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IV - In the House of the Taisigi

Chapter Text

When it comes to atevi philosophy regarding leadership, an important pair of concepts to understand are eun and an’an.

Eun - the propensity to make decisions from one’s own center. Antonym an’an, the tendency to make decisions in response to external advice or opinions. Either could be a positive trait or a negative one. In the case of eun, if a person is a selfish, irrational, or vindictive personality, acting out of eun would not be good — one has only to think of the recent history of the Pretender Murini to understand a textbook example of the negative consequences of eun. However, when the personality is grounded in intelligence, farsightedness, and consideration for the needs of the collective, acting out of eun is strongly positive.

Likewise, acting out of an’an could be positive if those external advisors are good people and remain so, but generally the only persons who favor an’an are those who wish to manipulate and exploit a leader for their own ends while retaining some form of plausible deniability.

In general, atevi view eun as a necessary trait in a strong leader, while considering an'an as negative. This is largely to do with relative complexity: in order for an'an to work, there must be a solid and competent structure of support for the leader in question. The failure of such a structure — and determining its points of weaknesses — is more likely and more complicated the more persons are involved. With eun, however, there is a clear single point of failure.

Bren Cameron, Translator, Commentary: Dictionary Terms Related to Atevi Leader- and Followership, Field Commentary series #12, the University of Mospheira

Chapter Text

The palace was all a-bustle and Gediri stood in the audience hall, planting himself in that one place — every building had one — where anyone needing direction could find him. He had received communication from the aiji’s traveling staff that the aiji was already inbound from Najida and would be arriving shortly.

It was a much earlier return than originally planned, but it was not something particularly unexpected: Gediri had been pessimistic about Machigi being able to negotiate anything with a gaggle of jumped-up pirates in the first place.

But what was unexpected were additional instructions to him to see to it that Nevathi, the palace’s majordomo, prepared the seaward suite, the palace’s best guest quarters, for the extended stay of a woman of noble birth, and that Nevathi assemble suitable staff to serve as household to this guest. What was more, the major d’ was to work with security to ensure that this staff be carefully vetted so that all of them were members of inland families, with as few connections to sea-faring clans as possible.

It was puzzling instruction and also difficult to execute, which was why it was he who was standing in this central spot and not Nevathi. The two clans with the most inland territory, to the north, were the Senji and the Dojisigi; the former had only recently come into alliance with Tanaja and the latter was still regrettably home, in its mountainous vales, to vestiges of the Shadow Guild — even after the Shedijan aiji and Assassins’ Guild actions there to destroy the rebels and depose their puppet lord, Tiajo. Machigi’s control over either of them was by no means absolute. And Lusi clan in the Sungeni Isles was entirely sea-faring. This left the inland peoples of the Taisigi and the Dausigi as possible candidate sources for staff.

An oddly specific and difficult task, Geidiri thought. To find such peoples with limited ties to fishers and sailors.

And then it hit him. A woman of noble birth. Accompanying Machigi from the conference at Najida. Any hope that this might have been a woman from Ilisidi’s eastern retinue was completely dashed by the instructions for vetting the staff of this guest’s household, and his mind followed the whole story to its relentless conclusion. To be served by staff with limited connection to the sea — without, in other words, deep family history of conflict on the sea with the tribes of the Edi and the Gan.

Therefore, this woman is either Edi or Gan.

Gediri’s heart felt like it was seizing up in his chest. Machigi, lad, what have you done?

Sure enough, when Machigi returned within the walls of his house, he had with him a woman in clothing of an unfamiliar style. For the sake of hospitality, Gediri stilled the frown of consternation that wanted to grow on his face.

She was no beauty of the classic mainland nobility — she was not ugly, per se, but certainly plain, and everything that was striking about her was rather to be found in her bearing. That was extraordinary: the woman carried herself with calm dignity, strength, and grace. Like an aiji. It was immediately irksome to Gediri, given that she was nothing more than some woman from one of the tribes that had bedeviled the Marid unceasingly these past two hundred years.

Well, he had to allow. Not unceasingly. It did cease. But will it remain ceased? Especially now, that Machigi has brought her here? He could not imagine that her people were any more happy about this than he himself was. Or did they offer her? If so, why ever would he accept?

He was a bit taken aback by the quality of her clothes, the layers of it, the richness of its decoration, and her extraordinary shimmering stola. For a moment, it occurred to him that the tribes might be more than simple bandits and ship-wreckers. But then he dismissed the thought: no. They have simply adopted the styling of some sophisticated clan to fit into the court at Shedijan.

They retired to the map room for a meeting, the three of them, while the aiji’s senior security posted themselves by the door. Machigi ordered tea and a light repast — the staff brought a plateful of small sandwiches and tea cakes — which, of course, meant that no business would be discussed until the offering had been consumed. And business, of course, was what Gediri most passionately wanted to discuss.

He did, however, get both an introduction and a confirmation: the woman’s name was Rao, and she was of the Edi clan. Tribe. And she now knew that he himself was the aiji’s Minister of Affairs. His foremost counselor, yes.

Gediri took no sandwiches, too upset to have any appetite, although he did allow himself one of the cook’s little citrus cakes to at least keep up appearances. His jaw ached as he took a bite and he realized that he was much more tense than he was admitting, even to himself. He forced himself to relax and reached again for hospitality— for the sake of the honor of the house, if nothing else. “How did you find the journey, nandi?” He asked Machigi’s guest, after she had finished a small sandwich and swallowed a sip of tea.

Her expression was properly solemn in the courtly style, but underlaid with a gentleness. This either spoke to a lack of control — or perhaps a mastery of it. “It was extraordinary, nandi,” she replied, tea cup cradled in her fingers. “One has never flown before. To see the land, the shoreline, the sea from such an elevated height — breathtaking. One understands that the Marid has citizens serving in the heavens, is that true?”

“Yes,” Gediri allowed. “They are aerographers, operating the satellites and observing storms in the southern seas. They predict the weather and find safe routes for our trade in the East.” He really could not help himself from being proud of it. “The historically impassable sea routes are no longer so, due to the skill of our people, not only on land, but in the heavens and on the seas.”

He half-expected her to make some attempt to point out something that would assure the primacy of the Edi as sea-farers over the Marid. But she did not. “A most wondrous accomplishment,” she said, and seemed sincere. “To the benefit of the whole world.”

Unsettling, that was what she was. She was confounding his expectations.

The sandwiches and first round of tea consumed, Machigi set down his cup and his guest followed suit. Gediri barely succeeded in preventing himself from banging his own cup into its saucer with excessive force. Thank the fortunate gods! Now for some answers! But because he had known Machigi all the young man’s life, he dreaded what he was about to hear.

“Diri-ji, I have asked Rao-daja to be my wife and consort,” Machigi said. Gediri’s dread thusly took shape, a huge block of stone that settled into place with a terrible thump. It only remained to apply mortar to it, which the Edi woman promptly did: “I have accepted, nand’ Gediri,” she said.

No. How could he undo this construction? He had to.

“Rao was once the First Granddaughter of the Edi,” Machigi continued. He must have seen the confusion on Gediri’s face, for he added, “the Edi arrange their rulership in the style of the ancient Southern Island culture, through the women. The First Granddaughter is the second in line of succession.”

Once? Gediri had a very bad feeling about where this was going. “The Edi agreed to this?” he asked.

“No,” said Machigi. “Anything but. They have in fact disowned and exiled her for this defiance, which is why we did not bring any of her own people as staff.”

So, in short, there is not even the possibility in this, however ludicrously outlandish, of an alliance with that tribe.

“Tema-ji,” said Machigi abruptly. “What is the status of Rao-daja’s security?”

“In place, aiji-ma.” Tema, posted by the door. “And sweeping the suite.”

“It will be some little time before your quarters are ready, daja-ma,” Machigi addressed his guest. “We shall remain here for a while.”

“One understands, dena-ma. One would not wish staff or security to feel rushed. It has been a day of surprises for everyone,” she added dryly.

The Edi woman was clearly familiar with courtly formality and possessed of some small measure of wit. But — “dena”? Gediri thought. He is not a gentleman — he is the aiji! And that possessive “-ma” set his teeth on edge. I must convince him not to do this. How far has this gone? It cannot have deep roots yet, it cannot. He was only at the conference the one day!

“Forgive me, aiji-ma,” Gediri said. “I would be remiss in my duty to you if I did not point out to you that this is…unwise.” He dipped his head to their guest. “One by no means intend personal disrespect to you, Rao-daja, but these matters are larger than the personal. Aiji-ma,” he continued. “Any marriage of yours needs must be an alliance. You are the aiji.” As if it needed to be said.

“There are other reasons to marry, nandi,” Machigi replied. “Even for an aiji.”

“Other reasons, aiji-ma? I do not understand what other reasons would be more important than the political. Rao-daja, did I understand correctly that your clan has disowned you? One regrets to be blunt, but one must be blunt in this thing, for the sake of the aijinate.”

The woman bowed her head. “By all means be blunt, nand’ Minister,” she said. “One may take no offense at honest service to your lord, however direct it may be.”

He blinked a little, again surprised and unsettled by her. “One only means to ask, what do you bring, in terms of political power?”

“One would hope that there is something else to be had, other than political power. Must the aiji’s spouse be only a resource?” She sounded wistful, as if she already knew the answer.

“Forgive me, Rao-daja, but at this level of governance, yes. As a potential consort of the Marid, that is what you are: a resource. The aiji himself is a resource of the state, as much so or more than he is simply a man. One must make choices that serve the Marid as a whole, not the individuals.”

“It is a fair point, nand’ Gediri,” she replied thoughtfully, even as he could see Machigi working his way to a hot objection. And once again, he was surprised — she is remarkably intelligent for an Edi barbarian. He began to think that perhaps he could turn her into an ally against this folly. It will mean more to him, coming from the object of this…this obsession. “Nand’ Gediri,” Rao said, breaking into his thoughts. “If one could prove a value beyond the personal, would that satisfy you?”

“How would you prove this, nandi?” Gediri asked her.

Her brows knit just ever so. “One is not sure…yet. Understand, this place is new, different, and not at all what one expected.” He must have let slip some expression, for she added. “Yes, we the Edi have our own prejudices about the clans of the Marid — our bad history is shared, is it not? But one is willing to learn — one wants to learn, nandi. The problem is clear —” as Machigi drew breath to object, she said gently, “I do not dispute that there are challenges, dena-ma. One urges both of you to suspend judgement either way for a time. Give me an opportunity to observe and learn, and see what one may bring to the table beyond merely one's person.”

“Your person is not mere,” said Machigi firmly.

The woman dipped her head. “I am grateful, but also I understand that you are in no need of convincing.” She shifted slightly to address the aiji more directly. “A welcome would be better than a fiat, I think — better for you, but even more so for your people.” She returned her regard to them both, the aiji and his Minister of Affairs. “One does wish to be welcomed, and requests time to earn that welcome.”

And by the fortunate gods, Machigi actually appeared to be thinking about it. Gediri would have much rather to have settled the issue — in the negative — right now, but a delay would be preferable to an outright decision in the positive. It would give him time to further hone his arguments, and for those arguments to gain the weight they needed to throw the switch and shift this train onto a siding where it might come to an absolute stop — as it must.

“Very well,” Machigi finally said, to Gediri’s vast relief. “We shall wait until the Festivity of the autumn equinox.” It was a week of regional celebration that would occur in approximately two and a half months’ time. “At the end of the Festivity and days of petitioning,” Machigi continued. “We shall marry.”

Gediri had known the young man all his life, and knew that when Machigi decided, it would be his decision. He was a forceful leader, decisive from the place of his own concept of what he wanted for himself, his clan, the Marid. And yet he also listened to his advisors, because he was by no means a fool. So while his declaration certainly sounded definitive, Gediri had hope. I have time. I have time to change his mind. Or the woman’s.

In response to a subtle hand sign from his security, Machigi stood up. Perforce Gediri and the Edi woman also stood up. “I will speak with you later, Diri-ji,” Machigi said. “First I must see Rao-daja to her quarters.”

“Aiji-ma,” Gediri bowed and watched as they departed, together. Yes. We certainly shall speak.

Chapter Text

As Rao left the map room with Machigi in the company of his security, they encountered a very tall man of early middle age, dressed in elegant clothing in Taisigi colors. His stature and very wooden expression reminded her of a tree, sturdy and solid in service to the house. It was at once reassuring but also a little daunting — she hoped he would not also prove to be unbending to her attempt to make a place for herself here.

“This is Nevathi,” Machigi said to her. “The majordomo of the palace. He has been seeing to the preparation of your quarters. Nevathi-nadi, this is Rao-daja, our guest for the foreseeable future.”

The majordomo’s bow was graceful, belying his tree-like appearance. Perhaps he can bend, Rao thought, and returned it with one of her own. “Nandi,” he said in a deep voice. “The seaward suite is ready, aiji-ma.”

“Nevathi-nadi, one is glad to make your acquaintance, and grateful for your assistance,” Rao replied. She knew that he had been advised about her lack of personal staff, and had set something up for her in what seemed to her to be a remarkably short amount of time.

“Nandi,” was Nevathi’s polite, yet bare response, with another proper bow, and Rao allowed herself a little internal sigh. I have just met the first and second persons who will object the most strongly to my being here, not counting his aishid. It was not a fortuitous start, to have staff resistant to a person’s presence — it was the staff, she knew, who were the heart of a house’s harmony. She wanted them to want her, not to simply extend her hospitality out of duty. But there was so, so, so very much history in the way. That history is wider than the Sea of the Marid, and as unhappy as the Southern Ocean’s Belt of Storms.

They crossed the audience room. A door there was flanked on either side by twin stairs that arced to the wing’s upper levels. The door that the stairs framed was formed of delicately carved wooden panels attached to a solid steel core, three inches thick. It lead into the palace’s private, ground-level residence wing, and they went through it. The hallway beyond felt ancient, solid, and secure, the sound of their footfalls swallowed by thick, hand-knotted silk rugs, the walls made warm by an astonishing array of tapestries worked in muted colors and geometric designs, separated by plinths holding up gorgeous porcelain vases, each one different from the next, and each one filled with flowers, filling the hall with a rich, warm, welcoming perfume. A banner at the far end showed the sigil of the Taisigi clan, a stylized version of a taihi flower within a circle, a plant with broad leaves and bold flowers that could be found floating in the ponds and lakes of the region. The crest was worked in sumptuous embroidery in the clan colors. This will be my crest also, Rao thought. If I win my place here. The thought that she, an Edi, might soon be a lady of the Taisigi, sent a momentary shiver through her.

The banner was flanked on either side by tall, fluted porcelain columns similar to the ones that graced the palace’s main entrance. Unlike those columns, which were decorated with bands of sea flora and fauna, these were worked with bas-relief sculptures of more taihiin and geometric interlace. There were openings worked in between the sculpted flowers, leading to cleverly-hidden containers filled with earth, and the staff had inserted the stems and roots of vining plants into these so that the columns themselves were even more richly adorned with living leaves of delicate, mottled green. This is a house that values life! the hallway proclaimed. A bit ironic, given the Marid’s reputation, Rao thought, but the sight of it dispelled the chill.

There was, alas, little time to examine the hallway’s decoration in detail, for their destination was only a single door down the hall and on the left-hand, seaward side. There was already a member of the staff there: a slender middle-aged woman in stylish clothing, presenting an exceedingly formal and proper appearance.

The woman greeted them with a very deep bow. “Aiji-ma. Rao-daja. One is named Basaro, and is honored to have been chosen to serve the daja as the suite’s majordomo. If you would please come this way, one will introduce you to the staff.” There was a coolness to her manner and Rao thought, there is the third of those I must win over. Behold how something that should be felicitous becomes an infelicity. It is up to me to restore its luck.

Basaro opened the double doors to the suite; as Rao and Machigi entered, he murmured to her, “Basaro-nadi is of Toma clan, in the interior of the Marid, and has been with her husband in the service of this house for a decade.” By this he meant that the woman’s man’chi was firmly established, and she was therefore safe. He knows I am anxious and seeks to reassure me. She was touched by his solicitousness.

Once inside — oh! What a place! She knew that Machigi knew the space well, but it was all new to her, a wonder of classical Marid style — an abundance of delicate design and patterns worked in colors ranging from the Taisigi’s own muted blues and greens to brighter and richer shades of blue, green, gold, purple, silver.

This room, the reception room, featured a wide bank of windows that looked out directly over the city and the bay, and the view was, she found, literally breathtaking. The windows were edged with copper frames, engraved with stylized versions of more taihiin flowers and leaves. The copper had been allowed to develop a natural verdigris patina and lo! she had discovered a source for one of the clan’s own colors, that same lovely, muted green. The copper framing held long, slender panes of hammered glass in pale blues, greens, and golds, which themselves framed the large clear windows that looked down over the city, its waterfront, and the bay beyond. It was almost overwhelming — no, it was overwhelming — everything demanded intent study, and she reminded herself sternly to pay attention to the people. A tour would be forthcoming, in keeping with the courtesies of the mainland, so the things could wait. It was the people who mattered most now. She focused on the majordomo and the persons lined up in the room to meet her.

As she discovered, Basaro oversaw five staff in the household:

Anjero, senior staff, a tall, graceful lady of her later years, her silvering hair plaited into braids on either side of her head and fastened across the crown of her head with ribbon in the house’s colors, an old style.

Tamo, second senior staff, likewise elderly like Anjero who, though of middling height, appeared somewhat short when standing next to her partner.

Eskari, junior staff, a body servant assigned to tend to the guest’s wardrobe, linens, and personal needs, thus among those whom Rao knew she would see often. Eskari was middle-aged, appearing almost young in comparison to the senior staff. She was a plump lady with a properly and professionally still expression, but one that could not quite hide the curiosity in her bright eyes.

Kasta, Eskari’s partner on the junior staff, and almost a twin in terms of age and appearance. A matched set, the two of them, Rao thought.

And finally Jara, a very young junior maid, solemn and perhaps a touch anxious, no doubt due to the aiji’s presence. But ‘very young’ is relative, I suppose. Rao realized that everyone else in the household was middle-aged or elderly. She and Jara were the youngest here. She detected the hand of Navathi in this. He thinks I need experienced supervision, and much of it. She knew that every one of them was a spy, but this did not trouble her — it was ever the way of the noble houses. To whom do they report? To several different people. Navathi, naturally, as he is the majordomo. Gediri, certainly. And likely to everyone else I will be meeting in these next few days. So I must cherish this staff. She let out a breath and murmured the proper pleasantries in response to each introduction.

As expected, Basaro offered to take her and the aiji on a tour. She wanted nothing more than a bath and bed at this point, but she did not want to start off this very tentative relationship with these people with impatience. So she dipped her head and said, “one would be very grateful, nadi. The suite is every bit as elegant as any one has seen in Shedijan—” there, chew on that, you who think that I am some unlettered barbarian “—more so, even, with this extraordinary decoration, design, and furnishing. The inlay work alone — astonishing, nadi.”

Basaro was too professional to show a reaction, so Rao was left only hoping that she had surprised this dour woman in a good way. And perhaps the woman’s spine had unstiffened a little, for she began to impart tidbits of history about the rooms and their furnishings instead of simply pointing out what they were.

