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V - Bajio Kabisu

Chapter Text

…the Marid is characterized by a low level of education in comparison to the ashidi’tat, with no centralized organization or standards for curriculum, and no universal literacy. Most of the common people are engaged in the production of goods for daily life (textiles, clothing, tools, foodstuffs), with emphasis centered on fishing and farming. These trades carry on through the generations of families. Some families, however, are dedicated to particularly skilled artistic expression, especially in the production of porcelains which — as expected — have broken through the traditional barriers to trade between the aishihai’mar and the aishidi’tat, being held in extremely high regard for quality, beauty, and artistry by collectors to the north. Now that this barrier has been broken, however, the Scholar’s Guild and other Guilds of the aishidi’tat are opening offices in the Marid, and I only expect a broader benefit to its people, though I expect that the actual form and flavor of education will be something different, something more traditional — something more closely aligned with the East.

Most most trade and craft families remain within a relatively close proximity to their homes for their entire lives. The exception to this is, of course, the sailors, who range out to sea, and the Sesani clan, which by comparison to the sedentary clans of the rest of the Marid, lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle on the broad plains of the northwestern Tanja district and into Sarini district. While most inhabitants of the Marid are accomplished sea-farers, the Sesani and the Caratho, inland clans, maintain mechieti. The Sesani, in fact, are in many ways similar to the Taibeni — perhaps there is an opportunity for mutual understanding there? — although their lands are more grass and less forest.

In times past, the Assassins and Transport Guilds have operated largely independently of their mother guilds in the aishidi’tat, with a strong emphasis on keeping members local and maintaining man’chi not only to Guild, but to clan. Lord Machigi has embraced the model of the East — breaking the man’chi to clan, but retaining local personnel for their specific knowledge of their home regions — which, with the recent acceptance of that mode by the Guild in Shedijan, has opened up the Marid to closer association with headquarters. As for Transport, the aishihai’mar Guild was entirely focused on shipping, given that the continental rail loop only touched the region in its northeast corner. But with the extension of the rail from Kopurna to Tanaja, this, too, is bringing change — and broader association with Transport’s home Guild in the North.

On shipping: the sea to the south of the Marid is subject to terrible storms, given that the ocean is largely uninterrupted around the full extent of the planet between the mainland and the great island to the south, home of the lost Southern Island culture. The sailors of the Marid, however, are skilled enough to make the crossing, and sadly, it cannot be said that they are not actively engaged in the illegal looting and sale of artifacts from the ancient sites on the island. I can only hope that now, as Lord Geigi’s personnel aboard the station are providing quality weather predictions to the legitimate Marid fleet, Lord Machigi will begin to suppress that trade and make the island a place of historical and scientific study. I must write to Tabini-aiji to broker a proposal to Machigi for a joint effort to preserve those sites...

— Bren Cameron, Translator. Personal notebook.

Chapter Text

The audience hall, open to the public as on any other petition day, had long been restored to its usual display of antiquities and furniture. The blade of the Taisigi was long since back in storage — even he felt that putting it on display as a museum piece would be excessively aggressive at the moment. As much as I would like to be excessively aggressive, especially today.

He had declared that this day — the day after the last day of the week’s petitions — was to have been his wedding day, and he was not one to back down. So, in lieu of an actual wedding, he suffered to listen to petitions for one extra day. Gediri had been appalled by this but Machigi said, dangerously, “I will not hide on this of all days.”

And if she comes, I will marry her in front of all of you.

He sat in his chair on his dais, glowering, running his thumb idly over the hole left by the blade on a day that certainly had not as peaceful as this, but that had been infinitely more useful. There was a small table at his right side on which sat a tumbler of water, but he ignored it. Gediri, as his Minister of Affairs, sat beyond, behind a portable trestle desk and on a small folding stool. Gediri’s desk and chair were of a style that suggested a rough military camp — but only suggested, as the set was wrought elegantly of glass-inlaid bluewood and green silk and was in no ways rough.

The hall was not overly full — most of the people who had come with genuine petitions had gotten their hearings done in the customary days allotted to them, so the people who were here now were the hopeless procrastinators, the fearful, or — and he rather suspected that this made up the bulk of those now present — the morbidly curious.

And there were not a small number of ladies from all over the Marid, ranging in age from barely in their majority to middle-aged, and in status from the Toma sept’s youngest daughter to the as-yet-unmarried lord of Caratho clan in the Senjin Marid. They all of them thought him to be in a state of something like bereavement and were hoping that he would turn to one of them for solace. Gediri had, in fact, advanced each of them as a substitute for Rao at one time or another over the past month or so, urging him to invite them to the palace to at least meet them, to which he had snarled, “Very well, invite them — to my wedding.

So it really was his own fault that they were here.

They stood at the back of the hall in their own section and were all of them in gowns of every shade of blue and green to honor his clan. With frothy white lace at neck and wrists and turning to and fro to mutter to each other or their attendants, they were nothing so much as a veritable churning sea of hopeful ambition. Each wave is waiting for me to notice her and invite her to lap at my feet.

Instead, he heard petitions.

“A petition from the Tanaja Smithing Association,” his herald read from a scroll in a deep voice that filled the room. “Prithani, of the house Aechaji, master smith.”

Machigi nodded and the petitioner stepped up and gave him a deep bow. He was a man in his early middle age, his neatly-bound hair full of gray, but with the wide shoulders and thick arms resulting from a lifetime spent over an anvil. “Aiji-ma,” the man said, with another bow to accompany the title. “The branches of the Shedijan Artisans’ guild are approaching artists and master makers in Tanaja, seeking association.” At a tilt of the aiji’s head, Prithani forged onward. “But they are not approaching our association except to point us to the Metalworks’ Guild. As industrial workers.” He could not keep the disdain from his voice. “It is an insult to our master metal smiths, aiji-ma. We, too, are artisans — we do more than simply weld and shape and fit.”

Curious. “They have no metal artisans, ter’ Prithani?”

“Of the Artisans’ loose band of associations, their only artists in metal are confined to making jewelry. They do not maintain the handwork traditions; all of their metalware beyond jewelry is given over to mass-manufacturing.” No one in the room needed any help in understanding what Master Prithani thought of that. “Neither the Shedijan bauble-makers nor their parts-crafters have interest in our work.”

And I do not think that our Transportation Guild will be willing to give up their industrial metalworkers, now that we are shifting over to the building of fully-metal ships. The Metalworkers will have thin pickings here and the Artisans are fools.

Machigi leaned back and rested his chin on his fist as he thought. “It was your house that made the weapons for the lords of our clan, was it not, tera?”

“Yes, aiji-ma.”

“Do you still craft the traditional patterns?” Machigi wanted to know.

“Yes, aiji-ma,” Prithani said proudly. “Watermoss, Rainfall, Shore-of-the-Sea, Belt of Storms, Wing of the Naji’chitiin — these are only a few. In all the world, aiji-ma, there are no works to match what our house and our associates can produce, in steel or any other metal.”

“Hm.” I doubt you have seen what there is in all the world, tera, but I will not discount your skill, nor see the Marid slighted. “We shall take up your complaint, master smith. There is opportunity here for metalwork, as there was for porcelain when we reached out to the East.” He nodded in the direction of the scribes and clerks. “Add this to the small council’s agenda, nadiin. Assign it to Trade and Commerce for action.” This is a challenge well-suited to Siodi. As the clerks’ table was overcome by a fluttering of ledger pages and flurry of quills and Gediri made his own notes in his own ledger, he returned his attention to the smith. “Ter’ Prithani, will you stand before the council when summoned, to speak for your associates?”

Prithani gave him a deep bow. “I will, aiji-ma.”

“Very well.” And that was that.

The master smith withdrew and was replaced by a cluster of five sailors. They were in their market-best clothing and anxiously clutched a bevy of hats in their hands before them — straw, felt, one made of leather — as they bowed before him.

“Ithari Neighborhood Association of Fishers and Dredgers, of Tanaja,” announced the herald. “Petitioning the court for assistance in business dealings with outsiders.”

The sailors nudged one of their group forward, a nondescript woman whose hair was bound in an old sailors’ style: a single thick, tight braid from the center of her forehead to the nape of her neck. It was hers that was the leather hat, clutched in her pale-knuckled hands. “Aiji-ma,” she said, her voice strong despite her apparent nervousness. “I am called Sijo, a fisher.” Alas, not the Fisher I wish to see, Machigi thought, rueful for a just moment, but the sailors’ faces plainly showed such a collective distress that they easily recaptured his full attention.

“Aiji-ma, ‘tis them Physicians,” Sijo said. “Outsiders, like. They want us to sign papers, t’ associate with them t’ make more land out of the bay for a hospital. Aiji-ma, we all agree that a hospital, t’would be a good thing —” general nodding amongst the group accompanied this statement “— but none of us know what the writing says. If they move the shoreline, do we move, aiji-ma? Where do we go? ‘Tis not for us, papers and forms and writing. Please, will your people help us, aiji-ma — they say they read the words t’ us true, but we beg a proper Marid advocate, and for your council to know what ’tis going on at Tanaja shore.”

Machigi stilled the frown that wanted to form on his face. He knew of the hospital project — as a proposal, that was the most advanced status that it had within the understanding of his small council. But that the Physicians’ Guild was now attempting to act, by directly approaching those who worked their livelihoods from the shore, using instruments of agreement they knew one party could not fully understand? At best, this is ignorance of our culture, traditions, and capabilities. But at worst, it is a cavalier attitude I cannot permit to take root here. The Marid will accept these new Guilds’ presence on our terms, or not at all.

“Indeed, Sijo-nadi,” he said to the sailor. “This is of a piece with the issues that the smiths are facing.” The problem, he thought. Is that so few of us know how to read, and this problem will not be completely solved until these people’s children’s children have reached their majority. In the meantime, the people need to feel confident in their information, and they are wary of outsiders.

He turned his head and spoke quietly. “Nand’ Gediri, call all the new Guilds to send representatives to Tanaja for a meeting with the small council, in two weeks’ time. Send to the lords of the Marid to submit a tally of all of their clerks and scribes — everyone who can read.”

Sijo was still standing at the forefront of the clot of sailors, watching him with wide eyes. Her hat would likely require extensive blocking to regain its shape, after this. “Sijo-nadi,” Machigi said to her. “We will address this. In return, we ask you to spread the word to the other associations to turn away Guild representatives — send them to us. In time, we will send you advocates. Until then, we must stand as a collective, if —”

He became aware of a growing commotion from the entrance to the hall. Tema —when did Tema slip out? — was escorting a party through the small crowd of waiting applicants. The noise was coming from those petitioners, expressions of surprise and confusion displeasure at being displaced, water pushed away from a drop of oil. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gediri stiffen in shock.

Chapter Text

She was dressed in a traditional Marid dress of ancient design: a simple long gown dyed a deep green, its keyhole neck and cuffs decorated with geometric embroidery worked in golden thread, belted at her waist with a long tablet-woven belt in blue, green and gold. She had overlaid several of her Edi robes in the layered style of her clan and left the robes open so that they lay over the Marid dress like a cloak. Her stola was pinned above the base of her neck with a simple fibula decorated with pale green beads, its end formed into a short, narrow fan at the back of her head, the rest of the cloth flowing over her hair and down her back as golden as a shimmering sunset at sea. Long, slender drops of pale blue sea-glass dangled and glittered on either side of her throat, hanging from gold wires shaped to fit behind her ears and secured by the weight of small spirals where her cheekbones met her temples. All in all, her attire was archaic and simple and elegant, a surprisingly striking effect that set her as far from the ornate, modern brocades and lace and silks of the ladies of the wooing sea as she could possibly have been. And she makes them look as overwrought as they in fact are.

Instead of the large contingent of advocates that was traditional for a party to a marriage, she had only two: Haorai and Elsano, very formally attired. Haorai had in eir hands a little wood-carved box which Machigi recognized as Rao’s handiwork. At Rao’s other side, Elsano was carrying a scroll in one hand and in the other, a water flask — in the shape of the flasks traditionally shaped out of gourds, but made from a porcelain of the palest green, so fine and delicate that he could see the shadow of the water inside it, sloshing around as she walked. The trio paused before stepping into the short line at the table where the clerks accepted the petitioners’ scrolls.

It was his prerogative to advance applicants to the head of that line. “We shall hear her.” No one had any doubt whatsoever as to whom he meant. Sijo and her sailors, understanding their petition to be done, returned to the audience, leaving the floor before the dais free. The space remained empty.

“Aiji-ma,” the head clerk said with a bow. She turned to Rao. “Nandi, if you please—”

Elsano bowed and offered Rao the scroll. Rao bowed in reply and accepted it. She advanced to the table and formally presented it to the clerk. The clerk made as if to begin the laborious procedure of entering the scroll into the official records and then, at a subtle shifting of the aiji’s very focused gaze, the woman went a little pale and handed it directly to the herald instead.

