrance.

Fisher had, he counted, six people with her — his mind automatically labeled them “Cousins” — and costly though their clothing was, they were still country shirts and trews and skirts and coats. Most of the Cousins wore sturdy boots but one of them had heavily embroidered slippers. Clearly, even in the case of the Cousin in slippers, they had clothed themselves not so much for court, but for action. He could not disapprove. What did not please him, however, was the fact that they surrounded her, and once they saw him and his security approaching, seemed determine to whisk her away.

At first, it seemed as if she was content to leave, and he let out a grunt of frustration. But then, as the whole of them started through one of the narrower trellis arches, she suddenly planted herself and turned. The five leading Cousins were trapped in or on the other side of the arch and could not come between him and Fisher without trampling through the paidhi’s flower beds. The sole remaining Cousin — Foremost Cousin, Machigi’s mind handily supplied — planted himself firmly in Machigi’s path. They were all of them speaking rapidly in the Edi dialect, the words of which he could understand perhaps one word in five. He heard “sea-thief” and “savage” and “forbidden” and even “murderer” — gods unfortunate! — before she turned her head and snapped something he did not understand and did not need to for the tone of it, which stilled them into shocked silence.

Well and good. As he reached her, she grasped the arm of Foremost Cousin and simply yanked him back and off to the side. Rather than go over the stone border and trample the flowers, Foremost Cousin stumbled backwards and just managed to avoid falling against the trellis.

Fisher dipped her head oh so very slightly. “Nand’ aiji,” she said. Her face was impassive but amusement sparkled in her eyes. “One is pleased to see You safe.”

Machigi could feel, rather than see, his escort start with outrage at that particular pronoun. He gestured with a hand, calling off their reaction. “One is pleased to see you safe as well. However, if one had doubted that you were a fisher before, one is absolutely certain that you are not, now.”

“One also fishes, aiji of the Marid,” she said.

Tema could not contain himself. “Aiji-ma, this is the fisher who pulled you from the ocean?”

“Indeed she is, Tema-ji,” Machigi answered. “But I suspect she has a more noble title. And name.” He offered her the sketch of a courtly bow. “Shall we dispense with the subterfuge, nandi?” He asked her.

“Yes.” She dipped her head in return and the corners of her lips quirked so subtly that anyone who was not watching her closely — as he was in this moment — would likely have missed it. Then she raised her chin and set her shoulders. “I am named Rao of the Edi.”

“Fifth Daughter of Eljiso, the First Daughter of Aichano, the Grandmother of the Edi,” Foremost Cousin supplied in heavily accented Ragi, glaring at him over Rao’s shoulder. “And First Granddaughter of the clan,” he added pointedly.

First…Granddaughter. Of. The clan.

It was as if one of the Cousins, having gotten a running start from the far end of the garden, had just reached him and hit him with full force in the face with a stick. A large one. For, he realized, she was in the direct line of succession to the lordship of the Edi.

The Edi.

Damn. Damn damn damn damn and six times unfortunate damn!

Chapter Text

“Rao-nandi,” he said, trying it out, feeling out the sound of it in his mouth. It is such a simple name for such a complex person. He was still so so very surprised. At least the title fit. It fit very well.

She looked amused. “What, was the fact that you are the aiji of all the Marid supposed to be the only surprise this day, nand’ Machigi?”

“Baji-naji,” he said with a sigh. “I should have known.”

They began to walk down the garden path. This had the unfortunate result of freeing up the trellis arch and uncorking the Cousins. They caught up and trailed behind her, shooting angry looks at Tema and Frochano, who gave every appearance of ignoring them but who, Machigi knew, were paying close attention indeed.

Machigi glanced backwards. So many Cousins for so small a garden. “I understand the felicity of a company of seven, Rao-nandi,” he said. “But for a garden of this size, it seems somewhat excessive.” Do they think I will seize her in the paidhi’s own garden?

Their glowers made it clear that they did, in fact, expect him to attempt gardening here, of one sort or another.

Rao smiled. “I believe the aiji was somewhat indiscreet in his reaction when he arrived to assembly. Grandmother is suspicious.”

“‘Suspicious’ seems a mild word,” he said. “I wonder, why did she and the Grandmother of the Gan even agree to this in the first place?”