But alas, no. Rao detected something of a patronizing tone: despite — or perhaps because of — the mention of Shedijan, it seemed that the woman had decided that she was a bumpkin after all, needing to be put firmly in her place. It began when she demonstrated the operation of the room’s bell-pull — each room had one, a silken band that a guest could use to summon the staff — as if Rao could not possibly have seen one before.

Rao sighed to herself and reminded herself not to assume other people’s mental states or motivation — you are alone and in an unfamiliar place with people who do not share a good history with your tribe, she told herself. And this is leading you towards pessimism. Be questioning, yes, but remember to be open to the possibility, however, slight, of welcome. These people have given Machigi their man’chi and only wish to serve him well.

Beyond the reception room was a short hallway, also featuring a large bank of seaward-looking windows. A door to the right opened up to a small sitting room, furnished with shelves and books and a cozy writing desk — “A piece of the late Ujae Period, nandi, featuring, as one is sure you are well aware, the shell-and-bone inlays typical of the artisans of that era.” There was a fireplace set into the wall on the left hand, held in common through the wall with the next room beyond, a small dining hall, which they reached by returning to the short hallway.

The dining room likewise looked out over the city with large windows of the same style as the reception room — the weather outside was clear, and so the space was absolutely flooded with light. The dining room’s table — “Not as large, of course, as the table in the palace’s main dining room, but unique in its inlay of gray and green sea-stone, also of the Ujae Period, naturally” — and was currently set with a centerpiece of shells and sea glass in the house’s colors of green and blue, the glass glowing where it was washed by daylight.

It seemed perhaps aggressive, perhaps, that none of the flowers or arrangements she had seen so far seemed to make any reference to the Edi, but Rao reminded herself that two hundred years of conflict was not like to make anyone in the house want to reflect the tribal colors in any thing. And also that they were probably also aware that she had been cast out. She made a deliberate decision, therefore, to view the display of the Taisigi colors as a message of welcome into the clan. Although, of course, it means no such thing. Nonetheless, Rao made appreciative noises which on her part were not at all for show — the suite was genuinely, truly, deeply beautiful. I could spend hours with the books. Or looking out over the city. She hoped she would not be so isolated here as to need to do those things instead of what she needed to do — she desperately needed to meet people and form associations here. Part of her rather feared that this would be the case — that Machigi’s staff would encourage him to keep her here, and that her only solace until the autumn festivity would be reading and looking. And then, having failed to prove herself, where would she go?

Find your focus, Rao. Be here, in this place, now — not where the future may not necessarily lead you. “Dena-ma,” she said to Machigi — was that a twitch she just saw in Basaro, with that intimate form of address? — “I would be most grateful to meet your kabiutera. The arrangement of this apartment is truly extraordinary.” And she meant it.

Machigi smiled. “Of course, daja-ma,” he replied, occasioning perhaps another twitch from the majordomo at his reciprocal closeness, and Rao suppressed a smile.

Basaro took them back through the sitting room and through another door into a short hallway, a door of a type that Rao knew from Shedijan and which they had already passed in entering the suite: a security door. It was as elegantly decorated as all of the other doors, but its thickness gave it away, indicating that were entering a place that could be sealed off to become its own fortress.

Off to the left, another security door, “to the kitchens and servant quarters, nandi,” Basaro informed her. “Should you need anything, day or night, staff will be able to provide.”

Straight ahead, there was a door at the end of the hallway but first, to one side, another security door, and that one brutally plain, so Rao knew it for the entrance to the suite’s security section. It was open onto a room with subdued lighting — she could barely make out that there were monitors inside, but the persons of the security team, lined up in an arc just beyond the doorway, blocked off most of her view.

Basaro paused and Tema took over to introduce Rao to her assigned bodyguards: Rajeno and Dvari, siblings-of-the-same-mother, both from Tanaja. Rajeno, the eldest and most senior, was a tall, articulate, strong-looking woman who gave every appearance of competence. Her brother, though, was a sheer wall of a man, almost as broad as he was tall — and he was tall, much taller than the average person — with a stony expression and a vocabulary that seemed to be limited to “yes, daja-ma” and “no, daja-ma”. Both he and his sister together came across as exceptionally intimidating, but Rao found a certain comfort in that.

Ojeka and Boragi, two brothers-from-the-same-father from Enjara in the eastern Dausigin Marid, were the junior pair of her security. Despite that status, they seemed just as alert and confident as their elders — comfortable in their skins. All four had been locally trained by the Marid branch of the Assassins’ Guild and recently certified by the Guild headquarters in Shedijan, Machigi noted. They were all of them extremely grave, and Rao suspected that this was their natural state, rather than being due to the fact that they were in the presence of their aiji. They offered polite-and-yet-alert nods — no assassin would ever bow and risk taking their eyes off of their principal or the surroundings — and the silver fittings of their black uniforms twinkled in the light from the hallway like so many stars.

Introductions to security complete, Basaro continued onward to the door at the end of the hall. This was the bedroom, with a large four-poster bed and nightstand, a two tables sized for a single person, and several chairs. A door led out to what Rao knew would be the servants’ back hall, and another security door was probably an emergency entrance — or exit — into the security suite. She hoped it would never come to that, her needing to be locked in here, and then beyond that, needing to be pulled into the doubly-fortified place where her security lived.

On one of the bedroom’s tables — a small round tea table — there was a lovely little porcelain vase in colors of pale gold, cream, and green, filled with flowers. The arrangement was fortuitous and in welcoming colors and filled the room with its scent — not overly heady, just the smell of fresh life. Rao felt her anxiety loosen its grip a little.

Basaro showed them through another door through a small dressing room — space enough for staff to assist a single person with dressing and undressing — into the accommodation — a clean stone room with ladle and towels, very civilized. Beyond that was the bath room with its large stone-and-ceramic tub. It had a wide rim and an integral bench and Rao wanted nothing more than to fall into it and soak.

Fortunately, that was the end of the tour. The entire party trooped back through the suite into the sitting room; Anjero and Tamo, the senior staff, brought in tea in a porcelain service that was — invariably — another Ujae period piece, with a glaze decoration that suggested inlay without actually being inlaid. While the servants were pouring the tea, Machigi retrieved a box from one of the shelves. It was about shoulder width long, perhaps a hand-and-a-half span wide, and a hand deep. He set it down on the table as they sat and, as the staff waited to hand over the tea, opened it.

Rao leaned forward and found that the box was full of tools for hand working wood: a pair of fine whittling knives, sanding cloths, polishing compound and finishing oils in metal tins with screw-on lids, even a stack of wooden blanks in various sizes. He must have sent a message back for the staff to assemble this while we were in the air. She sucked in a breath, astonished, and looked at Machigi. “Dena-ma, for me?”

He looked entirely pleased with himself, and nodded. “Indeed. I know you do not intend to be trapped in this room, nor do I wish you to be. Staff will show you the rest of the palace once you have had some time to rest — you should know this place, all of it. But I know you like to work with your hands, so this is ready for you, should you ever need it.” He nodded and Tamo took up the box and returned it to the shelves, bringing him his tea on her way back, which arrived in his hands precisely as Anjero brought Rao hers.

His look of pleasure shifted into something more anxious, perhaps. “Does it please you, this suite?” He asked, and sipped at his tea.

“Oh, I favor it so extremely, dena-ma,” she told him earnestly. “It is so beautiful, so striking. It is so very clear how professional the staff is, and how much regard they hold for the suite.” This was partially for the ears of said staff, as she knew they were listening. But it was also the truth. “I am quite overwhelmed.”

“It has been a day to be overwhelmed, daja-ma,” Machigi said. “And time, I think, for the day to draw to a close.” He took a final sip to drain his cup and set it down, and within half a heartbeat, Anjero had whisked it away. “Rest easy here. We will deal with whatever tomorrow brings, tomorrow. I would be very grateful to share breakfast with you then, to see what the day will bring, together.”

She set down her cup also and dipped her head. “Yes,” the simple yes of agreement. And then, “I am grateful,” she said, hoping that he would understand how deep this simple statement went.

He rose, she rose. He bowed, she bowed. Then he was gone, and she found herself alone in a household surrounded by people she had only just met, of a place in the world that had only known her people as brigands. If they are to think of me as anything but, I must meet them with civilized grace. And a touch of trust.

So she took a bath in a tub that was every bit as wonderful as it had promised to be and went to bed — the staff had already found clothing for her in her size in the Marid style, so she had a nightgown and bathrobes that fit. Eskari and Kasta, the chambermaids, took charge of her Edi clothing and stared, wonderingly, at the two under-layers that were woven of the same stuff as the stola, only with thread much more fine.

“It is bari’sata,” Rao told them. “A very difficult thing to make — it is quite strong once the thread has been set and properly woven, nadiin, though one does beg you to be very gentle with it. It requires special techniques for repair and, sadly, one does not have these skills.”

“Yes, daja-ma, one will take very special care,” Kasta said, seeming every bit sincere. “If one may ask, how is it made?”

“From a plant that grows in very deep waters off of the west coast, nadiin. Its fibers have an extremely short staple length and are notoriously difficult to spin.”

“How did people figure out that such a thread could be made from it in the first place, nandi?”

Such a perfect question!“One suspects that the first makers were very bored, nadi. Or exceptionally stubborn.”

“Or both, perhaps, nandi?”

Rao smiled, delighted. “Just so; one thinks you have it exactly right.” And things felt a little better, a little less stiff, in the room.

There remained only to slip into bed, which she did, and as Eskari and Kasta departed, they put out the lights. Rao lay in the dark, in that very comfortable bed, and wondered if she would be able to sleep. She saw her future as a long string of simply surviving, one day to the next. She knew that this was her anxiety whispering to her. I have had a strong day, she told herself. I am in Machigi’s house, having placed myself there by my own will, and he will move the sea and skies and earth to protect me. And I am clever and educated and thoughtful and I will win these people over. I will. Like it or not, Grandmother, I will open the Marid’s eyes to the worth of the tribes. Or, failing that, to me.

Chapter Text

The sun had gone down. Machigi and Gediri sat in chairs pulled up to the windows of the map room, with Tema joining them to make a fortunate third. Machigi and Gediri had glasses of brandy; Tema, still on duty, made due with water. Beyond and below them, few lights were in evidence, but a full moon silvered the rooftops and water of the port.

“Have you considered that the Edi might have set this entire situation up in order to slip her into your household, aiji-ma?” Gediri asked. “That it may be a move on their part against your person?

“No, Diri-ji. I had not considered that,” Machigi replied, turning his glass around in his hand. Because I know it is not true, he thought. But he thought of Rao, dancing along the boat’s gunnel, her bare feet sure on the boards. She would be technically capable of assassinating him and it was an old, hoary, lurid trope — the lover dispatching a target after consummating an apparent personal attachment. So it was a possibility, even though he himself was certain that the connection between them was a true thing, and that she would never move against him. He knew that if his aishid had not considered the matter before, they were listening and certainly considering it now, and that the security he assigned to Rao would be watching her more closely. He thought of the box of carving supplies he had gifted her — the knives — and suppressed a sigh. Not because he doubted her, but because it would cause additional anxiety in their collective bodyguards. Until they had established trust in her, they would see every tool that found its way into her hands as a potential weapon.

And he had not told any of them what he had seen her do in the sailboat. I should tell Tema. I should trust my aishid.

“It is a possibility, though, is it not, aiji-ma?” Gediri asked.

He pulled himself back to the now, to the story Gediri wanted to tell of the Edi: the tale of their proposed nefarious plot. It was part and parcel to the workings of the clans of the Marid, an old and familiar and predictable road — precisely the sort of thing he would expect out of, say, the Dojisigi. So it was perfectly understandable why his first counselor’s mind would settle so neatly into that path. But were the Edi capable of that kind of maneuvering? Were they capable of designing, staging, and executing such a machimi so convincingly? He had to admit that he did not know what they were capable of — none of them here knew that.

On the other hand, he also knew that Gediri had a vested interest in discouraging his marriage to her. The man had been hounding him regarding an heir since the moment he had assumed his father’s place, and had proposed any number of candidates for a contract over the intervening years: noble candidates from the Marid — lesser houses, to be sure, given the way that the Marid tended to eat its own. And given said tendency for self-destruction, he understood the man’s sense of urgency when it came to establishing the succession as quickly as possible. He knew that Rao was in no ways a suitable candidate, in Gediri’s eyes — what better way to insert a wedge than to suggest a threat to personal safety, in this place that had known centuries of plots, distrust, and illegal killings?

“Why would they do that, Diri-ji?” Machigi asked. “Why would they go through the trouble, and why would they go through that trouble now, when the Marid has given up our claims to the west coast? And I did gift them with a sizable collection of netting once, do you remember?” He tried very hard to keep the amusement out of his voice.

“I know they are barbaric, aiji-ma, but do you truly think they would consider that a sufficient trade for one of their heirs?

“No, Diri-ji,” Machigi said patiently.

His counselor heaved a frustrated sigh. “As for why they would try to infiltrate your household — I do not know, aiji-ma. Perhaps they feel we have been letting down our guard since our turn to the east, and see it as an opportunity. Do any of us know why those ship-wreckers do what they do?”

“No,” Machigi had to admit. “But we need to learn. There is opportunity, looking to the west. And we have a common cause against Ashidama Bay.” That place in the southwest, between the Marid and Najida, ruled out of its capital of Jorida Isle not by lords but by the merchants of Hurshina Shipping. The company was even more enemy to both the Edi and the Marid than they were to each other, for those who had eyes to see beyond their mutual loathing. “The opportunity there is not in terms of land or sea or natural resources. Rather, it is the people — I believe that they are more than what they seem. That is part of what she brings.”

“Are they, and does she, aiji-ma?” Gediri asked. “Her people lured ships onto the rocks with false lights and then looted the wrecks — when they were not actively engaging in piracy.”

“Have you forgotten our own history, Diri-ji?” Machigi asked.

“We were not pirates,” Gediri protested indignantly. “We were privateers. We had lords and letters of marque.”

“Hm,” said Machigi. “Now there is an idea. Perhaps I shall grant myself a letter of marque for Rao and claim her as a prize.”

Gediri boggled at him. “Aiji-ma, you cannot be serious—”

“Be at peace, Gediri. I do jest.” Machigi downed his brandy in a single gulp, and a servant stepped in to refill it.

“Aiji-ma, please,” Gediri said, his own drink untouched in his anxiety. “These matters are not for jokes. Whom you marry is important — your marriage must bring something to the Marid. I say she brings nothing — no alliance, no clan, no trade. Keep her as an uncontracted lover, aiji-ma, but I beg you: do not do this. You are the aiji. You should marry someone of noble station and strengthen ties within the aishihai’mar thereby — we cannot for a moment think that things are stable, and this is an opportunity to bind the clans together more closely! Or marry a lady from the East, and so further deepen our alliance with that Association. Were she still the First Granddaughter of the Edi, perhaps there might be a chance there, as outlandish as it may seem to ally with the tribes. But aiji-ma, please, she is no one.

Machigi remained silent. Gediri already thinks me mad; they all do. Bringing up a’hrani will convince them fully. They might even mutiny, in order to protect me from myself.

Gediri had, perhaps, taken this silence of his as softening. “She is an intelligent person, aiji-ma. And it is clear that she is attached to you—”

No, Diri-ji. She is not attached to me. That is the point.

“—and I am sure that she will certainly understand. If we are persuasive, if we help her understand the greater issues at stake here, surely she will not object to remaining here with you without contract? I am sure we can find a candidate for marriage who would understand the arrangement. It would not be the first time.”

“Diri-ji,” Machigi said, and surprised himself with how gently he was speaking. Then again, he had known his Minister of Affairs since he was a boy. He set down his glass on a side table. “I will not engage in a marriage of convenience.” He held up a hand to stave off the arguments he could see Gediri lining up, arrows punched into the ground at the archery range awaiting their turn in the bow. “I am willing to bend the truth, obfuscate, or even lie if it serves the Marid. I have done all of those things. In this, however, I will not bend. You say that she has no value, but this is because you do not know her yet.”

“Aiji-ma, this is precisely my question. I beg you to consider it from an outside perspective: this woman—”

“Rao-daja,” Machigi said flatly.

“Rao-daja, aiji-ma,” Gediri acknowledged. “As your consort, Rao-daja stands to gain the whole of the Marid. What will the Marid gain from her?

“Enough, Diri-ji. I have already set the time I have given you to understand her, and to understand that she does bring value. Have I not said it? I will give you until the autumn Festival week, and will not marry her before then. Get to know her, and then come back and tell me that you do not find her worthy.”

Gediri seemed, finally, to relent. “Aiji-ma,” he said, with a bow. But then he added: “Until the Festival.”

When Gediri had gone, Machigi dismissed the staff. Frochano immediately slipped out to guard the door against intrusion, no doubt summoning more personnel from security to make sure the other entrances were secure. He waited until Tema, still seated beside him, gave him the merest of nods that indicated he had received the signal that such security had in fact been established.

“Tema-ji, I must tell you something in confidence,” Machigi told him, then.

Tema looked somewhat alarmed. “Aiji-ma.”

“There is something you need to know, something actually germane to nand’ Gediri’s concerns,” Machigi said. “Rao is trained in unarmed combat, possibly armed combat as well.”

Tema raised his eyebrows. “Combat, aiji-ma?” He thought about it and hit upon the answer himself. “Their irregular forces. When we fought the Shadow Guild in Sarini province.” He had been there, at the aiji’s side, and remembered. “Are you saying that she received training, before they surrendered such duties to the Guild?”

Machigi nodded. “It seems likely.”

“So nand’ Gediri’s concerns about the possibility of her being an agent gain some weight,” Tema suggested.

“No, Tema-ji,” Machigi said. “I am certain that it is coincidental, but it is a thing that unhappily fits the Marid’s own traditional intrigue as would a bespoke glove. But she is not from that tradition.

“Aiji-ma, we do not know what tradition she is truly from,” Tema pointed out.

“That is true. But if we proceed from our historical prejudices, we will not learn what we need to learn.” Machigi took a breath. “There is more. Rao-daja and I — we are connected. That is what happened in the boat, and why I asked her to marry me.”

“A’hrani,” Tema repeated, frowning.

“Yes. She will not harm me, whatever her family might have hoped to achieve by her being here. Which I think is nothing — I do not think that what happened at Najida was machimi, do you?”

“No,” Tema pursed his lips, thinking. “One feels that the consternation on their part was genuine.” But he was also still worried. “Aiji-ma, this thing is false, is it not? That is the nature of a’hrani, that it is false.”

Machigi shook his head. “It is not. I do not have the words for why it is not. It is not man’chi. It is something else. But I have every confidence in it.”

“We should still remain cautious, aiji-ma,” said Tema.

“Inform those who need to know, Tema-ji, and take what steps you deem necessary. I have every confidence in you as well.”

Chapter Text

It was just past noon. Machigi’s guest — fortunate gods let her only remain a guest — had been in the residence for three fortuitous days, and so far Gediri had received no report from Nevathi or the rest of the household staff of scandal. It was unexpected and entirely inconvenient for his agenda — to get her out of here as soon as possible — that she was not behaving as he would have expected an Edi barbarian to behave. She seems more rational than I anticipated. Very well. It is time to begin a more direct campaign of my own, then. The household servants informed Gediri that their guest was in the garden, so he stepped out of the palace and into a cloudless day.