The herald unrolled the scroll and began to read. “From...Rao—“ he was having trouble with the complete lack of titles. “From…from the Korisulan Association, ah, ah, a petition, ah—”

Machigi turned in his seat and stared. The herald twitched, speared by the aiji’s attention, took a deep breath, and reapplied himself to the text. “A petition to the aiji of the Marid for — for his hand…” The herald read, eyes growing wider with every word. “It — it is a request for permanent and exclusive marriage. To you, aiji-ma!”

Utter pandemonium broke out in the audience hall. All the people turned their neighbors and commenced asking some variation of “is that even possible?” and “permanent marriage?” and “exclusive?” as they realized the extent of her petition.

She is claiming me, he thought, delighted. He glanced to his side and saw that Gediri had gone rather pale. She rejects your proposals entirely, old ally — she will have me all to herself.

Machigi could not resist a look in the direction of his erstwhile suitors and saw several faces there unable to contain their outrage, even here in this highest court in the Marid. He was darkly amused. They are not so much dismayed, as angry with themselves for not having thought of it first. Beyond them, lined up very unobtrusively against he wall, were the surviving staff of the seaward suite. He knew they had to have helped her with her clothing. They are come to watch the results of their handiwork. Well done. Let them watch.

He so savagely wanted to laugh out loud. But instead, he kept his face utterly still and impassive while he waited for the astonished chatter in the hall to die down.

He stood up and took a step forward, onto the broad first step below his chair. “Read it,” he ordered. He gestured to her and her advocates to approach and, as the herald read, they made their way across the carpeted floor. Gediri had also stood; Machigi glanced at him and noted a look of resignation on the man’s face. He finally accepts, he thought. One day he may even understand.

The herald took a deep breath and shifted to the main portion of the document. Having mangled the rubric, he seemed determined to make it through the rest of it in proper style. “An agreement,” he announced. “Between Machigi, aiji of the aishihai’mar and Rao from the Korisulan Association, subject to nullification only by consensus of both parties, free from undue influence or duress, in any case other than the willful violation of the following terms.”

Rao and her party reached the dais and climbed to him. He turned so that they could line up on the step facing him, the masters behind her and side by side to make a triangle of their small party with her as its apex.

Machigi had no advocates of his own. But then he felt Tema and Frochano settle in behind him. It was a far tinier arrangement than any truly formal event such as this would ever have been, but then he thought back to Ilisidi and her minimal retinue at the conference at Najida and knew it for the statement of power that it was.

The herald had paused as if to say, are you sure about this, aiji-ma? Machigi narrowed his eyes and the man promptly moved on to the next section of the document.

“A marriage, permanent and exclusive, providing for mutual protection, support, and aid in the rearing of any children that may be produced.”

She held out her hand and Machigi took it, brushing his thumb across the skin on the back of her hand as he had in her boat. “Permanent and exclusive,” he murmured to her under the voice of the herald. “A bold request.”

“Have you ever done anything halfway, You-ma?” She murmured in response. Her fact was solemn but her eyes twinkled. “I can do no less than meet you where you are.”

“Rao from the Korisulan Association makes and will make no claim to resources or rulership of the Marid beyond what she now possesses and what is granted to her in accordance with the law of the land through due legal process,” the herald read. If the legislature elects her regent for the children, Machigi understood it to mean. If something were to happen to me. Which is still all too likely.

“On children produced from the union of the parties, item the first: should the union result in no offspring, the parties may by mutual consent arrange for the adoption of an heir.

“Item the second: the eldest living child will remain as heir to the Taisigi, in the aiji’s household, until the age of majority, unless both parties agree to the naming of a different heir.

“Item the third: in the case of nullification, the education and residence of other children having not yet their seventeenth year of life will be as negotiated by the parties prior to the establishment of nullification. Children having reached seventeen years will choose in which household they will reside after nullification.”

“How many children do you want?” Machigi whispered.

“Enough to secure the line,” she whispered back. “A felicitous brood, I should think — if you favor doing a different sort of gardening, dena-ma.”

“I favor it,” he smiled and added, with a barely-suppressed grin, “I shall enjoy the work.” Her eyebrow twitched and she gave him a look that made him long for the end of the day.

“Item the fourth: should any child become the eldest through the death of the elder sibling, that child will become heir to Taisigi and return to the care of the aiji or, in the absence of the aiji, the aiji-regent.”

She gave his hand a squeeze and her expression was so fierce, she did not need to say anything for her thoughts to be clear. He returned the squeeze. No, daja-ma. I will not allow it to happen either.

“Item the fifth: upon the death of both parents, any children not having reached their majority shall become wards of the aiji-regent, barring any specific amendments made for them otherwise.

“Let it be known that Machigi, aiji of the aishihai’mar and Rao from the Korisulan Association pledge to bind themselves in accordance with these terms.”

“I pledge, of my own will, desire, and accord, to honor and uphold this agreement,” Rao said solemnly, her voice clear and strong. She lifted his hand, touching his knuckles lightly to her forehead. “I swear it, before you and your people,” she said, and pressed his fingers against her chest, just below her collarbones.

“As do I pledge, of my own will, desire and accord,” he replied, touching her fingers to his forehead and chest in return. “To honor and uphold this agreement.” He gave her fingers another gentle squeeze. “I swear it, before you and our people.” He smiled at her and then, to his surprise, she winked at him. Brazen woman! He had to choke down a laugh. My brazen woman.

Then, still hand in hand, they turned and faced the assembly. Gediri raised his voice from his place behind them. “The agreement is made,” the foremost counselor intoned. “All present be witness that there now stand before you, espoused, Machigi of the Taisigi and Rao from the Korisulan Association —” Edi, but for her Grandmother “— aiji and aiji-consort, two persons bound together into fortunate unity.”

All that was left was to sign and seal and witness the document. Machigi glanced over and saw that his clerical staff had abandoned their table, readying the document, the pens, the wax jacks, the ribbons, his seal, all neatly laid out for this final legal step. “Daja-ma?” He said softly, gesturing in that direction.

But she held up a hand. “I told you that I would not return here without a dowry fit for your people, dena-ma. And so I offer it to them, through you.” She made a sign with her hand and ter’ Haorai placed the box on the aiji’s side table. Ey opened the box and took out a beautiful little gold brocade pillow, and then ey dipped into the box and brought out a cup, which ey placed on the pillow. Then, carefully lifting up the assemblage, ey presented it to Rao. Machigi was vaguely aware of this, his focus entirely on Rao, watching how her motion placed her momentarily in profile, her face edged with light, her hair shifting fetchingly over her shoulder, the drops beneath her ears shimmering.

Rao cradled the cup in both of her hands, picking it up so that ter’ Elsano could pour water into it from her porcelain flask. It made a musical sound, clear in the audience room’s hush. Rao drank from the cup, sipping half of the water, and then offered the cup and the remainder of its contents to him.

He accepted it, still lost in the sight of her face — she is here, at last, here with me, here forever — her expression was earnest and gentle and…mischievous? She glanced down at the cup and he could not help but follow the direction of her eyes. A lovely cup, Master Haorai’s work, a— And then he truly saw it and almost dropped it in his shock.

It was porcelain and it was delicate and it was blue, but “blue” was a wholly insufficient word to describe the color — now cobalt, now aquamarine, now midnight. It was an impossible stygian blue that hid within its depths an ethereal, shimmering iridescence that changed in response to breath or thought. It was the blue of the glaze that was lost to the Sungeni and only remained in those historic pieces that were so rare that they were considered state jewels, even the very few that were legally sold to collectors in other parts of the world. Every single one of those pieces — every cup, every saucer, every vase, every plate, every pot — was as well known to the assembly as the names of their own children, because that was how rare and precious and famous they were, that bear the lost Sungeni Blue glaze.

And because of that, he knew that this cup was none of those: it was entirely new. It bore a bas-relief on it, and he recognized it as the same design as on the pendant she had given when she had put him ashore — two kelikiin, intertwined, converting their unfortunate duality into a fortunate unity.

It felt exactly like being struck by a bolt of lightning — he felt the skin of his body prickling, the hairs at the nape of his neck rising against the collar of his shirt, his eyes widened of their own accord, his knees went watery, the breath was stopped in his body by the realization of it. For he saw it all in a flash: she, the Edi sailor, had stolen the boat and had gone out, had found the kirkua plant that was known — was known, it was known! — to be extinct. She had found it, and had brought it back to Haorai, who had made a glaze from it. Rao had sculpted the decoration with her own hands, and the potter had applied it to the cup, and had glazed and fired it. She could have taken the plant and the knowledge of what could be done with it back to the Edi and have been joyously welcomed back with open arms for bringing them a victory that would have made them wealthy beyond their imagination, and yet she was here. He knew that this was her dowry: this glaze reborn in its rightful place.

The Blue of the Sungeni is no longer lost. She has brought it home.

It took every ounce of his strength to keep himself from crying out at the glory and triumph and wonder of it. It was not that he was afraid to show strong emotion in public — not in the least, as those enriching the garden would attest, had they been here to do so — but he knew he would presently need to say something, which was a challenge when one’s throat was closed. He reached into himself for his usual source of power: his sheer determination, and it steadied him.

He drained the cup. Then he turned to the assembly and walked down the steps right into the center of the audience room and held the cup up into the light with only his thumbs and forefingers, so that they all could see its glimmering magnificence and truly understand what it was they were seeing.

He could see the realization dawning on their faces, the collective gasps, and then the total silence in the room. The crowd of hopeful suitors was motionless, staring. You have nothing to offer in comparison, and you know it. He continued holding up the cup for a full minute more, letting it well and truly sink in.

And then he spoke. “This is Rao-daja’s dowry!” He announced. He kept his face impassive, but — You tried to reject her. You tried to drive her away — you wanted to kill her! — his voice quivered with rage. “Look at this. LOOK AT IT! Does anyone in this room doubt that she is worthy of me, or of you?” He demanded.

He waited a full minute more for a reply, but received nothing but silence.

Machigi returned to the dais and held the cup out to Gediri. “Are we worthy of her, Diri-ji?” He asked his counselor quietly. The man, his expression dazed, received the cup in his hands with the care he would have shown to one of his infant grandchildren, and stared at it. No, not even you can deny this thing.

Finally, Gediri looked up, looking into the faces of both his aiji and the woman he had fought so hard to resist. “Bajio kabisu,” Machigi said: overcoming the odds, turning a setback into triumph. Which she absolutely has done. “Will you bear witness to our marriage, old associate of mine?” Machigi asked him, gently.

“Yes, aiji-ma,” Gediri replied in a quiet voice. He looked to Rao. “Forgive me, daja-ma, I...” he trailed off, quite overcome.

“Yes, nand’ Gediri,” Rao said, the absolute yes. “I would be grateful to be your ally from this day forward, nandi, if you will accept me.” She paused. “But you must accept me.”

Gediri swallowed. “Yes, daja-ma,” he said, and it, too, was the absolute yes.

The staff were clearing away the supplies and carrying off the now-complete marriage agreement, signed and witnessed and sealed, to be copied and posted and published so that everyone, including and especially the small council, knew that it was finally and truly and completely done. Machigi let out the breath he had not realized he had been holding. Then he leaned over to Rao and spoke to her softly. “Did you burn yourself?” He asked, nodding toward her hand. Being disowned, she had no seal of her own, so when it had come time time to stamp the wax-and-ribbon on the marriage agreement to authenticate her signature, she had simply pressed her thumb directly into the hot golden wax that had been poured over ribbons of blue and brown to honor her origin. Let her Grandmother bark at it, if she dares. Then she had calmly held her thumb in place until the wax had cooled and set, to the soft murmured astonishment of their audience. There, now you too can be astonished by her, he had thought, pleased.

She chuckled and murmured in reply. “By no means. It is one of the benefits of working the lines at sea. My fingertips are armored with callouses.” Her expression softened into a wistful little smile. “I suppose that my hands will soften now,” she said. “But it is a small price to pay.”

“We will go to sea again,” he said. “Together.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon signing cards, the Sungeni Blue cup in a place of honor between them nestled in its gold cushion. Haori had brought a fortunate ninety-nine small chips of porcelain in the restored glaze, which ey had affixed to to signature cards made of Elsano’s thick, handmade paper, a paper that bore a subtle wavy pattern of pale blue and green. Each chip was of a slightly different cobalt shade of the Blue and was stamped with a taihi flower framed by a geometric pattern that looked subversively Edi. The Grandmother would be furious, Machigi thought, not without some satisfaction.

It was good that the hall had been relatively uncrowded, because of that limited number of cards — he had ordered Nevathi to ensure that no new persons were admitted, as he suspect that once the news spread of what had happened here, a large crowd would begin to make their way up to the governmental heights in hope of obtaining one of these most precious of souvenirs — not just the paper, or the signatures, but the fact that they bore those chips of the very first samples of the revived Blue. These will prove very popular on the shadow market. Some of these people are going to come into new wealth soon. It did not trouble him — despite all of the gains of the past two years, the region was still very poor, so he wished them the joy of it, even the ones who had only come in the first place to experience some pleasure at the discomfiture they had been sure he was going to face.