“Ah, they revere Ilisidi of the Malguri as the Grandmother of the East, nand’ aiji, and favor nand’ Bren extremely for his staunch support of the tribes. You may be surprised to learn that Grandmother has, at times, even thought favorably of you. She was very pleased when you established the common game preserve with Sarini Province and voted for our admittance.”

“If that is so, nand’ Rao, it was not in evidence today.”

“Hm. Yes. It is not gossip, I think, to say that the events in your hall dismayed her.”

He did not care about that. “Did they dismay you?

She looked thoughtful. “I do not favor such actions. But I understand why you undertook them.”

“Hm,” he said. “Would that your Grandmother could come to such an understanding.”

“Well,” she said. “She has not yet had a chance to come to know you, as I have.” Behind her, Foremost Cousin’s eyes widened in surprise.

“You did not tell her?” Machigi asked.

She gave a little shrug. “What can I say? If I said, ‘but Grandmother, he only knows me because I rescued him from the sea,’ she will attempt to turn it into a political point. I yearn for the Grandmother’s success as lord of the Edi but,” and here she grew a little fierce. “I do not wish the story of you to be turned into trade goods, good only for haggling over.”

“(Something) sea, Rao-ja?” Foremost Cousin said, incredulous — and once again Machigi only understood a few words. “(Something) Grandmother absolutely (something)!”

“Oh, Nicha-ja? (Something)?”

“Yes,” Cousin Nicha replied. “The Marid (something) debt. (Something) debt (something) Edi. (Something),” he added, sounding very firm.

Rao sighed. “Do you see?” She said to Machigi. “They do not listen, because I am only a Granddaughter. Because I am young. And this is why I prefer to spend time at sea in the first place.” She glared at Cousin Nicha. “Alone.”

“Being underestimated for one’s youth can be an advantage,” Machigi offered. “I have often found it to be useful.”

“Oh, aiji of the whole Marid?” Rao said, interested. “How old are you, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

May you ever be so bold, he thought. “Twenty four,” he said, heedless of the number’s infelicity. “You?”

“Twenty five,” she said. Then, eyes twinkling, she intoned solemnly, “One is impressed that you have united the Marid, and you still at such a tender age, nandi.”

And he held onto that power through his ability to remain impassive in the face of outrageous speech. “No one in the whole of the Marid would dare speak to me so,” he told her, but he was mild about it and raised an eyebrow in amusement. “My small council would demand a Filing.”

“Ah, but we Edi have been proper signatories to the Aishidi'tat these past two years, nandi, have we not? I doubt that the Guild in Shedijan would support a Filing for mere teasing.”

“Ah yes. I had forgotten you were no longer pirates, nandi.” A beat. “What were you doing in southern waters?”

“Pirates? Such an incendiary term, aiji of the Marid, and at the paidhi’s own peace conference. As for me, I was fishing.”

“Poaching.” That got the Cousins’ attention, as if either of them needed any more of it, and occasioned another terse warning in the Edi tongue from Rao.

“Fishing,” she said then, with a smile. “And watching the migration of the kelikiin.”

“Watching, eh? Where there is one tourist, there are others, Granddaughter of the Edi.”

She chuckled softly. “Do not be troubled, nandi. Believe me when I tell you that the Edi are not invading your waters in numbers. It is only me, and only once in a year, because your bay is the only place where the kelikiin flock.” She took on that grave mien again. “As your elder, I advise you not to put this forward as a point of contention with my clan. It will only cloud matters.” The act was, once again, entirely ruined by the sparkle in her eyes.

Impudent! Impertinent! Brazen!

And…fearless.

He was suddenly serious. He stopped and turned to face her. “Come with me to Tanaja,” he said. “And marry me there.” It was the second surprise of the day, that those words would come out of his own mouth.

Tema made a noise that sounded like a half-gargled bark. He choked it short and managed to get out a strangled, “Aiji-ma!

Then, because the Cousins had sucked in a deep collective breath and become collectively tense, both his security took a step to either side of him now, he could see them in his peripheral vision. He knew they moved to be ready to get in the way because even though the Edi were part of the Shedijan association now, the Cousins were still unpredictable irregulars. And if there was anything that Guild security disliked, it was irregulars.

Machigi ignored them all.