The garden was a vast space in comparison to what he knew of paidhi’s garden at Najida, the latter being a small provincial estate — this was the state garden, and it took up a large plot of land between the palace and the legislative hall. Windows from the palace looked into the green and flowering and growing place, but the legislative hall presented a blank face upon which the gardeners had trained vines to grow. The bright sun beat down on the city, but a cool breeze was blowing down from the sea, setting all the blossoms gently astir.

He found Rao attended by her junior bodyguard, standing by a fountain in the center of the garden. He himself was without escort. This is my place.

The fountain was built of gray and blue limestone that had been recovered from the bay during the harbor’s first expansion, some three hundred fifty years ago. It was faced in bands, and its basin lined, with shale from the same effort, and the pale fossilized skeletons of ancient creatures stood out in contrast to the darkness of the shale in which they had become embedded, framed by the occasional gray-green clump of aquatic moss. The garden’s aqueduct fed the fountain with a low, gently boiling mound of water in its center. The leaves and white-and-blue blooms of taihiin spread out on the water’s surface, gently waving in the ripples generated by the breeze. It was all ringed by tall kojutari trees, their great broad-leafed branches arcing out over the water to provide shade and prevent evaporation in the heat of the summer. So despite the brightness of the sun overhead, it was pleasantly cool here, and he was not surprised to find her in this particular place in the garden at this time of the day.

Gediri thought about what he knew of the west coast and its change of seasons. Here, their closeness to the equator and the warm southern ocean current moderated the temperature on the coast and kept it pleasantly temperate for most of the year. She would have grown up knowing of snow, which only fell on Tanaja on very rare occasions. Will she miss the winter? He wondered.

She saw him coming and turned to face him, offering a bow by way of greeting. Ojeka and Boragi, her security, rearranged themselves to offer them space — and to offer themselves good coverage of the scene. “Good afternoon, nand’ Gediri,” Rao said politely.

“Good afternoon to you, Rao-daja,” he said. “If you do not have other pressing plans —” he knew that she likely did not “— may one keep you company for a time? We have not had a chance to speak, and one thinks it would be time well spent.”

“One is grateful, nand’ Gediri, although one is sure that you have pressing matters of state to attend, do you not?”

“One does not mean to be impertinent, nandi, but at the moment, you are a pressing matter of state.”

She took it well, as far as he could tell. “Ah, yes. One understands, nandi.”

I think you do, at that, he thought.

“Please let us not be so formal,” she said. “I wish for your honest counsel as well.”

“Very well,” Gediri said. “I will do my best, while you are a state concern.”

“I should like you to tell me how you govern here,” Rao said. She gestured at the stone wall at the far side of the garden, the side of a building in a pale stone meant to reflect the heat of the sun in high summer. “It is the Marid’s legislative hall, is it not?”

“Indeed, Rao-daja. The lords meet there, of all the major and minor clans and of their septs.”

“Do the sept lords have a vote, nandi?”

“They do not, but they may speak on any matter.”

“Is there only one chamber? There is no hasdrawad?”

“At the moment, no,” Gediri said. “We have not developed such a system for the commons as there is in Shedijan. The aiji wishes there to be a second chamber, so that he and the nobles have a fortunate third to balance them, and in fact we finished a chamber for whatever this is to be in the spring. But it lies empty for the present time, until the aiji and the tashrid have determined what form it would take.” He spread his hands. “Until very recently, the region was poor,” he said honestly. “The commons know their trades, but not much else. Most do not know how to read. Barter is still the main form of exchange here, and likely will remain so, although we have begun to design hybrid means to facilitate both barter and currency, so as to honor our traditional ways.

“When the aiji allied with the East,” Gediri continued. “He set up a means for trade that would bring in wealth and so it has, as well as the establishment of local branches of many of the Western guilds. The Scholars are still organizing offices and schools. Perhaps, in another generation or two, there will be a people who can adequately serve, and perhaps they or their children will sit in the chamber that now lies empty.

“Three things bring us fortune, nandi,” he said to her. “And the aiji works to use them to finally bring peace here.” He held up a fist and poked up fingers to illustrate the count. First, the small finger: “The continental divide, which effectively strangles whole-scale commerce between the East and West.” The adjusting finger: “The seas, which have ever been our domain.” The center finger, leaving the pointing finger and thumb in a tight association: “Now the heavens, so that we might conquer the southern storms.”

Gediri lowered his hand. “As for the other Guilds — they are, like the Scholars, in the process of setting up offices. With the exception of the Artisans, of course.” That Guild had ever been little more than a loose, and often times fractious, collection of sub-guilds, each jealously guarding its own discipline. “It will take much longer for the artisans’ specialists to find their counterparts here, and longer to gain admittance. Marid artisans are very tightly knit. It may be a challenge.”

“Artists are generally too busy with their own art,” Rao observed with a little smile. “Such association would require so much extra work.”

“Indeed,” Gediri said. “And so things do progress here, but slowly. As, I think, they should. For now, the second chamber serves as an adequate hall for conferences. There are some plans for exhibitions of trade goods, now that the flow of commerce has begun to stabilize. The Bujavid has its museum — perhaps the second chamber will be that, for the Marid, until the generations to come have a use for it.”

They walked on a pace. “I heard of the agreement with the Senjin Marid, the expansion of the railroad,” Rao said. “Has that also helped to bring prosperity here — might it hasten development?”

He nodded. “That was completed in the summer of last year and the trains have begun to run. Both Senji and Taisigi have begun to see benefits and I am sure that will only continue to grow. It remains only for the question of the Dojisigi to be fully settled, since the Shedijan Guild withdrew and Machigi-aiji took responsibility for its governance.”

“You have not reestablished the lordship of the Dojisigi,” Rao said.

“Not yet,” he allowed. “And so it has been a source of problems. Unfortunately, the action of the Shedijan aiji drove much of the problems out of the Dojisigin Marid and into places over which we have less control.”

“Ashidama Bay,” Rao said.

“Yes,” he said. “You see it.”

She frowned a little. “I see a common problem.”

“Forgive me, Rao-daja,” Gediri said. “But I cannot see how it is a common problem now, given your circumstances.”

She fixed him with a piercing gaze, chin held high. “I will tell you, nand’ Gediri, the same thing that I told my Grandmother: she cannot unmake who I am, and what I am has nothing to do with titles or with my standing with her. Nothing she says will take away my past — she cannot pull the lines from my hands, seize the tiller, or the take the wind from my sail. I am what I am, daughter of my tribe, descendent of the far south, with the sea in my veins. What threatens the commons of the seas threatens me as much as it does you — it threatens all people — and it is my duty to do what I can, however much or little that may be, to defend those ways.”

Beautiful words. But… “What can you do?”

“I do not know yet, nand’ Gediri. But I know that whatever it is, I cannot do any of it alone.”

“No one can, nandi,” Gediri allowed. They walked on in silence for a few paces. She is impressive. But the world is full of impressive people, many of whom who have much more useful connections. She in fact has none. How will I convince her to willingly step aside?

Does she know of the danger she faces here? “Has he told you how he acquired his scar?” Gediri asked after a moment.

“No, nandi,” the Edi lady said. “I have asked him to make that story a gift to me should I be successful in proving my worth to you.”

“Ah, well, then, I will leave it to him. But you should know that but for elderly two uncles and a great aunt, none survive from his grandfather’s line. His father was assassinated four years ago.”

“I knew of it, yes.” She said. “It happened before his majority,” she observed.

“Yes. I held the regency for a year. And then he arrived.

“A storm,” Rao said with a gentle smile.

He nodded. “A very apt metaphor. Before anyone knew that he had done it or even how, he seized control. But it lead to resentment among the lords of the north. Mind you, they had done very little for the benefit of the Marid as a whole — they seemed content to squabble for power between themselves, to maneuver for influence in the north, and to make their bed with the rebel faction of the Assassins’ guild. Then Machigi arrived and allied the Taisigi, the Dausigi, and the Sungeni in rapid order.”

“Leaving Senji and Dojisigi opposed.”

“Yes. Dojisigi in particular had made of themselves a nest for the Shadow Guild, while a Senjin clan colluded with the Padi Valley.”

“The Farai with the Kadigidi,” said Rao. She tilted her head. “Was his mother involved in those plots?” she asked. She knows his mother was Farai. But it was in no ways surprising that she would know; she would have memorized information about all of the great houses, he was sure.

“As far as I was ever able to tell, no, nandi,” Gediri said. “After Tula died, Mada seemed to lose all desire to remain in the Taisigin Marid. As her contract with Ardami had long been fulfilled — with the birth of Machigi, in fact — she returned to Morigi-dar. She is still there, from what I understand, living a quiet life — she never did allow any of the others in the Senjin Marid to use her against her son.”

“It speaks to her strength of character,” Rao observed. “How did his sister die?”

“Also assassinated, when she and the aiji were still children.”

Rao took a breath. “But he was still alive…and his mother left him, contract notwithstanding?”

He nodded. “He was ever closer to his father than he ever was to his mother. Tula was Mada’s firstborn, her favored child.”

“So he survived, then, and has not descended into revenge.”

“He understands now that the plots against his family ran deeper than the Marid clans. He seeks the Shadow Guild, Rao-daja. He will not rest until they are all of them dead. They know this. Should you marry him, you and he and any children you might bear will be targets until that bloody work is done.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Then we should see that the work is completed. Expeditiously,” she said, firmly using the collective “we”, and he could feel a fierce steel in her words.

“What if they kidnapped you?” Gediri asked, curious. “It is one of their tactics. They would trap him into attempting a rescue. I would strenuously argue against him taking that bait.”

“I agree with you, nandi,” she replied. “I would not expect it of him.”

“What would you expect?”

“I would expect him to hunt down and kill each and every last one of them,” she spoke with a matter-of-factness that sent a chill through him.

“But you might be killed,” Gediri said, appalled.

“He is young. You yourself know there are others who would gladly take my place at his side,” she replied with an ironic smile. The smile stilled and her expression became determined again. “I think it would be better, though, to solve this problem at the outset.”

She is willing to go to war with them herself. Gediri stopped, a little startled despite himself. He was uneasy. Any other candidate I have in mind to propose to Machigi would face the same future — I know all of them, and none of them will respond as she had.

Rao paused and turned to him, bemused. “You need not be surprised, nandi,” she said. “I, too, have experience with the Shadow Guild, from a slightly different perspective. I well remember Machigi and his forces fighting the Shadow Guild from their flank.”

He could not stop his eyes from widening. “Were you personally involved, nandi?”

“Of course. The Guild called us ‘irregular’ and that we were. But we fought to defend Najida and they were glad of us, since they could not send enough personnel into the field at the time.” Her eyes sparkled. “After we were admitted to the ashidi’tat, we had to give that up, of course, and I had to focus on learning the peaceful ways of the court. Do you know, nand’ Gediri, that for a moment there, the Grandmothers of the Gan and the Edi were impressed by the aiji? He led from the front, like no lord of the Western Association ever would. Perhaps the Grandmothers were grudging about it, but there was some admiration. For a while.”

“And then?”

“Well, understand that none of us really trusted that the Marid did not still want the west coast, nandi. Our coast. We still had clashes at sea, though so many fewer since your alliance with the East. The recent events in the audience hall did not help, however.”

“One suspects that the Grandmothers could have overlooked that, eventually,” Gediri said.

“Perhaps. But then, as you are so delicately not saying, nand’ Gediri, I happened.”

“Well, nandi…” Gediri spread his hands. You have said it.

“Do the tribes mean so much to the Marid?”

“No,” he said. He walked on a few more steps and said, “I understand that you feel a strong association with my lord, nandi. You support him. I respect that. Indeed, I have known Machigi for most of his life. I have watched him grow, I protected him during the regency, I have worked to carry out his plans. I tell you truly, nandi, that I am your ally in this, in ensuring that he meets every success.”


“But. The issue at stake is not the Edi or the Gan. The tribes are now part of the ashidi’tat and are allied with Shedijan. They do not need the Marid. The aishihai’mar is allied with the East, as counterbalance to the North, West, and Central Associations, and does not need the Edi or the Gan or any of the other clans of the Southwestern Association, our common differences with the merchants in Jorida notwithstanding. It is…forgive me, Rao-daja, but it is not moot.

“You are saying that my status with the Edi is not relevant.”

“I am saying that it is less relevant than, say, the status of the ladies of the noble houses of the Marid. As you noted earlier, the Dojisigin Marid is still unresolved. Marriage is one of the ways to solidify alliances. To settle them, nandi.”

“And yet Lord Ardami married Mada of the Farai, joining Taisigi to Senji, and it did not bring peace,” Rao countered. “The clans of the Marid have been marrying each other, and the clans of the north, for hundreds of years, and it never brought them peace.”

“Peace came when the Marid looked beyond its borders,” Gediri replied. “Not to the west or north, but to the east. It is that alliance that has given us a chance to counterbalance the others. It was an alliance that was not possible until Machigi took the reins of power and pulled, and Ilisidi of Malguri noticed and offered alliance.

“Your point about marriage having proved a less than successful strategy in the Marid is well made, nandi,” he said. “But I wonder if it would not be best to focus on the alliance with the East. At the moment, this alliance is not so much between associations as it is between individuals: in particular, Machigi and the dowager. It is weak, therefore. Ilisidi is old — what happens when she dies?

“What can we do to ensure that those bonds persist long after Ilisidi and Machigi are long gone?” Gediri chose the collective “we” also, an echo to her earlier words. She truly does want what is best not just for Machigi but for the Marid, despite her Edi origin. And so he let his we reflect that. “Now that the Marid finally looks to be having actual peace for the first time in hundreds of years, what can we do to build a strong foundation for the future? It is not to say that there is no solution that precludes you from being a part of his life, nandi.”

“Oh? How would that happen, nand’ Gediri?”

“You do not need a contract to remain in his company — you could still support him without being the consort of the Marid.”

“I see.” Her voice was flat and cold.

“Nandi, one begs you not to take offense. I am Machigi’s advisor. It is why I exist. I must offer as many options as I can find, as many opportunities for adjustment, compromise, and adaptation, so that both you and he can be fully informed when it comes time to decide which course of action to pursue.”

“Do you think that this is an option he will consider?”

He made a rueful little sound. “Likely not, nandi. Not at first. No, he will not like it. But is it not everyone’s duty — yours and mine and his — to look not just at this particular moment in time, but all the moments that follow?”

Rao seemed to have no answer. She fell silent, looking deeply thoughtful as she walked. Finally she said, “you have given me much to think about, nand’ Gediri. One shall release you to your work; surely you have much to do today. One is grateful for your time.”

She has put the armor of her formality back on...but she did not deny the idea. Gediri gave her a bow as she bowed her own farewell, and watched as she left the garden, her guard following.

Chapter Text

One one of the day’s short breaks in his schedule, when the sun was just beginning to cast its late evening rays towards the bay, Machigi found Rao in the map room, studying the large map of the Marid that stretched the whole length of one wall. The afternoon light slanted in through the windows and illuminated the chart work better than any lamp could.

She was so intent, he chose not to interrupt her. He simply watched as she, brows furrowed, followed the coastlines with her eyes and fingertips. It was an antique map, annotated in the Old Alphabet, and he wondered if she could read it. I would not be surprised if she could.

She must have sensed him watching her, for she turned and looked at him. “I have only ever seen this land from the sea, dena-ma,” she said to him. “Those parts are familiar, but the rest...” she passed a hand over the interior. “It remains a mystery. I want to know it all. I have been reading the histories in my little library this past week and have learned much, but it is this map that will tie it all together.”

He stepped up beside her. “You know where we are,” he said, a question.

She nodded. “Yes, here in Tanaja,” her finger found the capital unerringly.

He gestured to indicate the lands to the west and south of the city. “Tanji district, the immediate environs of the city — the rest is the Taisigin Marid.” He chopped his hand along the western edge of the map as if to cut it and sweep everything west and northward. “Our shared game preserve,” he said. Then he pointed the the string of islands in the center of the vast bay that was the Marid Sea. “The islands.”

“The Sungeni Isles,” she said. She narrowed her eyes and leaned in. “It says ‘Haprinjo’ — is that the capital?”

Ah, she can read the Old Alphabet. “Yes,” he told her. “In the Taisigin dialect. The Ragi knows it as Lusiden. Telani of the Lusi clan sits there as lord now. The Lusi holds close to the Taisigi, as the isles have done since the days of the Great Wave. Directly southeast across the Sea — here — is Mordani, the capital of the Dausigin Marid. Their man’chi holds firm through their lord, Minjito. Here, to the north, Koperna. Heart of the Senjin Marid. Bregani sits there as lord, a good ally. But here, daja-ma, here was the source of the plot to kill me, that sank my ship and put me in the sea for you to find.”

“Perhaps I should thank him, then,” Rao murmured.

He chuckled darkly. “Lord Bregani knew nothing of it. The ones who did, however, are beyond thanking now.” He continued his tour of the map. “Now here, across the bay, is Amarja, the capital city of the Dojisigin Marid. It is an important region — it is where the Marid’s best copper mines are located. We were once a major supplier of copper to the rest of the continent. That was a long time ago, however — that industry has been in disarray for years, due to the, ah, troubles there. Copper mostly moves through the shadow markets now, and is something I mean to bring back to its former prominence.”

“And the Dojisigi fed off that shadow market,” Rao asked.

“Yes,” he said. “The Marid has a reputation for less than legal activity, I know it. I will not deny that some of that reputation is duly earned, when we perceive ourselves to be at a disadvantage to the rest of the continent, for whom the laws were written and whom they were designed to benefit. But the Dojisigi built most of the foundation that reputation themselves, and not because they were seeking fairness — the clan is rapacious and relentless. They long been a source of plots against the aiji in Shedijan and, after the troubles, against me, though they were not a part of the most recent. Amenji of Caratho clan is administering the region now, in partnership with myself and Lord Bregani. It will be difficult to find someone reliable to take that particular lordship.”

“Nand’ Gediri said the Dojisigi was a base for the Shadow Guild. And that they were driven out, likely to Ashidama Bay.”

He nodded. “Yes. And I will be following them wherever they go. I cannot provide you a peaceful life, Rao-ma.”

“I did not ask for one, Chigi-ma,” Rao said. “I want you, all of you, in whatever way I may have you.” Then she let out a soft sigh. “But what you have ahead of you — it will require strong alliances. I cannot say that nand’ Gediri is not correct in seeking another consort for you — I know that everyone would be much more pleased if you married someone from the Marid. From the East, even. Anyone else, really.”

“Whence comes this doubt? My Fisher is fearless.”

“In my boat on the broad ocean, I am the aiji, subject only to the the wind and the stars and the waves. But the Sea of the Marid is your place, not mine. I yearn to be a part of it, because it is you, dena-ma. But the waves here are so high and cold and I confess at times, I fear they will overtop me.”

“You think I would set you aside for another.”

“The contract is not simply between myself and you, Chigi-ji,” she said. “It is between myself and the Marid. Therein lies the problem, does it not? You are the Marid, and the Marid is you. I cannot say that I have won you without knowing that I have won the Marid also.”

He was silent, regarding her thoughtfully but it was not her that he was seeing, but rather the road ahead. “You see it also,” she said. “The difficult path. How much do your people trust you? How much are they going to believe that this thing between us is a real thing that can bring them value? Failing that, how hard will they strive to save you from me?”

He can feel his jaw tighten. “I will make them believe it.”