Signing the cards for the people necessitated that these persons — many of them relative strangers — would be very close to them. Tema entrusted Kochi to stand behind Machigi as protection and Dvari to guard Rao, assigning the rest of their security at various places inside and outside the hall to keep close watch on the visitors who were now settled into their orderly queue. Dvari was such a solid presence at Rao’s back that — to Machigi’s amusement — most of the people addressing her actually did so from at least a pace back from the table’s edge.

But there was really no danger at all. If Gediri is subdued, so is the Marid, Machigi thought, and so they were, all the visitors to this hall. They were all of them awed by the cup and the events and, he thought, by her — Edi she may be, but she showed them that she is as bold and brazen and fearless as any true Maridi.

Of his erstwhile suitors…as the marriage had begun to unfold, most of them had withdrawn — whether in anger or disappointment, or both, he did not know — and Nevathi would not readmit them, so they missed their opportunity to receive a card. Gediri will owe them quite the apology, I think. A few, chiefly the youngest and the oldest, had remained — to their credit, they did not favor Rao with resentful looks or words. They were gracious, in fact, and Rao accepted their congratulations graciously in return.

A small number of their well-wishers asked Rao about the source of the Blue. Some of them were people he knew to be associates of Haori and he well knew their interest was academic. But one of the others was a person known to him as what he would dryly classify as “an opportunist” — in an unfortunate dual state of being potentially useful and a potential threat at the same time. As for the rest, they were strangers. He carefully noted those who had done the asking and saw that Gediri was doing the same. These will bear watching. But in all cases Rao demurred. “It is a very good story, nadi, nandi,” she said, or a variation thereof, each time. “But best we wait until the state has secured the source.” She already knows, and is watching them also.

Finally, it was over, all of the witnesses clutching — so gently! — their priceless cards and filing out of the audience room. They had only disappointed a very small handful, and those were people who had arrived after the wedding.

“It is well,” she whispered to him as the staff closed the doors and the clerks and heralds busied themselves, packing up all of the equipment and paperwork. “It will be some time before ter’ Haori can make more.”

“Will you need to go out to harvest more kirkui?” How far would you have to go?

She gave him the barest shake of her head. “Too risky, I think,” she said. Very far. “Better to reestablish it here. Haori- and Elsano-teri hope to cultivate them and restore them to the Marid, so I brought back as many live as I could, as many as I could pack up in the baskets I had.”

“That you stole, pirate-ma” he murmured, smiling. “I had to compensate the owner out of my own funds.”

“I shall return the boat with my gratitude,” she said. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Was it an unreasonable bride-price, You-ma?” she asked.

“Never,” he replied. “It was entirely too small, in fact, so you shall have the whole Marid besides.”

She looked satisfied at that.

The two of them rose and stepped away from the table — the clerks rushed in to clear out the last of the supplies — to bid farewell to Haori and Elsano. “It is extraordinary work, teri,” Machigi said to them. To the vast surprise of the master artisans, he offered them both a deep bow. “We shall never forget what you have done for the Marid.”

They returned the bow, clearly moved. “It has been our honor and privilege to work with the consort, aiji-ma,” said Haori. “She has helped me fulfill a life-long quest. And now the next quest begins.”

“Oh, ter’ Haori?” Machigi asked.

“Yes, aiji-ma,” ey replied happily, eyes crinkling as ey beamed. “It will take the rest of my life, and the lives of the apprentices whom I am sure will soon be breaking down my door, to coax all of the colors of the sea out of the glaze. There is so much to do!”

“Hmpf, apprentices,” Elsano murmured. “Always underfoot.” But she did not seem displeased. “My aishid will enjoy nibbling on them,” she added, earning a laugh from Rao.

With that, the artisans gave another bow and departed. Machigi smiled and offered his wife — my wife! — a gesture towards the private quarters. “Let me show you my — our — rooms, daja-ma.” She had been to his reception room once or twice during her brief sojourn in the palace. But she had not had the opportunity to go any further, and he was glad to show her that which was now also hers.

They passed from his reception room through an ornate set of double doors and then back outside: into a private courtyard-garden, a square of walkways overhung with a roof covered in neat, overlapping rows of blue tile and held up by columns of pale stone. In the center, there was a fountain — a cousin to the magnificent fountain in the palace’s main garden, ringed by a openwork stone bench and chuckling gently to itself. The corners of the courtyard were trellised with vines that had been trained to grow and twine together into an overhead bower, clusters of fragrant flowers hanging down. Rao tilted her head up to look; he watched her considering the patches of the sky above visible beyond in between the leaves and vines and fretwork. “There is monitoring, of course. It is as safe as any window,” he told her. “Safer, now that your aishid will be supplementing mine.”

He showed her a smaller sub-suite of rooms, offset from the main. “This is the consort’s suite,” he said. There were three large rooms there, and the sub-suite had its own accommodation and storage. “It has served as secondary storage until now, but I will ensure that space is cleared for you.”

“If I may suggest it, husband of mine —“ the phrase sent a thrill through him “—I only need an office. And, perhaps one day, when we are ready, space for a nursery.” A nursery! Another thrill.

“And a workshop, with storage space,” he smiled at her and her expression lit up. “Take the entire suite, wife of mine,” he felt the fortunate third thrill shivering across his skin, just to say it to her out loud. “I suspect you will need all of it.”

“Very well, husband,” she said, smiling in return.

From thence, to the private sitting room, which the staff had set up as an intimate little dining hall. Like the seaward suite, it too had a fireplace, set with a small fire to chase the autumn’s evening chill from the walls. They sat and shared tea and a platter of thinly-sliced, fresh raw fish — she was delighted by the reminder of their time at sea — followed by a dessert of wedges of tart, late-season sajoa fruit. While they ate, he watched her eagerly examine the furniture and decoration: unlike the seaward suite, his rooms ran to dark wood and fantastic carvings of sea creatures spanning and climbing the beams and the frames of the walls’ many bookshelves. An ornate hand-forged ironwork chandelier hung from the ceiling’s center beam by a stout chain, set with electric lights now instead of candles, but still retaining their crystal sleeves that cut the light at their rims and cast arcs of rainbows overhead. “Do you favor it?” He asked her.

She smiled. “I would favor a hovel, if you were in it,” she said.

“As would I,” he said. “But all things considered, I would prefer something more comfortable for us than a hovel.”

Rao laughed. “Indeed.” She looked up and around the room and its furnishings one more time before returning her attention to him. “I do favor it, very much so. It is impressive work, skilled and done with such care.” She set aside the teacup and patted her lips with a napkin, then set the cloth down and folded her hands neatly in her lap. “However, you have been remiss in your tour, husband of mine,” she noted, mock-stern.

He blinked. “Remiss?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You appear to have forgotten to show me the bedroom.”

“Oh,” he said. “No, wife, I have not forgotten. I have been waiting these two months and more. But I thought it might be rather abrupt to simply ravish you right away, as much as I might have liked to do.”

“Perhaps I wish to be ravished, husband,” she replied archly. “For I have I also waited these two months and more.”

“Well, then.” He rose and gestured towards the inner doorway. “I live to serve.”

The consort’s suite had a dressing room — he thought that staff had had enough time to clear at least one of the wardrobes by now — that connected directly to the master suite’s bedroom. He suffered Rao to disappear there, to be attended by Jara, who had shifted over to prepare the space for its new function. Her staff’s man’chi is to me, but it is to me through her, now. It was a relief.

Tarsiti helped him with his own attire, being most careful not to crumple the lace or crease the brocade and to whisk everything away for cleaning and polishing, but once the clothing was secure, he sent the man away and got himself situated in silk bedrobe of the palest blue.

He was keyed up and impatient and yet also amused by how time seemed to slow to a crawl, a thick sap of moments barely trickling from one to the next — deliciously frustrating — until the door to the adjoining suite opened. Rao entered, wrapped in a pale green silk robe of her own, and carefully secured the door behind her.

She turned and looked up and smiled, her eyes lighting up at the sight of him. Then she took a step towards him and opened her robe, shrugging to allow it to slither off of her shoulders and down her back and into a heap the floor to be ignored — as was proper. Beneath it, she was wearing two of the inner layers of her Edi robes. They were made of bari’sata like her stola and, like her stola, shimmered now gold, now green. But the cloth of these robes was so, so, so very much much finer than that of the scarf, which he dazedly realized for all of its fluidity was relatively thick in comparison because, without taking her eyes from his face, and with a half-smile on her lips, she turned in the light and the fabric was suddenly almost completely transparent and he could see, through a gold-green haze —

— all of her —

“Extraordinary cloth, what is it?” Is what he intended to say, but he found himself only making inarticulate noises. This was not at all helped by the mischievous promise in the smile that now bloomed fully in her face as she approached. She is enjoying this, he thought, when he had regained the capacity to think. Well, so am I.

He took a deep breath and tried, through sheer application of will, to reallocate the flow of blood in his body. In this he was only partially successful, but successful enough to take her into his arms. The cloth was soft and cool felt like layers of water in his hands and it slid over her warm body under his palms, now opaque, now sheer, and — oh, fortunate gods! —

deep breath

Her hands were in his hair, fingertips tracing his ears, sending sparks of sensation through him —

He let out a strangled groan, bodily picked her up, and carried her to the bed. Once there, they slowly peeled off the other’s clothing, unwrapping each others’ gifts. As she slid his robe off of his shoulders, she uncovered the necklace she had made for him in what seemed like a previous lifetime, and he smiled in response to her look of wonder. She touched the carved pendant gently and followed the cord up to his neck, fingertips light. “You still have it,” she said.

“I wear it always,” he said. He thought back to their time in her sailboat, about what they had learned about one another, and what he could do to render her as speechless as she seemed to be able to do so effortlessly to him — by simply breathing. She was sitting bare from the waist up in a pool of her silks and so he slipped his hands around her, behind her, to run his fingers up on either side of her spine. Her whole body shuddered under his touch; she tried to speak but could only gasp — ha! — and he was savagely delighted at his success. He leaned in and followed the curve of her neck with his lips. The arching of her spine pressed her body against him. “I treasure your shivers,” he whispered, wickedly softly, into her throat. She only managed “You—“ before her attempt at speech dissolved into low, soft cry.

When he thought that perhaps she could bear no more, he stopped and leaned back against the bed’s headboard, feeling exceptionally pleased with himself. He was content — for the moment — to simply look at her, nestled at his side in a puddle of silken cloth. Her skin was flushed to a glorious darkness and textured by her excitement where it was bared to the cool air, which was — from her waist up — most of it.

He let his hands wander over her while she caught her breath. She countered his touches by exploring the contours of his chest with her fingers. Then she leaned forward, her unbound hair brushing over him in a soft flood. She gently touched the scar on his chin with an inquisitive expression.

“Ah yes, your prize,” he said. “When I was eight, an attempt was made on my life. The assassin came up behind me and tried to slit my throat. I ducked my head and the blade jumped up across my chin here.”

She turned her hand and caressed the mark with the backs of her fingers, her eyes wide.

“So you see,” he added, with a crooked smile. “I learned at an early age to keep my head down.” He sat up a little and turned his right arm over so that she could see a faded line that ran across his forearm just below his elbow. “Look, I got this when I fought off the attacker and ran away.”

Rao held out her arm next to his, with its fresh scar there from her encounter with the seaward suite’s majordomo. “One does not come away from a knife fight without a stripe,” she said, bemused.

“We match,” he observed.

“Yes,” she said with a smile. The smile faded and her brows knit. “Who was it, who tried to kill you?”

“A flunky of the lord of the Dojisigi.”

“Did your family retaliate?”

“Oh yes. My father attacked in return with all that he had. He extinguished the lord and all her line, except for a previously unknown illegitimate son of her brother’s. Two years later, in attempting to supplant the lord my father had placed there, that man failed in his attempt against us...except that he managed to kill my sister Tula.”

“Gediri told me about that,” Rao said. “I regret it so extremely.”

“Do not regret it, Rao-ma,” he said. “As terrible as it was, it was part of what made me what I am. Feuding, scheming, illegal assassinations — they are part and parcel of what the Marid has been. I would bring an end to that — I would pull the Marid into a different, better future — and I would not be so determined if these things had not happened to my family, or had my family not fully participated in feud themselves. But...” He ran a finger down her forearm to mark her scar and smiled at her with a mischievous twitch of his eyebrows. “Because of it all, I am the last of the line of my father. I should like very much that you help ensure that it does not end with me. It need not be now,” he added quickly. “If you think it is too soon to think about our fortuitous brood — there is time for that later, I think. What would you like?”