Rao had also stopped. She shot the Cousins a significant look over her shoulder. This had the effect of forestalling what would undoubtably be vociferous objections, but he had no idea how long it would last.

She said, calmly, “did I not — just a moment ago — advise you to caution?” She opened a hand and indicated Tema. “I suspect even your staff would agree.”

Agree? I think Tema might be one his way to an aneurysm. The Cousins, he noted, looked like a steam engine with a faulty pressure relief valve: they were clearly ready to blow.

But he was undeterred. “Nonetheless.”

She turned to face him decisively. Cousin Nicha started to say something in the Edi tongue, the other Cousins bunched up behind him for support. But Rao turned her head ever so slightly and snarled something with such force that Nicha took an actual step back, directly into the other five. Having established her space, Rao turned her full regard on Machigi and again, he was struck by how regal she was.

She spoke flatly and directly. “You wish me to go with you to Tanaja,” she said. “Me, of the Edi.”

“Yes.”

“Of a clan that has been in deep enmity with the Marid for two hundred years.”

“Yes.”

“You are proposing that I leave my home and my people, and travel into what has been enemy territory for four generations.”

He set his jaw. “Yes.”

“You propose that we, you and I, outrage both of our peoples with a marriage contract.”

“Yes.”

“You do this even though it may be dangerous for both of us. Even though your own people may object, perhaps strenuously, to even the idea of such a contract, much less accept it.”

“Yes.”

“Because we spent two days, two nights, and almost a dawn together in a boat.”

“No,” he said. At the inquisitive tilt of her head, he said, “because the compass needle came to rest.”

She stared at him with her eyes of dappled gold, her lips parted, caught in mid-breath.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Tema was baffled and alarmed. Most assuredly, he thought, he and Frochano must think I have lost my mind. The Cousins certainly did so, because they began to speak, this time in a heated Edi/Ragi creole he could understand, and he was sure it was by design.

“Rao-ja,” said Blue Skirt Cousin. “This person insults you.”

“He insults all the Edi,” added Wide Belt Cousin.

“What else would we expect from a cold-blooded murderer?” Green Slipper Cousin sneered.

“Come with us, Rao-ja,” Cousin Nicha said in his accented Ragi. “Grandmother will have something to say and will rid you of this person.” It was a statement with which all the Cousins vigorously agreed. They dared, even, to pluck at her sleeves, trying to pull her away from him. “Come away. Do not suffer this madman any longer.”

Yes, I am mad. But he did not move. Their words meant nothing. Only she mattered. Because there had been two surprises today and even though he was not a superstitious number-counter, his soul yearned for a fortunate third.

“If you tell me no,” he said softly. “I will not speak of it again.”

“There is your escape, Rao-ja” Cousin Nicha interjected. “Say no.” But she paid him no mind.

“Yes,” she said.

Chapter Text

Any plans the paidhi had for the conference to resume were shattered; the house was in an uproar. Machigi sat at a desk in his sitting room, writing out a letter in his own hand, and listened to it. The noise was, by and large, coming from across the hall, from the suite in which the paidhi had settled the Grandmother of the Edi and her entourage. They appeared to be engaged in — how had his briefing put it? Ah, yes — lively debate.

As he worked, he began to mark a pattern in the upheaval across the hall: the alternation of a very small period of quiet followed by a much longer period of hubbub. His mind began to supply him with something like a script for what was happening.

Period of quiet: the Grandmother of the Edi was speaking, followed by Rao’s response.

Hubbub: The Cousins, reacting.

I can almost follow the argument just from the pattern of the noise, he thought, amused. He knew that whatever it was that they were discussing — it was him, it had to be him — it was not going well, for every time the hubbub broke out, it was a little louder, a little more heated, more shouty, withal.

If it goes on like this, I will soon be able to make out the words. I worry for her hearing.

He finished the letter, rolled it up, and applied ribbon and wax with his personal seal. This went into his own messenger cylinder, a lacework of blue and green porcelain strands, in offset layers to render the contents secure, which he sealed with yet more wax. “Siti-ji,” he said to the senior of his body servants. “When I indicate,” he said. “Deliver this to the paidhi’s staff. But not before.”

“Aiji-ma,” Tarsiti accepted the cylinder with a bow.

When Tarsiti had withdrawn to the inner rooms, Tema approached him. “Aiji-ma,” the senior of his aishid said. “Is this wise?