“Ah, dena-ma,” she said softly. “All you can make them do is fear to tell you their true minds. And if that happens, you are lost.” She laced and relaxed her fingers before her and by this he knew how very anxious she was. He was reminded, again, of how alone she was, cast out from her family. “I cannot distract you, your council, and your people from the larger issues that threaten your safety, your people’s safety, the security of the Marid, at a time when you must be united and determined and strong. I do not want to be the cause of disunity, especially not now. It cannot be as it was in my sailboat.”

“No, it will be better,” he said. “Rao-ma, do not regret saying yes. Not for even a moment.”

She let out a soft breath. “I do not, nor will I ever. But how much should my own desires count, in the final tally of the wisdom of this? If the Marid comes to see the Edi as more than mere ship-wreckers, if your people should come to respect the tribes, well and good, but then what benefit do I bring? They will rightly point out that I am outcast, and the Grandmothers will refuse to treat with you because of me. And even that may never even come into play either way, with the Marid looking to the East now.”

Machigi gritted his teeth: everything she was saying was almost exactly the same thing Gediri had argued earlier. “What has Gediri said to you?” He asked.

She must have seen something in the bunching of the muscles of his jaw or some danger in his eyes, for she said, gently, “I beg of you, do not be angry at any of your people on my behalf, and especially not nand’ Gediri. It was not only your aishid that kept you alive in this place. They all hold you in very great regard, that much is plain, and it is out of that regard for you that they seek what is best for you, especially because of the coming storm.”

“You are what is best for me, Rao-ma. Setting you aside for the good of the Marid would be like cutting off my arm for the good of the Marid. If I cannot make them understand that, I am not fit to be aiji.” He swallowed, steadied himself. “Have you changed your mind?”

She touched his hand. “No, no, thrice no, dena-ma. I am only mindful that your people expect me to bring something useful to this, their marriage to me.” She took a breath, perhaps steadying herself in turn. And then she asked, “Have you given thought to nand’ Gediri’s proposal?”

“Which one?”

“That I remain here with you without contract, leaving you free to make a marriage alliance elsewhere.”

He could not keep the scowl off his face, not with her. “It is not worthy of you.”

“You are kind. But his point about resources is well made, dena-ma. Perhaps it would be better were you to marry someone who could bring the Marid a stronger political advantage, as such marriages are meant to do.”

“Would you tolerate that, Rao-ma? That some other woman lay claim to me, and bear my children?”

He could see the deep unhappiness in her face. “If it brought better value to you and the Marid, I would consider it. Perhaps even tolerate it. But I would not be joyous.”

He smiled. “Rao-ma, I would not tolerate it. And it would be foolish even from a political bent: if the Grandmothers were to come to their senses and realize that there is advantage to them in this, it would in no ways improve matters if they thought I kept you merely for pleasure. They have acted foolishly and yet I would not insult them so. Nor you.” He placed his hands on her shoulders so as to turn her to face him fully. “Rao-ma,” he said. “Look at me. Give my people time. When they look at you now, they are only seeing history, and a one-sided history at that. In time, the real you will supplant that pre-supposition, and they will understand that what makes you fitting for this has nothing to do with titles — those can be given or taken away just as easily as—” the snap of his fingers echoed in the room like a gunshot. “What makes you fitting is you, all of you, your mind and your skill and your determination. They will see it, in time, if you allow it.”

He wished he could say that he had convinced her. She is too intelligent to underestimate the resistance here. But that falls to me.

“Remember that I have given Gediri and the rest until the autumn Festival,” he said. “I expect them to expend effort to get to know you. Please tell me if they do not.”

“And if we reach the deadline without success, Chigi-ji? What then?”

“The deadline is a courtesy for them to come to understanding. It in no ways changes my intention. On that day, we will marry.”

She closed her eyes and leaned into his hands for a moment. Then she stepped back and turned to the map and once again, setting light fingertips on the inked lines of the coast. “The sea connects our people,” she murmured, moving her hand farther offshore, tracing it westward. “I think I can find a way to help them understand that there is a worthy connection between you and me and the Marid — if I follow the sea.”

It was early evening when the last of the day’s meetings had finished and the ministers all took their leave. Machigi retreated back to the map room. Perhaps Rao is still there, he thought. But she was not.

He stood at the room’s windows and looked out. The sky was taking on clouds with dark bellies, little summer squalls in scattered packets, and red shafts of sunset light broke through and dappled the harbor, the boats, the city with an ever-shifting pattern of light and shadow.

The staff were preparing supper. Though the kitchens were not particularly near, some configuration of the palace’s doors allowed the scent of the seasonal meat offering to waft into the map room as it cooked: dekau’in, a plains staple from this time of year, well-favored by the house in his childhood.

Then, down in the city, a bell rang the time change. Other bells picked it up, and for a moment — between the sound of the bells and the smell of the cooking and the rippling light across the landscape below — he suddenly found himself deep in a memory, standing beside his father in this very spot, a young boy trying to understand what it was that Ardami, the lord of all of clan Taisigi, was doing, feeling, facing.

His father had spoken to him, trying to convey some sense of statecraft. Asked him a question. “Lords, of the smallest sept to the aiji himself,” his father had said. “They all must surround themselves with the keenest tools and take especial care to keep those tools sharp. What do you think is the most important tool that we lords have at our disposal, son of mine?” Machigi remembered the boy he had been, not truly understanding what it was his father was asking, being confused, having no response. Ships? Good staff? Strong alliances? These were all important things, especially in the ever restless, often fatal Marid — but was Father saying that one was more important than the rest? He remembered feeling helpless in the face of that question, and could not recall whether his father had ever provided a solution.

But now he was a man, fully grown, standing in the boy’s place beside the memory of his father. He was a man who had experienced much in a short amount of time since his father’s assassination and who could, now, finally provide an answer. The answer is in me, Honored Father, he said silently to his father’s memory. The answer is me.

The clouds closed ranks, casting the city into evening shadow. The bells stopped their ringing and somewhere, some servant closed a door, cutting off the scent of supper. He blinked and his father was gone.

But the answer remains, Father. The Marid remains. I remain.

Chapter Text

The evening was hushed, here in the sheltered bedroom of the seaward suite. Rao sat quietly while Jara, her junior-most chambermaid, combed out her hair in preparation for sleep. She had survived a little more than a week in the house of the Taisigi, but the staff of this suite were still something of a mystery. Rao had tried to tease out something about the girl and her life as Jara was teasing the tangles out of her locks, but she was proving to be very shy. So far, Rao had only determined her age (19), her clan (Temani), and her district (Tanji, a local therefore, but inland, in the district’s northern extent).

She decided not to push. Perhaps, like a shy animal, Jara would approach her if she sat very still, and let the girl along while she worked. And so she sat very, very still, trying not to think of herself as a hunter.

Over her nightgown, Rao was wearing one of her purloined robes —

I did not steal it, she reminded herself. It was mine to begin with

— from home —

No. No longer home. I must make the Marid my home

— and she could feel from the way Jara was combing her hair that she was surreptitiously trying to look at the robe’s neckline, which was richly decorated. But it was subtle because the decoration woven directly into the cloth in texture instead of color, and perhaps not so easy to see. So Rao tilted her head so that the long fall of her hair would hang away from the back of her neck and the maid would have a better angle from which to see it. Sure enough, Jara took the bait. “The decoration of the robe is unusual, daja-ma.” Jara said. “Very pretty, though.”

“It is message weaving,” Rao turned in her seat a little so that she could look Jara in the face and she saw the maid’s eyes go wide, and was pleased to see that they were the wide eyes of interest, not of unease. She smiled and said, “My hair is sufficiently combed, I think. Please, pull up a chair and sit and I will show you, nadi.”

Jara brought over an extra chair and very shyly took a seat at Rao’s side. Rao loosened the robe, holding the hem out in her hands so that the girl could see it better. “Here is a conventional geometric pattern but look, do you see? The patterns seem random along this edge here. It is not random: the weavers have encoded a message by converting characters into numbers using the standard number order of the Syllabary,” she explained. “Do you see that the weaving thread appears to lie at different heights, sometimes higher than the others? You may touch it if you like, sometimes it’s easier to feel the difference as a bumpiness.”

Jara looked closely and reached out, running tentative fingers over the cloth. She nodded. “Yes, nandi, I do feel it.”

“The vertical threads — the warp, are in pairs, one thin and one thick. The weavers choose to advance one or the other to the position over the weaving thread — the weft — the thicker warp thread makes a bump. So a bump and no-bump are two possible digits. And then they can run a second thread, this one silken for contrast, on top of the weft. It could, in theory, give us an additional two more digits, but traditionally they will only add it when the warp is thick, for better definition — and also to keep the number of possibilities fortuitous.”

“You convert the characters’ numbers into this base three,” the maid said in a tone of wonder. “And use it to encode the message into the weaving.”

Jara’s imagination had clearly caught fire and this made Rao smile again. “Yes, just so. And although this message is encoded in a straightforward fashion, sometimes people will use the Old Alphabet or even apply a cryptographic process to hide the meaning.” She thought to explain that the Edi had passed messages among themselves in a similar manner during the Troubles, when the west coast had been invaded by the pretender-aiji Murini’s forces. As Murini had been supported by the Marid, best I not mention it. “There are more possibilities if you use different colors, of course, but this gown was meant for the court in Shedijan and so is a bit more understated than what the Edi usually do.”

“What does it say, nandi?” Jara asked, fascinated.

“It is an excerpt from a poem, asking the Mother of the Sea for a calm passage. Understand that we are very new to the courtly way of doing things and they can be quite different from our own. It seemed felicitous to wear a reminder to be patient with all the learning we would have to do.”

“You seemed to have learned very well, nandi,” Jara offered shyly.

Rao dipped her head. “I am grateful that you think so, Jara-ji,” she dared to offer the intimate form, and the young woman did not look displeased. “I would ask this very large favor of you: if I should do or say anything that seems rude, thoughtless, or unkabiu, that you would not hesitate to bring it to my attention. I am still learning, you see, and am determined to do honor to this house, your lord, and you.”

“Nandi,” Jara bowed. She straightened up and offered, tentatively, “Forgive one for saying so, nandi, but you are not at all what one expected.”

Rao smiled. “You expected an unlettered brigand.”

The young woman could not quite contain her embarrassment. “One…”

“It is well, Jara-ji,” Rao said. “I quite understand. The history between our people has not been good. One hopes that with the admittance of the tribes to the ashidi’tat, with their own recognized lands and lords, a better future is possible. I suspect that the older people, more closer to that bad history, may be less willing to see this possibility. But perhaps you and I may keep our minds a little more open, no? I believe your lord has had that vision.”

Jara bowed again. “Yes, nandi. One sees that the aiji sees it in you. And one also begins to see. Thank you, nandi.”

Rao returned her bow, heartened.

Chapter Text

Most of Machigi’s days were consumed by meeting with his small council. Rao knew that in roughly a month’s time, he would be hosting one of the year’s lesser petitioning periods — nothing like the entire week given to such affairs during Festivities, just a day or two, and was working to whittle down the council’s roster of concerns to ensure he could wholly focus on his citizens’ complains.

Sometimes he disappeared from the palace entirely. “I have personal alliances with certain persons in the region, ones with useful enterprises, but whose work requires a certain discretion when it comes to their benefit to the state,” he had told her, a delightful mischief dancing in his eyes. “And such meetings are best conducted incognito.” Interesting. But in general, the majority of his time was eaten up by straightforward governance conducted in the audience room of one kind or another.

Thus, he took breakfast early. Rao had always been an earlier riser, herself, so it was very pleasant to sit down with him in the palace’s main dining hall while the sky was still dark and spend what little time he could spare with him, before it was time to return to her suite. Today, when she returned to her quarters, she was surprised to find Tamo waiting for her in her sitting room, a message cylinder in her hands. It was the first time in during her nine days in Tanaja — so far, and I am still here — that she had actually received any kind of formal message. An important milestone, perhaps, that someone else here recognizes that I exist?

The letter was contained with a very elegant yet serviceable pewter cylinder decorated with scrollwork engraving, all properly sealed with wax and a seal-imprint she did not recognize: within a circle of taihiin flowers, a trident with five tines.

“Tamo-nadi,” she said, holding up the seal for the servant’s inspection. “What is this seal — do you know it?”

“Yes, nandi,” Tamo replied. “It is the seal of the aiji’s small council.”

Oh. With not a little trepidation, Rao broke the seal and extracted the message inside, written in an elegant hand in a deep blue ink.

Aishihai’mar Council of the Aiji, to Rao-daja, salutations

You are cordially invited to meet with the aishihai’mar council in the audience room, at two hours before noon.

Signed, Gediri, First Minister

“Hm,” she said, thoughtful. “It seems I am invited to meet the council this morning,” she said to Tamo. “Please notify Rajeno-nadi.”

“Yes, nandi,” Tamo said and, with a bow, departed towards the security suite and — after that, Rao knew — to the bedroom to prepare the proper attire.

At the proper time and, thanks to the staff, in very proper Taisigi attire, Rao put the proper expression on her face and headed out of the suite. The dress was much closer in style to that which nobility wore in Shedijan: a fitted, high-necked bodice with lace at the neck, sleeves inset deeply into the back so as to urge the shoulders to an upright posture, a thankfully brief trickle of lace around the cuffs. She remembered from her last season in the capital that large, multi-layered, expansive skirts had been coming into vogue there and was very pleased to find that this was not the case here in Tanaja: pleasingly, the skirt was a simple a-line that allowed for movement, which meant that she would not have to wade into the audience room through an ever-present flood of cloth, and she was also grateful that her feet were shod not in foot-pinching narrow leather shoes but in soft embroidered slippers. Over all of this she wore a light, indoor coat of grays and muted blues, a neutral effect, she thought, with embroidered cuffs and hems, with understated pewter hook-and-eye fasteners which she left undone. Tamo had braided her hair and affixed a dark green ribbon, suggesting but not exactly matching the Taisigi colors, as an acknowledgement of her still-temporary status as a guest here. Rao was not entirely happy about this selection, but she understood.

As she left the suite, the senior-most of her security fell in beside her. The brother of the pair, Dvari, loomed — he seemed to Rao to be made entirely of pure loom, and in this she was not thinking of weaving.

“Good morning, Rajeno-nadi, Dvari-nadi,” Rao said to them politely.

“Nandi, good morning,” Rajeno replied with a short nod. Her eyes were lively and a smile played around the corners of her mouth. Her brother, on the other hand, only added to the conversation with some odd little sound, perhaps a grunt. But he nodded politely nonetheless.

Rao was fascinated. Does he speak? He is so big! “I am ready when you are, nadiin,” she said. It seemed proper to use a more familiar mode with them, her personal security. “And I am glad you are here. I understand there may be politics this morning.”

Dvari gave another grunt, but Rajeno’s eyes sparkled. “We are well-trained for politics here in the Marid, nandi,” she said solemnly, and Rao had to very sternly stifle a desire to giggle. Machigi chose well for me.

The staff had set up the grand marble-inlaid table in the audience hall for formal governance. The Ministers, their clerks seated behind and to one side, were arrayed around the sides of the tables. Machigi had his own place at the head of the table, with his own clerk. As she entered, Rao could see the packets and envelopes neatly arrayed in front of each place — the work of the day, she presumed. Each place had a glass tumbler of water, mold-blown in some texturized pattern that caused it to sparkle in the light. At the other end of the table, opposing Machigi, there was a chair, but without the assemblage of documents, just the tumbler. She knew in an instant that this was where she was to be seated, and it felt uncomfortably like she was about to face a tribunal. Well, I suppose I am, at that.

As she entered, Machigi rose, which necessitated the rising of all of his minsters: five persons wearing slightly less than full court finery: working clothes, from the noble perspective, reflecting the heraldry of their clans. Thanks to her relative confinement within the walls of her most excellent library — which contained several armorial catalogs of the clans and their devices and colors — she was able to recognize them.

She saw that Gediri, in the colors of the Taisigi, was at Machigi’s immediate right hand, and it was Gediri who made the introductions:

- Kaordi, Minister of Information. He was dressed in a very restrained coat and shirt with minimal lace, in the brown and gold of the Sesani clan of the northwestern Taisigin Marid, a people of farmers and hunters on and around the great game preserve there. The Taisigi had once had a Minister of War in this one’s place, Rao remembered from her reading. Machigi understands that intelligence is the surest path to victory in war or peace. She remembered that the Sesani were the most land-focused of the Taisigin Marid, a nomadic people who were noted riders of mechieti, much like the Taibeni of the Padi Valley. Does Machigi know how to ride? She wondered. Then she realized that her thoughts had drifted and brought herself back to focus on Gediri as he continued —

- Saodi, Minister of Trade and Commerce. This was a woman in her late middle age, also dressed in an exceptionally fine and yet understated coat over an elegant dress, in the black, blue, and dark gray of her clan, the Lusi. She admirably represented Machigi in Shedijan, she reminded herself. And now serves as the replacement for the prior traitor-occupant of the chair.

- Maisuno, Minister of Agriculture, a middle-aged lady in something closer to current Shedijan style, with brighter colors and much more lace. The inland Caratho clan’s golds and greens had always been brighter than the clans closer to the coast and so were they here, in the display of Maisuno’s clothing.

- Laudri, Public Works. The man was dressed in gold-threaded brocades accenting the broader blues and antique golds of his clan, Mordani, from the capital of the Dausigin Marid. His expression was one of intense focus. Here is the man who is bearing the brunt of most of the Marid’s prosperity, having to balance expansion and development with tradition. His face and hands did not convey the same sense of age as did the expanse of gray in his hair. The work has prematurely aged him.

She bowed as politely and smoothly as she could bring her body to bear in this formal gown, understanding the importance of this meeting and these people. “Nandiin,” she said. “One is gratified to meet you here.” She scanned the table, offering an additional nod to each and every one of them as she met them eye-to-eye, and then she looked at Machigi and offered him a slightly deeper bow. “Nand’ aiji,” she said, watching a flicker run through the expressions of his small council, as she gave to him a proper and respectful greeting — but it was not “aiji-ma”. Nor can it be, unless I seek to lie. And I do not think I may lie to these people. They grew up eating and drinking lies with every meal and will know a lie for what it is.

“Rao-daja, welcome,” Machigi said solemnly, calmly, smoothly over that ripple of reaction. But there was something in the lines around his eyes, and once he saw that the eyes of his ministers had followed his gaze and settled on her face and that she was the only one actually looking at him, he winked at her.

Mother of Oceans! She willed her face to stillness. She would not break here in front of him or them, she would not, she would not!

The moment passed and Machigi sat, freeing them all to take their seats in a susurrus of rustling cloth. The staff seized the moment, swooping in to refill tumblers that needed it, and to fill Rao’s tumbler entirely. Protocol cautioned her to behave as if the staff were invisible, so she refrained from thanking the server as she normally would have, not wanting to shock him or the ministers and their staff. They are all of them waiting for me to do just such a thing, the country bumpkin they expect.

So, instead, she simply folded her hands on the tabletop in front of her, the stone inlay cool under her fingers, and waited.

“Rao-daja,” said Gediri. “Welcome. We desire to ask you questions, so as better to understand the aiji’s desires in regard to your marriage.” Rao saw his quick glance to Machigi, who returned the glance with a level gaze.