“The future is uncertain,” Rao said. “The Marid has not reached that future yet, and there will always be conflict in the world.” She let out a thoughtful breath, and then raised an eyebrow as a thought occurred to her. “Will it please our detractors if we produce no offspring?” She tilted her head at him. “Will they think that it proves that you brought me here simply for pleasure, and that you will set me aside when it is time to think of succession?

“Perhaps.” He thought about it. “Probably. Most likely.”

“Then let us get an heir as soon as possible,” she said, her eyes flashing fierce fire.

He couldn’t suppress a fierce grin of his own. “Gladly, daja-ma.” He opened his arms to her. “I do so favor a challenge.”

Chapter Text

The restoration of the Blue had, as Machigi expected, caused a sensation through the whole of the Marid. The wedding cup was now on permanent display in the entrance hall and still drawing significant daily crowds, and to his amusement, the sharing of water as an element of a marriage had instantly been adopted across the aishihai’mar.

“Is that an Edi practice?” He asked Rao.

“Yes,” she said. “It seemed fitting, and we needed something to glaze.”

He smiled. “It has fired the people’s imagination. The whole of the Marid has taken it up.”

“Then there is hope for me,” she smiled in return.

And to speak of hope, potters were clambering at Haorai’s door to learn of the glaze, so much so that Machigi had had to order special Guild security over the entire neighborhood of potters and porcelain makers. It was an enormous expense, and he did not regret it. But —

“How long can this go on?” Gediri asked him, in a special meeting between the two of them and Trade for a third. “At some point, the glaze must either be made public, or we must commit to it being a state secret.”

“The porcelain branch of the Artisans’ Guild has petitioned me daily for access, aiji-ma,” Siodi noted. “They wish it to remain secret, but their secret, to the point of demanding that Haorai-tera accept membership and provide them with the technique,” Siodi noted. “I have also received several complaints from collectors. They are upset about the glaze, saying it devalues the rarity of the pre-Wave pieces in their collections.”

“Would they have us poison the future to preserve the profits of the past?” Machigi asks. “If anything, modern work will only increase the value of their historical pieces. Siodi-sa, tell them that they should not bother you with such foolishness again. As for the release of the glaze, I am inclined to refer that decision to our own people. It is not for the Shedijan Guild to make claims on our artists. Tell them so at the representative meeting. They shall simply have to wait, and if they or any of the other new Guilds persist in attempting to circumvent you and establish their own rules over our people, I will throw them out of the Marid entire.”

Siodi looked satisfied. “Yes, aiji-ma.” And so she did when she chaired the meeting with the Guild representatives that the aiji had ordered his Minister of Affairs to convene in the moments prior to his extraordinary wedding. She had not been present for that, and regretted it.

Machigi sent his new wife to observe the meeting. It would not have done for he himself to be there — the presence of the aiji would have broadcast too clearly just how important the issue was to him, and thusly given the Guilds too much leverage. But that the aiji-consort was there, and the person who had been instrumental in reviving the historic glaze — that would do very well. For her part, Rao sat quietly at the farthest end of the conference table and simply listened.

“Understand, nand’ Siodi, There is no convenient, appropriate land in Tanaja,” Dejori, the representative from the Physicians’ Guild said. “Siting a hospital outside of the city would place an undue burden on the people, who would have to travel a significant distance to receive services. The hospital is meant for all and should be available to all, and reclaiming a plot from the bay is the most central and reasonable solution. But the longer that takes, the longer that the people will continue to be forced into understaffed, inadequate corner clinics.”

This was not a small insult leveled on Marid physicians. But Siodi, accustomed to the political rhetoric of Shedijan by her sojourn there, bore it with grace. “Your argument has merit, nadi. However, you simply cannot approach the people on the shoreside. Your Guild has been drawing up its agreements according to the laws of Shedijan. But such a thing will not be legal here. It is not how land stewardship works in the Marid. The government is willing to work with you, but it will take time.”

“How much time, though, nandi?” Dejori asked.

“As much time as it takes. One is not sure whether you appreciate how the traditional nature of the city translates into a lack of basic infrastructure of the kind your project needs. It will take much longer than simply raising land from the bay. This will be long-term plan, no matter how quickly you think your construction teams will work, and none of it will happen without concurrence from the state.”

She meant it as a warning, and Dejori was intelligent enough to understand it as such. He bowed his head. “The Physicians will look forward to working with your office further, nandi.”

So. The Physicians are deferred…for now. Who is next?

Mataro, a middle-aged woman of the Artisans’ Guild, leaned forward and claimed the opportunity to speak. She was dressed in good-quality, clean clothes of a practical cut, with the strong, classical features of the center of the aishidi’tat. Her clothing was marked by a loop of cord — a braid of two white strands and one gold — pinned to her left shoulder sleeve. The cord as a marker of her specialty within the Guild, which Siodi knew to be that of the porcelain makers. She was seated between two men of similar age, whom Siodi also took to be representatives of some branch or another of the Artisans, for the one of them was wearing a similar cord braided in brown and gold, while the other had no cord at all, but rather a thick chain of small, cleverly interlinked silver and copper links, looped around his shoulders.

Siodi had in fact dealt with the Mataro before — the woman was one of her office’s most persistent callers — but the two men with her were strangers. “This is Kaili and Bajeta.” Mataro indicated her compatriots. “They represent the woodcarvers’, and jewelers’ branches of the Artisans’ Guild.” It was no surprise to Siodi at all that the Artisans’ Guild had sent not just the one representative she knew, but three in all. Actually, I am surprised that they did not send more. Nor was she surprised that they would want markers to distinguish themselves from one another. How can this Guild call itself a Guild? They should rather name themselves an Association. “Well, met, nadiin,” Siodi said to them pleasantly.

Mataro merely repeated her impassioned arguments regarding the Sungeni Blue, trying to convey the urgency of the matter of ter’ Haorai’s membership in her branch of the Guild, of the disaster that would surely befall the Marid if ey were not immediately inducted, and of the importance that the council mandate em to membership if ey continued to resist. Siodi sighed to herself, having heard all of this before. “The aiji wills that the Marid approach the matter slowly, carefully, and above all internally, and I cannot gainsay him,” she said — exactly the same as before, in the hopes that perhaps this time it will finally find understanding in the woman’s mind. I doubt it. This woman has a singular desire.

Perhaps it was that mention of the aiji, in combination with her singular desire, that lead Mataro to appeal directly to the aiji’s wife. “As one so central to the revival of the Blue, Rao-daja, surely you have an opinion?” She thinks Rao can sway him, Siodi thought. And she probably could.

“One is here only to observe, nadi,” Rao replied firmly. “As the aiji has designated the subject as a council matter, one defers to the Minister of Trade and Transport.”

Mataro leaned back in her chair. She had regained an impassive expression and so it was hard to tell whether she was unsettled or merely frustrated, but Siodi expected it might be a little of both.

Kaili the woodcarver cleared his throat, glancing briefly between Rao and Mataro. Then he spoke to Siodi in a slower, calmer voice. “I traveled here on the train from Shedijan, over the mountains, nandi. The architecture of Hasjuran —” up in the highest pass, a town known for being constructed largely of wood, and sumptuously carved at that — “was striking. But once I had reached the Marid proper, it seemed that most of what I saw from my window was stone and tile but for the fences and baffles along the track. What wood crafting is done here?”

Her Maridi upbringing made her somewhat suspicious of the Artisans’ collective change in tone. Perhaps he is trying to distract me, to shift the situation so that it is I courting them, Siodi thought. And then Mataro will come in for the attack on the glaze from another angle. But she decided to respond to his question in a straightforward fashion nonetheless. “Much,” she said to him. “One suspects you have only seen train stations and this compound, no? You should take a walk through Tanaja proper, nadi, and one will arrange with the majordomo of the palace to show you some of the historic state pieces in wood. There is as a thriving community of building, crafting, and decoration in wood in the Marid as there is anywhere else on the continent, and plenty of opportunity for your wood masters and ours, one believes, once we have a protocol in place for you to interact them them.”

She expected Mataro to return to the topic of the glaze then, but instead, her jeweler companion spoke up. “If we are discouraged from direct approach, nandi, then I should inform you that it has happened in the other direction. I was approached by a steel worker, myself.” Bajeta managed to sound concerned and offended at the same time.

“Oh, nadi?” Siodi said. “Who was it, if one may ask?”

“A man named Prithani,” Bajeta said.

Siodi felt her body straighten up both in reaction to the man’s tone and to his classification of one of the Taisigin Marid’s most eminent master smiths. It is not that workers in steel need not be clever and experienced and highly skilled in their craft — but Ter’ Prithani, a ‘steel worker’? Such outrageous ignorance! And she realized: this man does not know that Ter’ Prithani personally petitioned the aiji about this very issue. She may not have been there herself when it had happened, but Gediri had told her everything.

“He works in steel,” Bajeta repeated, continuing on. “Understand that such a thing is uncommon among the Guild’s jewelers, nandi. And he makes knives. We jewelers do not make practical items, as a general rule.”

‘Knives.’ And he manages to make ‘practical’ sound vulgar. Clearly he has never seen any of the house of Aechaji’s work. “You do not have specialists in the hand-crafting of, say, fine blades, nadi?”

“The Assassins manufacture their own equipment, nandi, and these days tend to prefer firearms.”

Impudent creature. “Oh, and do the cooks of the ashidi’tat not desire of high-quality tools for their craft?” She asked sweetly.

“High-quality as they may be, these are work tools, and are not specifically artistic,” Bajeta replied.

Ter’ Prithani would artistically take you apart with one of his blades if he heard you say that, nadi. Siodi wisely kept the thought to herself. This man has no idea how prized hand-forged blades are among our own cooks.

Ansegi of the Metalworkers’ Guild was a solid person, with facial features that spoke of the western coast around the great port of Cabo, was dressed in impeccably tailored clothing, with very little lace at the cuffs and collar. Perhaps sensing some of Siodi’s annoyance, ey leaned in and picked up Bajeta’s train of thought. “Nandi, I can speak on this,” ey said. “The Metalworkers manage the factories that produce such implements in the aishidi’tat. They are as high-quality as any hand-made — higher, even, since our equipment is standardized and precise and our workers highly-trained. Our household tools are renowned across the aishidi’tat, and we would welcome the membership of the Marid’s smiths in that and any other metal-crafting endeavors.”

“And yet there are two problems with this approach in the Marid, Ansegi-nadi,” Siodi said levelly. “One: the metalworkers of whom you speak are neither industrial, nor are they jewelers.” That was her own observation. “Two: the Marid’s industrial metalworkers are already a part of the Transportation Guild, who will be loathe to part with them.” And that was the aiji’s, as Gediri had recounted.

“But the Transportation Guild has always contracted with the Metalworkers for those services,” said Ansegi, sounding surprised.

“Not in the Marid, Ansegi-nadi.”

“But surely that should be the arrangement in the Marid also,” ey said.

“But Transportation was here first,” Siodi pointed out. She held up a hand to stop the speaker’s words. “You will need to speak with them, Ansegi-nadi,” she said. “As Minister of Trade and Transport, one will broker a meeting. One is sure there will be some compromise that allows for mutual support, but the council will expect you, as the junior Guild here, to follow Transportation’s lead.”

This did not appear to make Ansegi particularly happy and it showed on eir face, but Siodi did not care. Next!

Of all of the representatives, Lauma of the Scholars was the least upset. That Guild had been, with the Messengers, the first on the ground after the aiji had opened up the Marid to the central Guilds. They took the time to learn about the situation here, Siodi thought. As befitting a group committed to education. At least one of the Guilds did not assume that their way would naturally work here. Lauma was a person of odd features — his grey hair said “elderly” but the lines on his face seemed to Siodi to be more from the exercise of unfettered expression rather than of age, and by that she was not entirely sure she should trust him. “One behalf of the Scholars, nandi, one understands and will wait,” he said with a smile. “We, too, wish to proceed in a way that brings benefit to all, with a minimum of disruption.”

“The Messengers concur, nandi,” said Sichero of that Guild shortly, as serious as Lauma was smiling. Sichero was an utterly nondescript person, the kind that one was likely to forget immediately after seeing her. Which makes her require twice the attention. And she agrees too easily. However, the Messengers’ integration was the special concern of Kaordi, the Minister of Information, and Siodi was glad to let him have it.

Well, Siodi thought, folding her hands together on the cool tabletop. You both say what I want to hear for now, so I will take you at your word. The Scholars know we so desperately need education here, and the Messengers knows that communication is the foundation for anything we wish to accomplish. “Yes,” she told them. “You are both priority, nadiin.”

She then gave them all a deep bow. “The invitation that Machigi-aiji has extended you is certainly sincere, nadiin, only one requests that you bear in mind what a change it represents for the Marid. It is as significant for us as was the Treaty of the Landing, and we must work together to ensure that the state is not destabilized by changes made too swiftly, no matter how good their intentions.” Yes, she thought. We must find a way to slow the influx. Something that functions like a paidhi, perhaps, to gentle the oncoming change.

