Morning finally arrived. He hoped that she had slept, for he had not. He had spent the night in the chair in the map room, glowering at the wall, caught up in a maelstrom of rage and frustration and, yes, anxiety, a storm that boiled up within him whenever he let his self-control slip — so it was a night of sine waves, passing from the apex of calm, rational waiting to the nadir of frustrated fury.
And then it was approaching time for breakfast, so he returned to his quarters to bathe and dress in clean attire, suffering the attention of the staff who were faithful to him, but — one of their number tried to kill Rao. Perhaps they sensed his emotions, as much as he attempted to control his expression of it, for they were all extremely quiet and proper, and intruded on his thoughts very little.
When he was done, he made his way into the dining room. Like the map room had been last night, the large space was dark, its lamps providing minimal illumination. Staff had set up a fresh bouquet and a trio of candles at the center of the table, and reflections of the flickering light shimmered in the glassware. He took his place and waited.
But she was overdue to table. Machigi glanced around the room and noted that Tema was present, as usual, but that in addition to the room’s regular staff, Rao’s junior-most chambermaid was standing just within the door — not the natural order of things at all. He felt a chill settle into the pit of his stomach. “Where is Rao-daja?”
Jara was clearly terrified. She approached him as if she were approaching her doom, a scroll of paper in her hands, and only managed to speak in barely more than a whisper, “Aiji-ma, Rao-daja bade me give you this.” She handed over the scroll with shaking hands and stepped back out of range the moment his attention was on it instead of her.
It was such a simple thing, just a roll of paper without cylinder, sealed with a dab of uncolored wax which — he noted — was unbroken. He knew, then, that the message’s presence meant Rao’s absence. It was an absolute certainty that she was gone — he felt the lack of her in his bones.
Unbroken. Neither staff nor security pried. They know about this, and they did not advise me. He went utterly still at the betrayal — as much as it showed that they had found common cause with Rao, which is what he had wanted, it still felt like a betrayal.
He stared at Jara. The young woman was a reed in a harsh wind, trembling where she stood. It was all she could do not to fall over. She knows. She knows! The staff had to have helped her. All of them. Rao could not have left the palace without their help.
He wanted to rage, then, to leap up and tear the palace apart, but he knew it would do no good — he could see it, the staff colluding to allow Rao to leave: an exchange of clothing, a door held open, maybe even an escort down into the city. Someone local, and he even knew who that would have been — he could see so clearly in his mind: a huge brooding hulk of a man all in black, escorting a slighter figure in servant’s attire. Keeping an eye on her. Taking her where she wanted to go.
He came back to this moment and felt something in his hands. The letter. He broke the seal, unrolled the scroll. Her writing was clean and serviceable, unlike his own hand, which he knew to be cramped. He began to read.
You-ma, dearest treasure to me of all the treasures of the world, please forgive me. I knew that if I spoke of this to you, you would have tried to forbid it, and you would have moved the heavens and the earth and the seas to stop me.
I beg you not to be angry with the staff. I asked that they provide this moment for me and they did, both in support of me and in deep regard for you. You have worked so hard to help me find acceptance here and in them I have found it — do not blame them because I turned it around to my advantage. The fault is wholly mine. But I have so little acceptance in the Marid beyond yours, theirs, Haorai’s and Elsano’s. If I were to satisfy myself with that, I would spend the most of my days here in this palace, and be of no true account to you or your people.
It is the rest who do not welcome me — they cannot see past what I am, even if (or indeed because) I am not that any longer, by fiat of the Grandmother. I despair that there is enough time to convince them. But they do welcome skill and cleverness and — because of what you have brought them — prosperity. They reject me as your consort because they think my dowry is too small, not worthy of their lord and aiji, or of them. And they are not wrong. So I will return in the autumn with a dower that is worthy of the Marid, or I will not return at all.
I beg you again to please be kind to the staff, as they were kind to me.
His fingers trembled. He wanted nothing more than to ball up the paper and hurl it across the room in his fury. But with Rao gone, only the necklace under his shirt and this letter remained of things she had crafted with her own hands. If she did not return, they were the only things he would have left that she had made. In that moment, they became unbearably precious things to him — atiendi things.
He carefully crossed to his chart table and gently set the letter down. Then he turned his burning gaze on the servant. “Jara,” he said steadily. “Go find Nevathi and send him to me.”
“Aiji-ma,” Jara bowed and fled.
He touched his fingers to the letter and looked at Tema, standing at his post on the wall. “She is gone, Tema-ji.” Tema blinked, surprised, and touched his earpiece, murmuring.
How green is my garden going to become before they finally understand that I cannot be turned aside from this path? But the plea in her letter had touched him; he believed what she had said, that they had done it out of regard for him. Even the servant who had tried to kill her. The garden would have to make do with what it already had — he would refrain from enriching it further, for her.
Nevathi arrived and bowed. “Aiji-ma.”
“Nadi. Tell me what you know about this,” Machigi said quietly.
“I received word, aiji-ma, after the fact. It was something she requested, aiji-ma, and she convinced the staff that it was in service to you.”
“Did she invoke my name?”
“No, aiji-ma, she did no such thing. She simply told them she had something she needed to do for you, something important, something that only she could do and that it could not wait. If she invoked anything, aiji-ma, it was that she needed their help in collective service to the aijinate.”
Machigi let out a breath at that. As she had said herself in her letter, she had won some slice of regard — if not outright man’chi — from her staff, and she had wasted no time putting it to use. Collective service. Such a powerful phrase. And she herself believed that this is what it was, whatever she was setting out to do, he could feel it is his heart. In the face of that belief, her staff could not have turned away from her. And I thought I was the warlord here.
“Aiji-ma, I have sent out search parties,” Tema said. “We are searching the palace. I have also sent a team to the porcelain quarter — perhaps she has gone to Haorai-tera.”
“No,” said Machigi. “She will not be there. Redirect your team to the waterfront. You will find that a boat is missing, some sailboat or small yacht.”
“Did she tell you so in her letter, aiji-ma?” Tema asked.
“No, Tema-ji. I simply know her.”
Tema got the word out to his teams and, via his communications system, got them reoriented to the waterfront. Machigi walked over to the windows and looked out over the city, the bay of Tanaja and beyond, the wider Marid sea. Perhaps some part of him hoped to see a small boat out there on the waves and know that she was in it. But the lowering clouds cast a gloom that limited visibility and he saw nothing that might be her. But she is out there, he thought. She is following the sea. Trying to find the connection. But it is here, Fisher-ma. It is me.
It was not long before Tema had a report: “As you said, aiji-ma. A fisher has reported that his boat was stolen.”
“Tell Gediri to compensate him from my personal account, Tema-ji,” Machigi said. Tema bowed and withdrew.
The view beyond the glass brought the aiji no further comfort or clarity. He sat back down, called for tea, and seethed.