“Of course, nand’ Gediri,” she said. As he used a straightforward mode of addressing her, she decided that instead of being more formal — and thereby placing myself as their subordinate — she would use the same mode, as an equal. I belong here. Understand this, nandiin. “I strongly desire that the council understand me as well as you can, and welcome your questions.”

“Very well,” he replied, looking a little nonplussed. “Please begin by telling the council who you are.”

“Nandiin. I am the daughter of Eljiso, daughter of Aischo, Grandmother of the Edi.”

“But you have been disowned.”

“Yes, nandiin. And exiled. However, that only changes the future, not the past.”

“Of the past, yes,” said Lord Laudri. “You have been to Shedijan?”

“Yes, nandiin,” Rao said. “I have been part of the Edi delegation to the tashrid on several occasions. I also served for a season as aide to Lord Haidiri so that I might learn governance.”

“How did you first meet the aiji?” Lord Kaordi asked.

She looked at Machigi and he gave her a tiny nod. “I rescued him at sea,” she said. “Finding him clinging to flotsam, I brought him aboard my sailboat and thence to the shore.”

“You were alone?”

“Yes, nandi. Until I brought the aiji aboard.”

“Did you know who he was?”

“No. I knew from the way he spoke and behaved and from the quality of his clothing that he was noble born, but I did not know he was the aiji.”

“Why were you in Marid waters?”

“I was sailing the Southern Ocean, nandi. I did not enter Marid’s waters until I brought the aiji ashore.”

“Why were you so far from your own shore?”

“There are times when I value an adventure alone, and it is a journey I make every year, nandi, when the kelikiin flock between the Southern Island and the mainland.”

“Alone. You value being alone,” the Minister of Agriculture said.

He fears that I am hadjaijid. “I do not value always being alone; I understand the importance of people. But there are times when, yes, I look for solitude, and an opportunity to test myself against the sea.”

“To whom do you give your man’chi?” Lord Maisuno asked.

“To no one, nandi. I feel a broader association with my people, and remained dutiful to my Grandmother, as was tena to do.”

“Tena? What is that?” Lord Kaordi said, sounding suspicious.

“An Edi word, nandi: the way things should be. Harmony; a fitting together; working toward collective purpose.”

“Does anyone give you their man’chi?” Lord Maisuno asked.

“Of my tribe, I had it from several, my own aishid and associations.”

“Your aishid? Do you mean your bodyguard?”

“Yes, but also fellow crafters. We Edi have societies for men and women and those who are neither, so I had associations therein also.”

“And now?”

“I do not know, nandi. Lord Aischo separated us. Was it enough to break man’chi? I will not know until I have reason to return, and I doubt she will welcome me there now.”

“Would they be able to convince the Grandmother to take you back?”

“I doubt it. I would not go even if they could. My place is no longer there.”

“Will your mother still inherit?” Lord Laudri wanted to know. “I cannot speak to the future, but it was only I Grandmother disowned,” she said.

“Will your mother accept you, once the Grandmother is gone?”

“I do not know.” She shifted slightly and felt her eyes narrow a bit. Was he suggesting that this could be arranged? This is the Marid. I would not discount the possibility. They seek to smooth my path away from this place. “Nandi, it is not my wish to return to the Edi. If I fail here, I will go elsewhere.”

“What will you do?” Asked Lord Siodi.

“I carve. I would look to a master to ‘prentice me into the woodcarvers’ guild. Or I would go somewhere that would take me on as crew — Cabo, perhaps.”

Machigi said, in a low, dark voice that made the small council shiver to attention, “That will not happen, nandiin.”

There was a pause as Machigi’s small council dipped their heads to the head of the table, cleared their throats, took small sips of water. Rao took the moment to take a sip of water herself.

Lord Siodi shared a glance with Lord Maisuno. “Nandi,” the Minister of Trade said. “Can you give your man’chi to the aiji?”

Here Rao hesitated. She did not want to name a’hrani here; she knew they would understand it as well as the Edi did, which is to say, not at all. But she knew that she must be honest. “I feel no man’chi to the aiji,” she said. “I was born to be aiji to my own people. I feel instead an alliance.”

“Could it not simply be a personal attachment? Physical attraction?”

Machigi raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair, watching her, shifting to rest his chin on his fist.

“No,” Rao said. “Well, yes, but not simply.Surely it has not escaped your notice that your aiji is a very handsome man? “Nadiin, this association I feel with him is something more. I have seen how he believes, how he feels, how he acts. He is…” a pirate, like me. No, I cannot say that. “The how of who he is what convinced me that the Marid is more than I had been raised to believe. That there is a lost link —” do not say a’hrani, be careful “— between not only him and myself, but between my people and you. It is the quality of his character that drives me to find out what that is. He would not be doing what he is doing if it were not worthwhile — you would not be here, counseling him, if you did not feel that it were worthwhile, would you?” Unless you are simply grasping the saddle of the mechieti-aiji in order that you might be carried along in his wake, which of course you would not admit to me. She shifted her attention from them to the man at the head of the table. “You are so compelling, nand’ aiji, I must be a part of it. Of all of it.” Machigi’s expression softened and for a heartbeat, it was just the two of them with this table of state between them.

“Is that not man’chi, Rao-daja, if you are compelled?” Lord Siodi asked, breaking the moment.

Rao shook her head. “It is not the same, nand’ Siodi. If you were to put us to crisis, we would both go different ways. But what I feel is similar. I wish I had the words. I can only assure you that your goals and his and mine dovetail, nandiin.”

“That remains to be seen,” said Lord Kaordi, sounding deeply skeptical.

“That is enough for now,” Machigi said firmly. “There will be ample time to ask Rao-daja questions in the coming months.” She is not going anywhere, he was telling them. “Let us recess for a short time before returning to business.”

Bows all around the table, murmurs of “aiji-ma.” Machigi and the ministers rose and stepped back from the table, leaving their clerks free to reset the arrays of documents on the table and the staff to whisk away the tumblers, replacing them with cups from a tea service so that, later, the ministers might be re-fortified for their work.

The assembly broke apart. Siodi, Laudri, and Maisuno drifted away from the table, finding a spot off to one side, and murmured to one another. Gediri and Kaordi, however, remained at the table with Machigi and engaged in a low conversation each other and their aiji.

The household staff circulated among them with small comestibles and glasses of juice and water. Rao shook her head slightly at the proffered refreshments — she rose and crossed the room to join her security, posted at their proper position against the wall.

“Well, nadiin, was that a tame encounter, by Marid standards?” She asked them.

“Very tame, nandi,” Rajeno said. “They do not know what to make of you yet. Give them time. You will know that you have arrived when they get lively.”

“Lively,” Rao echoed, a question.

“Much more…expressive,” Rajeno clarified. “A great deal louder.” Dvari grunted in agreement.

I very much doubt it would ever be as “lively” as the Edi, Rao thought. “Do you know what to make of me, Rajeno-nadi?” she dared to ask, and glanced at Rajeno’s brother, whose eyes did not stop roving over the room as she and his sister spoke.

“No, nandi,” Rajeno said, refreshingly blunt. “But fortunately, we do not have to, except when it comes to security matters.”

“What do you recommend, when it comes to security matters?”

“If anything should ever happen, nandi, get behind Dvari.”

Rao raised an eyebrow, unsure as to whether Rajeno was serious or joking — why not both? — and she tilted her head back so that she might look up into Dvari’s eyes. Or, rather, up his nostrils. He broke off his monitoring long enough to meet her gaze and give her a short nod. There is no lack of intelligence in those eyes, she thought. He is just…solidly himself. A good word for him: solid.

The pair of them abruptly straightened up — in Dvari’s case, up and up and up — and by this, Rao knew that Machigi was approaching. She turned and was very glad to see that she was correct, so extremely relieved that he would join her. She bowed. He offered her a courtly bow of his own in return. “Well done, Rao-daja,” he said. It seemed that he was still in formal mode; of course, she was exquisitely aware of all of the people who are seemingly in their own conversations but who she knew are listening very closely to what passed between her and their lord.

“One hopes it will help, nand’ aiji,” she said, matching that mode. But I must figure out a way to repay you for that wink.

Machigi turned for the windows and, after a quick nod to Rajeno and Dvari, she matched him, walking at his side until they had reached his favorite spot for looking out over the harbor. “Now we wait,” he said to her, very softly. “And see who rises to the occasion.”

Machigi and his guest stood by the windows overlooking the bay, bathed in the dappled light of a cloudy mid-morning. Gediri made his way to them, curious as to which — if any — of the other ministers would approach besides himself.

Only one, it seemed: nand’ Siodi. The former representative to the Isles joined them at the windows and offered a bow. “Aiji-ma, Rao-daja, nand’ Gediri,” she said smoothly. “Rao-daja, you said that you had been to Shedijan. Were any works from the Marid on display in the Bujavid when you were there?”

“Oh yes,” the Edi woman replied. “One vividly remembers the installation in the Bujavid last year — the exhibition of island porcelains, with those from the Sungeni Isles centermost. Is one correct that this was your hand in play, nandi? I know of your service to the Marid as the aiji’s trade representative to Shedijan.”

Gediri watched the soft smile bloom on Siodi’s lips. “Ah, yes, you have it in one, nandi. One was involved in the selection, transportation, and display of those pieces. One is very glad you enjoyed them. Did you see much of the city when you were in Shedijan, nandi?”

Rao dipped her head. “Some. One had the opportunity to see machimi at the Theatre of the Ashidi’tat, and had an excursion to the gardens of Kosa Madi.”

“It was springtime, was it not?”

“Yes” Rao replied. “The whole Earth seemed to be in bloom. It was lovely.”

“One is surprised we did not cross paths,” Siodi said. “For one was there at the same time, for the sake of the exhibition.”

Gediri’s clerk, eyeing the shifting of the light through the windows to mark the time, rang a silver handbell. The staff collected up all of the small dishes and glasses from the council’s refreshment and the ministers themselves returned to the table while their assistants fussily reconfigured the already-reconfigured files and papers at each of their places. Gediri found his place and watched, curiously, as he led her to the head of the table to stand beside him.

Machigi dipped his head fractionally and said, “We are grateful for your cooperation, Rao-daja. The council may begin work. We will escort the lady to her quarters and will return shortly.”

She is likely glad to be done with us for now, Gediri thought as he bowed in response to Machigi’s direction.

Rao offered the council a deep bow of her own. “One knows the council has important work to continue, and one is gratified you have given the gift of your time,” she said. “One hopes to work more closely with you in the future.” And with that, she departed at the aiji’s side. It was a testament to the Ministers’ self-control that their murmuring did not start until after they had stepped through the doors to the palace’s private quarters.

Siodi’s place at the table was next to him. “Nand’ Siodi, you have something in common with the Edi lady, it seemed,” Gediri said to her as he shuffled through his dossiers.

“Hmm, yes, nand’ Gediri,” Siodi replied, pursing her lips thoughtfully. “She is interesting. I suspect that there is more to this woman than where she comes from.”

“But is it enough, nandi, to justify her taking the place as consort?”

“I do not know, nandi. Tradition holds that a consort’s primary duty is to bring political utility, I know. But…”

Gediri raised an eyebrow.

“I sense something in her,” Siodi continued. “Something that would, perhaps, be of benefit to both Machigi the man, and Machigi the aiji.” She paused, as if mentally examining an unfamiliar object from several sides. “She knows the court at Shedijan. She has connections there, people who know her. These would, of course, refuse to admit her now, since her clan has cast her out. But were she the consort of the Marid, that would be another basket of fish entirely, would it not?”

“To what end, nandi?” Gediri said. “She is from a backward tribe which has only recently been turned around and pointed in the right direction — by the Lord of Malguri.”

“That is an ally with deep consequence,” Siodi pointed out. “And the young woman in no ways comes across as barbaric.”

“No,” Gediri admitted. “She has mastered courtly grace.”

“Her bearing shows that she has been bred and raised for rulership, in fact,” Siodi said.v

Gediri felt his heart flutter in alarm, and made an effort to keep his expression neutral. “Do you mean she could attempt to usurp him?”

Siodi shook her head very briefly. “In no way, nandi. Know you so little about the history of the Southern Island? None of their rulers were ever autocrats, nand’ Gediri. They understood the value of consensus. Nor were they conquerors.”

Nor were they ship-wreckers. “She is not from the Southern Island,” Gediri pointed out. “That culture is a thousand years in its grave.”

“True,” said Siodi. “But the Edi have always claimed it as ancestor to their own.”

“They lie, most like. They’re little more than savages.”

“Hm,” Siodi looked thoughtful. “I suspect they are a little more than savages, if this woman is not some extraordinary example of their kind. We may have use of them, should Hurshina Shipping prove to be more of a problem in the future, or if the company falls under the influence of the rebel assassins.”

Gediri nodded. “What you say is wise, nand’ Siodi, and likely very true. However, I do not believe that accepting Rao as consort would advance any kind of alliance with the Edi at this point.”

“Hm,” Siodi said again. “Likely true. Yet the aiji has asked us to find worth in her.”


Siodi let out a soft sigh. “I have no idea, nandi. It will be up to her to show us, if she can.” She frowned and sounded doubtful, and the band constricting Gediri’s chest loosened a little.

Chapter Text

Later that evening, Jara returned to help her prepare for bed. The young woman seemed subdued — she would not meet Rao’s eyes and Rao could not help but notice it, especially when an attempt to strike up a conversation, about Jara’s opportunities for free time and what she did when she had that time, fell absolutely flat.

“What is wrong, Jara-ji?” Rao asked, uneasy. “Has something happened?”

“No, nandi,” Jara said, eyes downcast. “One is — one is only — one wishes to be proper, nandi.”

Well, she did not want to push and make an already awkward situation worse. “Very well,” she said gently. “I understand.”

As soon as Jara was gone, Rao retrieved a robe from her dressing room and wrapped it about herself over her nightgown. She went to the sitting room and surprised Anjero at work there, dusting. The servant covered her surprise with an immediate bow. “Nandi,” she said. How may one serve?”

“I regret to interrupt, Anjero-nadi,” Rao replied. “But please find Basaro-nadi and ask her to see me here.”

“Nandi,” Anjero said formally. She bowed again and left to do as she had been bid.

Rao turned the chair by the writing desk about to face the room, herself, and took a seat, facing the security door. It was not long at all before the majordomo arrived, slipping into the room through that door and offering her a deep and very correct bow. “How may one serve, nandi?”

“Basaro-nadi,” Rao said. “One observes a certain renewed formality among the staff.”

“It is as it must be, nandi,” Basaro replied. “To uphold the honor of the house, the staff must be perfectly kabiu in their relations with guests. One may not tolerate a lapse in this, especially with young staff only beginning their training.”

“You have trained all the staff exceptionally well, nadi,” Rao said, to which the major d’ offered a bow. “One never noted any fault at any point. One wishes to get to know them, and you, and you, me.” I wish for association, but I doubt that is what you wish.

“It is a kabiu household, nandi,” Basaro said doggedly. “One has been advised by staff to assist you, understanding you to be learning, yourself. If staff fails for a moment to model the correct behavior, it will do a disservice to you, which one in no way wishes.”

“One is familiar with kabiumaro,” Rao said patiently. She still sees me as an untutored barbarian who needs to be trained. It was exasperating but she tried to find some amusement in it, because otherwise she would start start screaming. “One knows that you may not have a complete understanding of the ways of the Edi, and that we have an unhappy history between us, and that despite the new peace brought about by the diplomacy of the aiji, that you still find us strange. But we are part of the ashidi’tat now, nandi, and one has been trained in courtly protocol. One will take care, and has already asked the staff to advise if one missteps in ways that are unique to the Marid. One earnestly wishes to learn your ways, nadi — this is inhibited when the communication between us is so strictly limited.”

“One wishes no inhibition, nandi,” Basaro said. “One only wishes to honor a guest of the house with all the proper forms.”

Guest of the house. “Surely one is more than simply a guest,” Rao observed.

“It is not for me to say, nandi,” Basaro said. “It will be as the aiji wills. One only wishes for his success.”

“You need not be politic with me, nadi,” Rao said, trying to tamp down her impatience. She took a breath and centered herself. “We both of us wish for the same thing,” she said gently. “Surely there is a middle way, in which he may have what he wishes—” and he wishes me “—while also serving the Marid?”

Basaro did not answer, regarding her impassively. Thinking, mayhap.

“It is why one wishes for association with the staff, nadi,” Rao said. “The aiji wishes me to learn, and wishes his people to learn from me. Such a separation does not serve his will.”

“One hesitates to encourage a close association, nandi,” Basaro said, clearly trying to be delicate. “One means no disrespect, but one also wishes to spare the staff distress should there be a departure.”

“You do not think I will remain,” Rao said, dropping all pretense to cordiality. “You think the aiji will send me away.”

“Is it outside of the realm of possibility, nandi?” Basaro asked, cool and level.

“No, it is not,” Rao had to admit. “But you should know, nadi, that he has given his people a deadline.” She let that sink in, because with Machigi, the term could be literal. “And he will know if you or anyone else prevents a genuine attempt at understanding with me. I will not challenge you overly regarding the management of the household, Basaro-nadi. I have every confidence in nand’ Nevathi’s selection of you for this duty. But,” she added firmly. “I will not long tolerate being treated as if I were contagious. The aiji has tasked me in this also, nadi, and I shall allow no one to interfere with his orders. Trust that I will inform you if the staff become overly familiar with me.” It was as much an order as it was a dismissal, for Rao had had enough. Will I ever be able to bend this woman to me? She despaired of it — Basaro seemed to be made of stone.

“One understands, nandi,” Basaro said, grave and perfect in her courtly grace. She offered a precisely correct bow and departed silently, leaving Rao alone.

Chapter Text

It was her tenth day in Tanaja. Rao, herself, was not particularly superstitious about numbers, although numerically felicitous things did give her a sense of harmonious pleasure. And despite my attempts to be modern, that today numbers the unlucky tenth fills me with unease. So, as a reminder that the world’s numbers were always fortuitous, she went for a walk in the garden and let its beauty reassure her.

It was a warm morning, lightly overcast, with the ever-present sea breeze ruffling the flowers and vines. It smelled of salt and the interface of land and water and it made her think, for a moment, of home. It also brought with it some scents of the city — wisps of smoke, sometimes faintly acrid and organic smells she associated with industry — but they were clean scents, to her mind. Tamo had told her, somewhat delicately, the facilities for processing night soil had historically been sited in accordance with kabiu notions, in places that also happened to generally be up-wind and more easily accessible to farmers. “Kabiu” and “practical” line up very well, she thought. Here in the Marid as anywhere else on the continent.

She arrived at the fountain and sat for a moment on its rim, leaning over to look through the water at the fossils in the basin’s lining. The breeze whispered across the surface and set up ripples, distorting her view of the ancient creatures’ stony bones in waves.

A likewise distorted reflection appeared over her shoulder. Nand’ Siodi.

She turned and rose and offered the Trade minister’s true self a bow, genuinely pleased. “Good morning, nand’ Siodi. What brings you to the garden?”

“You, as it happens, nandi,” the woman replied, smiling, and offered a bow of her own. “Good morning, Rao-daja.” Her expression shifted, then, to an unsettling seriousness. “I hoped to speak with you about a difficult matter.”

Rao raised an eyebrow, feeling a spike of alarm surge through her. Has something happened to Machigi? “A difficult matter, nandi?” She managed to keep her voice even.