“We must ensure, that we avoid the same tragedy,” she concluded. “The council will have a clear answer as to how we will proceed with each of your Guilds’ initiatives shortly.” By their expressions, she could tell that they had taken the threat for what it was, and also understood that they were dismissed.

They returned her bow and, with only one curious glance or three in the direction of the still quiet aiji-consort, they departed.

No sooner were they well and truly gone than Gediri entered, slipping in from the map room, to receive Siodi’s report. Even though I am sure he heard the whole thing.

“They are accustomed to working with some speed in the ashidi’tat, and are impatient here in the aishihai’mar, Diri-sa,” she told him. “Nor are they used to being thwarted, I think. I feel that they will respect our requirements for now. But I fear that this will not hold. If we wait too long, they will become bolder — surely, their leadership in Shedijan will not be pleased with delays, and will pressure them to act.” She turned to Rao. “You have also been to Shedijan and have some experience with how they think, daja-ma, what do you think?”

Rao looked thoughtful. “I think that you are correct, nand’ Siodi. They will not wait for long, and it would not be good for the Marid to wait too long either. We need what the Guilds wish to bring, though we should have it on our terms.” She was using that collective we, and Siodi was struck by how right it felt. I do believe her, truly. “The weakness here is the Marid’s territorial tradition,” Rao added.

“Territorial?” Gediri asked.

“Yes, nandi,” Rao said. “Every region and clan and master is fiercely independent, is it not? Everything I have read and seen and learned is very clear on that point.”

“Yes,” said Gediri. “And we are all very possessive of our traditions, skills, and resources.”

“This is a strength, generally,” Rao nodded. “If one is harmed, the others still stand. But when faced with a concerted effort from outside, it becomes a weakness: instead of single castle, there are a myriad of little forts, each operating independently, and each easily overwhelmed.”

“You are recommending some kind of unity,” Siodi said.

“Indeed, nand’ Siodi. I feel that a unified response is what is needed here.”

“Impossible,” said Gediri. “The aiji wants the government to be the outsiders’ gatekeeper in this, but the people of the Marid will always seek their own way when it comes to growth, profit, and opportunity. It may work for a little while, but in time, it will fall apart.”

“The aiji’s proclamations order the Marid to defer Guild inquiries to the palace,” Siodi said thoughtfully. “But it is uncertain whether the region will heed the call in any unified way, or that they will even receive the proclamations before the Guilds are moved to act.” She spread her hands. “Linked computers and telephones are still fairly rare,” she said to Gediri, but she really meant it as a reminder to Rao. “People will have to receive the notices by hand, and may of them will have to find someone to read them to them.”

“And then they will want to argue,” Gediri said. “They will want clarification, and many of them will be looking for exceptions. The back-and-forth will take months,” he said with a grimace.

The aiji’s consort shifted a little in her seat. “Nand’ Gediri, you once told me about the second chamber in the legislature, that you thought to use it for conferences.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Perhaps we should hold one? For the art, craft, and trade masters? Would it be useful to have them all in one place?”

“Hm, yes,” Gediri said. “A basic notification to appear is simpler than a proclamation regarding business with outsiders. It would be easier to brief the masters, to explain to them, and to answer their questions, and let them argue, at the same time in the same place.”

“Better and more efficient,” Siodi agreed. “Especially if we offer some incentive.”

“A Festivity,” Gediri said. “To celebrate the return of the Blue. With transportation subsidized by the state.”

Siodi nodded with a smile. “An exhibition of regional masterpieces, with a prize awarded to the best.”

Gediri laughed, caught up in the idea. “That will stoke their passions, to be sure — they will not be able to resist it. And then we can capture them. But who will speak for the palace? They will be suspicious if it is one of the council.”

“Perhaps Haorai-tera?” Rao suggested. “Ey are somewhat famous at the moment, are ey not?”

“Yes,” Gediri said thoughtfully.

“We could make use of that fame while it is still at its apex,” Siodi noted. “I am sure ey understand the problem, and would be willing to help if asked. Can we obtain the rest of the council’s concurrence to do this, Diri-sa?”

Gediri nodded. “I think so. Kaordi will certainly have objections — it will be challenging from an intelligence standpoint. But if the aiji wishes it, the Assassins and Transport will provide support. They both understand the benefit of approaching Guild operations from a regional viewpoint. That will be enough to satisfy nand’ Kaordi, I think.”

“It leaves only to determine when it should occur,” Gediri said.

Siodi thought about it. “It should be swiftly done,” she said. “So as to have a solution for the Guilds. Say, a pair of months — that should be enough time for organization and notification, if we all work very diligently.”

“A Festivity,” Gediri said again. “To mark the start of the rainy season. To be followed by the mid-season legislative meeting, to finalize the recommendations of the tashrid.” He nodded, looking satisfied. “It could work. If the aiji wishes to declare it. But will the aiji wish it?” He and Siodi both looked at Rao.

She smiled. “I cannot speak for my husband, nandiin. But it is a clever idea, so I predict success.”

Chapter Text

The conference, which indeed Machigi was very pleased to sponsor, was only intended to last a week. But a great storm blew up and lashed at the city in fury, trapping the delegates in the confines of the legislature for a full extra week. The legislature was transformed into something like a camp, with the constructed-but-as-of-yet-unused office space for the second chamber converted over to temporary lodging. The assembled body continued to argue and lecture and rant, sometimes even drowning out the howling of the wind and rain outside. Rao was gone most of that time, but there were underground connections for the staff between the palace and the legislature, so she was able to return to their bed most evenings, when whatever it was they were arguing about did not keep her there throughout the night. She would not tell him what they were saying because it had not amounted to anything, she said. “But I will observe that in this, Maridi are not all that different from Edi after all.”

“Are there enough clerks to handle the record-keeping?” He asked her, holding her close under the covers. The storm had brought a deep chill with it, and she was pleasantly warm.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Palace staff have been working hard with the masters’ assistants in that regard.”

There was a sudden rattle of hail against the roof tiles, audible even within the sheltered confines of the bedroom. “It is dreadful outside,” he said. “I fear for the gardens.”

“They will survive. But speaking of gardening…” she said, and made him forget all about the weather.

Some two weeks after the conference, Nevathi brought Machigi word that the aiji-consort and Haorai, the master potter, were asking to meet with him. “See them to the map room,” he said. He made his way there to find the two of them waiting for him, standing by a cozy table-and-chair arrangement in a corner by the windows. A rare break in the season’s storms lit up the space with a probably transient sunlight, and staff had lit the overhead electrics to compensate for the likely return of storm-borne dimness.

They bowed to him and they all took their seats together. When his majordomo had told him that Rao had wanted to see him, he had hoped that she was going to tell him that their attempts to conceive an heir had met with success. But with Haorai’s presence, and the fact that the master potter was holding a neatly-bound stack of paper, he knew it for something related to wider concerns. He allowed himself a silent, wistful sigh.

He assumed that Haorai was bringing him a report regarding the conference, but the potter’s expression was so inoffensive and Rao’s so self-contained that he immediately knew that they were Up to Something Unusual. He raised an eyebrow and, mischievously, called for tea, so that they would have to wait until a fortuitous cup or three before being able to reveal whatever it was to him.

After he felt that they had endured — and he had enjoyed — enough of a gentile and excruciating discussion of the weather, he finished his last cup — and it was the third — and set it down so they could finally get to business.

“A report, aiji-ma,” Haorai said, as he had expected. “Compiled from the conference. We —” ey used the collective we “— that is to say, the craft, trade and art masters, have recommendations as to how to proceed.” And ey offered him the stack.

Machigi received the report in his hands. It was machine-printed, but the pages were hand-bound down its spine in the classic Mie-period style of braided threading, all three ribs secured with clever knots to thick cover stock. The report had silken green-and-blue foot- and headbands, with plenty of ribbons sewn into the latter to serve as placeholders. And the edges of many of the report’s pages were flagged with heavy, multi-colored tabs to call out their importance, besides. It was, in fact, a masterpiece in and of itself, and he knew it for Elsano’s work thereby, probably working with one of the city’s very few printing presses. A collective effort.

How is this possible? The region’s masters were, as a matter of ancient and closely-hoarded tradition, insanely jealous of their individual processes, procedures, and techniques. How in the ever-squabbling gods’ names did they manage to produce anything collectively? Was it because the storm had trapped them in each other’s company?

Storms... He looked over at Rao. He suspected that his wife had had something to do with it — he had that that tingling sense that he was imminently about to be a lightning strike victim. This was generally how she made him feel — to my eternal masochistic delight.

“Hm,” he returned his attention to the report. He opened it and found, at its beginning, a summary. He could feel Rao’s and Haorai’s attention on him as he read. And what he read did, in fact, strike him as a thunderbolt, both surprising and entirely anticipated, all at the same time.

Haorai, seeing that he had reached the end of the summary, said, “Aiji-ma, the document goes into significant detail. And it is affirmed.” Machigi dutifully turned to the end of the report and saw that it was so: several pages’ worth of the masters’ marks stamped in ink in lieu of wax for practicality and, in many cases, doubling as signatures for those of them who did not know how to sign their names. So many marks. “Should you and the council accept these proposals, aiji-ma, you will have full support from those whom it would affect.”

Machigi closed the report and looked at Haorai. “This is extraordinary work, ter’ Haorai,” he said. I lie — it is a miracle. “I will review it in detail, and bring it to the small council in haste. If it works — if what you have detailed actually works…”

Haorai bowed. “It will work, aiji-ma,” ey said. “We are committed.”

Machigi nodded to one of the staff, hovering at the proper range, and handed over the report. “See that this is given to Nand’ Gediri forthwith, Emi-ji,” he ordered her. The proposal given and received, Haorai rose and bowed to both him and Rao. “Aiji-ma, daja-ma.” Ey departed, following the path of the staff member bearing her precious burden.

After the potter was gone, Machigi dismissed the remaining staff. Their security, understanding his wish for privacy, withdrew to stand at a distance at the wall.

He pulled his chair very close to Rao. “You brought the kirkui back from the Edi Archipelago,” he said.

She raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

“Come, come,” he said. “I know you know the waters off of the southern coast of the Marid, but it is logical to assume that you know the Archipelago just as well, if not better.”

“And the Southern Island,” she said. “For the Edi count that as ours also, in our tradition.” She relented a little. “You are correct, husband of mine. The plant grows on certain remote islands in the Archipelago, and has a very small range in marshes on the western part of the Southern Island. I obtained samples from both of those places.”

“And the samples are safe,” he said, a question.

“Oh yes. Ter’ Haorai and Elsano are working with Nejeri of the palace gardeners, who is sworn to secrecy. Rajeno is overseeing the security of the operation,” she added. “And she has assigned Dvari to it, so I have full confidence that everything will be safe until it is time to fully reestablish the kirkui in the Marid.”

“Where are they?”

“In the seaward suite, in planters,” she said with a smile. “It was Dvari’s idea, well ahead of the storm season. It turns out he has a way with the plants, even more so than Nejeri.” She has assembled a cabal — a secret kirkui cabal — right under my nose.

He chuckled. “Who knew that silent Dvari would be good with plants?”

“The Marid is full of mysteries,” she said solemnly, earning another chuckle from him.

“If all goes well, you will need to transplant them somewhere else,” he said. “Where do you intent to establish them?”

“The Sungeni Isles,” Rao replied. “Ter’ Haorai wants to restore the production of the glaze to its traditional place. We shall have to bring nand’ Siodi into the project soon.”

“Yes,” he said. Something occurred to him then. “Your Grandmother will not be happy to know that we have revived the glaze from plants you obtained from lands she considers to be hers. Will she claim a debt owed to the Edi, if she were to learn of it?”

“She may try, but I owed the Marid an acceptable dowry,” Rao said. “All debts are paid. And because of what she did, she has no claim to the Marid through me.”

“And the conference, the report, the proposal — was this all your attempt to provide full legal protection to the glaze?”

“In part, yes,” she said. “But you must understand that the masters’ proposal was not my doing.”

“You had to have had some part in it,” he said. “They would have in no ways come up with this on their own, storm or no storm.”

“I asked questions, husband of mine, and they listened — because I am so new to them, because you married me, because of the Blue. That is all I did. They did the work.”

“That is all you did?” I have a hard time believing it.

“Yes. I asked them why they felt what they felt, and they discovered they all had common cause. I asked them what they wanted and why, and they discovered that they had common needs. Then I asked them how they could make the future they desired. They discovered they had a common vision. And then they wrote that document.” She smiled, eyes twinkling. “Sometimes the best answers simply want for the right questions.”

“The right questions,” he said in wonder. He sat back, once again shocked at the simplicity of it. He had meant her to take the initiative, and that she certainly had done, but in such a subversively clever way. She finessed them — into consensus! “You are such a deliciously shocking person, Rao-ma,” he said, finally. “May you never cease being so.”