“Probably not,” Machigi replied.

“Why did you do this?” Tema’s brows were knit. “It seems an extraordinarily generous reward for saving you at sea.”

“It is not a reward, Tema-ji. There is more to it, and one day I may tell you about it…once I have figured it out myself. For the time being, I am working on instinct, and must ask you to trust me.”

“We trust you, aiji-ma,” Tema said solemnly. “Though it would be have been helpful for your aishid to have had some advance warning.”

“I did not plan it.”

“So I gathered, aiji-ma.” Tema said, stone-faced.

Machigi raised an eyebrow. “How long have you known me, Tema-ji?”

Tema thought about it. “Since you were fortuitous seven, aiji-ma.” The man was only five years his elder — they had been children together, once.

A lifetime ago. “And in all that time, have I ever come across to you as slow to come to a resolution?”

“No, aiji-ma,” Tema had to admit.

“You have never failed to adapt when I have made abrupt decisions — and my instincts have always worked out in the end, have they not?”

Tema thought about that, too. “Well, aiji-ma, there was the time with the extortionists on the waterfront — we had to drag you out of there, and most of them got away —”

Machigi blinked.

“— and the time that you went after the Jorida mole network in the bank yourself —”

“The midsummer regatta. Do not forget about the midsummer regatta,” Frochano offered from her post at the door. “The port was blocked for a week.”

Granted,” Machigi held up his hand, forestalling further testimonials. “Would you at least agree that, in most cases, I have worked out rapidly-evolving situations to my advantage?”

Tema and Frochano exchanged glances and there was an uncomfortable pause as they worked out the math. “In most cases, aiji-ma,” Tema finally allowed.

“By a narrow margin, aiji-ma,” Frochano added.

Machigi pinched the bridge of his nose. “Gods less fortunate.”

“If you merely wished to annoy the Grandmothers of the Edi and the Gan, aiji-ma, there are ways that would involve less...commitment.

“Ah, but the commitment is what I want, Tema-ji. Be patient. As for the Grandmothers, annoying them is simply an unforeseen bonus.”

Chapter Text

“What is this we hear, Rao-ja?” Grandmother demanded. “What is Nicha-ja telling us? We think he has gone soft in the head.” She gave the young man a glare.

They were in the sitting room of the generous suite that paidhi had allotted them, among the biggest in the whole house, that he had renovated just for them because he knew that the Grandmothers of the Edi and the Gan never traveled without their retinues.

The sitting room was set up tribunal style, which Rao should have expected: the Grandmother, in her chair, with all of her siblings and cousins and other people of the clan retinue arrayed in a semicircle behind her and two her sides. It was something like a parabolic array, and Rao was standing in the focal point.

She sighed to herself. She could in no ways see a satisfactory way out of this, but for her sake and his and the sake of the Edi, she had to try.

“Nichi-ja’s head is perfectly fine, Grandmother,” she said. “Machigi has proposed marriage and I have accepted.”

“Outrageous!” “Impossible!” “How dare he!”

Oh, how difficult this is going to be with the chorus, she thought. I wish Grandmother would dismiss them. Was she the only one who had paid attention to the Central way, the quiet way, of dealing with such matters? But she knew Grandmother would not dismiss them. It did not matter that they had been in the aishidi'tat these past two years — it was simply not the Edi way. They would object like this, and egg on Grandmother, and try to egg her on, every chance they got. She found that she had balled her hands into fists and willed them to relaxation. Ignore them.

“Honored Grandmother,” she said. “The rift between the clans and the south has been going on long enough. It is time for it to stop. We have become members of the aishidi'tat. We must behave accordingly. An alliance would benefit everyone.”

Civilized people ally themselves with one another,” Grandmother said acidly. “Only one half of this proposed paring is civilized.

“It is not proposed, Grandmother,” Rao said calmly. “It was proposed. I have accepted.”

This prompted another outburst from the chorus and again, Rao sighed to herself. They do not understand independence of action, she thought. And sure enough:

“Rao-ja,” her mother said. “You cannot possibly make such an arrangement without the agreement of the clan. It affects more than just you, daughter of mine.”

“I must disagree, Honored Mother,” Rao replied. “As I do not wish to be a bargaining chip, it is only my agreement to make. What now falls to the clan is what to do with it — whether to find opportunity for all of us in this thing that one of us has done.”