“The Minister of Affairs asked me to speak with you,” Siodi said. Rao relaxed, but only slightly — she could see from the other woman’s face that she was bearing no good news. “The council met last night regarding your and the aiji’s proposed marriage.”

Oh. For a moment, Rao found herself in Najida, standing in front of her Grandmother again. “It is not proposed, nandi,” she said.

Siodi dipped her head to acknowledge the point. “I understand. But the aiji did order us to deliberate about it. I felt it would be best to relate our decision to you.”

A decision after only ten days? “Which is?” Rao asked, though she knew the answer.

“I regret to inform you that the Council shall remain opposed,” Siodi said. She held up her hands briefly as she took a deep breath. “This marriage will not benefit the Marid as a whole,” she said. “The Edi remain antagonistic — if anything, even more so than before because of the circumstances of your arrival here. You bring no alliance, no resources, no prospect of trade, no communal defense, no settlement of feud — in fact, it is likely that you have added a new feud where there was none before.”

She is not wrong. And yet…

“Please understand, Rao-daja,” Siodi continued. “It is not that any of us are opposed to you as a person. I myself feel that you are an intelligent, insightful, interesting person — as for the rest of the council, well, you have surprised them.”

“Well,” Rao said, trying not to let bitterness overwhelm her, and not being entirely successful. “Could it have been that difficult, given how little you think of my people?”

“I feel that you may be changing my mind in that regard at least, nandi,” Siodi said gently. “If you are not an overly unusual example of the people of your clan, well, there is much there we need to learn, because you are impressive. I can well see why the aiji feels an attachment to you, and that is why I feel that I owe you honesty. But I cannot allow my personal feelings to sway the larger issues at hand: the council must keep in mind the good of the Marid in all its deliberations. Personal attachment is simply not relevant when compared to what the Marid faces, and what Machigi needs to do as its aiji. Alliances are more important now than they have ever been before. He needs a consort that brings him benefit beyond the personal. The Marid needs a consort that brings something that benefits the state.

“I know this,” Rao said. “Which is why I asked for time. And Gediri-nandi agreed. There are still a little more than two months before the Festivity. This decision is premature, nandi. The council is not giving me the opportunity to give you an answer.”

“Yes,” Siodi said, still gentle. “I would argue for more time, myself, and I will tell you that I personally am not completely convinced in either direction. But I must warn you that the council’s decision is likely to hold firm. As accomplished a person as you are, Rao-daja, you are still only a person, one unfortunately unassociated, and the Marid needs more than that.”

It was like being punched in the stomach — Rao could not help but feel a deep sense of betrayal in the First Counselor’s choice of this particular emissary. I had thought I would find in her, of all of Machigi’s ministers, an ally. Instead, she does his dirty work. It was surprising how much it hurt — it bordered on the physical. “Has nand’ Gediri told Machigi-aiji this?” She asked bluntly, stopping to face the other woman. “Have you? Do you think the aiji will be best pleased when you announce that you have made up your minds in only ten days?”

Siodi came to a stop also and bowed her head slightly. “No, he has not. Nor have I. We were rather hoping that you and the council could present a compromise to him together. I believe you hold his and the Marid’s best interests at the highest — is this not so?”

“Of course it is,” she said, feeling her heart sink. “You are going to revisit nand’ Gediri’s idea of my remaining uncontracted,” she said.

“It is a solution. A useful solution.”

“Would the council accept a short-term contract as a compromise?” Not that she would be happy with that, either, and suspected that Machigi would be less so.

“We discussed it,” Siodi said. “Unhappily, such a contract would carry the danger of being extended.” By this she means that people might become accustomed to me. “We of the council wish that there be no possibility of future legal entanglement. I beg you, Rao-daja, to consider remaining — for his peace and yours — only without a contract, for the state’s sake.”

“It is not a solution he will accept. You have known him far longer than I have — you represented him in Shedijan, you know how he thinks — nand’ Siodi: you know this.”

“Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether you will accept it?”

Rao felt her jaw tighten. “If it were necessary, and if he wanted it, I would consider it. But as I said to him myself, I would not welcome it. Nor will I propose it,” she eyed Siodi unhappily. “I know that is what Gediri wants, but it is not what Machigi wants, and it is not what I want, and if I cease being who I am and pretend to be something else for the good of the state, then I lose my integrity. Can you truly say that you or he or the state would benefit from that in the long run?”

“You would not be the first person to absorb an unpleasant truth or to commit to an unplanned role in the name of success,” Siodi said. “No one here would think your integrity at fault. They would know you for wise flexibility.”

“I am not ready to be that assimilated into the ways of the Marid,” she said.

“I recommend that you find a way to be ready before the Festivity, nandi,” Siodi said. “Otherwise you will drive a wedge between the aiji and his council, at a time when he will need us the most.”

“It will not be my wedge, nandi,” Rao said firmly. “But the council’s.”

Siodi looked a little sad, mayhap. And yet she remained firm. “The source of the wedge will not matter. Only its existence.”

Unhappily, nandi, you have a point.

The minister gave her another polite bow and departed, leaving Rao to sink back down and contemplate the fountain. It burbled quietly at her, but if it was trying to tell her anything, she could not understand the words.

The breeze from the bay ruffled the water’s surface again, putting her to mind the surface of the ocean, where life is so much less complicated. There, only a person’s skill with line and sheet and knowledge of the currents mattered. There are always far more dangerous currents ashore, and Grandmother has taken away my sea anchor. For a moment, she thought to damn her Grandmother to the demons of the oceans’ lightless deeps. But it would be infelicitous and pointless besides. What she did was free me. It is up to me to find a way to turn it to my advantage.

But she did not know how.

Chapter Text

It was breakfast time on her fortunate eleventh day in the capital of the Marid. Fortunate in that I have survived this long without being cast out — or worse — and yet I seem to have made no progress in winning over this place to me. She was still angry about the council, though she was resolved not to speak of it to Machigi, at least not for the present. I will give them a chance to tell him themselves, or I will know them for cowards.

This early in the morning, the palace, the legislature, the city — they were all functioning as if they had become caught in a time before electric lights had made it possible to turn night into day: as if asleep, they were hushed and dark and quiet, and for once, one might be tempted to think that such peace as this was the Marid’s natural state. It was not, of course. But perhaps it will be, one day.

The two of them all but disappeared into the vast space of the state dining hall. In the dark, it was just them, excepting when the staff moved in to present or remove dishes or refill cups, and Rao felt a little sorry for them, having to cross that seemingly endless floor to reach them. But it did give her and Machigi a certain privacy and, while it was still dark, it was almost cozy. It was only the two of them, daringly infelicitous. Were she anyone other than who she was, Machigi would have brought in one of his or her aishid to make a proper and fortunate third. But he had a point to make: the two of them were to be a unity. He wanted the household to see it, to understand it, to feel it. So they had done this every day since the day he had brought her here and it was one of the only times that she felt that he was truly hers.

The view from the hall was eastward across the city, bay, and sea, like those in the map room and the seaward suite. They would share a light repast and watch as the Earth turn towards the sun — on clear mornings, the sky shifted from the black of night, taking on the broad and inverted rainbow of dawn: vivid and rich and deep red shading the horizon, the colors shifting up through the spectrum until they reached the cobalt vault above.

On this particular morning, which was clear, the dawn spectrum was halfway washed out by the ever-approaching sun when he tilted his head and said, as he usually did, “How will you spend the day?”

Most days, she walked the garden. Upon reflection, she realized that it should have filled her with horror, walking there and knowing what it was that had made it so green, but then she thought of what she knew of the Shadow Guild — that they would kidnap family, even children, of people and then force those people through fear and despair to be their agents — and she could only be feel a fierce satisfaction at what he had done. And the garden was beautiful. Walking there was, therefore, oddly reassuring on several levels.

Afterwards she would often retire to her sitting room to read. The seaward suite’s library was well-stocked with histories of all of the clans of the Marid, and often she would grill him for information over supper. She had so much to learn, to match him in this place.

But today, she felt perhaps it would be a little different, because she was in no mood to encounter any of Machigi’s small council — Gediri's second-hand messengers — this morning. She was ashamed to admit it to herself, but thinking of them and their decision made her think of knives. To speak of knives, though…there is an outlet for these feelings. “I think I may open up the box you gave me, Chigi-ji.” She flexed her hands and wiggled her fingers. “I feel an urge to do some carving. Something small.”

He looked pleased. “I will enjoy seeing what you make. You are extraordinarily skilled.”

“I suppose,” she said, thoughtful. “But is it useful? Before we know it, it will be the autumn. I cannot imagine that a few hand-made carvings will make much more than a dent in anyone’s opinion of me.”

“Perhaps not. But even a little dent can become a breach. I have in mind another meeting, but with more than ministers,” he said. “In time, I will introduce you to all of the lords of the Marid, but for now, those of my clan are closer to hand and will be able to attend without complications. We will start with those, and then invite lords from farther afield later.”

“I should like to meet non-nobles also,” Rao suggested. “Tradespeople. Craftspeople. Surely there are exhibitions at the guild halls? A museum, perhaps? Someplace that has exhibits while nand’ Gediri works on arranging displays in the government hall?”

“Ah,” he shook his head. “Our guild offices are still small, and we have only recently begun to develop even the larger cities. Even the rail link to Koperna is new. There are no state museums yet.”

“Yet,” she smile. “In time. It would bring more people to visit, especially once you have finished improving the rails.”

“Hm, outsiders. With the attendant security concerns and requirements. Hotels. Wider roads. Change in the city that few would welcome.”

“Opportunity,” Rao countered. “It need not come all at once. There may be a way to accommodate tourists without too much change at first, and to manage that change in the long run. As long as they are the adventurous types.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Adventurous?”

“It is just a thought. An inkling of an idea. I am not even sure exactly how it would work, but if I could speak with these people, I think they would develop a plan for you themselves. Eventually. I would need to meet them first, and it remains to be seen if they would even listen to me.”

“I will arrange it, then, Rao-ma. They will listen to you if I am standing at your side. It may take some doing to convince them, and get them to do something that convinces the lords, which is an entirely different battle.”

The sun had peeked out above the horizon and it painted his face with light. Which meant that it was time for them to part, and even though they were in full view of the staff, he touched his fingers lightly to hers. “This is what I want,” he said. “For you to participate in my life in your own right.”

“In even the, ah, useful enterprises that require discretion, dena-ma?” She asked with a smile.

He looked to be thinking seriously about it. “Yes, I think,” he said finally. “I believe that between the both of us, we could play such things to our mutual advantage.”

He shot her a rakish grin and departed, and she watched him go as the servants dove in to clear the table. Mother of Skies, she thought. He has such abiding faith that I will be a help to him, and not a hindrance. I must keep chipping away at this walls that separate me from being a part of this place. But there are so many of them.

She made a much abbreviated walk through the garden this morning, really just passing through a corner of it before returning within the palace proper to her suite. She was thinking about the problem she had in swinging her staff in her direction, particularly with Basaro and her obstinate obsession with formality. Her detour through the garden made her think of again of its terrible recent endowment. It was certainly one approach to bringing people into alignment. But it is not my way. I cannot simply execute Intent on people here because they do not find favor in me. I must find another way.

But what do I have? I have my mind, which is mine and mine alone, and which no other may touch. But nor may I touch theirs. What good does that do me, to have a mind? Well, it is the wellspring of my words. And the motivating power of my hands. And both of them may serve as emissaries into the minds of others.

As Ojeka and Boragi returned to the security suite, she found herself in the sitting room, pulling the box of carving tools from its place on the shelf. She had not touched it since Machigi had presented it to her, but now she carried it to her writing desk and pulled out the knives and a likely block of wood. She eyed it and the image of Gediri’s face came to her unbidden — almost square in form and thick, like this wood. The block in her hand was finely grained, and would suit her needs. As the counselor will not, she caught herself thinking, and then heaved a sigh. This petty, vengeful thinking serves no purpose but to upset you, she chided herself.

Tamo appeared and offered a bow. “Would you care for some tea, nandi?” She asked.

“Yes, please, nadi,” Rao said. One day, she hoped, it would be “Tamo-ji” — alas, not yet. “One thinks to do some craftwork, and so begs you to simply let the cup go cold and not worry about refreshing it. But what would be very helpful, nadi, would be a cloth to put down on the desk. To capture flakes of wood,” she added, seeing the maid’s momentary flash of confusion.

“Of course, nandi,” Tamo said, and did as she was bid, bringing back not only a plain cloth to spread over the desk, but another one to serve as an apron across her lap. “One is grateful,” Rao said a bit ashamedly, that she had forgotten to think of how to protect these fine clothes the house had given her, and wonder of wonders, got a little smile in reply and, “please do not mention it, nandi. One is glad to help.” Tamo set down the requested cup of tea and, with another bow, let her be.

She had lost track of the time. She was vaguely aware of the coming and going of Tamo and, occasionally Eskari, to check on her. She had a hazy memory of perhaps one of them — she was not sure which — asking her about plans for lunch, which she was fairly certain she had declined. So perhaps it was early afternoon? It is like dreaming sometimes, she thought. And then you come to, and find you are in a place you had not been before. She felt as if she had come fully awake after that dream of making, and in her hands was her completed carving: a two-sided comb, with teeth on both sides, coarsely-spaced on one side and finely on the other. That also suggested early afternoon — it was a very familiar pattern, and she was a swift worker, so that seemed to be the right amount of time to have passed in the making of it.

She had retrieved a soft cloth and a tin from the box and was patiently rubbing in the comb’s oil finish when Tamo reappeared and announced, “the aiji is here, nandi.” And then, before Rao had a chance to set aside her things and meet him properly in the receiving room, Machigi entered.

He paused, taking in the desk and its neat pile of shavings, her apron-like attire, the still full and completely cool cup of tea, the open tin of oil, the work in her hands, and smiled. “I am glad to see you at work, Rao-ma,” he said. “It is a side of you the house needs to see.”

Tamo brought over a chair for him. He laid his hand across the back of his chair and said to her, “thank you, nadi. No tea is necessary.” This was a dismissal, and Tamo bowed and withdrew to leave them alone.

He settled down, leaning forward to look at what it was she was doing. “A comb,” she told him. She had covered it with her customary delicate and tight knot work, meant to give fingers purchase in the right places.

“May I?” He held out a hand and she handed it over to him for his inspection. He examined it carefully, tilting it just so, and she knew he was seeing how she had set the grain of the wood at the correct angle in relation to its teeth, for maximum strength against the strain of being pulled through hair. It pleased her to know that he would know to look for such details.

“I was thinking to give it to one of the staff,” she told him as he looked it over. “Perhaps to Jara. Not to buy her favor, mind you, but I think that out of all the staff, she and I are the closest. She has told me that she is new to the city, so we have that in common, and of course, I am certainly closer in age to her than any of the others.”

He chuckled. “You noticed that, of course.”

“Yes,” she said. “I think Navathi-nadi believes I require supervision.”

This pulled another chuckle out of him, which pleased her — she greatly favored that half-smile of his when he laughed like that. “You are undoubtedly correct. No one had the least idea what to expect of you. But I have heard no complaints from the staff, and I think you are correct in your choice of targets.” He handed back the comb. “Tema tells me that it is the younger of the staff that seem the most impressed by you. The message weaving — extraordinary! Such a fascinating idea….” She could tell he was thinking about the other use of that technique, as a form of wartime communications. Perhaps that is another way I might prove my worth to the Marid, she thought, though it troubled her to think of giving away specific techniques that her people used in their own warcraft, however superseded it may have been by the Guild’s modern technology.

This is a good idea,” Machigi said, gesturing toward her work. “Small gifts that show your skill and represent your people’s crafts.” He looked thoughtful. “I think you should refrain from giving it to Jara, though. I have in mind a target that may be even more tactically useful. Besides, you have been in the palace the entire time so far. I think it is time for you to visit the town.”

“The town?” It was a wonderful idea, and it lifted her heart, but it also renewed her anxiety. Out there? In all that? As far as large towns went, she had only been to Shedijan, and there, had largely remained in the Bujavid, except for carefully chaperoned visits to public venues. But she knew she had to go. “Yes, I would like that very much. The view from the palace only hints at it. I need to see it, to know and feel it, with my own eyes, my own hands, my own feet.”

Her determination seemed to settle some lingering question in his mind. “Very well. There is a master artisan in the town by the name of Haorai, well renowned for work in pottery and porcelain. Most of the modern place settings in the palace are eir work, and I know em well — my parents set me with em and eir spouse for a week in my youth —”

“— so, last year, nand' aiji?” Rao murmured.

He laughed. “How wise you are, my crone. At any rate, my parents sent me so that I might gain appreciation for artistry. I think you will find a kindred soul in that house. Since you have, as of yet, little close to kindred here in mine,” he added wistfully.

“Will you come with me?” Rao asked.

“I have meetings which I cannot delay,” he said. “But I will send Frochano to supplement your security. She knows the way well, and Rajeno and Dvari are natives of the town besides. It will be safe, and I think it will be good for you to be out of my shadow, deja-ma, and shine on your own.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, that is part of the campaign, is it not, warlord of mine?”

“Indeed — I must see you on your way for your next battle.” He grinned at her, eyes twinkling with a rascal's delight. “I have every confidence that you will be victorious.” And then he was gone to make the arrangements. “I have every confidence that you will be victorious.” And then he was gone to make the arrangements.

Rao sat for a few moments, contemplating. She keenly felt his absence in the room, as if his presence had filled it more than the physical space contained — making it bigger that its walls, in some way — and now that he was gone, the void he left was likewise larger than the room itself, and she keenly felt the lack of him. A’hrani, she thought.

She abruptly felt the need to move, to refill the space with a presence of her own. She applied herself to tidying up the remaining wood chips, unwilling to leave a mess, even though staff would have cleaned it up without question — I am still determined to win over Basaro, she supposed. Then, with that done, she completed the comb’s oil finish while she waited for Machigi’s security to escort her on this, her first outing. She concentrated on her work, trying not to let her excitement at the prospect of finally seeing the town at first hand let her rush the job. Once complete, she retreated to the accommodation to wash her hands, then returned to the sitting room to pack the tools and supplies in their box. She placed the box back on its shelf, chivvied the wood scraps to the waste basket under the desk, and neatly folded the cloths for the laundry. She even finished the tea, at which point Tamo reappeared as if she had been magically summoned by the empty state of the cup.

The maidservant had in her hands a garment, an outdoor coat that Rao had not seen before, in hues of dark gray and green. Then again, I have never left the palace grounds, and so never needed such a coat. “Frochano-nadi is here, nandi,” Tamo helped her on with the coat and then whisked away the tea cup and the folded cloths. The room was restored its original state, as if Rao had never done any work there, but that was the way of any proper household. I have my memories of the making, here in this place Machigi has made for me.

Rao went out to the receiving room and met Machigi’s guard, careful to tamp down her excitement, to still her features.

“Nandi,” Frochano greeted her in that guild-solemn way of hers. “We are ready to depart, if you are ready.”

“I am ready, Frochano-nadi.” Rao tucked the comb into her coat sleeve and set out with her, joined in the outer hall by members of her own guard: Ojeka and Boragi, the junior-most, were ready to go. This is likely important training for them. Rajeno, it seemed, would remain to keep watch over the suite while they were gone, leaving Dvari as senior security and native town guide. It seemed an odd choice — the far more loquacious sister would have been more apt, Rao thought, and she was curious as to whether they would get any sightseeing narrative out of her reticent brother beyond the occasional grunt.