She dipped her head, looking perhaps a little smug. “I will do my best, You-ma,” she said.

He nodded to security and raised his voice a little. “Recall the staff, nadiin-ji,” he said. “We shall have more tea.” I shall need a buffer to recover, he thought, his mind still reeling from the masters’ proposal — he could see it all, it had fully-formed in his mind in a flash. He knew that he would presently be chasing down the report himself soon — most like, he and Gediri would read the entire thing together, pouring over those details.

When he had taken a few sips and had settled down — for now — he said, “It is an amazing revelation, daja-ma, but I must admit to a certain disappointment.”

She blinked, the tea cup paused halfway to her lips. “Disappointment? I thought you were pleased?”

“I was pleased with the proposal. But I had been hoping for news. Of a more personal nature.”

“Ah,” she said. “I see.” She slowly sipped at her tea and then, after a suspiciously excruciating silence, she finally spoke. “Well, perhaps I can please you there as well.” The light in her eyes danced, belying her carefully innocent expression, as watched him over the edge of her cup. “Yes,” she said, as she saw that he understood what she meant. She lowered the cup at the widening of his eyes and allowed herself a smile. “Nand’ Juien confirmed it this morning.”

Thunderstruck again! He only managed to get out a startled, “when —” before his words failed him.

“Late autumn, or thereabouts, if all goes well.”

She is not innocent, she is wicked! And not alone in her wickedness either! He leaned back and eyed Tema and Rajeno, posted on the wall, their own expressions arranged in what he now knew to be not innocence, but outright machimi.

“They know,” Rao said, confirming his suspicions. “They and the staff are aware of nand’ Juien’s visit.”

“They kept it secret from me,” he observed, not sure whether he should feel outraged.

“We—” the collective we “—wanted it to be a surprise.”

Counting her departure from the palace and her subsequent return, this was the third conspiracy between his wife and palace personnel. And what a fortunate third. “How often do you intend to inspire the staff to deceit, wife of mine?” He asked her, raising an eyebrow.

“As often as suits me, husband of mine,” she smiled. “In the future, though, I do not intend to deceive you on major matters or or ask the staff to do so on my behalf. I will remain honest with you, as is tena. But this seemed to be a good exception to that policy. I should like to delight you, on occasions, with small revelations.”

“This is by no means a small revelation,” he pointed out.

“Perhaps not,” she said, smug again.

Chapter Text

The mid-winter assembly was not only a Festivity but was also one of the major meetings of the Marid tashrid, all the lords traveling to Tanaja to take their places in the legislature and work out laws, to provide reports of their own successes and concerns, and to request support — funding, usually — for their own plans, and then furiously bicker amongst themselves as to which items of all of this should be advanced to the small council’s agenda.

Much of the time was spent arguing about candidates to take the lordship of Dojisigi. As far as Machigi was concerned, the only persons who wanted it thereby proved themselves mentally unstable, and there were not many of those. The tashrid at least managed to make a catalog of suitable persons, including some very distant relations in families in other parts of the continent — they would have to be distant indeed to consider it — but they had managed to find some names of which he himself was not already aware, which was an unexpected surprise. Something useful has occurred.

It was, in fact, not common at all for him to be present at these convenings: usually, he received all of this through the aforementioned small council agenda, working through a checklist of the tashrid’s priorities with his ministers when not addressing their own concerns. So that he was actually here, sitting in a chair in the Hall of Lords with his chin on his fist and listening, threw some of the lords off-balance, encouraged others to boldness, and inspired most of them to shoot anxious glances in his direction.

Yes, he thought. What am I up to?

Renjero, a lord of the Samiusi sept of the Taisigi and closest of the coastal Marid to Ashidama Bay, moved to the speaker’s rostrum. It was built of wood, a raised dais curved to face the assembly in the shape of a ship’s bow, with a carved prow inlaid with iridescent shell and the bones of creatures of the sea. “Incursions by Hurshina Shipping continue into Teji district, nandiin — just this past month, the reeve of the port at Nemaji uncovered a plot to infiltrate the customs office. It is an outrage — an outrage I say!” Unlike the similar chamber in Shedijan, which had a podium, the Marid’s rostrum allowed the speaker to move. And unlike the ashidi’tat protocol of calm and impassive speech, the tradition in the aishihai’mar tended to run to machimi — Renjero was more animated than any speaker in Shedijan would have been. And Renjero certainly was animated. It keeps the assembly awake. “Where there is one agent, surely there are nineteen more! One shall find them! One requests the solidarity of the lords — one requests that this hallowed Hall petition the council for the use of the navy. Let us take up their agents and return them to Jorida — by gunship!” Although there certainly was a reaction among the lords — with many a “hear hear!” and general piratical commotion — Machigi was not convinced that he would see it on the council’s agenda any time soon. But it bothered him nonetheless.

There may be some means to act in a somewhat less expansive way, he thought. Some way to better finesse the situation. Perhaps I should engage the paidhi as my personal representative and send him to Jorida. He has a way of cutting to the core of a matter — a kind of Assassin, that one, only he uses words instead of knives.

Thinking of the paidhi served as a reminder to Machigi: I still do not know the origin of the remote-control technology used in the attempt on my and the aiji-dowager’s lives. Has the paidhi-aiji learned anything? I must write him. It was, in the scheme of things he was worrying about, a small matter. But things that seem small at the outset have a way of becoming oversized if left neglected too long.

Lord Renjero’s complaint was the last item of old business on the tashrid’s agenda. The chamber’s clerk rang the chamber’s great brass bell and the deep tone shivered throughout the room, concluding that portion of the session and announcing the start of the next: new business.

As the last echoes of the bell’s peal faded to silence, Machigi rose and made his way into the speaker’s rostrum, instantly assuring him of the rapt and altogether attentive focus of the assemblage.

“A pronouncement,” he announced. “We know that many of you have been opposed to the entry of the aishidi’tat’s Guilds into the Marid, and we understand it — we understand that they are fundamentally different from those Guilds that have established, since their founding in the aishihai’mar, a distinctly Maridi way of working. You are uneasy about these newcomers. You are suspicious of their centralized operation, especially because that center is there instead of here. We hear you.”

For the moment, he stood still at the point of the rostrum, his hands resting lightly on the prow, letting his very stillness, counterpoint to the previous speaker’s activity, retain their attention.

“The events of the last two years have shaken even those Guilds’ understanding of how the world may work. The Shedijan Assassins’ Guild — the legitimate Guild — has shifted its way of operations to recognize the importance of local expertise. That Guild has honored this philosophy with the Marid, and we expect other Guilds who wish to operate here to honor that philosophy as well. We expect them — we require them — to do their work — our terms, with our insight, and with our people. They have brought new ways of thinking into the aishihai’mar, it is true, but so to have the people of the Marid have carried our skills and ways and thought into the hearts of all corners of the aishidi’tat. And we have much to offer, for which the rest of the continent is willing to pay, to our success and prosperity and increase.

“With the return of the Sungeni Blue, understand there is rampant speculation and fears that there will be a crash in the value of historic pieces. This is nonsense, we say!” He punched his fist into the rostrum’s elaborate railing once, for emphasis. “The historic pieces will be more valuable for their age, we assure you!

“But you and your artisans have also told us that you fear the glaze itself will be stolen and that thereby the new pieces will be made common and this is not nonsense — not for the Blue, and not for any other of the Marid’s unique crafts, of which there are many.

“Therefore, because the aishihai’mar’s singular traditions must be protected, and its artisans and master crafters supported and developed and given collective power, we hereby constitutes the Artisan’s Guild of the Marid, a united Guild, under the sponsorship of the aijinate. Through the government’s patronage of the Guild, exports and pricing will be protected and regulated. Membership in the Guild will by no means be mandatory, but government support will be prioritized to members of the Guild. Each subspecialty will retain control over the training of its students, but the overall process will be regularized according to the recommendations of its collective masters. The Guild will have its own seal, and its masters their own registered marks, to guarantee their works as genuine, with heavy penalty assessed for anyone seeking to forge any of these marks.” He turned his whole body towards the wall that separated the chamber from the palace garden and simply looked in that direction, and when he turned back to the lords, he caught some of them still in the act of staring at the wall — but seeing something else, he was sure.

“Our heritage will be protected. And also our history! We are well aware of the ongoing looting of the Southern Island. As the birthplace of the culture of the aishihai’mar, it too will be under the Marid’s protection. The Guild will have an investigatory office, and we will grant it the authority to file Intent on those who seek to strip the Marid of its historic treasures.” Through the Ministry of Information, he knew that some of those lords had made a fair amount of profit from this trade, and he was not surprised to see certain faces fail to still their reaction to the news. He stifled a smile, in fact, thinking how much more they would react once they found out who it was he had placed in charge of that office.

Kaordi, the Minister of Information, brought to his attention the renewed activities of an old associate of Machigi’s in Koperna — one Paigiti by name, legitimate owner of the very legal Paigiti Shipping, but those fingers had dipped into many other enterprises — questionable enterprises — indeed. Machigi had given the old man a pardon not long ago, but it seemed that the opportunities manifest in the Marid’s rapid recent economic growth had been too much for him to ignore, and he had thusly come to Information’s attention. And so Machigi sent for the associate of his wilder days, and Paigiti came to Tanaja by the new rail link.

And he was not a happy man, once Machigi had told him of his plans to curtail the illegal trade in antiques. “You’ll be the end of my business if you look too hard,” Paigiti complained.

Machigi raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me that the success of your bottom line depends on looting the ancient sites?”

The man leaned back. “Am I useful to you, boy?” He demanded in lieu of an answer — only Paigiti could get away with saying that to him, and only in private.

“Indeed you are, Giti-sa,” Machigi said.

“My usefulness to you depends on you not asking those kinds of questions,” Paigiti said.

“Hm,” said Machigi. Then, “Are your associates that good at it, then?”

Paigiti did not answer, but his extremely unhappy expression spoke for him well enough.

“Not your associates,” Machigi said, making the connection. “Your son. The one the paidhi’s agreement brought back to you safely from the north.” Paigiti had sent his son out of the Marid, to keep him safe while his father engaged in chancy association with Tiajo of the Dojisigi. It was Machigi’s and the paidhi’s protection that had kept Paigiti’s son safe, and Paigiti safely disengaged from the Dojisigi, until Tiajo had been removed. That Paigiti now involved his son in criminal activities was outrageous, but completely in character for the old reprobate. A clever way to circumvent post-pardon expectations, Machigi thought. Hand over the shadowy side of the business to your son. If the son is anything like the father… “How much of it does he handle?” Machigi asked.

Paigiti remained stonily silent.

“That much, eh, old man?”

Paigiti ground his teeth. “Didn’t I just say —

“Because a person who is that knowledgable about the ways and means and the people involved in such operations could be useful to the Guild. Such a person could be elevated as a master in its enforcement arm, working with the Guild and Ministry of Information.”

“Still trying to make me honest, are you, boy?” Paigiti said. He leaned forward. “I hear the Dojisigi need a lord.”

Machigi laughed. “Your usefulness to me — and now your son’s — also depend on you both remaining alive, Giti-sa. No, old associate, aim somewhat lower for now. But it would not be impossible to think of such things when the Dojisigin Marid is truly settled — and when you are. A master of the Guild could marry into what remains of that family and stake a claim, and perhaps even be elevated to lordship — in time. So long as that person were stable, intelligent, and above all sane, I would likely support it.”

“The Ministry of Information, you say?” Paigiti said, considering.

“Yes,” said Machigi. “I would not take it amiss if profitable information came your way through your son’s service, so long as you both remained discreet and curtailed your greed. Do you think the two of you can manage that?”

“As long as you’re willing to be flexible about the meaning of ‘settled’, and the meaning of ‘greed’.”

“As long as it serves the state, Giti-sa, I am open to negotiation.”

There was more to say. “This version of the Artisans’ Guild — our version — is to be a uniquely Marid Guild. The Marid has welcomed the outside Guilds into our lands — let the other parts of the Association now apply for branches of the Marid Guild to be established in theirs.

“I elevate Haroai-tera as first Guildmaster, to oversee invitations to the association’s known craft masters to join and organize into a formal structure of apprenticeship, assessment, and recognition of mastery. When that has been established, ey will publish its recognized list of masters and direct the Guild to open its doors to applicants for apprenticeship.

“The establishment of such a Guild being so important, but the governance of the Marid as a whole requiring our undivided attention, we delegate oversight to the establishment, function, and expansion of the Artisans’ Guild to the aiji-consort, whom we name Guild-aiji. Lest anyone person be so foolish as to question whether her origin makes her unsuitable to an organization dedicated to the association’s artistic heritage,” he added sternly as a sussurrus of noise that attempted to build among the Lords. “Be you reminded, nandiin, that it was she who rediscovered the source of the Sungeni Blue glaze and who, with Haorai, restored this color — none like it anywhere in the whole world — to the Marid. There are no other people more suited to this endeavor,” he said firmly, and the hall fell into silence.