“Yes, let us talk about what you have done, Rao-ja,” said Grandmother dangerously. “How could you possibly have agreed to anything that man has proposed?”

“Machigi is not—”

That man, I say! Thief, murderer, pirate, that black-hearted scoundrel of the south. The man who massacred his own people in his own hall — he turned the audience hall, that place where citizens have the right — a sacred right! — to gather and petition him, into a slaughterhouse! Do you doubt, Granddaughter, that any of those unfortunates petitioned him for their lives on that day? He dares to call us ‘savages’ after that?

The chorus roared in approbation and the wave of sound rolled back and forth, reflecting off of the walls despite their tapestries.

“Why?” Grandmother wanted to know, when it died down enough for her to be heard. “Why you? Why him? Did you not hear him, Rao-ja? He admitted to atrocities. The garden, Rao-ja, need I remind you?

“But now he knows, Grandmother. And they know he knows. And every time they go into that garden, they are reminded how he made it green. He is safer for it, Grandmother, and so are his people.

“Sheer barbarism, we say! We of the Edi would have never done such an unthinkable thing. Do you tell us, Granddaughter, that you condone this? That you would yourself have done as he did?”

“No, Grandmother. It is not what I would have done. But I am not aiji of the Marid. If that is what he had to do to secure his place and his people and the peace because of who they are, and if we Edi would never have to resort to that because of who we are, then perhaps we should associate with the Marid. Because we have something to teach them.”

Grandmother scoffed. “Ludicrous child. Seeking to change the world.”

“Perhaps I am foolish, Grandmother. But change has to start somewhere.”

“One very much doubts that this desire of yours to run off with that creature has to do with altruism,” Grandmother narrowed her eyes. “These are nothing more than dreams you use to justify this…this urge. Has he gained your man’chi?”

“No, Grandmother,” she said softly. “It is not that. It is a’hrani.”

She had dared say the word. There was a loud, shocked, collective gasp — even Grandmother’s mouth dropped open. Then: “False attachment,” Grandmother said flatly. “It will lead to your ruin, Rao-ja.”

“No, Grandmother. I assure you it is not false. It is a’hrani,” she said it again to give it power. “Grandmother, Machigi is aiji and feels no man’chi. I am aiji-born also, and feel no man’chi, only duty. You know this — it is why you made me First Granddaughter. I tell you that this is a strong thing because there is no man’chi to cloud. There is no man’chi! It is an absence that I feel — when he is not there, a part of me is missing. We both feel it, that absence. We turn away from it together.” It was the best she could do.

And clearly not enough, for the disbelief and scorn that poured out on her from the people in the room.

“Nonsense,” Grandmother said through the objections of the chorus. “This is nonsense, and more than nonsense, it is madness. He is a beast, and you have gone mad.

“I assure you, Grandmother, that I am perfectly sane, and that nothing has made as much sense to me in my whole life.”

The letter completed, Machigi shifted to a chair with a clear view of the door and simply listened. It was quite apparent that things were getting much worse and it was no longer amusing. “Siti-ji,” he said. “Give the letter to Samano. Pack up our things and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.” He did not have to give the order to his security — Kochi immediately turned and departed to prepare their own equipment and the rest of the security team for a rapid departure.

He had established the option for movement, if need be. From the sound of things, it would in fact need to be. But how am I going to extract her from all of…that? He sat, chin on his fist, and thought about the layout of the house, about his staff, about what resources he had to hand, and began to ponder.

Chapter Text

“It must have been the boat,” Her mother said unhappily. “Something must have happened in the boat.”

Rao could almost feel the prurient wheels turning in the retinue’s heads, and stifled a groan. Patience. But — my own mother! “It is none of your business, and unimportant, besides. ‘Leave to the sea its own,’ is that not something you have taught me yourself, Honored Mother?” She said, sweetly. It was a proverb that the Edi had long used to justify those actions that outsiders termed ‘piracy’. Perhaps it would serve her here, now.