Stepping out of the palace, she discovered that it was late afternoon. They used a curiously narrow car, complete with staff driver, to descend from the palace into Tanaja town proper. As they descended, it became apparent to Rao the reason for the vehicle’s odd shape: the streets, broad and straight and open when they were in and around the governmental heights, became progressively narrower and more winding the closer they got to the waterfront. She concentrated very hard, attempting to memorize the path they were taking, but it was tremendously difficult — eventually, the overhanging floors of the buildings practically touched above the streets and transformed them into tunnels, and Rao lost her sense of place.

The car was entirely stymied by the porcelain quarter, as this collection of neighborhoods was called: a veritable warren of walkways wide enough only for the wheelbarrows the potters used to transport clay. The party stopped in a tiny square that was barely wide enough so that the car could turn around, and there they abandoned both are and driver and took to their feet. It was so very narrow here that it necessitated them walking in what Rao knew as gully-style: her, the principal, in between two pairs of security, all in a single line.

There was an acrid scent in the air. She wrinkled her nose. “That smell — am I smelling kilns, Frochano-nadi?” She asked.

“Yes, nandi,” Frochano said. “At the heart of this neighborhood, there is a collective of kilns. All the potters share them in common and built their houses around them. In theory, if there is an explosion in any of them, it will be contained to the center —” by her expression, Rao could see that she very much doubted this “— which is the arrangement earlier Taisigi lords required after this neighborhood had burned down, oh, how many times Dvari-nadi?”

“Five,” Dvari said gruffly, a rare burst of eloquence.

“Ah,” said Rao. “A fortuitous number,” she added dryly.

Frochano laughed. “Indeed, nandi. The precinct has been conflagration-free ever since.”

As they walked the last few yards to the potter’s house, Rao could hear a squabbling of high-pitched noises, something like the honking of naji’chitiin, the wi’itkitiin-like winged creatures that flocked in and around lakes and the seas of her home. Only these cries were higher pitched and quieter — the only thing that came to mind was that it sounded like what naji’chitiin would sound like, if they had their own nobility and were now at court politely but urgently attempting to get their aiji’s attention. It seemed to her as if the sounds were coming behind a high wall attached to the house they were approaching, over which she could not see.

Frochano knocked lightly on the door and it was opened by a person in work clothes, slightly taller than Rao and wearing an apron tied over an overcoat that was all over pockets and covered with smears of dried clay and glaze. Rao could see all manner of little tools sticking out of the pockets; she recognized them as tools used to sculpt clay. The potter. Ey appeared to be at the later years of middle-age, or possibly in the early years of old age — it was hard to tell.

Frochano made introductions. “Haorai-tera, this is Rao-daja, the aiji’s intended.” Well, Rao thought, suppressing a smile. He is actually my intended.

“Ah!” Haorai exclaimed with every possible sign of delight and favoring her with a deep bow. “You honor us, nandi. One is most grateful for your visit. Please, please, come in.” Ey made way and Rao could see a little ways inside and could immediately tell she was about to enter a workshop worthy of the name.

Rao stepped inside and was met by another person and another bow, a woman of a similar age to the potter. “Elsaro-tera,” said Frochano, still in introduction mode. “A master worker in paper and book-making.”

Now that she was fully inside, Rao could offer a bow to both of them in return, which she did. The space was crammed with bins and tools and shelves and porcelains set out to dry and potters’ wheels and more tools and molds and glazed scraps of porcelain and basins for glazing and pots and jars and it was all redolent with the smell of clay and other scents that hinted of the glazes’ chemical nature. A workshop indeed, and utterly glorious — she knew Haorai for a master simply by this place alone, Machigi’s description notwithstanding.

“Please, teri, one is no lord,” Rao said to the two masters as she bowed. Not any more. “Simply Rao will do, until one has earned the right to more familiar titles.”

“Oh?” Haorai tilted eir head.

“Exiled, deji-ma,” Elsaro murmured to her spouse. She bowed again, apologetically. “One regrets that one’s spouse spends all eir time in the workshop, and pays no attention to the news. One regrets your situation deeply, but —”

“— it does not matter,” Haorai broke in. “They do not make you a lord. The aiji makes you a lord, nandi,” ey said, bowed again, and that was that. “Please, do come sit and be comfortable, while we talk.”

Rao allowed herself to be led to a stool to be seated. Her security withdrew to efficient places unseen, except for Frochano, who posted herself solidly the door, in one of the very few places from which she could observe the whole of the room. Or at least most of it — it truly was very delightfully cluttered.

Elsaro offered tea is a mismatched tea set, cobbled together from cups that were obviously separate attempts at glazes and glaze effects. “One apologizes for their haphazard appearance, nandi,” she said, but Rao found the set charming and also fascinating.

They became aware of a renewed and, though energetic, still tremendously gentile squabble in the yard. “May one ask what that noise is, ter’ Elsano?” Rao asked.

“Naji’chitiin,” Elsaro said. “They are mine. Come, nandi, one will show you if you like.” They set down their teacups and Elsaro led her to the window, opening the shutters to allow Rao to look out. There, in the yard, was an aishid of five small winged creatures. Four were waddling about on their stumpy two legs and one was gliding gracefully across a water trough Elsano had set up for them. Like the naji’chitiin of the west coast, these animals had long, snaky necks — “One’s tiny mechieti, and the yard is the backdrop to all their drama,” Elsaro said.

Rao had never seen mechieti in life, only the shadow puppets in the machimi she attended in Shedijan. She wondered what it would be like to ride these little waddling creatures. It would be soft, assuredly. For they were all over a fine, oily down that insulated them from the cold water. Unlike those from her homeland, however, the down of these naji’chitiin were an iridescent black. “It is kabiu to keep them since one keeps them only for eggs,” Elsaro explained.

“We have naji’chitiin also, among the Edi, but they are mostly gray and brown,” Rao said as she returned to her stool. “Such a striking black, these of yours. ”

“Oh yes,” Elsaro said. “They are unique to the Taisigin Marid. As for the keeping of them: Haorai and myself long ago agreed to a trade — one would support eir messy occupation if ey would support this hobby of mine. They give more eggs than we can eat, which one finds is very useful with the neighbors — sharing such a benefice is very good for keeping the neighborhood association cozy, especially food that is kabiu in all seasons.”

“Do you train them to catch fish, tera?” Rao asked.

“Oh, no, nandi,” Elsaro replied. “One has heard that some of them can do that, but these eat only sea plants. No, my aishid here is only good for eggs and complaints,” she said with a certain fondness, and Rao laughed. She realized that felt herself truly at peace for the first time since saying “yes” to Machigi. It had only been eleven days but it had felt like a thousand years, and being here stripped away all that extra accumulated time.

Rao returned to her stool and her tea cup. Before Elsaro could refill it, she turned the tea cup over in her hands and examined it. It was classic in shape, like all of the teacups, and like all of the teacups, bore some variation of the color blue. Hers was a two-shade, twice-fired affair, with a dark blue as a base color and a semi-translucent cobalt layered on top of it. It was beautiful — all of the glazed cups were beautiful.

Haorai saw her comparing the cups. “Ah, Rao-daja, you have discovered my quest. I am trying to revive the Sungeni Blue.” Ey had slipped into a most informal mode of address, that “I” instead of “one”, but it did not in any ways feel disrespectful. Rather, it felt welcoming. Or perhaps absent-minded, which is welcoming in its own way. If only the council were so forgetful of my origins.

“Sungeni Blue, ter’ Haorai?” Rao asked. Elsaro poured some more tea and murmured, “One hopes you do not have a deadline to return to the palace, nandi? Here it comes…”

And, sure enough, Haorai began to wax rhapsodic about the Sungeni Blue. “An historic glaze, nandi,” ey said. “Unique to this region, from the very heart of the Marid sea, from the Sungeni Isles. Each island had its own artistic specialty, but this one, oh! this glaze, nandi — there was nothing like it in all the world.” Ey went to a small cupboard set into a niche in the wall, fronted with antique glazed glass panes, and opened the leaves.

Rao knew it for a man’tari, a memory niche. Among the Edi, who also built such niches into their homes, a man’tari would house a small grandmother stone — to bring a family security, harmony, and success. Here, it seemed, Haorai had placed eir most revered treasures. Sure enough, ey returned with a broken fragment of porcelain and reverently offered it to her with both hands. “There were different techniques to pull different over- or undertones out of the glaze,” Ey explained. “One can often tell the period by which shade has the predominant tone or iridescence. The Saie period, for example, preferred a luminous aqua, while the Ujae favored a color closer to cobalt, like the deep sea under clear skies at noon. It is why the glaze is sometimes called ‘Soul of the Waters’ — the artisans captured the variability of the ocean, you see, and brought out what they wanted by technique alone. The color shifts more with changes in light than it really ought to. It is a magical effect which I have not yet to be able to duplicate.”

Rao set aside her teacup and, with great care, accepted the piece. “Come, nandi, come into the light and see,” Haorai said, leading her back to the window, its shutters still open to admit both the day and the sound of the naji’chitiin. Rao, cradling the fragment in her palms, dipped her hands into a shaft of early evening sunlight.

It was like nothing she has ever seen and — alas — made the beautiful work of the master potter’s test cups seem like cheap imitation. It was as if all the fortunate Mothers of the world had convened a meeting and said, “let us make blue,” and this was what they made: this blue, every blue, all the blues in an infinite array, blue’s true nature, to serve as the soul of every blue in the world. She lost all sense of where the glaze ended and the actual porcelain began and realized that she was holding her breath. “Extraordinary,” she whispered.

“If you ask the aiji, he will have his stewards show you a complete work in this glaze. Pieces of the Sungeni Blue are priceless treasures of the clan and of the Marid as a whole.”

“I well understand how this is so, tera, even in this tiny fragment,” Rao offered Haorai the informal mode of address in return, and the lines around eir eyes crinkled with delight. “What a treasure!” She added. “How is it that it is no longer made?”

“The Great Wave,” Haorai's delight shifted into sadness. “The island which provided the plants that went into the glaze — kirkui, they were called — was submerged, all the plants lost, all the potters drowned.” Ey stepped to one side and pointed to a framed engraving, protected from daylight by being placed on the wall next to the window, a place always in shadow. Rao let her eyes adjust and saw that it was a naturalist’s engraving of a kirkua plant: roots, leaves, blooms, all carefully labeled, and a illustration of a large number of kirkui growing in their preferred marshy habitat. “The kirkua is extinct,” Haorai continued as she considered the engraving. “So I try, in my pitiful way, to try to recreate the colors through some other means, with other compounds and other techniques. So far, the chemistry has escaped me.”

“What a terrible loss,” Rao said gently, returning her attention to the potter’s sad expression. “I fervently hope that you are able to restore it, tera.” She returned the piece to its owner, who replaced it in the man’tari with evident reverence. “The Great Wave devastated the coastline of Mospheira also — so many lives lost, even the grandmother stones were completely washed away.”

At the mention of her people, Haorai turned, eir eyes becoming bright, eir expression full of hope. “Do the Edi make pottery?”

“Yes, tera,” Rao replied. “But nothing like what I see here. In my experience — and my experience only, let me emphasize — our glaze-work is plain, utilitarian. The clan focuses its creative energy on sculpture and textiles. But I may simply have not seen it,” she said at Haorai’s crestfallen look.

“Ah, but you were the First Granddaughter, were you not?” Haorai said, and Rao nodded. “See,” ey said to eir spouse. “I do manage to catch something from the news now and then.” Ey returned eir attention to Rao, expression taking on a wistful sadness. “I suspect that if you have not seen it, it is likely not to be found there. Alas, I shall have to find other paths to tread in my quest.”

Frochano made a subtle signal, by which Rao knew it was time to leave. “I fear it is time for me to return to the palace,” she said, rising. “I would be truly honored and pleased, teri, if you would accept this piece of mine.” With that, she took the comb from her sleeve and handed it over, and she was touched by the way that Haorai genuinely lit up. Ey pulled a pair of spectacles out of one of eir many pockets and looked at it, turning it around and around in eir hands, while Elsano leaned in for a closer look also with a matching expression of delight. “It seems too inadequate a gift in return,” Rao added. “For your welcoming me into your home, showing me your extraordinary work, and educating me about this place.”

“Ah, but you educate us, Rao-daja,” Haorai said without looking up from eir examination of the comb. “This decoration is exceptional. It is Edi, no? The aiji calls you ‘nandi’ aright. If you were able to sculpt clay as well as this wood, well, I think we could make a good porcelain artist out of you!” The potter looked up and perhaps ey saw confusion on her face, because ey beamed and said, “I am quite serious, nandi. Please ask the aiji to let you come again, if he doesn’t think it improper.”

“I think that he does not, nadi,” says Rao. “Or he would have not sent me in the first place.”

“Excellent, excellent!” Haori exclaimed. “As for this, if I applied this style to porcelain, why, what a sensation it would make! Plates. Cups. Decorative banding. Oh, I must look at glazes, perhaps the red. No, no, the blue-green. Or perhaps the earth-gold…” Ey wandered off deeper into the workshop, comb in hand, and began to examine glaze samples, little chips of colored porcelain that made a merry tinkling music as ey rummaged through them.

Rao watched, wide-eyed and utterly charmed, and then Elsano approached her with a box in her hands. It was crafted of stiff paper of a design of swirling blues, grays, and delicate threads of silver. The box and was open and Rao could see that the teacup she had used was inside, nestled in what appeared to be felt. The felt was an iridescent black, setting off the blues of the cup beautifully, and she knew that it had to have been made from the down of Elsano’s Taisigi naji’chitiin.

Elsano swiftly closed up the box, securing it with a blue ribbon, and presented it to her. “Nandi, you flatter us. Please accept this gift in return. It would do us such honor, to have this cup in your household,” she interjected smoothly as Rao tried to muster up an objection. “And it is entirely our honor that the aiji himself would recommend us to you as a place to visit,” she offered a deep bow. “Please think of us when you have chance to use this cup, Rao-daja. I truly hope you will visit us again, though I fear that my spouse may put you to work if you do.”

There, Elsano was also speaking informally. It did feel like acceptance, and Rao covered an instinct to giggle with delight — relief? — with a deep bow of her own. They do not care, she thought, amazed, the precious box in her hands. They do not care where I come from, who I am, or who I am not. That someone in the Taisigin Marid would not care about two hundred years of mutual enmity, or despise her for her exile! Such is the power of art. “I would be so gratified to visit, ter’ Elsano, and would be honored to be put to such work, if only to contribute to your and your spouse’s work in any way,” she said, and she meant it.

Chapter Text

When she returned to the palace, it was a bit later than their usual supper time, but he had delayed his own repast to wait for her. As usual, they supped in the state dining room, but Machigi had anticipated what she had seen in the potter’s house and had ordered his staff to bring them their tea in an historic set in the Sungeni Blue, one that he usually saved for meetings with other heads of state. He knew of Haorai’s fragment, and was pleased he could show her the glaze on a complete set: the cups, the saucers and, best of all, the extraordinary pot itself, all in a luminous, multilayered, translucent aqua.

Clearly she knew the import of it and he savored her expression, her awe and delight and, best of all, astonishment. She seemed unwilling to touch the service at all at first, but eventually relented and cradled the cup with intense care. Staff hovered anxiously until he gave them a narrow-eyed gaze, at which point they subsided to their proper posts along the wall.

“They worry you will break it,” he murmured. “I hope you will not take offense. It is the state set.”

“It is beautiful,” she breathed. “I will in no ways break it. I am terrified even to drink from it.”

“You will have to, if you want a closer look at the glaze,” he said.

She smiled. “Indeed, dena-ma.” And she took steady sips. When the cup was drained, she examined it, letting the glorious color glimmer in the light. “I truly must thank you for granting me the honor of this service,” she said. “The Saie Period, is it not?”

“Yes,” he said, impressed. “How did you know?”

“I received an education today,” she set the cup down oh so gently on it saucer. She looked at him and smiled, and even better than the wonder that had filled her expression, he could see that she appeared genuinely happy. “I am so grateful, dena-ma,” she said. “Haorai and Elsano are wonderful people. Such accomplished artisans! And you were right, they did not care at all about where I come from. And this glaze —” she touched a gentle fingertip to rim of her cup. “‘Soul of the Waters’, Haorai-tera named it. That the Marid would have such a thing and cherish it — even if it is lost, Chigi-ma, it is such a sign of hope, because I tell you true, the Edi would revere this just as much. The sea connects us, the Marid and the Edi. That we have only used it for conflict is a shame. But that does not lessen the connection. It is astonishing.”

“I am very happy, daja-ma, to have astonished you for once. You did not rescue me at sea, Edi pirate of mine, you waylaid me. Since that moment, I have felt continuously astonished.”

Her expression became mischievous. “Well, you have astonished me. Who would think that this —” she gestured gently with the cup “— could be produced in such a nest of vipers?” She tried — and failed — to suppress a smile.

“I for one was surprised to see such amazing textiles in the hands of bandits,” he informed her in the same tone. “And to learn that you made them, as opposed to stealing them.”

She chuckled. “Is underestimating enemies is a habit of yours, aiji of the Marid? Perhaps you should take care to kidnap more of us — to improve your intelligence.” She gave a little sigh. “An improvement of intelligence would be helpful. Not yours,” she said quickly. “In that I only jest. It is just…I am growing tired of people assuming I am a barbarian. Especially coming from people my own kin have historically held to be unlettered savages.”

“Well. I hope that you have not lost all your barbarity, daja-ma,” Machigi said over the rim of his teacup, favoring her with his most innocent expression. “Save a little, for me.”

She looked thoughtful. “I believe that may entirely be possible, nand’ aiji. If you promise, once and a while, to be savage with me in return.”

“Ha!” The only thing that kept him from slapping his knee was the priceless porcelain in his hands. He set it down and leaned forward. “You are the most maddening woman I have ever met. I must see you tonight.”

Rao raised an eyebrow. “Have we not scandalized the staff enough just now, dena-ma?”

“Likely not. Such a thing, occasionally accomplished, would not count as a scandal at all, here in the south.”

“Ah, yes, your piratical heritage,” she said with a smile.

“As if you could claim otherwise yourself,” he countered.

“I could, but just as if you were to claim otherwise, it would be a lie, dena-ma.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow.

“We are not so reserved, we of the tribes. Pleasure is pleasure. We know how to avoid entanglements, jealousy, and progeny.”

“Hm, it explains much,” he said, thinking of the boat. “Do I have any rivals to fear, back in the Korisulan Association?”

She laughed lightly. “None whatsoever. It has been years. Not that I could go back there now, of course, but I have no reason to. My future is here, with you.”

“As well it should be,” he said. Your rivals, deja-ma, are the whole Marid, but they will learn their place. “As for the future, I am thinking primarily of the very near future.

She smiled. “As well you should.” Then she tilted her head, thoughtful. “Are you certain you do not want to adopt a Shedijan formality for us, until the autumn Festivity? We could layer the bedclothes like country folk.”

“The Marid will not mirror the rest of the continent,” he said firmly. “We will retain those of our traditions that we value. If not the actual traditions,” — meaning, of course, the piracy — “then at least the character of them. Do you wish to layer the bedclothes?” He asked. “Because you should know that I do so favor a challenge.