“Nandiin, the state looks forward to your support of the master artisans who, for the benefit of the whole Marid, will be invited into the Guild, so that the current number of one Guild-aiji plus one Guild-aiji may be immediately even more felicitous with an expanded Council of Nine.

“With regard to the Sungeni Blue: it will be limited and protected, under the auspices of the Marid Artisans’ Guild with the full backing of the state. The plants that form the source of the glaze will be restored to the Sungeni Isles and Lusi clan, as it was in the past, is proper to be again today, and will stretch into the future. We appoint Lord Telani to liaise with the Guild for full restoration of the industry there.”

Lord Telani rose in his seat and bowed into the instant attention of the Marid’s other lords. Machigi had met with him prior to the convening to inform of of the plan and his part in it, but it was still patently clear — by the ashen paleness of his complexion — of how enormously overwhelming the man found this assignment. Conscious of everyone’s eyes on him, Telani bowed a second time and retook his seat.

Machigi knocked his knuckles against the rostrum’s bowsprit a fortunate three times, recapturing the attention of the assembly. “Nandiin, I know that some of you may feel that this is unimportant, as skillful and proud and ancient the tradition of artistry in the Marid may be. You may think that we spend an unnecessary amount of time worrying about porcelain when we should be focused on the development of the aishihai’mar’s economy, industry, and security.”

There was murmuring at that — he was not surprised to see agreement in the faces of his lords, especially the ones who did not have deeply-engrained traditions of artistry in their own lands. What would an Artisans’ Guild do for us? He knew it was what they were asking. “It serves as a model, nandiin, of the ways that the Marid might incorporate the benefits of the other Guilds without losing our ways and traditions, our essential sense of self,” he told them. “Think on it, nandiin: the masters of the Marid are not limited to artisans, no — every clan of the Marid has its masters in all manner of trades and crafts. These masters have driven every thing that the people of the Marid have reaped and mined and made — it it an educational system, our educational system, a system that has been in place for a thousand years and more!”

He could hear an deep muttering amongst the assembly as began to see what he was saying, as they began to understand that he was talking about more than the makers of collectables — he was talking about every major industry in the entire Marid.

He raised his voice to cut through the noise. “And yet now the Guilds come and say that they will teach us their ways, and ask us to trust that they will work better for the Marid. Should the Marid, we ask you, change that system now to conform to the ways of the North?”

“No!” Several voices shouted back, amidst the rising clamor.

“We agree!” He shouted back, pacing the rostrum’s floor as he would the deck of a ship, stalking their attention, feeling the flow of association from his lords, as heady as any drug. You want to know how far I will go, nandiin, he thought. Let me tell you. “Our system works, nandiin, as has become obvious to anyone seeing the trade the Marid has increased to the East — that change we have weathered — over that change, we have mastered, over that change, we have triumphed. We have mastered the Belt of Storms! Let our new Guild serve as a model and preserve that system — let the other Guilds come and bring us the benefit of development that we need to thrive, nandiin, but let them fit themselves to the Maridi mold. We will not lose our way — they will walk ours!

The lords of the Marid roared at him, he could see the understanding on their faces. Perhaps there were a few malcontents, but for the rest — I have them by their souls, he exulted.

“We recognize that not only the lords the strength of the Marid, but so too are the masters. We are resolved not only to preserve the masters of the Marid, but to set that system in stony permanence. Therefore, I make this second proclamation: that the Council of Ministers, working with the Artisans Guild and with delegates from all the trades and crafts of the Marid, develop a system to allow the professions and guilds to name their masters to the full legal recognition of the government. The council will submit this system to the committees of you Lords, nandiin, for consultation, refinement, and ratification. And once we have accepted it, the trades and crafts and Guilds will then so choose that body of masters, whom the state shall recognize as their representatives.”

That word — representatives — ran through the lords like a shock. He seized their sudden silence and forged forward relentlessly.

“And now for my third proclamation: the second chamber of this legislature stands empty and waiting. But we tell you now, nandiin — the Marid will have no hasdrawad. Instead, it will have a Hall of Masters, and it is this terijad who will sit in the second chamber of the legislature. They will regulate the education and management of the professions, and advise the tashrid when it crafts laws to protect and sustain the economic life of the Marid, and which, if accepted, we will enforce. In this way, a balance between the felicitous three elements of governance — the tashrid, the terijad, and the council — will be finally established in the aishihai’mar, long may it prosper. Let these proclamations be published throughout the Marid, so that all may see and hear and understand them.”

And with that, he simply departed, leaving an absolute uproar behind him, as all the lords surged to their feet in a cacophony of shouting.

But it was an astonished uproar, an astounded uproar, a chaotic uproar of shocked reaction, but it sounded like approval. He was behind a double set of doors by the time he made his way to the stairs that led to the underground connection to the palace, and he could still hear them — he could hear that they were already arguing, but about what they were going with this new branch of the government, as opposed to arguing against it.

It will serve. It was done.

Chapter Text

Bren’s brother Toby and his companion Barb — or first mate, or common-law wife, or…I’m still not quite sure — were making one of their uncommon visits to Najida. Bren suspected that it was not entirely because either of them missed him and wanted to catch up. No, Bren thought that it was far more likely that they were here to gather intelligence — the news of the happenings in the Marid were making waves, even as far afield as the human settlement on Mospheira, and he knew they wanted to know about it. In addition to sometimes serving as a spy for Shawn Tyers, the President of Mospheira, Toby had also periodically run some trade and exchange of his own across the Strait. This was a cross-species activity that had lately become more tolerated so in short, the changes in the Marid represented a business opportunity, potentially opening up a whole new stretch of the coastline where they hadn’t been before — for the less clandestine side of their operations, at least — and Toby and Barb were here to figure out how to make it work for them.

Bren and his brother sat in the dining room of his house, the Township and shoreline of Najida visible from the windows, with Toby’s big sailboat Better Days securely at anchor beside his own Jaishan. They each had a glass of juice-and-vodka and each other’s company — though an infelicity of two, the staff had come to understand that humans had a different, entirely alien concept of twos, dualities, polarity…they intellectually understood, though of course could not feel, that humans felt comfortable in twos. Najida’s staff would have felt better, perhaps, if Barb had been there, but she was down in the Township proper, shopping — please God may she not cause another scandal in the dressmaker’s shop!

At that thought, Bren scolded himself. It had been two years and more since that had happened, and Barb knew better now. Please God may be she remember! And he sighed at himself anew.

“I thought the aishidi’tat already had an Artisans’ Guild,” Toby was asking him.

“They do, but this is different. The Guild in the north and west is really more like a federation of smaller guilds. Machigi’s made one that is centralized, and more directly supported by the state.”

“The state,” said Toby. “I thought that the Marid was part of the aishidi’tat.”

“It is,” Bren said. “Machigi has five votes in the tashrid. But he’s trying to become a power like Ilisidi is — a lord of his region from the perspective of the aishidi’tat, but an aiji — the aiji — within it.”

“Huh. How does a guild of artists help this? I mean, I could see if it were the Assassins, but surely there’s more power to be had in practical trade goods than artistic stuff. Copper, iron, fish, large-scale industry, those sorts of commodities.”

“You’re not wrong,” Bren said. “What this is is an extremely clever foot in the door.” He leaned forward. “Look. Historically speaking, the Marid has been a mess. It’s traditional, which is a way to say it’s backwards. Of all the Guilds on the mainland, they really only had the Assassins and Transportation. For everything else, they’ve been stuck in a decentralized Age of Steam.”

“With wooden, sail-powered ships.”

“With wooden, sail-powered ships,” Bren agreed. “Though they have spent the last year or so building all-metal ships from Archive designs. But still, you understand that the Marid needs the other Guilds. It desperately needs communication, education, medicine, computerized industry — all the things that the Guilds in the north have embraced. The Marid needs all of this, but it’s all still foreign to the ways that the people of the Marid know. Having them come in is going to be a tremendous amount of change, and we all know what happens when change happens too fast. So Machigi is using this new Artisans’ Guild as a way to exert control over the other Guilds,” he said. “Once the Artisans’ Guild is strongly established, it’ll serve as a template for how he wants the other Guilds that want entry to the Marid to operate, and he’ll be able to do it in a way that interfaces better with the Marid.”

“How much are the other Guilds going to respect this?” Toby said.

“Normally, they’d probably ignore it, for the reasons you mention,” Bren said. “Artistic pieces are the provenance of wealthy collectors, for all that they might bring pride to a region, so they’re not usually the thing that will move economies. And that’s what would get the Guilds’ attention. But the restoration of the Sungeni Blue glaze has changed everything. It’s captured people’s imagination, and there’s a power in that — Machigi knows he can use it, if he acts swiftly.”

“Swiftly? Isn’t that going to be change happening too fast?”

“Well, no, because what he’s done is simply moved around pieces that were already in place in the Marid, in a Maridi way. For example, there are very few schools as you or I know them in the Marid. If people are noble or rich, they have tutors. If they’re not, the either learn their parents’ trade, or they’re apprenticed to a master. The region has always had a very strong element of masters in their trades, crafts, and arts. So when he established the terijad — the Hall of Masters — he was simply making use of a system that was already in place, that everyone in the Marid understood, and that had worked very well for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was not so much of a change, it was a shift.

“Whereas a body of elected commoners would have been a change,” Toby said.

“Exactly. It’s brilliant. And to bring the Artisans back into this, it goes even deeper. The populace of the Marid is largely illiterate, even the Masters — they learn by doing, see? And in establishing the terijad, Machigi is trying to do something that’s impossible without written records. Governance needs record-keeping, but it’ll be generations before the Scholars are well-established enough to achieve wide-spread literacy.”

“So he would have to import clerks — more outsiders, right?” Toby asked.

“That would be the obvious solution, and his lords wouldn’t stand for it. But most of the Masters do have at least one assistant who can read and keep books, though — because they have businesses to run. So Machigi is using the Artisans’ Guild to create an interim system of documentation, using these Marid-born assistants in rotating periods of service. One day, those assistants will be the masters themselves, and by then they will all have had extensive experience in government because they’ve been assisting the terijad.”

“It sounds like the people who sit in this new chamber will have a great deal of experience and expertise, being masters of their trades,” Toby said. “How does the hasdrawad compare?”

“Well, I suspect it’ll be fairly similar,” said Bren. “It’s how it generally works out, because atevi value competence, and they recognize that competence comes with experience, so the people of the aishidi’tat tend to elect those sorts of people as representatives. But I have to admit that it’s not all that uncommon for hot-heads to get elected. The atevi may value competence, but they also favor machimi.

Toby snorted. “Sometimes it seems that Mospheira runs entirely on drama.”

“It’s one of the things our species has in common, I think: we’re both wired for story, and the more outrageous, the better. So it’s good to have people in charge who understand the importance of slowing things down.”

“Telling stories slower,” Toby agreed. “Yes, Shawn’s done a great job at that, but he’s going to need to retire soon, and when he does, things will get…interesting.”

“Things are plenty interesting now,” said Bren. “For example, I wonder if Tabini will tolerate Machigi operating so independently.”

“Is that a bad thing? Doesn’t that make three major powers on the continent, if you count Ilisidi in the East?” Toby furrowed his brows. “Wait, that would make four, counting Mospheira, wouldn’t it? That’s an unfortunate number.”

“Very unfortunate,” said Bren. “But we could always count the station. True, it’s more of a joint effort between atevi and humans, but —” and here he chuckled “—you can always make the numbers mean anything if you have the right story.”

“What does Ilisidi think of all of it?”

“She loves it,” Bren said. “Well, you know that’s the wrong word. Let’s just say that she appreciates what Machigi has done, because it’s exactly the same kind of thing she would have done. He found a way to bring advancement while holding strongly onto the Marid’s traditions — he looked into what seemed was a fatal weakness of the Marid and found instead an overwhelming strength. Like what she did, when she reached out to associate with him in the first place — she looked into the Marid, with its long tradition of eating its own, and found him. Do you know, she’s written to Machigi about the Marid Artisans’ Guild setting up an office in the East and modeling a similar system there for her own master artisans? And she’s proposing an exchange program by which artisans from the East and the South serve a year’s residency in each other’s regions.”

“She wants that glaze.”

“She absolutely wants that glaze.”

“What can you tell me about the Reunioner integration?” Bren asked. “I haven’t heard anything, which I’d love to take as good news, but…”

“Well, on the face of things, it seems to be going great. The University instituted a degree program specializing in the history of Phoenix spacefaring, including a whole section on the history of Reunion Station and its evacuation to Earth. Did you know that we have a Festival of Little Treasures now?”

“Little Treasures?” Bren was mystified.