But alas, Grandmother waved the argument away with a hand. “Whatever has happened, Rao-ja, I tell you this as one who has lived a long lifetime and seen many things. Listen to me: young people often make inconsequential events far more important than they are. If there was canoodling afloat, what does it matter?” She waved a dismissive hand. “To the sea its own, indeed, Granddaughter. Yes, you saved his life. It is what any sailor would have done for any person lost at sea. This outsider is young and overreacts, and proposes this ill-considered, unthinkable, and in all ways foolish marriage. We are not surprised by this. But we expect better of you.

Rao suppressed a sigh of utter exasperation. She won’t even say his name. “Grandmother, Machigi—”

“In time, when the newness of this thing has lost its shine, you will come to see how temporary it was,” Grandmother sailed right over her. “You will find someone among the Edi, and likely more than one, in your time. Certainly any of your own people would be much better suited than that southern savage. You are the First Granddaughter, Rao-ja. And you are so very young. You, too, are mistaking this seaward dalliance for landward stability. Do not not settle for a shipwreck, Granddaughter. Remember that the sea makes everything look bigger, and we are sure that he is small indeed. ”

The Cousins tittered and laughed.

Rao would have none of it. “He is magnificently proportioned, Grandmother,” she announced firmly. “And a superb lover.”

What did she just say? Machigi wondered, blinking at the sudden cacophony. They are all of them screaming in there.

His aishid had gone absolutely still, in that utter relaxed state they went into when they were about to go into combat, but their faces were locked in confusion. None of them had ever heard such a commotion without that it be accompanied by gunfire. He would not have been the least bit surprised if, in the next moment or two, that actually happened.

Instead, the hubbub cut short — it just stopped, as if a switch had been thrown. The Grandmother is speaking. And whatever she is saying, it is not good. There were a few more moments of silence. But he felt it as the kind of silence that happened when the water sucked back into the sea, just before the great wave hit. He felt himself tense.

“In no ways will we allow the First Granddaughter to be so suborned!” Grandmother said. “No Granddaughter of this house will be aligned with such a house, with such a person! Taisigi and Edi? That man? No! Never, we say, while these bones still hold up this flesh!” She shook a finger at Rao. “Set this foolishness aside, Rao-ja, or you will not only no longer be First, but you will no longer be Edi!

In all her life, Rao had never taken well to an ultimatum, and she was not about to start now. She drew up the strength of the earth through the ground and through the stones and through her feet, and felt her spine stiffen. She drew in the strength of the sea, out there beyond the paidhi’s walls, and the strength of the stars above and felt it all course through her blood. “So be it,” she said.

Her mother gasped. “Honored Mother, no,” she said to the Grandmother. “Please—“

Grandmother hitched her shawls to herself tightly. “Than so it is, Rao.” No “-ja”, no “Granddaughter.” Rao’s mother let out a wail of grief.

Well, then. Rao started to turn and her Grandmother barked out over her mother’s cries, “Stay where you are! You will not leave this room!”

Rao lifted an eyebrow and folded her hands before her, settling her courtly manners on her like armor. “Did you not just cast one out of the clan, Grandmother of the Edi?” she asked, so quietly that her mother had to stop sobbing to hear her. “With all the respect due to a clan lord not one’s own, nandi, one does not accept that you have the authority to keep one here now.”

“Impertinent child! The Edi’s loss will not be that vakhe’in’s gain!”

“Oh, will it not?” Rao said, and all the retinue subsided, shocked, at the resounding power of her voice. Of her. “You may be the Grandmother of the clan, but do not think for a moment that this makes you all that the Edi are! Take away my inheritance, take away my place, take away my future in this clan, I do not care! But I will always be Edi!”

And with that she whirled and made directly for doors, without hesitation, opened them with her own hands. She was already in the hall before she heard Grandmother shout — “What you waiting for, fools? Go get her!” — and the footsteps of the chorus behind her. They were calling out to her. She increased her stride, full of fire, and plunged into the multicolor beams of light cast by the paidhi’s stained-glass window.

Chapter Text

Machigi heard the doors to the Edi suite open and swift steps approaching from across the hall. She comes. Half a heartbeat later, he could hear many more footsteps and raised voices: the Cousins, he guessed, pouring out of the suite’s sitting room to stop her.

Machigi gave the slightest nod and Frochano smoothly opened the door to his suite. “Rao-daja”, she murmured, as Rao sailed into the room with her chin held high. Then, as soon as Rao had cleared the threshold, Frochano smoothly and firmly shut the door. There was a thump against the farther side as the first Cousin in the van of the Edi forces fetched up against it. Frochano threw the bolt just as a person on the other side tried to open it. Rude. And also suicidal.