“I will do as your people do, but with a character of my own, because I also value tradition,” she said. Then she leaned forward and murmured in a low and smoky voice. “I shall set a light in my bedroom and do my best to lure you onto the rocks.” With that, she rose and bowed. “Until tonight, dena-ma.”

He watched her leave. I look forward to being wrecked.

Rao returned to her quarters in high spirits and was met at the door by her majordomo. “Basaro-nadi,” she said. “The aiji will be visiting later. Please kindly notify the staff to be ready. I will take a short bath before he arrives.”

“Yes, nandi,” Basaro replied, as formal as ever, with a bow. As her security preceded her and peeled off into their own suite, Rao made her way to her bedroom.

Oddly, Jara was not there. Neither were the two other body servants. She pulled the call-rope and Tamo entered the room. “Nandi?” The elderly senior servant asked, bowing.

“Tamo-nadi, would you please draw me a bath? I know you must be busy — would you kindly send Jara in to attend to me when you may?”

“Yes, Rao-daja,” Tamo said, offering another bow, and went through the door leading to the accommodation and bath. After a minute or two, Rao could hear the water begin to flow out of the tap and then a little jingle of the servant's bell in the bath, at which point she could hear the door from the bath to the servants’ quarter closing. She went into the bath and found it empty of servants, but the towels and soaps were all neatly laid out. Curious. Perhaps they are all withdrawing to allow Machigi and me our privacy. Now that was a pleasant thought. She smiled to herself as she thought of what the pair of them might do with that grant of privacy, and considered the soaps. In time, the bath filled, and she closed the taps herself.

She retrieved a bathrobe from the wardrobe and shifted into it, carefully laying out her clothing on the bed for the eventual return of the chambermaids. At a noise from direction of the outer doorway, she turned and saw Basaro there.

Oh, good. “Basaro-nadi,” she said. “Where is Jara? Where are Eskari and Kasta? I had to interrupt Tamo to draw—”

She stopped abruptly as Basaro pulled a knife from her sleeve. “You will not marry him,” Basaro said in a cold voice and then, with no further words, advanced.

Chapter Text

Machigi was standing at the chart table in the map room holding a sheaf of notes. It was his intention to review the agenda for the following day, so that he could with good will set it aside to fully focus on the rest of the evening. He was, however, finding the prospect of that evening to be…distracting, and found himself accomplishing little more than simply shuffling papers in his hands.

His distraction evaporated when Frochano entered at a good clip. Rapid movement in any noble house was highly unusual and disturbing. Machigi immediately dropped the pages and turned to face her and she compounded the uneasy situation by flashing a hand sign to her partner. Tema surged to his feet.

“Rajeno and Dvari are in our suite, aiji-ma, Tema-nadi” Frochano informed them. “They warn of an imminent threat to your person, aiji-ma, and say that communication is compromised, or they would not have come in person.” Which also explained why she had come here in person herself, rather than simply notifying Tema through his earpiece.

“But they are Rao’s senior security,” Machigi said. “Why would they be warning you about a threat to me?

Just then, Jara arrived through the door at a run, out of breath and disheveled, and jerked to a stop just as Frochano threw out an arm to block her. “Please, nadiin, please, Kasta-nadi and — and Eskari-nadi, they — they send me,” she said, addressing the security in a breathless stammer. “There — there is trouble! Rao-daja—“ She saw Machigi, and froze, eyes wide in the face of the aiji’s sudden, furious alarm.

“What is it, girl?” Machigi demanded. “What do you say?”

“Rao-daja is in danger, aiji-ma!” Jara blurted out.

“Go fetch nand’ Juien,” Machigi ordered. He bolted from the map room without waiting for an acknowledgement, Tema and Frochano close at his heels. Servants scattered out of their way.

“Where are her staff?” He demanded as they fairly flew through the audience room and into the hallway under the stairs. “Where are her security?

“Ojeka and Boragi do not answer, aiji-ma,” said Tema. They entered the seaward suite and the sitting room was deserted — no staff, no Rao. Likewise the dining room. Then they were in the back hallway and Frochano paused to open the door to the security suite, which was oddly closed. “They are down!” She said.

Machigi was already forging ahead and heard Frochano’s cry from behind him — he only had eyes and ears for the door at the end of the hall, the one to the bedroom. He heard a commotion there, in the room beyond that door — no cries, no shouts: just the sound of an intense struggle, and a crash, and then a thump of something falling. A body.

He hit the door so hard that it banged loudly off of the wall — and found Rao, dressed only in a bathrobe, with a bloody knife in her left hand and a crumpled form at her feet. There was a long deep cut across the back of her right hand that disappeared under the sleeve of her robe. The sleeve was red with her blood and stuck to her forearm and more blood poured out from underneath it.

“It is well, dena-ma,” Rao said to him, utterly calm. “She is down.” She looked past him and he knew she was seeing his aishid, and was seeing them understand that their principal was in between themselves and a weapon, where he should by no means ever be.

It was not a large knife, but it was so, so very red.

There had been a table on that side of her bed but it was now up against the wall, some distance from where it had originally been placed — the crash, he thought. “Nadiin,” she remained very still and addressed his security. “May one put this knife down, on that table there?”

“Yes, Rao-daja,” Tema replied. “Please do, with one’s gratitude.”

She carefully and slowly set down the knife. As soon as her hand was free of it, Machigi went to her and grasped her forearm with both of his hands, applying pressure to staunch the wound. “Come and sit,” he led her to a chair. There was only the one chair in the vicinity, so he sat her down and knelt at her side so that he could continue to apply pressure to her arm. It was appalling to him that it was her blood — her blood, hers! — that was welling up around his palm and fingers, the smell of it overwhelming the scent of the rooms flowers, and he found himself suffused with fury.

Meanwhile, Frochano checked the body. “Dead, Tema-ji,” she said to her partner. She eased the body up just a little and peered underneath. Then she let it back down and said, with perhaps some grim satisfaction, “a clean thrust into the heart.”

“Who is it?” Machigi grated.

“It is Basaro,” Rao said softly. The majordomo. She had been vetted, he raged silently. She had been cleared. “She…objected…to our marriage.”

“Guild, Tema-ji?” Machigi asked his senior guard.

“No, aiji-ma,” Tema said. “And no word of a Filing. An independent action, most like. But we will investigate.” He nodded to Frochano and she touched her earpiece, murmuring short phrases in their codespeak. Machigi knew that she ordering other security to secure the rest of the servants in place until everything and everyone could be checked, and man’chi assured. But we were assured of that already, or so we thought! This would be an illegal action, but it was not unknown for people subject to mental illness or having a crisis of man’chi, to take what should have been Guild business into their own hands. And besides, that kind of law was new to the land. There were still plenty of people who followed the old ways. Likely it was one of those, but Machigi would remain angry until he knew, and likely for a long time after. I will make them accept her!

Juien arrived, bag of supplies in hand. He paused on the threshold to regard the body on the floor but then, seeing Tema’s fractional shake of the head, went directly to Rao to minister to her.

“Do you feel anything, nandi?” The physician asked her, taking over the job of the application of pressure from the aiji and gently probing around the damage with his long fingers. “Any odd feeling of heat, or cold, or prickling?”

She shook her head, eyes wide. “I feel no poison, nand’ Juien. Just the cut.”

“A clean cut at that, nandi,” he said. “There will be no impairment, one thinks — it has missed the major ligaments. But it will require stitches.”

Rao nodded. “One is grateful, nandi,” she said, patiently sitting still for him. “What of Ojeka and Boragi?” She asked, looking to Frochano at the door.

Frochano put a hand to her ear again murmured a question, received an answer. “Unconscious, but breathing freely, nandi,” she reported. “Steady pulse, strong. We suspect they were drugged. Kochi is monitoring them.”

“I will attend to them when I am done here, nadi,” Juien said to her.

“What happened?” Machigi asked Rao. He had removed his top-most hand to let the physician do his work, but he did not let go of her. Instead, he simply shifted his hand so that her palm could rest on his, bloody as it was. Juien began to clean the wound — the cut was at its most deep in her forearm and gratefully was little more than a skipping score across the back of her hand: as Juien had said, she was not maimed.

“I was getting ready for a bath when she came at me with the knife,” she told him. “I disarmed her, but even with her knife in my hands, she rushed forward and grappled me, trying to take it back. So I slipped her grasp and struck her with it.”

Ignorant woman, Machigi glanced at the body on the floor. You did not see Rao dancing in her sailboat, as I did.

“How did you know to come to me, dena-ma?” Rao asked.

It was an excellent question. “The staff got wind of it. They sent Jara to tell Tema, and I was there.”

A little line appeared between her eyes, but it was not because Juien had begun to lace up the cut in her arm, drawing up the skin as neatly as a tailor mending a seam. “The staff,” she said, looking at the body on the floor. “The staff intervened.”

“Yes,” he said.

In a few more minutes, Juien finished his needlework. The physician cleaned off the blood, applied medication to his neat line of stitches, and firmly wrapped up Rao’s arm in clean gauze. “You will need to rest, nandi,” he said to her. “I will give you some medicine to ease the pain so that you may sleep.” And with that, he gathered up his bag and ducked out to attend to her security.

Machigi still had her hand nestled in his and her palm felt cold. “You will sleep with me tonight, Rao-ma. I will not have you alone.”

He only wanted her to be safe, but she said, gently, “I know this is unsettling, dena-ma. But let me stay in my quarters. I am confident in the staff that remains. They told you,” she pointed out when he opened his mouth to object. “They protected me. I have every confidence that they will protect me tonight.” She leaned forward, catching him in the intensity of her gaze. “I will rest easy. In the sitting room.” There was no staying in this bedroom; it would be a day or more for staff to clean up in here after Tema had finished his examination. “Please, Chigi-ji, let them know that you trust them also.” That you forgive them, she was saying.

He wasn’t sure that he did, but she was right. He needed to recognize that they had acted on her behalf. Unfortunate gods be damned. “Very well,” he said.

After Machigi had gone, the remaining staff quickly set up the sitting room for her. Dvari and Rajeno had brought a cot from their rooms and set it up against the bookshelves; and Eskari and Kasta looked to be adding so many pillows and blankets that Rao thought there would be little room left over for her. But she appreciated it. She sat at her desk, sipping tea, while they got it all arranged. Rajeno had departed to see to the junior security — in the security suite being examined by nand’ Juien — but Dvari remained, posted by the door and seeming to be part of the wall itself while the servants worked. His face was as stony and uninformative as ever, but Rao sensed a certain tenseness in him — a deep frustration and, perhaps, unease.

He must be upset. Basaro tricked him into leaving — she dangled Machigi before him as bait. She used his man’chi against him. And she poisoned the junior security under his watch. She had very little idea of how such things would be perceived by the Guild, and it worried her.

Eskari and Kasta finished with the cot and bowed, leaving Jara as her evening attendant. As Jara refreshed her tea, Rao looked up at Dvari.

“One hopes, Dvari-nadi, that the Guild will use this as an educational moment — one would not like to see you censured and certainly not replaced.” He was dour and he was taciturn and he loomed, yes, but he had made her feel protected during her time here. “I would strenuously argue against anyone seeking to replace the current arrangement. No, that is not strong enough. I would in no ways allow it,” she said firmly.

He said nothing for a long while. Then he surprised her by crossing the room and kneeling at her side. He looked as if he wanted to say something to her but he remained silent, the muscles of his jaw working as he furiously and quietly fought some internal battle with language itself. He was clenching his fists so tightly and his arms and shoulders were so bunched that Rao could hear the leather of his Guild jacket creaking in protest at the strain.

Rao said, gently, “Your man’chi is to the aiji, as it should be. You in no ways failed me, Dvari-nadi, if that is what is troubling you. You went to your lord when you believed he was in danger, which is exactly what you should have done, and what I always want you to do. That is what truly matters.”

“No, daja-ma,” he grated. “You matter.

And then he got up and was gone, leaving her to sit, blinking, her jaw dropped in sheer astonishment.

She became aware of Jara, standing off to the side with the teapot in her hands, and who had watched it all with wide eyes. I must have much of the same expression on my face, Rao thought as she closed her mouth. Jara saw her looking at her and composed herself with a little bow, mindful not to spill tea. “Will you be needing anything else, daja-ma?” She asked quietly.

Rao composed herself as well, rolling her shoulders to straighten up her posture. Something clicked in her mind. She turned in her seat to face the maid. “Yes, Jara-ji, I will,” she said firmly. “Put away the tea, please, and attend to me for a while.”

Chapter Text

How could this have happened?

“We have removed the senior household staff from the seaward suite and are holding them for questioning,” Tema said. “The juniors have been cleared.”

“They were already cleared!” Machigi said forcefully. “So was the majordomo! How, then, can you assure me that Rao is safe?

“Dvari is with Rao-daja, aiji-ma,” Rajeno said in a steady voice. “My brother will protect her. I swear it. And I will stand by him when I return to the suite.”

“Tell me what happened,” Machigi said.

Rajeno stood at attention for her debrief. “Basaro-nadi came to us, saying the staff had informed her of an imminent threat to your person, aiji-ma. She said that the communication was compromised and begged us to advise your security immediately. She seemed to be genuinely distressed. We set Ojeka and Boragi on watch and went to central to make the report, to ensure your aishid secured your safety, so that we could assemble the staff for interviews.”

Tema nodded. “We have assembled the staff” — the surviving staff — “and restricted them to quarters for the time being, aiji-ma.”

It had been full dark for some time. The household staff had lit the lamps — electric, in this age, where they had been oil-lit in days of yore — but they did little to beat away the darkness. It is fitting, Machigi thought, boiling with a dark rage to match the shadows filling the room. “Go attend to Rao-daja,” he said to Rajeno. “Ensure this was not a single attack. Should there be any others, protect her.”

“Aiji-ma,” Rajeno bowed. She departed and passed the physician on his way in, who stepped aside and allowed her to continue on her assigned duty.

Juien gave a short bow. “All is settled, aiji-ma. I have seen to the lady’s junior security.”

“What happened to them, nand’ Juien?” Machigi asked.

The physician’s brows were knit. “They were drugged, aiji-ma — tea, I think. They will survive, but it was a close thing.” He shifted to address Tema. “I will examine the tea and give you a report soonest, Tema-nadi. As for Ojeka and Boragi — they should rest for two days. I will examine them and clear them for duty after.”

Tema nodded. “Yes,” he said.

With that, Juien departed. Machigi turned his attention back to his senior security. “Where is this woman’s husband?” I assured Rao that she would be safe, and now I am a liar.

“We have detained him, aiji-ma. He is being questioned now. He claims to have been unaware of the events and appears to be in shock over his wife’s death.”

“So his wife claimed that there was an emergency — if she was convincing, then perhaps her husband an equally accomplished actor.”

For a moment, Tema’s mask slipped. He looked unhappy — and also angry, for that this could have happened on his watch was a blow his personal competence. “Just so, aiji-ma,” he said. “But we will know.

“Could they have been placed in the household, ten years ago? Or did the Shadow Guild take their family and threatened them?”

“It is possible, aiji-ma, and we will inquire with the Toma clan,” Tema said. “However, I suspect that if that were the case, they would have struck against you, or they would have kidnapped Rao to use her against you. But kill her? This does not have the feel of Shadow Guild work, especially given that there is, ah, considerable resistance to her relationship with you. Insofar as people here consider her marriage to you problematic, I would think the Shadow Guild would support it. I do not think they would seek to eliminate her.”

“Unless they plan for me to marry another, and she upsets that plan.”

“It is possible, aiji-ma,” Tema allowed. “But I believe that they lost their capacity for long-range planning when they lost their master in the Guild’s Assignments office. Everything they have done since Shishogi’s death has been reactionary and short-term. We will not discount that they might have a new, far-seeing puppet-master. But this feels closer to home.”

“Are you suggesting that one of the council put the woman up to this?”

“It is possible, aiji-ma. Or one of the lords. But…”

“What is it?” Machigi snapped.

“It has all the hallmarks of independent action,” Tema said. “The rest of Rao-daja’s staff appears to be greatly upset at the attempt on her life — she has been, in fact, winning association among them, from what security has been reporting. But we will interview all of the staff. We will know who this woman and her husband have met, and how deep the association they had with the other staff went.”

“You will inform me immediately as soon as you have information,” Machigi said. “I will know how this happened. The staff had been vetted, nadiin,” he ground out the words through clenched jaws. “How much clearer do I need to be? Because —” and at this point he sucked in all his rage and became absolutely cold and still and calm “— I am willing to be very, very clear.

Tema went still in return; Machigi thought that if the room were not so dark, he might look wan. “Aiji-ma,” he said. And he departed, leaving Frochano to guard the aiji in case this turned out to be a diversion after all. But I doubt it. It was that woman, a woman who wanted an outsider dead.

Later, he got his answer: there had been no collusion that security was able to find, though they were still open to the possibility. But for now, it had every appearance of an individual act. Besano had simply decided that she would now allow Rao to marry him — this woman had taken it upon herself to countermand his decision, but had seriously underestimated her target.

He realized that he was in that state, where his mind would run around in furious little circles, a beast chained to a post. It was something that had trapped his father, from time to time, and was himself determined not to fall prey to it. So he forced himself to sit down, to breathe, to relax — he took a few moments to simply feel the carved wood of the chair and the coolness of the air and the thickness of the carpet beneath his feet and he counted, backwards, until his frantic heartbeat slowed. A calm detachment replaced the hammering of his heart and the yammering of his mind.

It is still the same problem: because she is Edi, and disowned, he thought. And because she is an aiji and cannot give me her man’chi. They do not understand it, they do not understand a’hrani, because they have man’chi to give, and cannot understand what it is like to live without that instinct. And they are not taking the time to know her beyond where she comes from. It was frustrating. But, in his place of detachment, he could step out of himself and think from another person’s perspective.

Rao is correct — it will take time, he thought. It will take time for them to learn to see that what she feels, what I feel, however different, is as true and powerful as what they feel. But in the case of Rao’s majordomo, the woman was not willing to take that time. He realized that the world, and how it was, had been firmly settled in Basaro’s mind. No manner of demonstration would have shaken her understanding. And what was worse, she had done what she had done out of belief that her man’chi to him drove her to this, to protect him and the clan from tragedy brought into the house by an outsider.

The classic shift in the machimi was that of unknown man’chi, the man’chi that no one knew was present until the crisis dragged it into the light. But this was something else, a lesser-known cousin. Man’chi anara, he thought. The man’chi that was well-defined and clear, but expressed itself unpredictably at the moment least expected.

How will I keep Rao safe? He had promised her that he would demonstrate trust in her staff, and he meant to keep that promise, so he would not stay the night with her, or pull her into his own suite, as much as he wanted to. I am no Taisigi upstart, not any more, he thought. I am aiji now. I am in power.

But the thought brought him no relief. He longed for his disreputable youth, when he had been free to run with his dubious associates and engage in questionable activities that his father had been able to ignore so long as he was not forced to establish veracity or ask questions, and Machigi had always been careful to ensure that was so. Instead, at the infelicitous age of twenty-four, he felt old and trapped — trapped in the world of civility, the world of legality, a world bathed in accountability, where an aiji needs must allow his security and staff to do their work, and himself wait in safety for information. It does not feel like power at all.

Chapter Text

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.