Toby laughed at his expression. “The Reunioners always had shortages of things, remember? So they had a yearly event where they’d put something small and useful that they had into a box and hide it somewhere on the station. Then they’d send a riddle about its location to another household, and you’d have to figure it out and go find it. They had a whole system to make sure that every household would be randomly assigned a single other household, and the rules were, you couldn’t pick up a box you might just accidentally find — you had to find your box according to the clues.”

Now Bren was fascinated. “Didn’t people just use it as a way to get rid of junk? Or steal boxes? Or to signal status?”

“No, there was a kind of code of honor. People who tried to give away trash, or flaunt their wealth — such as it was — or steal other people’s boxes would get named and shamed. I mean, it was such a small community, everyone would find out eventually, right? The challenge was that it couldn’t be an expensive thing — it had to be little and useful. Something that would really help someone else survive. And it was a way to maintain trust.”

“Because you had to trust that you were going to get something as good as you gave away,” Bren said.

“Yes. Mospheira loves it, and the Reunioners love it because, by comparison to the station, Mospheira is so unbelievably huge, there are all kinds of places to hide these things. It gives people an excuse to get out and explore places where they’ve never been. I really think it’s going to stick — I wouldn’t surprise me if it turned into a year-round thing instead of a single festival — though I think that Mospheirians will skew it away from useful towards clever and funny, because really, by comparison to the Reunioners, have we really ever wanted for anything?”

“No, we haven’t, not for the last hundred years or so at least. That’s what we’re trying to give the Reunioners — that kind of life.”

“It’s all for the good,” Toby nodded with a smile. “So, to tie this back to your question about assimilation, brother, I’d say it’s not so much assimilation as it is a — a blending, which I think that’s going to make a real difference in the long run.”

“I wouldn’t put it against the Human Heritage people to stuff those boxes with propaganda,” Bren said.

“Well, I think that the documentary on the accord with the kyo has tamped down on enthusiasm for that point of view,” Toby replied.

The documentary, for which Bren had been exhaustively interviewed, had been a sensation both on Mospheira and the mainland. He had taken particular care to emphasize the difference between the ordinary residents of Reunion and the attitudes and decisions of a particular kind of mindset possessed of people like Lewis Braddock, the Reunion stationmaster. It had been that xenophobic mindset that had led to the alien kyo’s attack on the station. Because Braddock reflected the mindset of the kyo’s enemies — the humans attacking them from the other side of kyo space, Bren thought, that thing he must never admit to anyone beyond Shawn, the President of Mospheira, and Tabini, not even to his brother, for fear of the reaction it would engender in those humans on the planet — the ones who still, in their heart of hearts, harbored the fear of other that made them turn towards such xenophobic philosophies. We cannot allow this kind of thinking to grow here, no matter how often it tries to take root — not here, on a planet we must share with its indigenous people, or in a wider space we must share with an entirely different species. Toby’s warning about Shawn had put a sliver of ice in his heart. What will happen when people like me and Tabini and Ilisidi and Shawn are gone?

But worrying about the future was not useful, not when there was so much to worry about now.

“Still,” Toby continued. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The fact that the Human Heritage types and the Cult of Braddock have been quiet makes me a little nervous, actually.”

Bren took a sip of his drink. “I tend to agree. I have a suspicion that they’re quiet on Mospheira because they’re busy elsewhere. The situation in Ashidama Bay is heating up and I can’t help but wonder if they’re getting outside help. There was that attempt on Machigi and Ilisidi — it was a suspiciously advanced attempt, as far as technology goes. Here's another classified bit of information, brother: the attackers used remote-controlled technology." He nodded as Toby's eyes went wide. "Machigi has asked me to try to track down where that came from. So far I’ve come up with nothing, but it’s got me thinking — could there have been some human influence, trying to destabilize the agreement between the South and the East?”

“Could be,” Tony said. “God knows that if that happened, it would get Tabini’s full attention. Then other places would be in shadow by comparison, which would benefit the unsavory types. Give them room to maneuver. Like Hurshina Shipping — they’ve always struck me as being fairly shady. I think they’d be the type to fully embrace remote-control technology — for smuggling, if nothing else. And they’re practically your neighbors, so that gives me and Barb a family reason to go poking around.” Toby took a sip from his own glass. “We’ll look into it.”

“Be careful, Toby,” Bren said. “I know I always say it, but this is especially dicey. Whoever it was who made the attempt on Machigi also made the attempt on Ilisidi, so you know that both she and Tabini are going to react very strongly. It wouldn’t be the first time that bad actors have used that to try to frame a person or power they’d like to be removed, and personally, I think Tabini’s reaction the last time that happened, with the Dojisigi, was one of the things that set up this situation. Just…be careful with whatever you find out.”

“Aren’t I always?” Toby replied, as he always replied. Then, as he typically did when they started to talk about “his spy stuff”, as Bren thought of it, Toby changed the subject. “So tell me about this new consort of the Marid,” he said. “I don’t have enough Ragi to really follow the news, but I understand it’s controversial.”

“She’s Edi,” said Bren.

“Oh,” Toby said, profoundly shocked. “I can see where that would be an issue.” Toby had sailed in and around Najida Bay long enough to get to know many of the Edi living in and around the coastline, and well knew their opinion of the South. “How did that happen?”

“By accident, as I understand it. After the assassination attempt, Machigi’s yacht went down and he was lost at sea.”

“Was he?” Toby asked, fascinated. “That did not make the news.”

“I’m not surprised — that’s exactly the kind of that would also be classified: too operational.” Bren trusted his brother to keep quiet about the information he gave him. That he needs to know, for his and Barb's safety. “At any rate, it turns out that Rao — her name is Rao, by the way — was out to sea and fished him out of the water.”

“How very romantic,” said Toby. “He wanted a coast but got a wife instead.”

And she got the entire Marid, Bren thought, with a little smile.

Is it romantic, for atevi?” Toby wanted to know.

“It was dramatic,” Bren said. “Which serves very well for romance. Apparently they liked — excuse me, wrong word, they favored one another well enough.” And he grumbled to himself, remembering how much disruption that favor had personally caused him. That was a story — a damned complaint! — for another time, so he simply said, “he proposed to her and she accepted. It was not well received on either side. The rediscovery of the Sungeni Blue — she facilitated it, and that’s what she had to do to win the Marid’s favor.”

Toby blinked. “By restoring a glaze?”

“It’s much more than that to the people of the Marid, Toby,” said Bren. “Imagine for a minute that some person were trying to make a permanent alliance with our President, someone from the opposition, even, and no one would accept her until she proved herself. And that she did so by restoring an emotionally crucial chunk of the data archives we lost in the War of the Landing, like the video diaries of the first settlers. That’s what Rao did.”

Toby let out a low whistle. “Wow, that’s huge. Does it mean that the Edi and the Taisigi are allies now?”

“Well…no. The Edi claim that Machigi kidnapped her.”

“Is that what happened?”

“No,” Bren said. “And it tells me they don’t know her at all, if that’s what they truly think. No, Rao made the choice to go with him herself — I was there. It happened here, during a conference that Ilisidi wanted me to broker between Machigi and the Grandmothers of the Edi and the Gan. Rao was here because she was in the succession of lordship of the Edi — she was the Granddaughter, second in line.”

“Oh my god.”

“Yes. It did not go well.”

Toby pursed his lips. “The Grandmother of the Edi is furious, eh?”.

“‘Furious’ does not really capture it, brother,” Bren said. “She exiled Rao at the time, and has since then ordered a complete embargo of all things Marid.”

“Surely that can’t last, not with all of the opportunities that are opening up down there,” Toby said.

“Maybe not. But I can’t see her backing down in this.”

“Even now that her granddaughter is going to be having a baby?” Toby said. The news of that had hit the newswires promptly.

“Well, there is hope in that, if she ever accepts that this was Rao’s decision, and doesn’t accuse Machigi of rape.” He could not stop himself from making a face. “I truly hope that doesn’t happen.” Because she might just end up in Machigi’s garden if she does. He sighed and made a concerted effort to turn back towards optimism. “Maybe the baby will make a difference, though, especially if — when, god willing — she understands her granddaughter wants this child. Babies do have an amazing effect on atevi — it’s another way they’re similar to humans, though of course for different instinctive reasons.”

“Will it have an effect on Machigi, is what I want to know,” said Toby.

“The baby? Maybe,” Bren said. “But I think that his wife will have more of one by far. Ilisidi thought she would be a good influence on him,” he noted. Toby, like he himself, had a good opinion of the dowager’s instincts on such matters. “Rao’s a bit wild, herself, being Edi, but the Edi are a very centered people, for all that they may still be, ah, rough around the edges. Which oddly makes her a good match for him. But she is, at the same time, a grounded person. She’s a good sailor, I’m told, and it’s apparent that she’s able to navigate political currents as well. Ilisidi thought that she would even out some of Machigi’s wilder impulses.”

“She’ll be his sea anchor,” Toby observed.

Bren grinned. “Exactly so.” He swirled his glass and the ice in his vodka and shebai made pleasant little clinking noises. “I wonder whether being a father will settle him further. Or,” and here he frowned. “Make him more ruthless, once he has a family to protect.”

“Maybe you should worry more about her,” Toby said. “What will she become, once she’s a mother? Granted I have far less experience than you, brother, but the Edi have always struck me as fierce.”

“Hm, good point,” Bren replied. “I wonder how much of her Grandmother is in her. Both she and Machigi have adopted a rather Edi approach to her pregnancy,” he added.

“Oh, how so?” Toby tilted his head.

“Well, by making a public announcement right away, for a start. Traditional mainland atevi would have waited a lot longer, but the Edi are far more outgoing — not just when it comes to celebrating pregnancy, you understand, but in everything. One of the reasons they’ve had such a challenge making their way in terms of the mainland culture is that they’re ever so much more expressive than is generally accepted in the mainstream. In fact, the Marid is a lot like that also. I think…” and here he stopped himself from falling into a lecture about the history of the Southern Island and its impact on the Marid and Edi and Gan cultures. He could tell from the twinkle in Toby’s eyes that his brother had recognized it, too, and chuckled. “Anyway, the northern and central attitudes towards these matters is much more reserved. It’s a private matter, you see, and I can’t help but suspect there’s a lot of superstition about it also.”

“They don’t want to jinx it,” Toby said.

“Exactly. You will recall that Damiri participated in limited state dinners and other events while she was pregnant with Cajeiri and later with Seimiro, but that was fairly unusual. It had to do with the fact that she is Tabini's consort, but more because of the political issues with her family that were happening — she had to be seen.

“But there’s a lot I don’t know. When it comes to topics related to procreation — it’s something that atevi generally aren’t going to discuss with humans — even me.” Bren held up his hands to forestall an improper observation from his brother about Jago. “I know! I know! But you have to understand, it’s a very touchy subject, and what little I do know is very personal thank you very much, so I won’t discuss with you.” Because I am sleeping with an Assassin and would like to continue breathing, brother.

“So you think that Machigi has taken up his wife’s Edi approach,” Toby said.

“Not exactly. It think it’s more than that. So many people made it plain how much they disapproved of this union. Few expected it to be successful. Most predicted ruin, both privately and openly. So I suspect that this is less about her being Edi as it is Machigi taking a certain glee in throwing their success in their detractors’ faces. And, considering the source, I’m sure there is not a little personal satisfaction, at her, ah, condition,” he added, taking a sip from his glass.

“He’s proud of himself for knocking her up so fast,” Toby translated.

The vodka absolutely made its exit through Bren’s nose and — god! — it burned. Staff surged forward with surgical precision to wipe down the chair, replace the glass, offer him a handkerchief. He accepted gracefully and dabbed at his face in a vain attempt to cover his loss of composure. “Well…yes. Consider the source.”

Barb returned from shopping — and no report of any incident in the township reached him, thank God. Toby went back to their suite to meet her and perhaps survey the damage to their accounts, which of course was his account, but for the moment, the result was that Bren was alone.

He settled down at his desk, his glass of vodka and shebai refreshed by the ever-vigilant staff, and in very short order he discovered that he was in fact not alone, and that his senior security team had a question. About language, comma, Mosphei’, colon, vocabulary.

It was extremely useful to him that his aishid could follow conversations in Mosphei’ that they happened to overhear. He rated their skill in Mosphei’ as “enough to be dangerous” and he knew that they were always seeking to expand the boundaries of their knowledge. So he had rather expected this.

He carefully set down his glass, not wanting a repeat of the earlier incident. “To be ‘knocked up’, intransitive, is to be pregnant,” Bren explained carefully, trying to be both technically accurate and also delicate about it. “There is, as you heard, an, ah, transitive form.” God. “But the phrase itself in either aspect is not entirely proper. It is, ah —”

“Blunt,” said Banichi. “Somewhat irreverent.”

“It is an energetic metaphor,” Jago suggested.

“Yes.” Bren felt his face go hot. ‘Energetic metaphor’. God. The two of them were getting far, far too conversant in Mosphei’ these days.