Machigi stood up as Rao crossed the room to him. He gestured, palm-upward, to the door to the dining hall. “Shall we go somewhere quieter, Rao-ji?” He suggested, just as the banging on the door started in earnest. She inclined her head, just so. “I would be grateful for some peace, Chigi-ji,” and his heart skipped a beat. Let them pound at the door to their hearts’ content, he thought exultantly. They will not have her.

He brought her to the dining room and ordered tea. “Deliver the letter,” he said, as his staff brought in the suite’s delicate tea service. Samaso slipped out and Rao’s eyebrow quirked up. Only Frochano was evident in the room — Machigi knew the rest of the aishid and their hand of security were covering the doors and the sitting room’s windows and even the sectioned crawl space between the ceiling and the roof above, staving off an invasion of Cousins until the paidhi’s own forces could come to bear, to ensure peace in the paidhi’s own house. Peace that he, aiji of the Marid, had completely destroyed. Ah well. Machigi did not regret it.

He did not explain the letter, nor did she ask. Instead, they drank tea together in perfectly serene silence. When they at last set down their cups, she gathered her hands in her lap.

“Grandmother opposes this marriage,” she informed him.

He laughed. “Rao-ji, that much is apparent from the commotion and the ongoing assault on my door. I expected nothing less. I was in fact trying to figure a way to take you out of there, but then you solved the problem for me. Is her approval required, legally, among the Edi?”

“It is not,” she said. “As an adult I am free to make my own choices, even if anyone — if everyone — objects.”

“And you choose me.”

“Yes,” she said. “Also, Grandmother has disowned me,” she added.

What?

“It is her right. Grandmother chooses who is in the succession.”

He let out a breath. “She thinks I will refuse you if there is no political advantage in this.”

“Perhaps,” said Rao.

“But there could be a political advantage in any union, however small, between Taisigi and Edi,” he offered tentatively.

“Well,” said Rao. “Grandmother has put paid to that as well, I fear. She has cast me out of the clan.”

He blinked. “Cast you out?” How your Grandmother hates me.

“Yes. I am exiled. So as for political advantage of any kind, that is done now,” Rao said. “From the Edi perspective, I am no one.” She took a breath to steady herself and regarded him with sincerity. “I will not hold you to the offer therefore. What is your decision?”

Machigi tilted his head. “This in no ways changes any thing,” he said. “I do not care.” His eyes narrowed. “If the Grandmother of the Edi is so foolish to throw away her most precious treasure, we will not hesitate to take it up. To take you up, Rao-ma, with the regard you deserve.” The royal we, there — it was the aiji who was speaking now, with that suffix of alignment, of possessionI want to make this perfectly plain. Her wide eyes told him that he had been successful.

But: “You were not wrong when you said this would be dangerous,” he told her. “More dangerous still that you have been cast out. You will have no staff from your own people. And you will not be welcomed, not at first — I mean to see that most likely opinion change, and I tell you that I shall. But it will be difficult at the outset. So I, in turn, will not hold you to the offer therefore.” He dipped his head. “What is your decision?” And he held his breath.

Rao regarded him silently for a long, long moment. Then she lifted her chin, resolute. “When do we leave?”

He could breathe again. “We are ready to go now,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “But your belongings?”

She indicated herself with a gentle downward sweep of her hand. “This is all I can offer.”

He smiled. “Treasure indeed. It is more than I dared hope.” He dared, in this house, to touch her cheek. She tilted her head, just so, to better feel the warmth of his fingertips against her skin. She dared, in this house, to reach up up in return, brushing a light thumb across the scar on his chin. “Shall I tell you about it now, Fisher-ma?” He asked, dipping his head to catch her thumb on his lips.

“No, You-ma,” she traced his smile. “Save it. Its story will be my prize if we actually succeed in marrying.”

Tema spoke up. “Aiji-ma. The assault on the suite has abated. I suspect that they are regrouping or appealing to the paidhi. If you wish to leave, now would be the time.”

Machigi rose and favored Rao with a slight bow. “Come, then, daja-ma.”

Chapter Text

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.”